On the Friday before Thanksgiving, my parents’ dog Chloe died. She followed them down for coffee in the morning, and when it was time to stand up, her legs disagreed. She died at the vet, sedated and unafraid, surrounded by people who loved her.
Chloe was not always an easy dog to love. She came into the family not long after the passing of her predecessor Loxley, who was the kind of dog about which old men reminisce on their deathbeds. Chloe was a rescue dog, found chained to a tree in a cruel backyard, forced to bear a litter when she was just six months old, and with injuries and fears that plagued her the rest of her life. Boots seemed to scare her the most.
Chloe licked. On sweaty summer days, she licked the back of your knees as you ascended the stairs. It was maybe the grossest feeling in the history of feelings. She licked if you sat near her. She licked the air if you sat far away. Perhaps the most frequently uttered phrase in that house in the eleven years she called it home was “Chloe, no licking.”
She was the only dog my daughter has ever really known.
On cold New Hampshire nights as Emma shivered with fevers and fear, Chloe would hop up on the foot of the bed, content to sit watch and provide comfort. That ever-present licking was sometimes the only thing that would elicit laughter and smiles from her at her sickest.
In about an hour one Saturday afternoon, Emma taught Chloe the sign for “sit.” From then on, Chloe would see Emma sign, and she would sit. Emma would immediately rush over and take her licks. It was the damndest thing, this kid who can’t speak and this dog who couldn’t sign, communicating and loving the hell out of it.
The weekend before Chloe died, Emma squatted in front of the dog as she often did, admonishing her not to lick, knowing all the while that she was going to get licked silly, and laughing hysterically while she did. She reveled in the dog breath, bathed in the adoration of this well-loved mutt. She didn’t know she was saying goodbye.
The good news is that Chloe was ok right up until she wasn’t. She didn’t go slowly like many dogs, failing one piece at a time. She was fine, and then she was dying.
That dark Friday, I sat Emma on the couch, and told her what had happened. She crumpled inward: wastepaper-faced, streaked with unending tears. She kept saying “I don’t want her to die. I don’t want her to die.” So I sat on the couch, and I wept with her, stroking her hair and tasting the saltwater of her ocean of sorrow.
After half an hour or so, she got herself under control, and the reailty of what had happened hit her. “I’m never going to see Chloe again,” she said, and the sobs came anew.
I am an atheist. I do not believe in God, and having sat in foxholes (admittedly, training foxholes, but foxholes nonetheless), I know the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes is a load of bunk. I do not believe that I will exist as a spirit or a soul or any form of sentient being after I die. I do not believe in heaven.
And yet, faced with the overwhelming sadness of my daughter, I told her that Chloe was in dog heaven now, playing with Loxley. Emma smiled at the thought, even though she had never known Loxley, and she said Chloe was probably licking her to death.