Illustration: Meags Fitzgerald
The first time my mom came over to babysit my newborn daughter for a couple hours, I guess I should have showered or napped, but all I wanted to do was take my dog out for a walk. It was early March, and as I stepped outside of my scarcely lit townhouse with her, I inhaled one of the first breaths of fresh air since my February baby was born. The cold was starting to break, the snow was beginning to melt and it was just my 14-year-old dog and me, like old times. As she did her little laps around me like a miniature wiry, white-and-brown tumbleweed, twisting me in her leash, it took me back to life before I was consumed by the exhaustion and relentless responsibilities of new parenthood. I felt so free.
I knew this exhilarating sense of independence was only fleeting. Any opportunities I could spend with her—or with myself—since the baby was born, were few and far between. We both had to accept taking a backseat to new demands.
Brooklyn, my spry and sensitive Jack Russell Terrier who trembled at the sound of thunder, was no longer allowed under the covers in the same bed where I was co-sleeping. And her wobbly knees made it more difficult for her to climb to the third-floor bedroom where we spent most of our time. As I healed from childbirth under self-imposed bed rest, my husband was on full-time doggie duty. He took her out three or four times a day, wrestled with her on the floor, and kept her on her toes by hiding her treats in random places, like in a shoe or under a cushion, so she could hunt for them.
Meanwhile, I was thrown into a new reality where precisely nothing was the same. My entire existence was redefined and I was still reeling from the trauma of the birth that was too quick, too painful, and not at all how I planned it. While I was flooded with love for my perfect newborn daughter, I couldn’t seem to let go of the built-up tension inside of me that wouldn’t let me cry throughout any moment of my agonizing drug-free labour—or even in the life-changing seconds when I met my child.
In between the marathon breastfeeding sessions, the mindless hours spent staring at my baby and falling in and out of sleep not knowing what time or day it was, I felt almost jealous of my husband for being physically able to leave the house, to run up and down the stairs fetching me things, and for having the emotional space to just casually hang out with our dog, his new best friend. It was like he was taking my place and still enjoying those carefree moments of pre-baby life.
Yet Brooklyn was actually my dog. I had her for 12 years before we even met. I had “rescued” her from a pet store beside the office of the start-up company where I got my first job after graduating university. She was three months old and the runt of the litter—and she was on sale. I was only there to kill some time on my break, but after asking to hold her, she nuzzled into my neck, hooked her little nails into the knit of my sweater and didn’t let me put her down. It was a done deal; we were attached.
Caring for a dog came naturally to me. I took her everywhere. I brought her to the office newsroom when I was working solo on evenings and weekends, and to house parties and vacations abroad. I smuggled her into bars and restaurants in a chic dog carrier that l passed off as an oversized purse. She was my baby Brooklyn.
When I worked day shifts, I would go home for lunch and take her to chase trains on bridges above the tracks, and the conductors would honk for her like they did for trainspotting children. I made her homemade dog food with raw beef, herbs and vitamin supplements, and T-bone steak on her birthdays. I dressed her in stylish Burberry sweaters, Harvard hoodies for dogs and Halloween costumes every year. (My all-time favourite was her Big Bird mask). I documented her whole life in photos—her first bath, first lick of ice cream, first time at the beach, first swim in the lake with her yellow life jacket. The poor girl hated the water.
I had never had a pet growing up, but I embraced everything about it, and people in my life were supportive. My family adored her. I was only 22 years old when I got her, but my doctor told me that she was pleased I had a “practice baby” before deciding to have kids. And during large family gatherings, where I would inevitably bring her, my favourite aunt would take me aside and tell me that after seeing me with Brooklyn, she knew I would be a great mother one day. I felt like telling her I was a mom already.
Like a real child, Brooklyn could also be overprotective and discerning of my love interests, and never gave up her spot in my bed. When I brought her for a sleepover at my on-again-off-again ex’s, the one who hated hanging out with my friends, she peed all over his brand-new microsuede couch. (Brooklyn and I both knew she had a bladder of steel.) But with my last boyfriend, she danced in circles at the sight of him and covered him in kisses. He was the one who became my husband. She even led us down the aisle on our wedding day.
Brooklyn was already getting old and grey when my daughter was born, but she welcomed the new baby with the playful tenderness of a puppy—licking her head and toes every chance she got. She and my baby became pals, as much as a dog in her senior years can tolerate the irrational affection and torment of a toddler. She even got to meet my second daughter two years later, and lived to see their third and first birthdays.
After the girls would go to bed for the night, I would make my way to the couch to cuddle with Brooklyn, spooning her in the fetal position, smelling the weirdly intoxicating scent of her warm paws and thinking as if she could read my mind (which I’m sure she could) how much more complicated things were after having kids. I felt like I was letting her down. Even when we were together, things had changed. I had changed too. We were both wistful about it. The less of a priority she became, the further I felt from my old self and the things that used to be important to me.
As my daughters took up more and more space in the world around them, Brooklyn was shrinking away from it. Those days of meandering three-hour walks together were gone. It was a struggle to navigate the leash and a stroller at the same time—not to mention bending over to pick up dog poop while wearing a baby in a carrier. At times, I felt burdened by the added responsibility of taking care of her—and then guilty for even letting myself think it. She was no longer the same girl either; she didn’t find joy in the things she once did, like her squeaky toys, liver treats and the feeling of sand under her paws. Her kidneys started to give in, and she lost so much weight that when she crawled into my lap all I could feel was her bones.
By the time she was nearly 17, she was deteriorating quickly. The day she died, she was in so much pain, she was moaning in a voice I didn’t recognize. I felt desperate to comfort her and nauseous at the realization that there was nothing I could do to help. Every time she cried out, it felt like the air had been sucked out of the room. My heart raced and my whole body shook. I wrapped her up in her favourite red fleece blanket, and carried her in my arms to say goodbye to my girls, who gently touched the top of her head and kissed her nose. I fought back my tears and buried my face in her fur as I carried her to the car.
At the emergency clinic, I wailed openly, crying the tears that wouldn’t come out for the past three years, jolting me out of my postpartum numbness, mourning the sweet soul I had spent nearly half my life with. She was my anchor through so much change and uncertainty, my tether between who I was before kids and who I became after. She gave me that first gift of feeling maternal love—and I felt her slipping away with each excruciating second.
As the vet gave her the two injections that would make her fall asleep and never wake up, I watched her big brown eyes go still, and I held her tightly and sobbed. I thanked her for her pure love and friendship, her heartbreaking innocence. “I’m gonna miss you so much. I miss you already,” I whispered to her, between sobs that threatened to swallow my words. “Rest now, my baby.”
This was not how I ever expected to say goodbye to my dog, standing under the fluorescent lights of the sterile vet exam room, beside myself and hysterical. The rush came on too fast. It was too painful. I was flooded with too much love and I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t breathe. Walking away from her felt like surviving my first trauma since the birth of my daughter, except this time, I left a piece of myself behind.
My dog had been my constant companion throughout my 20s and early 30s. She was my fur baby, the link between my pre-kid life and motherhood. Whenever my girls ask me to tell them stories about our old dog, it gives me somewhere to put that grief. It’s been three years since she’s been gone, and I still miss that dog every single day. That love doesn’t go away.
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