How Hard It Is

My dog died. She was 11 years old. It’s a short life, even in “dog years,” by whatever formula.

Ginger was adopted from a Humane Society in Hawaii. She took her last breath in California, far from her island home. Her first two years appeared to have been rather troubled, and she wasn’t what I thought I wanted in a dog. I went seeking a pocketbook dog, the kind that snuggles quietly into a shoulder bag and looks adorable riding shotgun down country roads.

The first time she saw me, all 20 pounds of her went nuts. She barked, jumped, and executed several squirming spins: a red whirlwind. Definitely not the well-mannered teeny pal I anticipated. Her info said she was an Irish Terrier mix. Her enthusiasm convinced me of the terrier-part. Every time I visited the shelter, she would greet me, but in an increasingly well-mannered way.

In the end, after months of weekly visits seeking the right match, I selected her because she was at the top of the kill list at the shelter and because volunteers told me she had a delightful temperament. They didn’t know she got car-sick, so the fantasy of cruising around with her in the passenger seat never came to pass. But they also didn’t know she was house-broken, so she had a quick and painless transition to condo-dweller.

She loved children, without reservation, and seemed giddy in their presence. That she spent most of her life with an aging woman in a community where the neighborhood children (before we moved to the Mainland) threw rocks at her is a little sad, but she made up for it. She spent her last year chasing two boys, trying her best to unearth gophers, and sleeping in the lush grass that grew beneath the trampoline. She had a blast loving those boys up-close. Even in the days after she became ill, she would disappear when the boys were gone and I’d find her either in one of their bedrooms or stretched out in the hallway near their bedrooms, watching for them to get home. She even had an in-house cat-friend with whom she somehow negotiated a peace agreement.

The only time in 9 years that I saw her behave defensively involved a large Rottweiler. The dog got in her face while the owner chattered. I asked the person holding the leash to move the dog away from us as Ginger cowered. I explained that she didn’t like big dogs. The owner commented about him being harmless, though invasive, and when the big dog didn’t back off, Ginger let out a sharp bark and snapped at him, convincing me she had some gumption. But with the kids who threw things at her? She always watched them longingly, tail wagging, ready to join in.

Sage from the Past

For years I carried around a newspaper article. I believe it came from the San Francisco Examiner before it merged with the Chronicle. It was written by Herb Caen. Every Sunday, after Mass, we’d pick up some freshly made linguiça and a copy of the Sunday newspaper. My dad referred to San Francisco simply as The City; to him there were no others. During my teens one of the few things we shared was the love of The City and that journalist’s columns.

I know I’m not doing the piece justice. The article was about the loss of a pet. In this case, I believe a dog. The title I remember was “How Hard It Is to Care.” There had been an airline crash and the column compared and contrasted losses that are very personal with ones that are distant. Without disrespecting anyone’s loss, it pointed out the challenge, after thinking about how awful each disaster was, to feel as deeply sad about the fate of strangers while profoundly easy to fall apart over something more personal but small in the grand scheme of things, like the loss of a pet.

Ginger was an active older-girl, though she loved her naps as well, and after she became ill she seemed to disappear rather quickly – in a week. Sparing a recitation of her physical symptoms, the medications she took helped in some ways, but the side-effects left her miserable. The only thing she would take voluntarily was CBD Oil (the vet had suggested this as a possible option), water, and a little chicken broth. Within 5 days she couldn’t stand or walk, though on day 6 she still crawled on her belly to get around, turning limp by the last day.

The veterinary hospital treated her well during the few visits we made. They thought she had gotten into something toxic, but we couldn’t figure out what that might have been.

The last few days she was always nearby, so we did have a chance to tell her goodbye, thank her, and call her a good girl a lot, though the pats and strokes and words, as time passed, elicited less and less of the usual tail-wagging. Meanwhile, the weather was not pleasant, the news sucked, and from my little cocoon with all focus on my dear dog, it was very hard to care about much else. From a focus of self-compassion, I remind myself that’s human and okay.

I did learn a lot from Ginger, I realized. Now’s a good time to share.

Lessons from the Furred-4Legged-World

=Ginger spent a lot of her time chasing lizards and chickens. She never caught a single one, but never tired of trying.

Lesson: Sometimes it’s good to do things you know you won’t succeed in. Maybe doing so will sharpen your senses, or perhaps it will increase your appreciation for those who can do those things. After all, not everyone can be in the NBA, but most folks can play with a basketball.


=Ginger enjoyed rolling in the grass, even when her fur picked up leaves, dirt and sticks that she wore like jewelry.

Lesson: Sometimes cutting loose can be a beautiful thing, even if it requires a little messiness.


=Ginger liked to run, though she seemed more of a sprinter than a long-distance fan, she could keep moving when motivated (like when someone left the gate open and ran after her).

Lesson: Don’t wait until someone is chasing you to do things you enjoy, even if you can only do them for a few moments.


=Ginger got along well with cats. Even feral cats warmed up to her.

Lesson: Reaching out to others who seem very different can be difficult but spending a life close to creatures just like you can be really boring and unimpressive.


=Ginger’s topcoat was curly, and she hated getting it wet. She didn’t even like to get her paws wet so hated leaving shelter on rainy days. When forced, she’d run outside, stay as close as possible, relieve herself quickly, and rush back inside.

Lesson: It’s good to put ourselves outside our comfort zone now and then, particularly when we have the luxury of a place to return to that feels like home.

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