By Sam Cole
“I guess you don’t really own a dog, you rent them, and you have to be thankful that you had a long lease.” -Joe Garagiola
Honk Honk I hear from the revving car right outside my bedroom window. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” I mutter. I put on my blue Nike sneakers, toss on a grey under armor sweatshirt, and run like lightning down the stairs, skipping four steps at a time, then shot out the front door to the car filled with the rest of my waiting family.
Jr and Ben, my two older brothers, had already decided that I was going to be sitting “bitch” in the middle of them in the back seat, but today was my day, so I didn’t care. Mom and Dad were in the front seat and I couldn’t have been more excited.
“Ready honey?” My mom turned back to look at me.
“So ready!” I exclaimed. Today was my birthday and the day I would get to pick out my puppy, the only present that I wanted. When we arrived at Amish farm that was selling puppies, three boys just a little younger than my brothers and me ran up to greet us in their dirty overalls, button-up shirts, and straw hats.
“Are ye here for the puppies?” The oldest one asked us, with an undeniable accent of being raised speaking Dutch like my mom’s side of the family. My brothers and I just nodded and he then addressed my parents, “I’ll go find me Pa, my brothers will show you the puppies,” he told us.
My brothers and I followed nervously, barely able to conceal our excitement. The two younger Amish brothers had no such reservations about strangers and ran toward the barn, yelling at us to follow them. When we caught up with them they were looking into a simply built dog pen just inside the door, only a few feet high and made of what looked like leftover two-by-fours, filled with straw. Inside the pen were six golden retriever puppies all with dark reddish fur, starkly different from Brandy, our golden retriever at home who was pure-bred and truly golden.
Immediately my attention fell on a puppy that was more excited than any of the rest of them, literally jumping over her brothers and sisters as she tumbled around in the pen. The two younger Amish brothers started grabbing puppies and shoving them into our arms. I struggled to hang on to the excited puppy because she was just so full of energy.
Once my parents came back with the Amish father, they watched us play and negotiated prices. The Amish children gave us leashes to walk them around the barn and the driveway. I stuck with my little happy puppy while my brothers walked theirs.
“Do you know which one you want, honey?” My mom asked me after about half an hour.
“I want her!” I said of the adorable little ball of energy.
“Can’t you just get a normal dog? This one is super calm.” Even at a young age, Jr. was a voice of reason, but I wouldn’t hear any of it.
“Please please please can we get her?” I begged my parents. They offered the calm dog once again, but I wouldn’t have any of it. The Amish father told my brothers that if we bought a puppy, he would let us adopt one of their many barn kittens for free. That was the day I chose Suzy as my best friend, and my parents let Ben adopt Misty as his kitten. We left that day with our two new family members, in a big Dell computer box we had brought, for only $100.
Suzy never really did calm down, even after many told us she would. But that was part of her charm. As a puppy, she ran around and played until she exhausted herself and then slept on my stomach. We all loved her fiercely, me most of all. She was my comfort when our old golden retriever, Brandy, become too sick and we had to put her down. She was my comfort during the deaths of my Uncle Roger, Uncle Tom, and my Grandma Cole. She sat patiently at the top of the driveway every school day at 2:45 pm waiting for us to get off the bus. She talked to us in her dog voice and played soccer with us, sometimes biting the ball and running off with it.
One time she realized that her electric fence wasn’t working and decided to our chagrin to go explore the world. She jumped around randomly through all of the neighbors’ yards like it was the best day in the world while my brothers and I tried unsuccessfully to chase her and catch her. This this only made her happier and more playful. More than an hour passed until we were finally able to corner her against a hill, and when we caught her and put her on the leash, it seemed she decided she had had enough fun. She just walked happily home with us.
One of my favorite memories of Suzy is how she would always talk to us. If we didn’t pay enough attention to her, she howled, panted, and smiled at us as if to say, “Pay attention to me!” If we just howled right at her she would get super excited and start howling back. This was how we talked. At dinner when we ate, she talked to us as if to say, “That smells so much better than my dinner, can I have some?”
Nine wonderful years and five months later, in late February this year, my parents called. They told me to find a place to sit down and be alone because they had bad news. I went into my dorm room and sat on my bed. That was the day they told me that Suzy had lymphoma, and that the treatment was $1,500 a month and might not even be successful. My parents loved Suzy, but they couldn’t afford the extreme costs of the oncology treatment. They said that she would be with us until the cancer made her life painful. Then she would have to be put down to prevent her from suffering. That was the day I broke down, I didn’t eat. I didn’t leave my room for days. I didn’t know what to do.
So I did my research. I googled how long dogs have once they’ve been diagnosed with lymphoma, I looked up treatments, I looked up causes of lymphoma in dogs, I looked up dog breeds susceptible to this disease. I found the WebMD equivalent for dogs online and searched for hours about what could be done. I read stories of dogs that survived lymphoma. But most of what I read wasn’t promising. I learned that Suzy’s days were limited, and at best she had four to five weeks. It was then I prayed for the first time in a long time to God that she would be waiting for me at home once I finally returned after college graduation. I cut short my spring break trip to Ocean City, Maryland with my friends. I left after four days because Suzy was still with us and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her.
When I finally got home, my heart sank into my chest and it felt like there was a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow. Suzy had changed so much since I had last seen her. She was so skinny I could see all her ribs underneath the skin. Her hips were more bone than muscle. She had stopped eating dog food by this time, and my parents were cooking her chicken breast, steak, hamburgers, and lunch meat, anything and everything she could have wanted, but she would only eat a little. I knew this to be from the anorexia, a side effect of the cancer.
Suzy couldn’t walk up the stairs anymore to sleep by my side, so for those few precious days I had left with her I slept on the mudroom floor with a pillow and my comforter. I fed her out of my hand and when she was too weak to continue. After a walk around the property, I picked her up and carried her up my driveway and put her in her dog bed to rest.
The night before the drive back to school, I broke down again. I held her and quietly cried myself to sleep next to her, and she licked my tear-covered hands. Leaving the next day, I watched her watch me, from the front doorway as I drove away. That was the last time I would ever see her again.
A week later my parents called again and before I even answered I knew what they were going to say. That they had had to put Suzy down. They said she was becoming increasingly incontinent and hadn’t eaten anything in three days and could hardly stand anymore. They made sure that I knew that she had always loved me best. I couldn’t believe that she was gone, and I felt so incredibly guilty that I wasn’t there with her at the end.
In college I have dealt with a lot of difficult things, losing older family members to acute and chronic diseases, my mom’s breast cancer diagnoses and treatment, my dad being in the intensive care unit for over a month at the hospital in a severe condition and also contracting MRSA while he was there, only making the situation more precarious.
In college I also learned about the principles of grief. Never had I really been through those stages of grief, despite all that had happened before, but with Suzy, with my best friend, I went through the depression, I went through the anger, I went through the bargaining, the denial, and eventually the acceptance. Accepting that she was gone and that all I have now are our memories together has been extraordinarily hard, but like my parents said, I know that she had loved me best.