I came home from the farmer’s market today to find the small box containing our Chihuahua’s ashes on the kitchen counter. Kevin had picked him up earlier and for some reason deposited him directly to the spot on which I chop vegetables. I found the location choice a little unsettling, but my guess is that he wanted me to see Fez was home without having to tell me or to be present when I first encountered the wooden container and clay footprint of our little guy. Wise move on his part, because my eyes blurred and a little residual grief sound that wasn’t quite a cry, nor quite a sob – something strangely in between – escaped my throat as I set down my bags. My god, but the loss of a dog can steal the air right out of your lungs, can’t it? And I know you know. If you’ve been there, you know all too well. I immediately envisioned Kevin standing at our veterinarian’s reception desk receiving Fez earlier that day. I know without having been with him that he likely made some lighthearted quip to lessen the awkwardness for those present, even as his heart was sinking in his chest. Though it has been a few weeks since we lost Fez, I know it was a very sad drive home for him. He was, after all, Fez’ person, and Fez was really his dog.

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Fez was our first unofficial rescue dog. I wasn’t involved in animal welfare back then, but my mother had called me asking if I would take a “terribly abused puppy” while Kevin and the kids were out of town. I can remember quite clearly saying, “Damn it, mom, no!” in response; only to follow a beat later with “where do I need to pick him up?” because abused puppy, right? An hour later I was picking him up from the nightmare home, and he unquestionably was terribly abused; but that’s not something I want to revisit. His first 10 months were awful, but his remaining 11 years were pretty darned great, and that’s where I want my thoughts to stay.

I mention it only to note that Fez had learned people were dangerous. Hands were particularly dangerous. Being grabbed and lifted was the worst and would never end well. Thanks to self-preservation, dogs are really good at noticing that kind of thing, especially when something is on a 1:1 ratio with pain from your first weeks of life. They don’t distinguish between good and bad, but rather safe and dangerous; and when all you know is dangerous, trusting people isn’t something that comes easily.   But Kevin isn’t like most folks. He’s more thoughtful than the majority. He speaks softly and moves quietly and has incredible consideration for others. He wasn’t home from his trip more than 24 hours before I heard the softest sounding chatter coming from the living room. I peeked around the corner to find Fez on Kevin’s lap, Kevin gently reassuring this scrawny little dog that he was safe; and the way Fez looked up at him – good grief, the expression in those eyes – it was the look of trust and love he would gift to Kevin every time he looked at him for the rest of his life.

And Kevin loved him back just as deeply. His daughter, Marisa, would often remark, “I’m pretty sure dad loves that dog more than he loves me!” We would all laugh, but the truth is, his love for that dog was very much like the love one has for a child, more so than he felt it for the other dogs. Maybe it was that dependence Fez had on him, as Kevin took the responsibility very seriously.

When it came to me, Fez was pretty neutral for the most part. He liked me plenty, especially in Kevin’s absence, and passed many an hour snuggled up to me; but I was never a real substitute. No one was. He had little use for the other dogs, and God help them if they dared to approach when he was nestled comfortably on Kevin’s lap. Kevin was a resource to be guarded at all costs, and who could blame the little fellow? Given what he had experienced that first year of life, he wasn’t about to share the one resource that made him feel safe in his little world. Kevin was his greatest security, his greatest happiness, his entire dog heart.

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As Fez entered his senior stage, he softened a bit to the others. Our pit bull, Tucker, who Fez once chased from any room with snarls, could now lie down next to him, and they would take long naps together. People laughed when we got him laser treatments for his arthritis, but we weren’t ashamed in the least. If it made our littlest man feel better, it was worth doing (and truthfully no dog ever looked better in a pair of goggles). If anything, we wish we’d given him more wonderful moments. And that’s really the point of all of this.

Believe me when I say that Fez wasn’t the picture of a perfect pet dog. He would pee on plastic bags – he would seriously b-line for one and lift his leg before you could possibly catch up to usher him outside. He wasn’t very nice to other animals – as our poor cat Tommyboy could tell you, since he spent the last years of his life on high surfaces to avoid being terrorized by what he could only possibly view as a pointy-toothed devil. He was an alarm barker that reached a pitch you worried might one day shatter glass, and he nipped at the ankles of more than a few visitors – never biting flesh, but grabbing at pant hems and scaring the living daylights out of them, even if he was barely 10 lb. But those aren’t the things we dwelled on when we learned he was dying and had only a brief time left. We didn’t think, “Gosh, I wish we had more time to work on what’s wrong with him.”

Instead, Kevin and I both kept saying to one another in cracking voices that we wished there was more time to do all the things he loved. We wished we had time to give him more walks, because Fez loved his walkies. We wished there would be more delicious treats to dole out because watching that little dog chew – especially carrots – was the cutest thing ever. His favorite thing in the world was being carried up to bed at the end of the long day by Kevin; and Kevin hadn’t realized until those final hours that this was also his own favorite part of the day. He could only do it once more before Fez took his final breath, which incidentally was in Kevin’s arms – the happiest place for Fez, where he felt safest, the next day at our veterinary office.

It was in those final hours that we realized we had always used the excuse of Fez having had a bad first year of life as explanation for our delicate handling (although many would say “spoiling”) of him, when the truth is that we just really loved him. We are actually careful in our approach to all of our dogs because we understand the need for them to feel safe and to view hands as safe, and their home as safe. We make walks pleasant because we want them to view their whole world as safe. We give them treats because we love to see them chew happily, especially after we ask them to do something like “go lie down,” but sometimes just because! Those are the very best things, for us, about having dogs. We get to repay them for their friendship to us by being true friends to them. Isn’t that what love is?

I’m sad that it took Fez’ death for us to realize it and to stop apologizing for it, but I’m more aware of it now with the others. I want to make sure we don’t find ourselves wishing we had made more time for more walks or more snuggles with them at the end of their lives, although that is likely unavoidable – the problem with dogs having short lives. As I write this tonight, it is with my foster dog, Quinn, at my feet on her dog bed. Every now and then, I reach down and scratch her behind her perfect pit bull ears simply because I enjoy her. The look she gives me when she lifts her head – that same look of trust and love I noted so many years ago in Fez’ eyes when he looked at Kevin – that’s what it’s all about. We have dogs in our homes so we might easily share our hearts. Let’s share them often and never apologize for it.

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