Two years ago today, Milo died.
He was a year and a half old, and no one is quite sure what killed him. He started out with a huge cyst on the side of his neck in the third week of June and died of pneumonia on July 19, drowned by the fluid in his lungs. The vets ran lab samples for weeks afterward, and they never came up with a conclusive diagnosis. He just got sick and he died, a tough little dog in perfect health.
Milo was my best friend, with no nod to any tired clichés. My ex-boyfriend wanted a Jack Russell and bought him three months before we split up, and by the time we went our separate ways it was clear that Milo was mine. Everyone’s dog is special, but Milo was different, somehow. It wasn’t just his outsized Jack Russell personality, and it wasn’t his evil genius smarts. There was just something about him. People would pull their cars over and get out to kneel down and play with him. Everybody loved him, and he loved everybody, except for one person’s husband who will remain unnamed, and I’m convinced Milo was right. I took him everywhere with me, and everywhere he went he made friends.
He was small, just fifteen pounds, but he could jump four feet in the air easily. When I got home from work at the end of the day I could hear him scrabbling frantically on the other side of the door – I was always convinced that sometime after five he’d take up his post and wait for hours, if need be. He was never the kind of dog you felt OK about leaving home, not because he was destructive but because it was clear how terribly he missed me. I would walk in the door and put down my purse on the windowsill, and then I’d clap my hands and he would JUMP into my arms and lick my face hysterically, sticking his tongue as far up my nose as he could. A friend once said he had a spring in his ass, and that was as good an explanation as any. If I held a stick at shoulder height he would leap for it, doing a neat 180 while airborne. Kids in the park would say “WOW, how’d you teach him how to do that?” But I never taught him a thing. It was all part of his uncontainable exuberance.
Our cat, Mr. Bonkers, adopted us because he fell in love with Milo. Milo would bark and bark at him, and the cat would stand his ground until he stopped, and then move in for a cuddle. They would wrassle like a couple of little boys, but they loved each other dearly. Milo loved cats and kids and other dogs, the bigger the better. He thought he was a mastiff and no one ever told him otherwise.
The four weeks he was sick were like a waking nightmare. That was the single worst time of my life, I think. Whereas before there had been all the romance of being A Girl and Her Dog, once he got sick I felt more alone than I ever have in my life. I would wake at three in the morning to feel the little blast furnace of his feverish body shaking next to me. I’d turn up the air conditioner and try to sleep for another half hour, then take his temperature to find it was something horrible. And I’d sit up in bed holding him, wondering if I had to bring him to the Animal Medical Center again, if I couldn’t just give him a cool bath, if he was sick enough for me to have to leave him. And invariably I’d get in my car at four and drive down to 62nd Street on the empty streets, and wait for hours in that terrible waiting room where everyone was always crying. Then I’d drive home without him, sanitation trucks the only other vehicles out besides me, and I’d roll down my windows in the early morning heat and smell the garbage. I’d get home, shower, go to work. Pick him up a few days later and do it all over again. He always trusted me to take care of him – it showed in every look he ever gave me. He trusted me, and in the end I couldn’t. I’ve never felt so useless.
I hemorrhaged money for him. Biopsies, CT scans, IV fluids, two- and three-day stays. And every time they called my name to pay, I’d smile and pull out another credit card and say “I don’t care how many years it takes me to pay this off, as long as they’re years with him.” I ended up spending over a third of my salary that year, which wasn’t much to begin with. It will be another year before I’m done paying, I think. I maxed out all my cards and didn’t even end up with a new car or a cool stereo or a trip somewhere exotic. Just a little dead dog. And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. My only regret is that I didn’t take his ashes. It would have cost me an extra $150, and at that point he was gone and I couldn’t see the use. I would like to have them now, though. They did make me a plaster pawprint, and I treasure it.
I can’t talk about the day he died. Just thinking of it chokes me up no matter where I am or how I’m feeling. Up until the day before, I had been sure – everyone had been sure, even the vets – that he would make it. But he didn’t. I will tell you that I have never wailed so loud and so hard in front of so many people.
Something inside me broke into a million pieces that day, and it’s never really come back together. I know that sounds melodramatic. But I’m not the same person I was before he died. I don’t know how a little dog’s passing could tear me up and rearrange me so completely, and why I still ache when I think of him, but I do.
Everyone told me Milo’s short life was a good one, and they were right. If a dog’s chief purpose in life is to make his people happy, then Milo was fulfilled. I woke every morning with him socked tight against my body, his nose on my shoulder, and I was so far from lonely. He would open his eyes, smile at me, roll over on his back and stretch. With his boxy little chest and endlessly long midsection, he looked like some kind of fantastic musical instrument, and I had to bury my nose in his neck and kiss him. He smelled like brown bread baking.
Rest in peace, little buddy. I loved you so much.