Sunday, January 11, 2015

How Do I Say Goodbye to My First Dog?

Growing up, I never had much use for dogs. I enjoyed people's company better, and I sometimes thought of the preference for dogs or for humans as mutually exclusive. What's the fuss about dogs, I thought. They can't even talk or laugh. I just wasn't a dog person.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not the dad from Beethoven. I never hated dogs. I just thought that dogs ruined vacations, parties, and time that could be better spent on other activities. It seems stupid looking back, but that's how I felt. I thought, Who would want to have that kind of responsibility if it doesn't directly involve taking care of another human being? I never really wanted a dog, and I even claimed to prefer cats in order to piss off my dog-loving buddies.

Then, we got Harry. In the fall of 2002, my cousins' golden retrievers, Chloe and Woody, had a litter of puppies.* So, as a Christmas gift, my aunt and uncle gave a dog to each set of cousins. We got the sturdiest puppy of the bunch, they said, so that he'd be well-suited to the country. Never mind that my parents live just an hour north of the city; to people in Queens, anything north of Yonkers qualifies as "upstate."

*I felt like a "doggy-style" joke was too easy there.

We named the puppy "Harry" after Jeff Daniels' character from Dumb and Dumber. The dog had a lot to live up to, but in the end Harry gave me exponentially more joy than all my combined viewings of Dumb and Dumber. And that's saying something.

On the TV show Lost -- in one of those weird time-travel episodes -- each character has to find a "Constant," someone or something to keep him rooted in reality. At the end of the episode, Desmond Hume survives because his Constant -- the love of his life, Penny -- reminds him of his identity. Well, Harry was my Constant. When I went out to Indiana for college and only came home a few times a year, Harry remained. When I graduated and moved down to the Bronx, Harry remained. When my parents went on vacation and I traveled up to their house, Harry remained.  When each of my younger sisters went off to college, Harry remained. No matter what happened, Harry remained. He kept the old house feeling like home; with him around, you'd never feel lonely there.

We went up to my parents' house yesterday for Harry's Irish Wake, and the weirdest thing about the trip was not being greeted by my Constant the minute we pulled into the driveway. Normally, Harry would be laying outside with three tennis balls around him, ready to play with any of my parents' countless visitors. Not yesterday. He's gone and so is a big part of our family's collective life.

I feel like a tribute for Harry is in order, so here are a few of my favorite stories/anecdotes:
  • Harry's diet was legendary. My grandmother used to throw food to him, and we'd watch Harry one-time hot dogs out of the air like he was Rafael Nadal going up for spike after spike. One, two, three, four... 
  • More on that diet: On nights when my mom cooked filet mignon, Harry used to lie in front of the stove and salivate until it was ready. He had a rich dog's palate.
  • One more on food: If the rest of the family ever ate a nice meal but there wasn't enough for Harry, he'd be pissed. Once in a while, we'd polish off all the steak and Harry would be left with bologna or some other grizzly meat. Those were the only times I can ever remember Harry giving us the doggy "F.U. Face." You didn't mess with Harry at mealtime. 
  • Harry probably wore a leash fewer than 10 times in his entire life. That's not hyperbole. He roamed free like the Coonhounds in Where the Red Fern Grows. The only difference was Harry didn't live in the Ozarks, where one can walk miles before reaching the nearest neighbor. Harry lived in a small lake community with houses all around him. Therefore, my parents incurred a bunch of fines as a result of Harry pooping on our neighbors' lawns. I think my dad just figured it was a worthwhile cost for giving Harry a true dog's life. Plus, I like to think that we trained Harry well enough to crap in the yards of our least friendly neighbors.
  • It should be noted that Harry probably had his tail pulled more times than any dog who ever lived. Between my six younger siblings, million younger cousins, and all of our neighbors, Harry's tail was often treated like a T-Bar by lazy toddlers looking to bum a ride.
  • On the day of our friend Kate's wedding, she came to her childhood home to take pictures with her family. Unfortunately, they live just three doors down from my parents, with no fences separating the lawns. I'll never forget watching a mud-covered Harry sprint toward Kate and her white wedding dress, eliciting one of the most nervous cries for help I've ever heard. "Fran!" Kate shrieked. "Get Harry!" But I couldn't help; I was too busy laughing. Thank God Kate's dad was able to call Harry away from her at the last second. 
  • Harry knew he was far too cool for other dogs. Whenever a wimpy little poodle approached to try to smell him, Harry really gave him something to sniff, jamming his brown balloon knot into the other dog's face. With members of his own species, Harry was like Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's like he was saying, "Just leave me alone unless you've really got something to offer."
  • Harry was such a warrior that he was still chasing tennis balls this Christmas despite two torn ACLs. He was slow but, damn, was he determined. It reminded me of Kobe Bryant this season; Harry was an old legend raging against the dying of the light
And, God, there are so many more stories.

My wife Kerry once suggested that I write a book called Harry and Me, a parody of Marley and Me in which I described the hilarity that was Harry's life. Why not satirically romanticize Harry rolling around in dead fish or goose poop? Or I could wax poetic about the tennis ball strings that invariably made their way into Harry's own poop.

Harry died on Friday afternoon at the vet's office. Unfortunately, I never got around to writing Harry and Me. I guess this pseudo-eulogy will have to suffice.

The sadness that comes with losing a dog washes over you in two parts. First, you're just so upset for your pet and pray that it wasn't suffering too much at the end. But it's the second part that continues to sting. It hurts so much to lose a dog because it definitively closes a chapter in your own life. For me, Harry marked the high school, college, and early-20s years (otherwise known as the Partying Years). Harry was there for many of the parties, staying awake with us on my parents' deck until sunrise on many occasions. The relationship between a dog's life and a distinct portion of our lives is the main reason why sportswriter Bill Simmons' column about the death of his golden retriever was his most popular one ever. Every dog owner sympathizes with that empty "end-of-an-era" feeling.

Harry's life also coincided with the early lives of my two youngest siblings, Brian and Margaret. Brian's infancy paralleled Harry's puppy years so closely that my buddy Ken confused their names for a few months. "Can I hold Harry?" he'd say. Or, "Let's take Brian out for a walk."

Margaret, the youngest of my five sisters, probably took Harry's death the hardest. She was the only kid in our family willing to take on the more unpleasant aspects of dog-owning. It was easy for the rest of us to play fetch, go swimming, and run around with Harry. It was quite another matter for Margaret to administer medical drops into Harry's foul-smelling ears. But despite her sadness, part of me thinks that Margaret became such a sweet person partly as a result of caring for Harry. What better way to learn kindness than looking after an otherwise helpless domesticated animal?

I guess if my parents get another dog, they'll have to name him Harry To. But I don't know if that will ever happen. Following Harry as a pet would be the equivalent of living as one of Michael Jordan's sons. There's just no way to follow the best. And Harry was the best.

We'll always love you and miss you, Harr. Take a crap on St. Peter's lawn for me, just for old times' sake.

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav


  1. This was a great post. Although I was not there for the actual encounter, another favorite story is when Harry stole the rack of ribs right off your neighbor's (who shall remain nameless) grill. The man had just went inside to grab a beer on a friday afternoon and Harry snatched it. He also got away without the man ever knowing where that rack of ribs went. Harry will be missed!

    1. Thanks, Liz. Crick and Harry had some great times together. I'm sure that rack of ribs wasn't the only food Harry ever stole.