My family has always been avid dog lovers. During my teenage years, I began to suspect that my parents loved their dogs more than they loved any of us kids. This suspicion has since been confirmed, as a trip to my parent’s house reveals not a shred of evidence that they ever had human children; instead, the walls are adorned with row upon row of pictures enshrining the generations of our family’s dogs. My greatest accomplishments, along with those of my brother and sister, are a faint and distant memory, while Doodle’s graduation certificate from puppy kindergarten is mounted proudly in the dining room. I have no idea what I looked like as a child, as there appears to be no visual record of it, yet above the fireplace, hangs a 70” watercolor portrait of Clifford and Huckleberry.
In fairness, to say there were no pictures of me as a child isn’t quite the truth. There is one, and it is of me sitting in the whelping pen holding my all-black German shepherd puppy, Tank. I couldn’t have been older than seven when this picture was taken. I don’t remember much from my youth, but I remember this moment, and I certainly remember Tank. I also remember how I never saw him as just a dog, or as a mere pet. As far as I was concerned, he was as important a part of the family as any one of us were, and he was my best friend. Tank and I were growing up together; we were inseparable. Some of the happiest memories of my childhood are with him.
I saw a meme recently that said something like this: having a dog will bless you with the best days of your life, and with one of the worst. I think if you’ve ever experienced the limitless and unabashed love of a dog, and then felt the anguish of losing them, you can relate to this. You can also probably relate to the ambivalence one feels when choosing to be vulnerable and again let a dog into your life, knowing that all too soon, you will lose them.
As I imagine is true with most kids, I never felt like I fit in at school, and utterly despised the entire concept of being crammed into a yellow bus with a bunch of other saps, and shipped off to a building with not enough windows. Regardless of what happened at school though, I was always comforted by the fact that Tank would be there, excited to greet me when I got home. I knew, every day, as I hurriedly and excitedly jumped off the bus and sprinted towards our house that he would be there waiting for me. Until of course, the one day came when he wasn’t.
It started with a limp in his hind leg. At first, none of us thought much of it, but soon the limp was accompanied by a loss of appetite, and we decided that a visit to the vet was in order. I vividly recall the look on his face when I said goodbye to him before I went to school on that Monday morning: he looked sad – almost apologetic. I knew something was very wrong, but I wasn’t even dimly aware that it would be the last time I would see him. Unfortunately, most “goodbyes” seem to be this way. There is a last time for everything we do in life, and more often than not, we don’t realize when it is the last time. Saying goodbye to loved ones, is sadly, no different.
When I left for school Tuesday morning, I was unusually upbeat and brimming with excitement, as Tank was supposedly coming home after his night’s stay at the vet and would be there to greet me after school. I would be able to see my friend and everything would be back to normal.
But, as I hurried down the drive-way, Tank did not come darting toward me. My dead sprint slowed to an apprehensive walk. The air was heavy and still. Something wasn’t right.
That Tuesday morning, Tank died at the veterinarian’s office. He was only four years old. My father was left with the sorrowful task of explaining to an incredibly excited and bright-eyed twelve-year-old that his dog had passed away unexpectedly.
“Ian, Tank died this morning,” he said abruptly as I entered the house. My dad has always been a man of few words, and tenderness has never been an adjective one would use to describe him, but even then, I knew how deeply it hurt him to have to tell me. I was inconsolable, gasping between pained sobs. I have never cried as hard as I cried when I found out about Tank. I crumpled onto the floor, and wept for my friend.
We suspect Tank died from getting into antifreeze, but we still have no idea how it would have happened, or where he would have gotten into it. Antifreeze has a sweet taste that appeals to dogs, and even a little bit of it is extremely toxic and can be deadly. If you take anything useful from this post, be very careful and mindful about where you store chemicals and where you allow your dog to run free.
All of these years later, and despite the fact that Tank’s life ended so tragically and suddenly, I’m grateful for the time I had with him as he was one of the best parts of my childhood. He gave me so much happiness when he was alive, and I wholeheartedly believe his death shaped me as a person in a very important and positive way. It was my first contact with mortality, and my first lesson in understanding the tenuous grasp we all have on this brief and beautiful life.
I promised myself I would get another German shepherd someday, and about five years ago I honored that promise and got Ulf. For those of you who know me personally, you know that Ulf is, in fact, my best friend. In full disclosure, I have had a lump in my throat while writing much of this piece, and while recalling my twelve-year-old self and the pain I felt with losing my dear childhood friend, Tank. The lump is there too, because I know this pain is sure to return when it is Ulf’s time to leave me; until then, I will make sure to cherish every moment I have with him, and with everyone I love for that matter. I will make an effort to genuinely connect with the loved ones in my life, and will let them know I love them more often, because we never know how much time we have left together. This is the lesson I have had to learn and accept many times now in life through the loss of friends and loved ones, but Tank will always hold a special place, because he was the first to ever teach it. I think for many children, the last and most important gift with which our furry best friends leave us, is the lesson that an awareness of death, and the fleeting nature of life, is the doorway to appreciating, and honoring its preciousness.
Art of the Dog