She’s not Megan

My dog recently suffered a loss. It was the kind of a loss that I know a little something about. The loss of a partner. The loss of the one you used to “do life” with. The loss of a best friend.

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Megan & Duncan, December 2008

Duncan first met the love of his life in 2008, about an hour after Travis and I adopted him from a shelter in Ohio. Megan, my parent’s black lab/golden retriever/who the hell really knows mix was about three at the time, and just aching for some canine companionship. And Duncan, an abandoned puppy who never knew his mother was in desperate need of some maternal guidance. Their eyes locked, their tails wagged in unison, and in that moment they both discovered exactly what had been missing from their lives. Each other.

While Duncan would go on to spend most of his life in New York, and Megan lived out all 14 of her years as an Ohio resident, the pair spent a significant amount of time together. My parents, who regularly traveled the I-90 corridor en route to visit my sister in the greater Boston area, would drop Megan off for days or sometimes even weeks at a time. She’d settle in to our menagerie with ease, somehow even co-existing peacefully with our cats in spite of her overtly murderous nature. Likewise, when we were scheduled for extensive travel, we’d make arrangements for my parents to care for Duncan. When we’d split them up after a long, or even a short visit both would spend the subsequent days pouting before eventually returning to their individual routines.

When Travis was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2016 my parent’s asked if there was anything they could do. “Can you come get Duncan?” I asked, knowing that dealing with the impending chaos would be easier without worrying about our dog, and knowing that they’d be at our door step as fast as their Hyundai could carry them. Duncan would remain with them throughout much of the 28 months of Travis’ illness. Even during the periods where Travis enjoyed relatively good health it was nearly impossible to juggle constant medical appointments two hours away and properly care for a dog (especially one as spoiled as Dunc). He missed us, that was apparent each time he visited, but living with Megan was hardly a consolation prize, as he flourished with her by his side.

As the end of Travis’ life neared I let both of my parents know that I was going to need Duncan to help me get through the immediate aftermath of losing my husband. I worried a bit that he wouldn’t come willingly, that he’d spent too much time bonding with Megan (not to mention bonding with my Dad’s running schedule, and my mom’s endless supply of dog snacks) to leave and return to a life with me and the cats. Much to my surprise and delight, he immediately fell into my routine (or lack there of). It may have had something to do with the fact that in those early days after Travis died I walked, a lot. I didn’t know what else to do so I just wandered. I’d grab Duncan’s leash and we’d just go. My step-counting app would read 6 miles, and I’d have no idea how it got there. Duncan was far from reluctant in helping me through this particular manifestation of grief that I was experiencing, he likewise had no trouble assisting me through the long naps that followed the long hikes. We were a good team.

Unfortunately, Megan didn’t fare so well. My parents reported that she didn’t want to take walks or really even leave the house. She was approaching 14 years old and with the large quantity of lumps distributed throughout her entire body she seemed, at that point, to be more cancer than dog. They feared her end was nigh and asked if they could bring her for a visit. Her visit would end up lasting the better part of three months as she suddenly perked up once Duncan was back in her life.

Her vision and hearing seemed to be significantly impaired, which explained her hesitance to take walks without Duncan by her side. He displayed an incredible amount of empathy and patience for his companion as she slowed down.  Our six mile days ended as Megan couldn’t quite keep up with that pace. Duncan didn’t seem to mind slowing down for her, adopting her schedule, and giving way to her needs. The dog who regularly stares me down at 6:00am, demanding that we walk now (right now!), was instead patiently waiting for Megan’s aching joints to wake up each morning, as shorter mid-day adventures became our new routine.

I was perfectly equipped to handle this sort of doggy-home-hospice situation, having just been through it with my own human companion. I was working mostly from home making me available to walk Meg whenever she was awake enough to go. I was occupying a house with which Megan was familiar, having spent the majority of her life there. And I was dealing with significant grief that included feeling a lack of purpose having spent the better part of three years providing care for a man who was no longer in need of anything from me.

Each day Megan seemed a bit slower, and a little less capable. But she was eating, drinking, playing and smiling so it seemed best to just let her live her life rather than providing any intervention. And then, on a warm Sunday evening in June, Duncan watched helplessly as the love of his life suddenly lost the ability to stand up on her own. Just hours before they’d hiked a solid two miles and danced in a river together, and now this. He stared at me, his eyes begging me to do something to fix her and make it better, while somehow knowing that there was nothing that could be done. He said goodbye in the same room where they’d first met nearly 11 years prior, and stood by quietly as my dad and I helped her into the back end of my Subaru for her last ride.

Duncan’s grief seemed to manifest itself in much the same way that mine had a few months prior, with a need to wander. We’d find a trail to hike and he’d insist on taking every side trail we encountered until the miles began to rack up. It was 7 miles that first day, 6 the next, we’d hit 8 on Wednesday that week. We’d get home from a walk, he’d nap for a few hours and then begin asking for another walk. How could I say no? Each time my parents visited he looked for Megan hoping she’d get out of their car. Instinctively he knew she wouldn’t be there, but he still looked, just in case.

A few weeks back a dog did emerge from their car. You see, while the options for finding reliable human companionship after you lose your life partner are few and far between (and sometimes creepy and terrifying), there are shelters and rescue organizations that can help you find new four-legged friends pretty quickly. They’re just there, waiting, wagging and wanting your love. And while they can never replace what we’ve lost, they seem to need us as much as we need them.

Ms. Halle Berry, my parent’s recently adopted awkward, gangly, chocolate lab/who the hell really knows mix, immediately locked eyes with Duncan and embraced him as the mentor she’d been waiting her whole short life to meet. Duncan’s greeting was less than enthusiastic, but not entirely unfriendly, and he’s even allowed himself to enjoy her company on occasion during their brief time together. He’s approached his relationship with this new recruit, in a manner similar to most of his other dog encounters. Duncan can be friends with other dogs on Duncan’s terms and when it’s convenient or desirable for Duncan. It’s often confusing for the other dog especially those for whom Duncan assigns the status of “outside friends,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Duncan’s “outside friends” are dogs that he will only play with outside, immediately ignoring and shunning them as soon as they step inside a building.

Halle is a wonderful companion and has started to fill in small pieces of the Megan-sized holes that were left in my parent’s hearts. She seems bound and determined to make Duncan fall in love with her, courting his affections in every way she can think including punching him, dropping toys on his head while he sleeps, chewing on his face, and body slamming him as she runs full force across the yard. Mostly he ignores her, occasionally acquiescing to her advances with something that resembles friendship. Unfortunately for Halle there’s just not much she can do to change Duncan’s opinion of her (although less face biting might help some). In Duncan’s mind there really are only two dogs who have existed in this world aside from himself – Megan, and everyone else. And thus she suffers from the same fatal flaw as every dog he’s ever met. She’s not Megan.

Duncan & Halle – 2019


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