This past Friday we had one of our dogs put down. He was old-before-his-time sick and wasn't able to do much of anything anymore, but it still hurt. Ronin was with me 10 years, since he was a puppy small enough to sleep on the pillow by my head. In his last six months, though, he had four or five serious things wrong with him - some of which had been building for years - and it became distractingly obvious that he had simply run out of time.
Our daughters won't remember him, and that's been one of the hardest things to deal with. I guess on some level I knew that would be the case, even if he made it to 11 or 12: Sarah is 3 and Lucy is closing on 1 1/2, and permanent memories don't fully set in until 4. I know he's just a dog, but Ronin was my dog and he was part of the family.
The house sounds incredibly quiet without him shuffling around in the back room where he spent so much time. Every few minutes I feel compelled to get up and check the back door to see if he's ready to come in from our fenced yard. It stings when Lucy walks to the spots where he used to sleep, shakes her little head and says his name - because I know the girls feel it too and that, on some level, they understand the permanence of the situation. Yesterday, I heard Sarah open the back door and close it again; when I asked her what she was doing she looked sad and said she wanted to let Ronin in.
I did too.
There will be other dogs, and he'll be a picture on the wall or an element in mom and dad's stories, but little else - a semi-mythical beast from a time when the world was young. They'll be good stories, though, because the boy lived well. Even in the past few months, as a wreck of the dog he once was, we kept him as comfortable as we knew how. Looking back, much of our lifestyle had centered on keeping his exertion minimal and his surroundings cushy.
Ronin was born in 2003, and he lived with me in a decaying singlewide in Candler, just west of Asheville. He was five weeks old and unbelievably tiny and I wish I could find his puppy pictures. At first I drove a transit van, and then I worked at an animal control department. He was there with me through the latter, a dark night of the soul that stretched on for a mind-bending year and a half. I don't think of those years often - it was a fairly traumatic time - but Ronin was there and he helped. He came with me when I moved in with my wife-to-be, and we all lived in a hundred-year-old millworker house in north Asheville, not far from the river.
He was 3 in 2006, when I married. We were living in Greenville at the time, and my wife was in grad school at ECU. I was a college dropout doing unqualified work, but I was happier - and she and I were the most social we'd ever been. We held dinner parties and cookouts every Tuesday. Ronin would be under the table when we ate or played Scattergories, sleeping against everyone's feet. That dog had a lot of friends. In fact I'm fairly certain he had more fans than some of the bands I played in at the time.
He moved with us again, in 2008, to a cramped apartment in Carrboro and then one final time, in 2009, to a place in Pittsboro that I playfully call Camp Werewolf - named for my massive husky-lab-shepherd-who-knows mutt with David Bowie eyes ("Ronin has a blue eye and a brown eye," Sarah, my oldest, would say). This is where he lived as his health failed and I went back to college, took active control of my career prospects, and had two kids. When I got him, I was a frustrated 21-year-old dropout with zero job prospects; when he died, I was a 31-year-old college graduate, a professional writer, a dad and a community-college instructor preparing for semester one.
Of course I'm sad he's gone. He was a sweet dog, and we went through a lot together. But I think back on the fun we had, and I realize that most of the things he enjoyed he had been unable to do for a long time; most of my best memories come from when he was active enough to travel, hike and play. He'd been as far west as western Kentucky, to the top of Mount Pisgah, and had seen the ocean several times. But I think the most important thing is that he had an awful lot of friends: The dog knew love, and that matters. I don't know how to tell the people who knew him that he died. Hell, I don't like reminding myself.
A few days ago I got out a this black-and-white picture of Ronin as a young dog, maybe 1, and I hung it by the back door where he used to go out. I hung his collar by it, and I give it a tug or two every time I pass that way. Then I found the most basic way of expressing how I feel, a sort of inner mantra I'm assigning to the memory of my sweet dog: this door will always be open for you. Even though you're never coming back. It doesn't make it OK that his lifespan was a fraction of mine, but it's the best I can do.
So how do I deal, then, with knowing my girls will forget him? They miss him now and they ask about him, but that will fade. I know I'll feel better with time, but I will miss the boy. They won't even have that. But something dawned on me this morning, and it's been the first thing to make me feel OK in several days: Ronin was there for the girls' formative years, when they were learning the very basics of life. No matter how many dogs Sarah and Lucy have, Ronin will always be there on some foundational level as part of their most basic, subconscious understanding of how to live with pets. To them, he gets to be the dog archetype - a gentle, semi-mythical beast from when the world was young. Not everyone gets that kind of role, and he deserves the honor.
Thinking that, I feel a little better. But just a little.