washington-post-logo.jpg
My fantasy of giving birth to a mini-me — equipped with my ski slope nose and penchant for frosting over cake and sports over stilettos — died in a sterile doctor’s office. He talked about premature ovarian failure and finished with our sole option for being pregnant and giving birth to a child: egg donation. Read full essay

Second Best

By
Christina Julian

There’s never a right time to let go of an ailing dog, any more than there is an appropriate time to replace an old dog with a new one. One scenario begs the other but the combustion of both feels insurmountable. Especially when you’re the one who will watch, cuddle and cry when the final shot is triggered to lay your furry best friend to rest. If you’re me, you respond to the trauma by doing the unthinkable, when two weeks later, you go out and getting another dog to fill the hole in your heart you know can never be filled. And despite all the warm fuzzies and sweet puppy kisses, no dog will ever replace the one that came before.

I know that playing favorites between kids is often frowned upon, yet with canine companions, it feels acceptable. Either way, Cari-Anne was a flat-out favorite. As for the follow-up pooch, Coco, she is falling short, despite her long hot dog bod. She could wag her scrawny tail for the next 18 years, which is how long Cari-Anne lasted, and she would never come close to measuring up. Cari-Anne never ate cat poop, two-hundred-dollar leather boots, nor fuzzy, zebra-print chairs. She didn’t yelp at neighbors, jump on people, or nip children. And she never, ever, humped the cat, which is why when my vet Steve told me it was time to let Cari-Anne go, I walked right out of his office.

Such unfathomable words from an otherwise sane man. The same guy who saved Cari-Anne a year earlier, when he split her tummy open from ribcage to rump, because her food refused to digest. My girl went from happy, scrap-scrounging kitchen elf, to decrepit old hound—overnight. Nobody thought she would make it through surgery, let alone “wag on,” with that not quite a tail, not quite a full-on stump, for days and months to come. But that’s what Cari-Anne did, she defied the odds.

She rose above her street dog roots to become the Mother Theresa of the canine set. She failed her pet therapy test only to pass it a week later, and go on to “rock” the Children’s Hospital and Shriners Hospital for Children, pet therapy scene. She hiked the Grand Canyon, worked in advertising, and served as a grape sampler during harvest in the Napa Valley. She canoed the Russian River, walked over the Golden Gate Bridge, and won Best in Show, at every pet parade she entered. It was because of all of those feats that I marched right back into that vet office to tell Steve what I really thought of his stupid “time to let go,” sentiments.

I told him he was a rude whack-a-doodle, and lacked bedside manners. Then I sobbed all over his shirt. Because he actually had excellent bedside manners, he let me. While I tried to stop the waterworks, he gently offered, “Sometimes the kindest thing we can do, is give them the gift of letting go gracefully.” Again, with the crazy talk. I’m sorry, but gifts come in pretty packages, tied with colorful bows, death does not. Cari-Anne sat at my side as he spoke, and calmed me with her dark doe eyes. They were still soulful, but cloudy. I looked past all of that, straight to her heart, and determined—nope, she was not ready to go.

As life’s most perfect companion, I knew Cari-Anne would tell me, in her special dog way, when it was time to leave the party of life. And because she made it her life’s work to take care of me, she would bail out gracefully, in her sleep, swathed in her favorite fleece blanket, surrounded by several of the pillows she insisted on swaddling for every snooze. “Sorry Doc, she’s gonna go in her sleep.”

Someone had dimmed the lights and lit a candle, which did nothing but made me heave harder. Steve took my hand, as I bawled. “Wouldn’t it be easier if dogs left us that way. But, most often they don’t. Especially tough old dogs like Cari-Anne.” He was full of nonsensicals this dude, but he got that one right. She was a survivor.

Cari-Anne looked at me and shimmied her stubby little non-tail. Take that! I thought.  She wouldn’t wag like a windshield wiper on speed if it was her time. There were signs, yes. Food was no longer of interest. Pills once gobbled down in pockets, had to be shot down the chute with a pill popper. Her hearing was gone and I often had to hold her up to poop, but that tail wagged on. Each wag telling me she was not ready to let go. At least that’s what I hoped it was saying.

There are decisions in life that nobody should have to make. Yet there I sat, sobbing my heart out in a stale veterinary office, with Cari-Anne stuck to my side like only a therapy dog could do.

Steve prattled on. “Sometimes I ask my patients to consider what sounds most peaceful. To spend an amazing last day with a beloved pet and family member. Or to watch a best friend drift away, day, by day.” I looked at Cari-Anne and willed her to answer for me.

We rolled out of the doctor’s office in her baby stroller, all the way home. We rolled to the school yard to pick up my toddling twins. We rolled to the river, Cari-Anne’s favorite spot. She wagged her stub, lifted her snout to sniff, and lay back down to snooze in the sun. She looked like her old self when her eyes closed and all she had to do was sleep. I questioned my decision. My daughter kissed Cari-Anne’s resting eyes and hugged her tight. Her twin brother rubbed her stub, and asked, “Will we get another doggie tomorrow?”

Never.

We fried up a steak, and against all odds, Cari-Anne ate it. We belted out “our” song. “Sweet Cari-Anne, ba, ba, ba, ba!”—our take on the Neil Diamond classic. I blubbered while my kids and husband said their goodbyes.

I reminded myself I was making the right decision, and tried to believe it. I drove to the vet’s office, with Cari-Anne in my lap, swaddled in a fuzzy blanket of course.

Candles were lit. Lights dimmed. I lay over Cari-Anne’s body and whispered, “You’re my favorite, forever,” as Steve triggered the final shot.

It’s been over a year since Cari-Anne crossed over the rainbow bridge. Coco, for her part, has mastered the dog door, a conditional “come here,” and on a good day she refrains from eating my shoes and underwear. She even took home the second-place prize at our hometown harvest pet parade. Not bad for her first time out. We cuddle on the couch and admire her winnings; dog biscuits, toys she will shred, and a ribbon she will no doubt eat.

“Sweet Caroline” comes on the radio. We sing, some of us cry, and Coco, wannabee superdog, flies up on the couch. She stares at me with her beady, expectant eyes, snout caked in cat litter, evidence of the goodies she just ate. I think about reprimanding her for the hundredth time today but decide against it.

Instead, I try to make peace with Coco’s place in our life. She may not be my favorite—right now—or ever. But there is no shame in second best.

Christina Julian is a novelist and wine and food columnist living in the Napa Valley, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and Wine Enthusiast.