Monday, December 26, 2005

Bittersweet Christmas

Our dog Teddy was a part of our Christmas celebrations since he showed up in our backyard in 1998. In our family, the dogs go everywhere -- Mom & Dad's house, Grandma & Grandpa's house. One Christmas Eve there were nine dogs at my grandparents' house! I guess having a dearth of children and a multitude of dogs makes this seem perfectly reasonable to us, though some people think we're just nuts. Of course, Rosco, our other dog, has been part of the festivities since 1999, although he was unofficially banned from Grandma & Grandpa's a few years ago. It was bad enough that he barked vociferously at my grandmother when she donned a fur coat (my wife said he was jealous that she had caught so many animals to make it!), but when he lifted his leg on the kitchen wall, he became canis non grata. I guess it was just as well since Teddy was uncomfortable that night. He was getting older, and visiting my parents in the morning and grandparents in the evening was just too much for him. He was hiding in the closet and pawing at the front door to go home. So in recent years we have taken the dogs to see my parents but left them at home in the evening.

It would have been hard enough to celebrate Christmas without Teddy, who died this summer, but it was even harder celebrating with Maggie. Maggie is my parents' dog, a yellow lab mix. Since they got her a couple years before I moved out of the house, she's my dog, too. She is the one who made me a dog lover. I always liked dogs, but Maggie just has a way of getting into people's hearts. In April 1997 I took care of Maggie at my condo near Lake Michigan while my parents went on vacation. In the preceding weeks, I had been telling everybody that Maggie was going to be a babe magnet. With my pathetic dating history (if I were an ancient Greek, I would have been named Platonicus), my friends got a laugh out of that. Sure enough, the first day I walked Maggie on the lakefront, a woman stopped to pet her. Twenty-one months later, we were married. We even had a yellow lab statuette atop the wedding cake beside the traditional bride and groom.

Just before Thanksgiving, Maggie was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. The vet said she had two weeks to six months, that with some luck she'd be there to celebrate Christmas, but we'd better cherish every day after that. Needless to say, we've been visiting my parents more often than usual. Although she has been losing weight, Maggie is doing okay (my mom says that's because nobody told her she's sick). But having Christmas without Teddy and knowing that this would very likely be Maggie's last made it difficult to enjoy the holiday. My parents gave us a calendar with photos of the family dogs (Maggie, Molly, Teddy, Rosco, and Ellie) and a throw with a photo of Teddy stitched into it. Somehow we managed not to cry.

Maggie also made the trip to my grandparents' house, although in her old age she growls at the other dogs whenever they come near. After all the gifts were opened, my dad was in a sour mood so my parents abruptly left; I hardly got to say goodbye to Maggie. I hope I get to see her again. At least I spent several hours petting her while everyone was opening presents that night.

We do most of our gift-giving on Christmas Eve, and then we go to my aunt & uncle's house on Christmas Day without our dogs. There my mom told me she had been looking through old photos and found one of Maggie. Years ago (probably in 1999), I had run a race before going out to their house. I had received a finisher's medal (as opposed to a medal for a top placing -- I was never even close), and I put it on Maggie. I had forgotten all about that, but I knew what my mom was going to say next... the picture reminded her of the photo of Teddy I posted on my blog, the last picture I ever took of him.

After four months it still hurts. My wife sometimes worries that he wouldn't have wanted us to put him to sleep or that he could have lived a bit longer. I try to reassure her and remind her of his condition at the time, how he couldn't do the things he loved anymore, and how we had done all we could. I feel like sometimes I remember too much about his final month instead of all the happy years that came before. We still think about him every day, and maybe we always will.

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