It wasn’t until I had Mila that I graduated college, from USF St. Pete in 2008. Before that-way before that-I was at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, attempting a degree in Evolution Ecology and Organismal Biology, OSU-fancyspeak for “Zoology.” Four years later, all of my friends graduated and commenced making strides in an arena unfamiliar to me: the real world. I had not graduated, was jealous, and embarrassed, and lonely. So I got a dog.
I was living in German Village, an authentic-ish cobblestoned respite from downtown bustle, bookended by Schiller Park and The Book Loft, a wayward bibliophile’s wet dream-32 rooms of books, CDs and stationery, draped in twinkling christmas lights and stone pathways. I was working at Jack Hannah’s Columbus Zoo, chopping frozen rats and chickens and veggies and fruit, and delivering the food each morning, to each habitat, in a van without snow tires. It was fun, for a bit.
I got Frodo at a shelter. He was $54. He wasn’t anything special. We didn’t lock eyes, I didn’t know he was the one, nothing spoke to me. He was one of a small litter of strays, four weeks old, seven pounds, and neutered. I took him home and he promptly got parvovirus. I spent every penny I had (about $500, I think) making him better.
Frodo wasn’t a cuddler, not even then. But he came with me everywhere, and, German Village having a robust dog-owning community, everywhere was a pretty big place. Restaurants, boutiques, school…there was an ice cream shop around the corner, Lickity Split, that had a sprawling menu just for dogs. Dog ice cream, dog ice cream sandwiches, dog sherbet. I was sad, on this last trip to Ohio, to see it’s not there anymore.
Some time later, I abandoned Zoology and Frodo and I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. By now a long-legged adolescent, Frodo took to the beach like he was born there, and our daily walks became daily swims, became long afternoons watching the tide roll in until manatees came drifting through the mouth of the canal, bellies scraping our low-tide stomping ground.
Some time later, I got married. Two years later, I got pregnant. Here’s an excerpt from my journal, written to Mila, the day I found out (January 13, 2008):
I found out today I’m pregnant. It’s 9:37pm and I’m sitting on the couch with Frodo (about whom I feel guilty already, because someone once told me that when you have babies you start to neglect your dog. That can’t be right, right? I can’t imagine that happening.) Your father and I have been living in St. Pete for three years now, in Sunset Beach. The Gulf is a 30-second walk from the house, and we love it.
It was impossible to imagine not spending every free moment mapping out Frodo’s and my adventure for the day. But when Mila was born, our adventuring did slow down, if only a bit. We still swam, we still walked, we still played, but I spent less money on good dog food. I brushed him less, I sometimes forgot to wash him off after swimming.
Some time later, my marriage went bad. This is what I thought about a few weeks ago at the vet’s office, my nails digging into Frodo’s fur, his last few breaths in my ear. I didn’t cry when I realized that that day was the day we needed to put him down-that after a long stretch of muscle degeneration, tumor growth, joint pain and incontinence, that day was the day it needed to happen, because that day Frodo wasn’t hungry for the very first time, and Frodo didn’t want to go on a walk, didn’t look up when I jangled the dog leash. I didn’t cry when Rich told me he’d give Frodo a final shower, would hand feed him a final meal. I didn’t cry when We as a Family crowded in the candle-lit room at the vet’s office with Frodo, or when Rich read the Rainbow Bridge poem aloud, or when Mila got quiet, or when Lucy cried, pressing kisses into Frodo’s eyelids.
But when the vet came in and told us what would happen, that he would administer a sedative to calm Frodo, and then the injection that would kill him, I asked Rich to take the kids into the waiting room so I could say my goodbyes. That’s when I began to think, and to cry.
When my marriage became abusive, and then increasingly violent, I wasn’t a great dog owner. The cheap food made Frodo’s skin itchy, but I kept buying it. I stopped giving him scraps, even though I knew he wouldn’t eat enough otherwise. He got skinny, so skinny that the neighbors would ask me why. His registration lapsed, he needed checked for heart worm, he needed flea and tic prevention. A few years passed that were bad, and I thought of those that day at the vet’s office, and I felt terrible and embarrassed for the millionth time.
But when the vet came for the final injection, and I buried my face into his neck, and the nurse whispered “let him hear your voice”, and his big, long body was overcome with tremors, the one reel playing over and over in my head was of the worst times, when I’d be on the floor, retching and screaming into the spaces between the wooden slats, wishing my husband would die, wishing he’d come back…all the while, all the time, Frodo was there. I always looked at him then, crawled to him, and held onto him, and he never did anything. He didn’t look judgmental, or disapproving, or sympathetic-he was always just there, in quiet solidarity, there until things changed and got better. But he would’ve been there, even if they hadn’t.
Frodo dying was the worst moment of my life. But there was also so much beauty to it, to the simple, unambiguous reality of that moment. There’s no ego, no backstory, no nebulous guilt or hope or wish. To witness that, and to feel his deep, deep exhale, was the most agonizing and astonishing moment of my life. I don’t believe in doggie heaven, and anonymous poetry offers me no comfort. But to have shared that moment with this most wonderful beast is a lifetime of magic. To the moon and the stars, and as far as the numbers go…I will love you forever, Frodo.
And so it goes.