On pets and grief

Remembering the little guy – Fausto, my sister Gina’s beloved Chihuahua mix.

When someone dies, there are flowers and condolence cards, casseroles and Bundt cakes, religious services and burial rites. But what happens when a pet dies? I am not suggesting an equivalence here. In the West, we are taught that humans have a soul that lives on after they “shuffle off this mortal coil.” Animals, not so. 

Yet grief knows no boundary, two-legged or four. It is today, yesterday, tomorrow, never, forever. You hear a voice or a laugh. Someone turns his head or you turn a corner. A familiar song plays. And you are plunged back into myth and memory.

My sister Gina, who contributes to this magazine, called June 22 to say Fausto, her beloved Chihuahua mix, had died. There was a tear in her voice that matched my own. 

Fausto, 14, was not an easy dog to love despite an unparalleled ability to “play toys,” as my sister called it. (Possessed of a large vocabulary, he would correctly bring you the toy you requested, Lamby, a pooch-size iteration of Shari Lewis’ puppet, Lamb Chop, being a favorite.)

Who knows, however, what abuse these rescue animals endure? They cannot voice it. Fausto was also a biter with separation anxiety issues, which my sister discovered only after adopting him from the Manhattan shelter where she volunteered. He was, I told her, truly Fausto — Spanish for “lucky” — to have her in his life despite his vampire-like predilections.  Indeed, a favorite parlor game among family and friends was to go around the room and count those happy few who had not been nipped by the little guy. I was among those who went unscathed, but I’ve often wondered if that was not a metaphor for my own self-protective ability to keep life at arm’s length.

And yet, Fausto and I connected. When I think of him now, I think of our trips with Gina up and down the I-95 corridor to visit our sister Jana in suburban Washington, D.C. and Gina’s stepdaughter Lynn in suburban Boston. Or our adventures for WAG, covering Saybrook Point Inn & Spa in Old Saybrook or Four Columns Inn in Newfane, Vermont. With Fausto curled up on the back seat and Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas and the Papas providing the soundtrack, Gina and I would hit the not-so-open road. 

I see him, too, at my home — tiptoeing down the path we nicknamed Fausto Way, peeing on my rhododendrons (grrrrr), running circles around my coffee table, climbing up my legs, chomping on a Mini Snickers from the candy dish and, finally, jumping up on the couch to snuggle beside me. I didn’t dare move him, not that I wanted to.

When I think of Fausto, I also think of two very bad days in a very bad year, 2010.  March 14 — the Sunday after Aunt Mary came home from a disastrous hip revision surgery and rehab that exacerbated her dementia and a tree fell on our house — Gina and Fausto arrived to help rescue me so I could start my new job at Westfair Communications, WAG’s parent company, that Monday. 

I remember Gina parked her car at the top of the driveway. Then I saw two little ears and a little face peeking up from the front passenger seat window and I knew everything would be all right.

I felt less reassured on Thanksgiving Day that year — possibly the worst holiday of my life — as I cared for Aunt Mary, now all but a ghost, and ate a miserable turkey pot pie, feeling sorry for myself at being alone. 

But I wasn’t alone. Fausto was there with me. I carried him from floor to floor in his crate as I did my chores and tried to watch the parade and the National Dog Show. Fausto seemed unimpressed by the entries. Instead he just looked up at me when he wasn’t sleeping. Somehow, he understood.

Now he’s gone off to doggie heaven, I told Gina, to be with Duke, her gentle Rottweiler/Shepherd mix; Jana’s trio of Labs — Jilly, Trump and Pippa;  and a host of childhood pets that included my mother’s whip-smart, high-strung, pampered poodle, Jacques; a series of canaries always named Yellow Bird; a Rough Collie named Lassie, of course, my first dog; the bulldog Frenchie; the Dachshund Booboo;  the St. Bernard Brandy; two Yorkshire Terriers, Ragamuffin (Rags) and Tiger; the duck Teresa; the hamster Ophelia; assorted turtles and goldfish; and, finally, the feral cat Allie, my last pet — to date.

If it turns out that it’s not true that “all dogs go to heaven,” as Beth Brown’s book title suggests, one thing is certain:

We humans spend our lives trying to control our pets, other animals and nature itself. But in the end, it turns out it was the other way around all along.

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