If I could save her, I would. I needed to feel that it was in my power to save her, to save something. I didn’t need her to be uncomplicated. I didn’t need a good dog. I needed her.
I never wanted a dog. Or, I wanted one as a child, but only in the vague way that most children want something warm and soft and smaller than they are, something they can claim as their own—something they can name. I had lots of good names for a dog. But when I finally got a dog, the one thing I didn’t get to do was name her.
There’s a simple enough reason why my father was finally okay with having a dog: He knew he would die first. His lung cancer had been diagnosed as terminal two years before; he could do the math. And so even though there has never been a more irregular constant than Valkyrie, she would be there with my father for the rest of his life. She was, in fact, the only one there when he died.
It was less than a day later when my brother found him. Or, really, my brother found them—Valkyrie had kept watch over my father. My brother called me on our father’s phone. I picked up and heard Valkyrie barking in the background and I said, “Hey, Dad.” It was something I had said countless times before. It is something I have never said again.
In the months before he died, I had made the hour-long trip to his house a lot, because I’d been helping him decide what should stay and what should go. There had been a plan taking shape, one which involved him moving to Brooklyn to live with me and my kids. They could have more time with him, and I could help out once he really started to need it. But now he didn’t need it. And all of his things were just things and didn’t really need a new home. Except Valkyrie. We had never really talked about what would happen to Valkyrie.
When I got to my father’s house, I stepped out of the car and kneeled down on the driveway. Valkyrie came flying at me, into my arms. “I’m taking you,” I whispered into her fur. “You’re mine now.”
Is she a rescue?
At my father’s memorial service, my uncle said: “Remember: ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ isn’t just a saying.”
And yet: Within a week she was walking on a leash as if she’d been doing it her whole life and squatting at the curb without hesitation. The list of things she could do grew. She followed me everywhere, and jumped up on the couch to look out the window every time I went outside. She sat patiently outside the bathroom door whenever my sons or I disappeared inside, guarding us from anyone else trying to enter. She slept with me, always. She learned to tolerate my boyfriend, and eventually learned to love him—but she still barked when he would lean in to kiss me. She was a fifth wheel in our little family, a training wheel, a stabilizer.
But she didn’t become any less complicated. She was often sick. Before I got her, she’d had Lyme disease and pancreatitis and dry eyes and roughly a million other issues. After she moved in with me, she got sick with all new things, and the vet would ask me—had to ask me—if I still wanted to keep paying all these bills, as if it were a choice. It was not a choice.If I could save her, I would. I needed to feel that it was in my power to save her, to save something. I didn’t need her to be uncomplicated. I didn’t need a good dog. I needed her.
On an unseasonably warm day-after-Christmas, I took my sons to their favorite comic book store so they could spend some of their holiday money. We were gone for maybe three hours, which was long enough for Valkyrie to find the completely cellophane-wrapped box of chocolate-covered cherries that had been left under the tree and tear through them, sucking the chocolate off each piece before spitting out its center. I was worried, but not too worried. A friend told me about all the times her dog, a small poodle, had eaten chocolate and been just fine. My brother reminded me of when Valkyrie had eaten a slice of chocolate cake that our father left on the coffee table. Still, I called her vet who said, “Bring her in right now.”
When I found out she’d need to spend the night there, I started crying. The vet consoled me, “She’s going to be okay. We’re not going to let her die from eating a little chocolate.”
Letting something die, though, is what most of us have to do, at some point. Our lives are in constant decline, we are sliding down a steep hill; sometimes it goes slowly, and sometimes the ground falls out from beneath our feet—the plummet becomes swift, irreversible.
I woke up the next morning to a phone call from the vet, who told me that although Valkyrie had had a seizure during the night, she was doing okay. They wanted to keep her for observation, but I could pick her up that night.
Our lives are in constant decline, we are sliding down a steep hill; sometimes it goes slowly, and sometimes the ground falls out from beneath our feet—the plummet becomes swift, irreversible.
By the time I went to get her, she had gone more than twelve hours without a seizure and was so happy to see me that she jumped into my arms, squealing with joy. But when I put her back down, her hind legs slid around, as if she couldn’t find the ground beneath her feet.
She tried to walk with me, tried to pull me after her in the direction of our home. But her back legs trembled and she couldn’t move in a straight line. The first time she fell down, I put her back on her feet and tried not to cry. The second time, though, the tears came hard, and I picked her up and carried her to the doctor.
“There’s something wrong with her legs.”
“We’ll keep her one more night. She’ll be okay.”
I held her in my arms for a while, stroking her fur, feeling her weight. I stayed for a long time. I could have stayed longer. Maybe I should have. She whimpered when I left, tried to hold onto me once I started to let her go. I hugged her goodbye, and told her I loved her, and said I’d see her soon.
The last time I saw my father alive, we sat together in his backyard, with Valkyrie at his feet. He told me about the party he was planning for the end of the summer; it was going to be an “I’m still alive” party. His doctors, he’d said, had been assuring him—as much as they could assure anyone with advanced lung cancer—that he wasn’t going anywhere yet; they weren’t going to let him die. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about Game of Thrones and how he was ready to put his house on the market and how he would be getting the fireworks ready for the backyard display he wanted to put on for my kids. I hugged him goodbye, and told him I loved him, and said I’d see him soon.
My father died alone. It was probably during one of his blackouts. When they happened when I was there, he’d apologize when he regained consciousness. He’d say he was sorry for blacking out, for the thing that would kill him.
Valkyrie didn’t die alone. The morning after I left her in the hospital, I called the vet to see when I could pick her up. I hadn’t heard anything during the night and so convinced myself that this meant she was fine. She wasn’t. She’d had multiple severe seizures and had been sedated for her comfort. I spent the rest of that morning crouched by her crate at the vet’s office, stroking her motionless body. Different doctors gave me different opinions. Nobody understood how she could have gotten so sick. You told me you weren’t going to let her die, I thought. But I didn’t say it, because there are some things you don’t say, even if you’re an adult who still feels like a child who isn’t getting what you want.
I decided to listen to the vet who told me Valkyrie still had a chance, and that we should give it another twenty-four hours, because it’s what she would do if it were her dog. But twenty-four hours didn’t help, and the next night, after Valkyrie had spent two days fully sedated, I sat on the floor of one of the examining rooms with my two sons, holding our dog, and saying our goodbyes. The room was dark. My boyfriend stood behind me, hands on my shoulders.
What did we talk about? At the time, I thought I’d never forget, and now almost none of it remains. Most of what I remember is stroking her fur and committing to memory the soft warmth of her body. My older son, who walked her every day when he came home from school, said he’d continue taking those walks by himself. My younger son held Valkyrie when the doctor bent down and injected the drug that would stop her heart; he held Valkyrie as her body went limp, as her last breath left without even a sigh. And even then, even after we knew she was gone, we couldn’t easily let her go. And so we didn’t; we didn’t do it easily. But we did let her go.