From the Left



Saying Goodbye

Susan Estrich on

Some people say heaven is the place where you are reunited with all the dogs you have lost. It is as good a description as any I have heard.

My mother never bought it. She didn't want pets in the house because, she said, it would be too sad when we had to put them down. No "better to have loved and lost than never loved at all" for her.

So, I grew up terrified of dogs. "Susie is afraid of dogs," my mother would tell my aunt, as the most gentle big dog in the world, Tiny, would try to lick me. I was.

But that didn't stop me from getting my kids their first dog, Hershey Kaplan, a chocolate cocker spaniel that the pet guy on KABC radio (where I also had a show) hooked us up with. Of course, I fell in love.

And then my friend Judy got sick, back in 2000, and I started commuting to Massachusetts every few weeks to see her. Judy was a big dog person. Her Molly was a mistake: A Portuguese water dog, a relative, no less, of the Obamas' dog, hooked up with a black Lab from Judy's neighborhood and produced a litter of marvelous mutts. Molly used to go with her dad on the two-hour drive to the hospital and then wait in the doorway that connected the hospital to the garage to see Judy. After Judy died, she took care of her mother-in-law with the same love and devotion.

After I got divorced, as soon as I could afford to live in a house, we got Judy, a black Lab from our neighborhood, and then we rescued a sick little cockapoo, and we named her Molly. Molly came from a puppy mill somewhere; we got her healthy and strong, but she is still pretty skittish. And she is 17. Irving, my baby pug, is 15. We take very good care of them. My nephew taught us to make their food fresh, which, given the cost of cans full of preservatives, I highly recommend.

The trouble with falling in love with dogs as a grown-up is that if you really fall in love, like I did, you end up not with one old dog but with three. There was no one to say no. Kids move out; dogs stay home. My children's nanny became my dogs' nanny (and mine) as the kids grew up. We have all been together a long time. And now, as Rosie and I deal with the indignities of age (hers much worse than mine, two years of chemo), we watch our dogs do the same.


I have done this before. When my friend Katherine was dying and they were still bombarding her with painful treatments, the intensive care unit nurse suggested that as her sister, I might want to call a meeting, which I did. We weaned her off drugs long enough for her to decide; I got the rabbi there to say the Shema. I went to see my friend Judy to say goodbye days before she passed, and then I picked out the casket with her husband. My mother stayed alive until I got there, and we prayed together as she passed.

We lost Judy when she was 16. Her ashes are buried under her favorite tree. Molly is struggling. I know about dignity. It is what I want for myself. Judy sat down under the tree herself and did not get up. She told us when it was time, sparing us. I just don't know.

My mother was right about just how horrible this is. But what she missed was the exquisite joy of loving and being loved by a human's best friend. In saying goodbye, I tell myself, we model for our children what they will someday have to say to us. Only too late do I understand my mother's pain. I am not ready to say goodbye.


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