We almost bought a happy little bichon puppy.
He was out of his cage, running quietly around the tiny shop next to the run down shell of the Ames department store, its big white letters announcing, “PETS.” And of course, he was being chased by me and my brother and having a grand old time.
But my dad insisted we look at one other dog. The black one with the shorter hair, because he’d probably shed less, and he seemed nice. He was tiny enough to fit in the palm of my dad’s hand, with brilliant reddish brown markings producing a macchiato swirl of hair on his chest and pointed ears that stood at attention. He looked like a miniature junkyard dog, but his eyes were a beautiful soft brown, as big as any puppy’s eyes but deeper than I had ever seen.
I was in love.
We sat him on the red tile and after gleefully licking and jumping all over me and my brother for letting him out of his glass cell, he, like the bichon, took off running laps around the store. His black nails clicked as he sped around the corners of the cheap shelves, the leather of his tiny paws causing him to slide gracefully through the turns like a stock car pitching it in on dirt. Of course, we had to chase him, and met the wrath of his first barks at us. Cute yips, really, since he was so tiny. But despite his voice, we could tell he had a big personality. Immediately, the perfect name came to me.
We went home to literally bust open our piggy banks. I sat on my parents’ bed with my dad, counting all of the rolls of quarters he had made from his change jar and “Kennedy Heads” he had saved over the years. We returned to the pet store with $500, and walked out with our new dog.
Killer Diller, really. I came to call him my “Diller Baby,” as I held and swayed his tiny frame in my arms.
The summer of my third grade year was bliss for a boy and his dog. I was up early every day to walk and feed him. At first he wouldn’t eat, wasn’t sure about the water dish we put out for him. I fed him kibbles by hand, and dipped my fingers in the water and let him lick to show him it was okay. He would get all excited and jump all over my lap, causing me to fall on my back where he would lick my ears and hair incessantly. He would follow me around, and I’d chase him around the living room and kitchen so he would run the same crazy laps around the table he did in the pet store, clicking and sliding all over the linoleum.
As it turned out, he didn’t shed less. He shed more. Way more. His hair got literally everywhere; but I didn’t care. Everywhere my Diller Baby had been, he was happy to be, and it seemed he had no problems spreading reminders of that happiness.
As I got older, we grew closer. He was always at my side.
He waited patiently for me to come home from school, and barked up a storm when I opened the door.
He greeted me cheerfully every day, jumping all over me and licking, filled with excitement to see me, regardless of how terrible my day had been.
He sat on my lap while I agonized over homework until 2 or 3 in the morning.
Almost silently, he would leap onto the bed and burrow under my covers, turning around and popping his head out to lay it on the pillow, “like a people,” we’d joke.
He nuzzled me with his little wet nose when I was in pain, and put his paw on my arm like he just knew I needed him close.
I can’t explain my connection to him, except perhaps to another pet owner. He knew what I was feeling, as if he could see into my soul at times, and was there for me my entire life.
It was telling to me when I first introduced him to Rachel. Killer was sort of a “ladies’ dog,” as it were, but it typically took a little bit of time for him to warm up to people–even female extended family members and former girlfriends. But when Rachel walked in, he snuggled right up to her. As much as I already knew she was “The One,” his sweet confirmation of approval bolstered my confidence.
With the years came grey hairs. The whiskers around his mouth turned into what I jokingly called his “little old man beard.” Small in stature, he had stood up to many a large and intimidating neighborhood canine over the course of his life, but the sass of his golden years was unmatched. At one point, I thought he might be going a bit deaf; but as he could still hear a pin drop at night (and would subsequently investigate and scare said pin off with a chain of high-pitched barks loud enough to wake the dead) I eventually came to understand that he simply had a standard case of what audiologists call, “selective hearing of the attitude-inclined,” particularly when receiving orders from my rather unamused dad. Despite his shift in what he would or would not tolerate, he remained my sweet Diller Baby.
Rachel and I got serious, got engaged, and bought a house. Moving in together and planning our wedding was a tremendous time in our lives. And building on our Memorial Day Sunday tradition, it was the first year we’d be participating in Rolling Thunder followed by a huge cookout at our newly minted home. We had about a dozen riders coming with us that year, including extended family from Pittsburgh who came down to participate. Between all the people who would be at our house and the fact that we wanted to get things arranged fairly well before introducing the Diller to his new castle, Rachel and I chose to wait until after our ride to pick him up. But we decided to check on him one last time before the ride.
I still remember opening the door.
As I slid the key into the lock, there was no pawing on the other side, no instantaneous bark alerting the entire neighborhood of our entrance. The living room was dim, and as Rachel and I made our way in, we noticed the Diller curled up in his bed near the television. How strange that he wasn’t at the doo–
His tongue was out. He immediately tensed up, his legs outstretched and shaking. His eyes were slits, and they rolled without conscious control. I bolted across the living room and immediately tried calming him down. He shook terribly in my hands for a moment, as I called his name, and he stopped seizing.
I picked him up, scared out of my mind, bawling my eyes out over what I had just witnessed. He hung limp in my arms as I checked his breathing. It was incredibly weak. His eyes remained slits, unable to open more than a crack or focus on anything.
I laid back on the arm of the couch, holding him to my chest as I’d always done and trying to soothe him as he endured seizure after seizure. I held him through the shaking, trying to calm him and hold his head next to my heart so he could feel it beating, feel my breathing to break the tremors.
As I held him in the yellow lamplight, I knew his time was near, and I knew what I had to do. I felt sick.
I called my mom and brother, trying to get them to the 24-hour veterinary clinic in Woodbridge. My mom was in Richmond picking up my sister for our cookout the following day, and she raced back as quickly as she could in I-95 traffic.
Rachel and I raced down an eternity of Minnieville Road. We burst into the lobby of the vet, the Diller resting in a basket of soft laundry like he used to get into when he was a pup. The on-call doctor rushed him to the back, and my mom got there around the time we received the news. He was sedated and finally calm, but severely dehydrated and with his age, there was little they could do.
My family went in with me. They gently pet him and said their goodbyes, and left the room. Rachel stayed with me. I held him as he lay on the cold steel table, the place he had feared the most as a pup and the last place I wanted to see him be. I held him there, trying to offer some comfort to him in his sedated state. I put my head on his and sobbed. I pulled him close and brought my lips to his ear.
“Goodbye, I love you Diller Baby.”
I kissed his forehead, and the doctor inserted the needle. I held him closer. He breathed softly into my neck for a few moments. And then he didn’t. His body gently relaxed into my arm, his expression went from twisted to relaxed; and he was gone.
A little piece of my soul left that room with him in that moment.
Years later, it kills me to think about this, and I can’t even write these words without sobbing, and shaking so badly I can barely hit the right keys. I don’t know how conscious he was. I feel like I just don’t know if he knew I was there for him when he needed me. Rachel often reassures me he did because of how he reacted to my holding him. But the look of his face on my chest haunts me every time I close my eyes at night, and I long for his scratching every time I slip the key into the front door.
I miss him so terribly my heart hurts.
I had a long time with him. He was a three month old pup when we brought him home, and a seventeen year old brother when I put the key in the lock that night. I knew I was fortunate to have him in my life for that long, and I cherished every moment I had with him, but I had so wished he could have stayed with us. I had so wished that he could have run down the aisle at our wedding, barking at all the guests like the little hellion he was.
Rachel made sure he was there. She took two photos of him and shrunk them down, put them in a set of cuff link lockets, and gave them to me as a gift on our wedding day. One of the images I cherish most from that day is a frame our wedding photographer took of me sitting alone in the attic of the cottage, reading her note, opening that box, and falling apart.
I wish I had more photos of him. I wish I had more photos of me with him; of us playing together. At the time, I had no concept of what they would be worth to me now. The few I do have, I get to see him as he was. My playful, crazy, foot-tall hairy brother.
I long for that connection again. Every time I see a dog, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by their sweet eyes, their scruffy hair, their joyously wagging tails, and their curious sniffs as they zig-zag back and forth around owners’ legs. They make me smile and make my heart feel full.
And I miss my Diller Baby.