We were sitting in a hotel room in St. Louis; my mom is on the phone with tears streaming down her face. She hangs up and dials another number and starts asking a bunch of questions about flights. Then the phone is lying silently on the table. Her voice is desperate as she begs my father to let her buy a 750 dollar, one-way flight back home. His head his shaking, as he tells her, “That’s stupid. It’s just a dog.”
My mom has the phone to her ear again, her hand motions my sister and me over. We are instructed to say bye to Loki. This confuses us, Loki doesn’t speak English or even know how to use the phone. Why is Loki saying bye? We’ll be home again with her in a few days. Looking at my younger sister, we shrugged, our little voices saying into the phone, “Bye Loki.”
Like most kids arriving at our grandparent’s house and getting to open Christmas presents, we forgot about this strange encounter. Life was great. We had a fun vacation.
Four days later we pulled into our driveway, we got out of the car, and went up to the door. My mom’s key-ring was jingling as she put the key in the lock, Loki’s cue to bark. Except she didn’t. It was silent.
My stomach churned; it was too quiet. My mom swung the door open and Loki didn’t dart for the open door. There was no tail thumping against our legs. No barking. I’ll never forget the coldness of coming home to an empty house. Loki was my parent’s first child; she had been my friend for nine years. Just like that, she was gone. My parents tried to explain that she was old and her stomach ruptured. At the time, I didn’t know what any of that meant, only that it was the worst Christmas ever. It was unfair how short of time she was in my life.
The following week, I was in the kitchen helping my father cook dinner. I dropped a piece of food on the floor. I left it there, Loki always bit your hand if you tried to get it before her. I’m not sure who cried first, but my father and I ended up on the floor together crying for the loss of Loki. It was the first time I ever saw him cry.
I just couldn’t handle it anymore; I didn’t know life without Loki. The past two months of coming home to an empty house got to me. My mom trying to shut me up, took me to the Humane Society, “Just to look.”
We had almost finished looking at the dogs when I laid eyes on the ugliest puppy. This puppy was all legs and a face so black you couldn’t see her eyes. Her back legs were longer than her front legs. Instantly I knew she was mine, and I was hers.
I wore my mother down until she finally filled out the application. In the car, she angrily scolded me, “We are not getting a dog without talking to your father and sister first.”
“Whatever, she’s my dog and we’re getting her.” I pouted.
The shelter called before dinner and that was it, she was all mine. For the first two weeks, we called her Mutt Face because we couldn’t agree on a name. My dad finally said she looked like a dingo, and it stuck. Dingo was my new best friend. My sidekick forever.
It was Dingo’s shoulder that I would come home and cry on after being bullied in middle school. In high school, she heard all my suicidal thoughts, confusion, and uncertainty for the future. When I was lonely we would curl up together, and I would seek comfort from my only friend.
On college breaks, we would reunite and she got to hear all the excitement for wildlife rehabilitation and my ever-present inner turmoil. We were never apart for more than a few months. Dingo used to get in my car and I would always tearfully call my dad to get her. He would have to carry her back to the house she was so determined to go with me. I couldn’t do it myself, I was already betraying her by leaving. When it was time to graduate, my parents were given clear instructions if they didn’t bring Dingo to my college graduation, they weren’t getting tickets. She was there for one of my proudest moments.
After college, I left her for Minnesota and our hearts broke. My heart ached for her, and I couldn’t imagine her confusion when I was gone for almost a year. The only time I ever called my parents was for updates on Dingo’s welfare. We reunited on my return, and we set up a life for ourselves living on our own for the first time.
Dingo was there for my first psychotic break, at that time I didn’t know what was happening. I clung to her grappling with the chaos in my head. My manic mind driving me to strange places, she got left in the car for long hours in the cold winter. I left my beloved friend at the laundromat amid the chaos. Her hips were failing. Her eyes and ears were failing her. She started to get confused like she didn’t know me, doggy dementia. I wasn’t there for her like I should’ve been as I tried to battle the storm in my head, but she never left my side. My friends said they had to forcefully peel her from my side when they took me to the hospital after I overdosed. Apparently, she tried attacking them. She knew I was sick and was defending me, despite all the shit I’d put her through the past few months. One of the best things about dogs is how easy they forgive.
Dingo got left at my parents again while I ran away to a new town, thinking I could outrun my problems. A couple of weeks later she was back by my side, but worse than ever. Fighting stability my housing situation changed a few weeks after she moved back up to Asheville with me. As she adjusted to her third house in a month, she started to lose her bowels. Her eyes were dull, she was chugging water, and not maintaining weight. I’ve worked with dogs long enough to recognize kidney failure.
Fighting back tears, I knew it was time. My first call was to mom, “I’m coming to Charlotte this weekend.”
A deep sigh, she knew what I was really saying, “Ok, I’ll call the vet.”
I remember both my sisters sensed what was up because they already knew when I called. We all dropped everything for a dog, but she was more than that she was a beloved member of the family. Like Loki, we were losing another piece. Suddenly I understood my parents’ grief for Loki, she was a part of them for fourteen years. I understood how for over a decade they are faithfully by your side for all your milestones and tragedies, and their love never falters. I understood it is totally worth 750 dollars to say goodbye in person.
Before the vet, we stopped by a burger joint for dinner. We laid a comfy blanket on the ground for her. I fed her a burger, fried pickles, and sweet tea. The waiter started to say something, and my mother gently said, “We’re taking her to the vet for the last time.” Nothing more was said about the dog eating off the dishes.
At the vet I stayed calm and composed, sitting on the floor next to my best friend in the whole world. When the vet tech was demonstrating the size of the box the ashes would go in, my dad cracked a joke, “I don’t think she’d fit in that.”
More jokes were cracked. We all pet Dingo and told her our favorite stories of her. The vet asked if we were ready, I could only nod wanting to pick her up and run. As the needle went in her breathing slowed, my hand stayed on her head softly rubbing her ears. As she took her last breath, I took off her collar, “Your free Dingo, you can go now. I’ll love you forever.” As I said my last word her soul left her body, and she was still.
A loud sob punctuated the room, I looked over at my parents and my sisters, and out of all them, my unemotional father was crying the hardest. The man who threatened to pop a cap in Dingo’s head for thirteen years. My dad has a secret soft spot for dogs.
I remember walking out of the vet’s with Dingo’s collar and leash clutched in my hand. Empty. My family was crying. We looked lost. A man sitting in the lobby with an injured dog looked at us, and you could see the despair and empathy he felt for us as he hugged his dog harder.
We got back to my childhood home and I was inconsolable. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t focus on anything but the empty presence. I wanted her back so bad, the pain was agony. I felt empty. I felt naked. The guilt of the last four months that I killed her with my actions consumed me. My mom ended up calling a friend to come get me because it was obvious I couldn’t handle being in the house. I never went back to that house, it was too painful.
Losing Dingo was harder than losing my sister’s mother, who was a second mother to me. Dogs have such a powerful bond with us, unlike any of our human friends. I have a shrine for Dingo with a cast of her paw print, her ashes, and her leash and collar. Dingo was there for me in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and post-college. And it wasn’t long enough.
A year later when I was diagnosed, I wanted to tell her that all those years of inner turmoil had a name. That the last four months wasn’t my fault, it was the fault of an invisible sickness. We, humans, are truly blessed with the bonds we share with our four-leggeds.