The Hidden Subtext of Losing My Dog

Live each day, one paw in front of the other.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Most of my youth, I had wanted a dog. As an adult, I had gotten over the whole dog thing. Then I got one. Or should I say I married into one. Storm was my wife, Michelle's, dog, and when Michelle moved in, so did Storm. I thought a dog would get in the way, be a lot of responsibility. And I was right.

Storm was a Siberian Husky. Mostly white with a few patches of gray and black. She looked and kind of acted like a snow storm. Tufts of fur flying around like snow. I can't say she was the smartest dog. She would routinely run into tables or street lights while looking elsewhere. She would freak out from her own farts. When there was thunder, she would hide under the bed. If I walked away from food, it would mysteriously vanish. When I would show her the remnants, she would hide behind Michelle's legs. And if I yelled at her, she would go into her crate and turn her back to me for hours. She wouldn't look at me until I apologized — with food.

Her eating habits were bizarre. She would leave a trail of kibble all over the house, then eat them at her leisure. Her kibble chomping and hunting would often keep me up at night. And in the morning, I would always end up stepping on them, leaving a bigger mess. And her fur — her fur! I once attempted to construct a new dog from all the hair she shed.

But she was also gentle. Once at the dog park, in her absent-mindedness, she collided with a smaller dog. Rather than getting angry, she began to yelp and limp over to us. She was okay, just scared. In another instance, an aggressive German Shepherd had gotten off its leash and charged at Storm. Storm ran and hid behind Michelle — once again. Michelle tried to flee with her, but Storm wouldn't budge, frozen in fear. She ended up kicking the German Shepard then carrying our big Husky all the way home. Can you imagine, a little Asian girl running with a big, fluffy, and confused Husky in her arms?

Storm's most unique trait was her empathy. When I got the call that night, that my father had passed away, I hung up the phone and sat on the floor. I was numb. Storm came into the bedroom and laid her head on my lap. She's not the kind of dog that comes to you to be petted, you normally have to approach her. She's bratty like that. She doesn't fetch, she doesn't always come when you call her, but she knows things.

She sat with me, I hugged her, getting her fur wet. I think it was easier for me to do that with her than anyone else because, well — she's a dog. She won't try to make me feel better, then end up saying the wrong thing. She'll just sit and be there. She wasn't going to try and fix things — to fix me.

When I was able to compose myself, I walked into the kitchen and told Michelle what had happened. My father had been sick for a couple of years and he wasn't going to get any better. I knew it was getting close and I had a plane ticket ready to see him before the end. Still, in the back of your mind, you know at any time you may get a call, that things just happen when they do. Even when they're not sick. But you can never really prepare for it. Even when it's happened before. You just hope you didn't put off spending time with them. That you spent as much time as you could. That's what matters. Time is precious and only moves in one direction.

We brought Storm to Oregon once, when we first visited my parents. I remember vividly, Storm approached my father who was sitting in his 20-year-old recliner. My father didn't particularly like animals and he didn't show her much interest. She sniffed the air around him and sat by his feet. Far enough away to give him space, close enough if he wanted to touch her. He didn't shoo her away and Storm, who never sits in one place for long, stuck by him. It was unusual, my mother thought it meant that Storm knew he was sick. He was dying and she was showing her respect, one creature to another.

Eventually, my mother moved down to California. She stayed with us for a while. It wasn't that long ago that we had lost my sister — and now my father. My mother tried to be strong but inside she was beyond wounded. Some days she would lose it and weep uncontrollably. When she did, Storm would sit by her side and she would make this noise. Often we say a dog is "crying" but it's really a euphemism. It wasn't like when humans cry; it sounded more like a low-level howl or yelp. But storm would make this noise that didn't sound like a noise a dog would make. It sounded like my mom. Storm wept with my mom, she felt with her. Generally my mom never touches Storm; she would knit her own sweaters and the fur would cling to them. But in those moments, she would hold Storm, she would pull her into herself, so deeply. And they would rock, back and forth. It was more than I could do for her.

Storm didn't like to be held, most Huskies don't. Yet Storm would let my mom hold her as long as she needed. What they were going through together is beyond words.

Their bond started in Oregon during that first visit. My mom didn't like dogs and would never allow one in the house. To sleep, we kept her in her crate in the backyard. It wasn't long before my mom went out in the middle of the night and began talking to her. Speaking in Korean, she asked her how she was. If she was scared. If she was okay. I snuck out to watch them. Storm stopped pacing, she lied down in a comfortable position and silently watched mom without moving her head, only her eyes. This person is safe.

My mom was normally afraid of big dogs, but she let Storm out of her crate and into the house. This may sound reasonable to most, but if you knew my mom like I knew my mom, this was radical. I was in disbelief. Maybe my mom needed a companion that couldn't talk or give advice, just stand and be her shield. I only knew Storm during times of grief and maybe we were all using her for that.

We were under a lot of stress. Flying back and forth to be with my father, then immediately after, taking care of my mom. There was also the stress of planning a wedding and getting married. When Michelle and I would raise our voices, Storm would get between us and push us away from each other. Storm was a shy dog, but when she pushed us apart, it sounded like she was lecturing us. It wasn't barking or howling, she never did that. It sounded like human gibberish. She would push us to sit down and begin to lecture us in her own way. From her tone and sense of urgency, we didn't need to be a dog whisperer to understand she was upset and not happy with our behavior. She was happiest when we were happy.

We would test this theory out, Michelle would pretend to choke me or I would pretend to hit Michelle. Storm would rush into action, frequently she lectured me more than my wife. I didn't think that was very fair. Michelle thought it was because Storm knew I was bigger and stronger than her. If Michelle pretended to be mad at my mom, Storm would jump on Michelle. She knew my mom was the oldest and weakest. It wasn't long before she began staring at my mom like she did with my father. Becoming her faithful companion.

Storm began to spend more time with my mom and I, even though she was originally Michelle's dog. This made Michelle jealous, but now I think it was because Storm knew we needed her more than Michelle did. Michelle needed her when she was alone. We needed Storm because we were hurting.

I don't know if we got attacked on the street, if Storm would jump into action. She's not that kind of Husky, like I said. She guarded our emotions more than she protected our physical well-being. Fortunately, most people wouldn't bother messing with a Husky.

My mom started to grow concerned for Storm. She didn't seem right, she said. Storm, too, appeared to be more and more protective of my mom, as if she sensed something in her. They perhaps both knew something we didn't, only something they knew deep within.

She was four years old, a week from her birthday, when she got sick. We played it off. Storm was actually the runt of the litter, every one of her siblings had been adopted before Michelle arrived, only leaving Storm. She got easily hurt, her nails would chip on sidewalks. If we took her on long hikes, her paws often bled. We thought it was Storm just being Storm, not a big deal. But that day, Storm started bleeding without apparent cause. From everywhere.

Michelle took her to the vet and then I got a call. My veins turned icy. The same way it did when I found out my father had cancer, that my sister was dying. If things were okay, I would see them at home. Why was she calling? It could be to talk about anything, but I knew. I had been here before. I braced myself before I picked up. Michelle told me to come to the veterinary hospital right away. Storm had cancer. I was in disbelief. I wasn't even sure dogs could get cancer. How could this happen again?

We told the vet to do whatever she had to. But the cancer had already spread and Storm was bleeding internally. It was growing and though Storm was so keenly aware of her keepers' feelings, we had no idea what was going on with her. At her regular check up a few months prior, she was fine they said. (Perhaps, as we grow more modern, we lose more of our primitive senses. We replace senses with new conditions: hypervigilance, paranoia, and anxiety.)

She could communicate so well when we were hurting, but she didn't let us know she was hurting. Maybe she did but we weren't as observant as she was. It hurts to think back on it. You just have to let those things go.

They were getting ready to do emergency surgery, Storm wasn't going to last long. We went from seemingly fine, to, we may lose her. That's the finality of life. I know this.

I thought I was one of those people who would never spend more than the value of the dog to keep a dog alive. With Storm, I was willing to pay any amount to save her. They did an x-ray before surgery to see the extent. More bad news. Surgery was no longer an option. We spent our last moments with Storm, playing with her, feeding her. She had no idea she was dying. Maybe she did. I don't know. But she — like always — was just happy to be with us. Even though she saw us every day, like Ground Hog's day, she was always happy to be with us. She was happiest when we were happy, so, we tried our best. Even in her last day, her enthusiasm for us was constant. The more we fought back our tears, the more they came. And as much as we loved her, even though we were the ones who were healthy, I don't think we could ever match her love for us. She taught me a lot. More than I taught her, like I said, she did what she wanted and that meant no tricks.

We played and played. Her last day was filled with joy. When people say, live each day as if it was your last, they mean to live it as if it was your first. Without any worries or concerns, just live. Most people on their last day may be full of fear and regret. Storm lived her last day as if it was her first. Many pets do. That's their greatest lesson to us. Live each day, one paw in front of the other.

Storm only had a few hours left. We didn't want her to die in pain so we said our goodbyes and made the pain go away. The veterinarian came out, she said the type of cancer Storm had was hard to detect. We broke down; after everything we had been through, the loss was too great. Yesterday everything was normal, today everything was upside down again. After a while, the doctor wept with us, too. I think she knew, our pain was an accumulation, to the hidden subtext.

Storm wasn't just a pet, she was a four-legged family member. She wasn't with us long, she was often a pain in the ass, but we loved her. Even myself, someone who thought dogs were annoying. Even my mom who thought dogs were dirty. I wonder to myself sometimes why Storm's death left such an impact, why it haunts me. Why I still dream about it.

And then I realized what she meant to me. She was forever tied to the moment I found out my father had passed. The death of my father, just after mourning my sister, it was too much. Too painful. I felt helpless with Storm. All she asked of me was to take care of her. But she took care of me.

The death of Storm, no matter how painful, was something I could handle and get over. I had channeled a lot of my grief through her. She tied a lot of my most painful memories into herself. A few months after Storm passed away, my mom nearly died. After several confused hospital visits, we found out she had late-stage cancer. Their relationship makes more sense now to me now. I try not to think about it too much, however.

If I were a tree, losing family members would be like missing limbs. A pet is that companion who lives within your branches. It's not a part of you, but you are part of its home. You coexist together; they share in all the good times, the bad times, and even the personal moments no one else sees. They are what you need them to be.

Thinking about my sister, my father, or even my mother can be too much for even the hardiest person to bare. Somehow Storm has become a surrogate for the pain, and though sad, is manageable. I can see the light in the tunnel better, and understand the process of grief, that it is fleeting. She makes grieving my family members easier by allowing me to work it out in smaller stages through her. I don't think about everyone I've lost, that would break me. But I do think about that stupid dog. Maybe that's Storm's last gift to me.

I probably have a closer bond with her than many folks have with their dogs. This is not to brag, it's to say the opposite. We have a trauma bond that I wouldn't wish on anyone. I hope no dog owner has to go through what I did. But if you do, a companion helps.

I will say this, she was more than a dog. She was a period in my life. An event — much like an actual storm. She rearranged my life. She was a teacher. She taught me to be more responsible, more caring, more present. I don't work as much as I used to, I don't fret as much as I used to, and I'll live. Big storms change everything. A name I used to think was childish, is now so fitting.

I have found with grief, rather than trying to cheer people up, what is most helpful is a sense of community. That there are others, who feel what you feel, felt what you felt. And to give permission to feel however you feel. There is this pressure that you're supposed to be okay. I hate that bullshit. There is no right or wrong, you can feel however you need to feel, and that's okay. That's how our pets were with us, let us feel how we needed to feel, and accept us. No strings attached.

Making others feel different so we can feel more comfortable around them, that's not empathy. What I can promise is that the worst feelings will be momentary. The good memories will remain. I know I'd put up with Storm's hair and her midnight kibble chomps to still have her with me. But that's the impermanence of life, that's what we all signed up for.

Dogs are not dogs, they are surrogates for your memories, from the moment you get them to the moment you lose them, and to all that you've gone through in-between. And to lose them is to lose that anchor, to re-live all those moments, and to finally put them to rest. To say goodbye to the you that were. That is the risk whenever you choose to connect with an intelligent creature. But, what I can say from experience is that, the risk is worth it.

I've had other good experiences since then and will continue to have them. Even with everything, my life is good. It's about living each day as if it were your first. It's about living, not slowly dying. If you are struggling, I know it's hard to imagine, but sad experiences don't take away from the meaningfulness of life. It only goes away when we pretend it's not there. Sadness sucks, but it's a part of being a whole human being. It's necessary for growth. Empathy can only exist when there is suffering, what need would there be for empathy in heaven? It's not either-or, happiness or misery. It's all of it at the same time. I can only speak for myself, and for myself, if I wasn't able to accept life the way it was, I imagine I'd be in a very bad place right now.

I don't know how many of these feelings are things I projected onto Storm. It really doesn't matter. Storm was whatever I needed her to be. I needed a companion that couldn't talk or give advice, to only stand and be my shield. That's what they do, that's why we love them.

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