my elderly dog Briar licking my eyeball while i scrunch my face up but still make smoochy lips

my elderly dog Briar licking my eyeball while i scrunch my face up but still make smoochy lips

Briar left us last September, just a few days before her birthday. We caught her late-stage lymphoma just in time to spoil her and make arrangements for her peaceful, dignified death. I know there is no way to grieve wrong, but i also can’t help but feel like i am doing it right. I’m used to my emotions not quite reflecting those in the people around me. Losing a fierce guardian, a dog who multiple times made it clear that trying to take my phone or wallet would be a really stupid thing to do, seems like it should make me sad. 

But i can’t be sad, because she won. And against incredible odds. 

a tiny brindle puppy (Briar) using a giant white pit bull (Hanzo) as a pillow

She narrowly escaped a breed-based, legally mandated death

Briar was picked up as a stray in a city that routinely euthanizes all dogs, even tiny puppies, that look like they might be even part pitbull. A local rescue took her off their hands before she was destroyed, and i adopted her, and from then on, she was living a life that a dog could brag about.

my brindle pit/herding mix Briar leaning her snout against her guinea pig buddy (Maclean) while they both gaze out a sunny window

I brought her home to a new brother who loved to play, and soon after got her two guinea pigs to “herd” every other day when i cleaned their enclosure. I took her to play fetch on a grassy hill several times a week, when we weren’t hiking or exploring the shoreline, the marina, nature paths in the woods, or other places with strong, interesting smells.

my brindle pit/herding mix Briar playing with a stick in a stream, wearing a cute Halloweeny bandanna

Cancer took her best friend when she was 7 years old.

When she lost her best friend/brother, she was devastated. So i brought home a new, smaller, more horrible brother, and she loved that PTSD-stricken chihuahua as patiently and gently as he needed.

I taught her cues that made her impressive to other humans, so she was often praised by people she didn’t even know. I bought her a life vest for swimming and a seat belt to protect her if there was a collision; i brought her to the vet when she was ill and fed her nutritional supplements when her tummy was upset. We played in the snow literally every time it fell, because she loved it.

my pit/herding mix Briar wading out of a lake on a sunny day, with a pebbled shore and soft green mountains in the distance

my pit/herding mix Briar jumping up in a snowy forest, moving so fast her ears are flying back

And then, when she was aging, i moved her to a dry climate that nearly disappeared her arthritis. She lived in a house with cats that would rub against her–she’d never wanted anything more than to befriend a cat ❥–and two more dogs to add to her pack. She had multiple humans to socialize with, a giant bucket of bones to gnaw on, and a humongous grassy back yard that she deeply loved. As she began to slow, either from the return of her arthritis, the eroding of her senses, the onset of her cancer, or all of the above, she began to prefer lying in the grass or on the deck to going on walks.

my chi mix Watson using my pit/herding mix Briar as a pillow

She was still continent and mobile, but those things were about to go the way of her hearing and sight. When i learned she had cancer, it was almost a relief, because it meant she would never know the shame of pissing as she tried to make it to the door or the sharp pain of joints that have worn rough as she tried to make it up the stairs.  

We fed her anything she wanted… McFood, raw steak, chicken, bacon grease… and on September 9, i made her a fluffy bed on the deck and paid an obscene but absolutely worthwhile amount of money to have a home visit for euthanasia. It was a nice sunny summer morning, and my partner and i were both there to pet her. She was feeling her illness, but not too intensely… probably more like it was a cold with a swollen throat. Just enough discomfort to be tired and welcome the sleepy feeling. She died with her head resting in my lap. 

I felt oddly terrific.

I was responsible for the entire length of life of another creature, something complex enough to have opinions about me, to argue with me or try to trick me or realize i might be in trouble and step in between me and the danger. And i made that life fantastic. And when it was time for that life to be over, i managed to arrange for her to experience the most serene and beautiful death she could possibly have. 

This sense of triumph, that i shepherded a living thing from a baby to an old lady, with the best possible care, the most fun, the most love… I do miss her, but that feeling is warm and fuzzy, and it fills my chest the way way hugging her used to do. Maybe some day i will be sad, but for now, i still smile every time i remember her, even if it’s remembering she’s gone. 

The part of her death that upsets me is selfish, and has nothing to do with her at all. The wolf is gone from my cave. 

Once, when we were walking at night, a man came up behind me while i was waiting for the crosswalk. I heard him, but i was waiting for a reason to react; Briar just jumped up onto her back legs, stuck her paws on his chest, and snapped in the air right in front of his face once before landing back on all four feet. Another time, someone was following us in shadows, and while he probably thought he was super sneaky, we both knew he was there because at 4:00 a.m. in a city that sleeps, you can hear everything. I don’t know what he wanted, but i had the luxury of mostly ignoring him. I stopped to catch a pokémon and when he took a step out of the doorway he’d ducked into, Briar growled low in her throat, quietly, but somehow the quiet made it even scarier. It sounded like a dare instead of a warn-off. Dude went back into the doorway and stopped following us. 

I have to worry more here. In Bellingham, i had to worry about a few people who needed drug money or were too drunk to have sense; here, i have to worry about a majority conservative area where people literally think an invisible man wrote a book 2,000 years ago that includes reasons why it’s okay to kill me. Briar’s resources have been allocated to two new rescues, but they are marshmallows. Scary-looking marshmallows, but marshmallows all the same.

When Briar was with me, i not infrequently thought of how lucky i was to have her protection. She is the second dog who has reminded me: There’s a reason we invited monsters from the forest into our homes, onto our beds.

Thousands and thousands of years ago, we were not yet the apex predator, and there were more hungry things than friendly ones. There’s evidence that suggests we did not tame wolves, but that incrementally, wolves and humans considered a mutually beneficial relationship, and that it irrevocably changed both of our species. I am going to miss the feeling of having a modern wolf by my side, each of us ready to fuck up anyone who hurt the other, both of us linked to the distant past by a long chain of ghosts who fiercely loved each other in unique social symbiosis.