In 1999, we decided to get a dog.  We had a new house.  We were trying to have a baby.  It seemed like just the right time.  And it was.  We were blessed with this beautiful girl:

Dharma was a Tibetan Spaniel/Pug mix.  She was born on March 16, 1999.  She was our first baby.  Check out that cute snaggletooth!

She was a year old when Nicky was born, and she was wonderful with him.  (A note: “Off” is the absolute best command to teach a dog.  Once she learned to stay “off” the baby blanket and, thus, away from the toys on it, she quickly learned which toys were hers, and which were not.  She never chewed on a single thing of the kids’.)

In 2001, she blew a disc and had to have back surgery.  That was one of the scariest nights of my life, waiting at the emergency vet clinic to find out what was wrong.  From her lethargy and inability to move her hindquarters, the vet was really unsure at first what we were looking at.  I remember him saying, “Asian breeds often have kidney problems like this.  It could be bad.”  But, no…this time it was her back.  Sad enough (her days of jumping were over.  Before her injury, this 26-pound dog could jump as high as Jason’s shoulder!), but not deadly.

In late 2002, I got in the habit of taking baths in the evenings.  Dharma was usually in other parts of the house during my nightly relaxation, until one night.  That evening, she came in, put her paws up on the tub, and licked my hand carefully when I reached out to her.  She lay down on the bathmat and kept me company until I was finished, and she continued to do so on subsequent evenings.  Counting back a little later when we discovered our pregnancy, that was the day after implantation.

In 2003, Kalen was born, and once again she was a natural with the baby.  Once he was old enough to sit on the quilt on the floor, the two of them shared a special relationship.  He was more hands-on with her than Nicky had been at that age, and she adored it.

In the summer of 2004, several things happened simultaneously.  We moved, Kalen started on finger foods, and Dharma became ill, throwing up now and again.  We attributed the stomach problems to (a) the stress of her first move, (b) Kalen dropping lots of non-doggy food on the floor, or (c) both.  By October, it had worsened.  I made an appointment at a new vet near the new house, and took her in.  We figured it was a stomach virus or something.

When the veternary assistant placed her on the scale, I asked – like I always do for my kids – how much she weighed.

“16 pounds.”

“Excuse me?”

“16 pounds.”

I swear my heart skipped a beat.  It had to be wrong.  She had weighed ten pounds more than that five months earlier at her annual exam.  She could not have lost more than a third of her weight.  They re-weighed her.  16 pounds.

This is when the veterinary staff got serious.  They called the old vet for a records transfer.  They drew blood.  They gave me evil looks (well one of them did), asking me how I could not have noticed the weight loss (she was a VERY fluffy dog) and why we didn’t question the vomiting more.  (Honestly, most of the staff was perfectly understanding and insisted that anyone could have missed it, but one woman gave me nasty looks and asked pointed questions the whole time.  I’ll never forget her disapproving face.)

We got the results the next day.  Kidney failure.  Advanced kidney failure.  They said, if they hadn’t known I had small children around, they would have thought antifreeze poisoning.  (Literally impossible.  If we even had antifreeze, it was on a shelf in the garage, where she had only ever set foot on a leash, getting into the car.)  We’ll probably never know for sure what caused it, although we have our suspicions.  She did exclusively eat a dog food that was linked a couple of years later to kidney problems in dogs.  The next few days are a blur of shuttling her from the vet to the all-night clinic in the evenings, and from the clinic to the vet in the mornings.  She was miserable.  The only thing the very expensive long-term treatment would buy was a little time, not necessarily comfort.

So, on a Thursday, we made the most difficult decision in the world.  She was 5 1/2.  She’s buried in my parents’ back yard next to one of my other favorite canine friends in the world, Grandma’s Peke, Mai Ling.  Dharma often reminded me of Mai Ling.

I intended at the outset for this to be a happy-memory post, but obviously it needed to be something else.  Dharma is still a part of our lives, four years later.  She would have been ten next March.

You know, you go into pet ownership with the almost certain knowledge that you’re going to outlive your pet.  We knew we would lose her eventually – that there would be a horrifying time when she was no longer with us.  But it wasn’t supposed to happen yet.  She was still supposed to be here now.  The boys were supposed to grow up with her.

At least they still remember her.  They were really too young for that to be possible, but they do.  Maybe just through pictures and talking about her…but then again…  Kalen was only 15 months old when she died.  But for a year or more afterwards, he would pause and say, “Mommy, look.  There’s Dharma.”  He would point to a spot in the hallway, in the den, say hi to her and move on.  He vividly remembers her at the age of five.

It took a long time, but I no longer think of her consciously every day.  I suppose there are an awful lot of people out there who wouldn’t understand.  “It’s just a dog,” they’ll say.  But it’s not.  She wasn’t.  When you are a “dog person,” or perhaps when you become close enough to an animal to realize they feel – they love, they fear, they empathize – then you understand.

She’s waiting for us…we’ll see her again, and in the meantime, she’s playing happily with Mai Ling and Falstaff and Foo Foo and other loving companions who preceeded her in passing, and getting scratches behind the ears from Grandma and Grandpa, too, I’m sure.

And though I don’t think of her consciously every day, I made sure I do subconsciously.

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