Growing up with Puzzle
I believe I will see all of my pets in heaven one day. I remember when I was small, a teacher said that animals have no souls, don’t really love you and can’t go to heaven. Well, I chose not to believe her. I still don’t. The good thing is that I don’t remember that horrible teacher’s name or even what she looked like – only her biting and chilling advice.
Just last month, our beloved family pet, Puzzle, was put to sleep. He was an amazing 15-years-old. He was part black Labrador, part Dachshund. Strangers debated his genealogy on the daily. My husband actually found him on the Internet and drove to San Pedro to convince the pet rescue volunteers that we were his forever family. We were searching for a similar lowrider breed and a handful of Corgi rescue people turned us away. My husband was convinced they were doing credit reports and judging us by our zip code. I think they saw a large family and sensed havoc and possible rehoming (that word causes bile to build up in the back of my throat). The pretentious Corgi people missed out and we gained Puzzle.
That was his name all along – Puzzle. And he was definitely true to his name. A total enigma. We didn’t want to change anything about him when we adopted him. In fact, he was about six months old and had a broken leg set in a small white plaster cast. He was such an integral part of the family (really not a dog, but a human counterpart) and had instilled such a beautiful personality that we honestly didn’t think he would ever not be a part of our loud and frenetic family.
On December 21st just after midnight, he left us. We had spent about five hours at the local emergency veterinary hospital. The employees were so kind as my husband and I and all four kids crowded into a “quiet room” and discussed the pros and cons of why or how to maintain our dog’s declining existence and frequent seizures.
When we were ready to have the female veterinarian assist with his ending, I knew I couldn’t stay in the room and witness it. I love animals. I’m the one who watched the water level in his stainless steel bowl, cleaned up the pet waste and dutifully walked him around our neighborhood and nearby park. I just don’t love the finale. When I was in elementary school, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian but after having a litter of little kitties born in our backyard dryer and seeing only one survive – I knew I needed to choose a different career path.
“Puzzle, I will see you again in heaven,” I whispered as he snuggled in my youngest daughter’s lap. His cataract-clouded eyes closed and labored breathing growing more shallow with each attempt.
Just hours earlier – it was a typical Erma Bombeck-style evening in our home. My only son, who stands a towering 6’6, injured his knee on the sidewalk outside of his apartment and it blew up like an exploding grapefruit. He called me asking for medical advice – so I had him come over to inspect the orthopedic damage. My mother diagnosis was a kneecap contusion and treatment recommendations included a sandwich bag full of ice cubes and Naproxen.
During my son’s convalescence, Puzzle started having a seizure beneath the couch. There I was assisting our treasured pet while my son was incapacitated with his knee elevated. One hand was helping my dog and the other was tossing a bag of ice at my son’s kneecap. What else could happen tonight? My head wanted pillows but my heart knew something else.
Puzzle’s seizure subsided and he stumbled around our small house with my 18-year-old daughter trailing him to make sure he didn’t bump into anything. But his can-do spirit was short-lived and he started having another violent seizure in the kitchen. My oldest daughter wrapped him in her dorm blanket and the kids piled into the car toward the emergency animal hospital. My husband and I followed behind the caravan. The last seizure was the reckoning we had all been ignoring for weeks. We knew Puzzle’s health was not great, but we needed him.
As my youngest daughter said after he died, “Puzzle was the glue that kept us all together. We probably don’t even like one another!”
Yes, it’s true. Puzzle was the great equalizer in our home. He had this wry, sarcastic look about him, like he had a secret that he would never tell. He didn’t see himself as a pet, but another noble part of the family. He slept at the foot of my bed for the past 15 years. My husband and I now have colder feet as we pull up the covers. We see shadows on the bed in the early morning hours and think it’s him. Doors are left open and there is no sneaking out by our four-legged friend. No frantic barking when the mail carrier shows up at our doorstep. All the bedroom and bathroom trash cans are piled with detritus – no one is scavengering for a discarded snack or interesting leftover.
It’s been almost one month since he left our home for the last time. We are still mourning him. We miss him terribly. Tears still flow. I found a half-eaten tennis ball under the couch cushion and we can’t bear to throw it away. Dog tags are going to be refashioned as jewelry by my youngest daughter. His remains are sitting in our entry way table, like a gift that wants to be opened. He was cremated on Christmas Eve. We each cannot bear to tear into the bag and review what is left of him. A sympathy card came this week from the animal hospital. The employees were so loving with their handwritten thoughts for our family.
Here is one excerpt from the card:
“The heart remembers most what it has loved best. Puzzle will be sorely missed.”
“The extent of your grief is a measure of the love and dedication you gave each other.”
The Christmas cards have been tossed weeks ago, but this card remains on our mantle. It lifts our spirits. My husband will pick it up on his way toward the sliding door and review the sentiments. We are healing now.
Fifteen years is a good run for a pet. We knew we hit the Lotto with the long years of loving Puzzle. When you are so comfortable with someone, it feels like it will last forever. Puzzle was just like that. He never grew tired of the belly rubs, the second helping of dinner if one of us forgot and the excitement when I would put on my athletic shoes – that was our signal that a walk would be imminent. But with a dog’s age, his energy started to wane. What were once naps in between family activity turned into an all day slumber. His once deep ebony face was white and gray. My husband called it “salt” but his mood never soured like a crabby old man. My youngest daughter is the same age as he was. They literally grew up together. In fact, we all grew up with him in different stages over the past decade-and-a-half. He made us better people.