This is Hannah. Well, actually this was Hannah. But before getting to the sad stuff, I want to say what a great dog she was. She was. A great dog. She was so sweet it makes my heart ache to think about her. She allowed the kids to do just about anything to her that they wanted. The baby boy would point at her and say, “dug dug,” and then leap onto her flanks. She always wagged when this happened. I wouldn’t have. I’d have been quite peeved at having the little brute attack me, cackling as he tried to climb up my back to reach my velvet ears. But Hannah always loved all of us more than we had any right to expect. Or, if it wasn’t love, you could have fooled us. Because she was big on the full-body wags.
She was also, it should be said, quite dumb. She was a lab, after all, and true to her breed never quite knew where her body ended and the rest of the world began. And she was a mess. From the moment we got her in 2002, from a guide dog training program that needed to find a home for a “defective animal,” she had all manner of health problems: allergies, ear infections, and the seizure disorder that killed her.
My wife called me at work ten days ago to let me know that Hannah was shaking uncontrollably and had been for several minutes. But I didn’t hear her — my wife — properly. I thought she said that the baby was having a seizure. And so I spent the next thirty seconds talking to my wife in a super-calm voice, asking her if maybe she needed to call an ambulance, telling her that everything would be okay, and wondering to myself if the baby would have permanent brain damage. My wife, meanwhile, kept saying, “No! Hannah!” She did that at least three time, getting progressively louder. Which left me wondering why she was allowing the dog to mess with our son while the little boy flipped around on the kitchen floor like the guppy that decided to commit suicide by leaping from our fish tank earlier this year. Finally it sank in: the dog was having the massive seizure. And I was relieved.
I feel lousy admitting that. But the baby was fine. And the dog had always been sick. As it happened, I had told my older son, a week earlier, that we’d be lucky if Hannah lived a couple more years. We needed to treat every day with her like a gift, I explained. Sappy? Sure. But he got the message. I noticed that he started to pet her more frequently: sometimes as he walked by her on the way to do something else, sometimes when he made a special trip to see her as she rested on her bed.
He always loved her. Which made sense. Because we got her for him. You see, the dog against which I’ll always measure other dogs, the sainted Megan, a sled dog — a mix of husky, lab, and greyhound — had died five years ago, suddenly, tragically, when our older boy was just a year old. And we — my wife and I — hated the idea of raising him without a dog in the house. What if he grew up and didn’t love dogs? Unacceptable. So, we put the word out that we were looking for a new pup. Within a day or two, we got a call from a guide dog service. One of their trainees couldn’t complete the program because she was “having fits.” The woman on the other end of the line explained that the dog would “need a lot of care,” would “never be much good,” and that I’d have to drive to Craig, Colorado (from Denver, where we lived at the time) to get her. And then, she threatened: “If you don’t come for her, I’ll put her down in a few days.” I hopped in the car and drove the eight hours to Craig. Where I met Hannah. Who looked like nothing so much as a land seal: sleek, playful.
To be perfectly honest, I never loved her the way I loved Megan, who I’d raised from an eight-week-old pup to be the perfect dog: smart but obedient (she used to walk off the leash with me everywhere), sweet but independent (she liked people fine but also enjoyed time alone), cute but goofy (she had one ear that pricked straight up, like a husky, and one that flopped down, like a lab, and both were way too big for her head). Plus, I got Megan when I was in graduate school. She kept me sane.
But Hannah grew on me, in large measure because our older son loved her so much. And so when my wife called me at work a second time, explaining that Hannah wasn’t moving, I rushed home. She was dead. That was obvious. On the bathroom floor, where she had gone to have her final seizure, expiring as animals often do, in her own shit and piss. I’ll spare you the existential meditations on the cold moment that it becomes clear that a body, once so wriggly and waggy, has gone lifeless.
I wrapped Hannah in a blanket, so that our older boy wouldn’t see her, and drove her limp body to the vet. The receptionist asked if I preferred to have her cremated individually or in a group. For some reason, the question brought to mind mass graves and the fate of my family during the Second World War. I opted for the individual cremation. Then I drove back to the house by myself, crying. Because she had been such a good dog. Because I would never again arrive home from a quick trip to the Co-op to find a dog so joyful that it seemed I must have been gone a month. Because I would have to tell my son what had happened. This would be his first experience with the limitlessness of death. And I had no idea how to help him understand something so foreign as mortality. I started sobbing. I pulled over.
It was easier than I thought. We cried together. He asked why she had died. I gave him an absurdly clinical answer. He asked me if Hannah had gone to heaven. I asked him what he thought. He said, “Yes, she’s in heaven, where she gets to eat what she wants and go for walks and get petted.” I wiped his eyes and agreed, saying he was probably right. He asked if she had been happy when she was alive. I said yes, she had been very happy, especially when he was around. Which was true. Then we cried some more. And he said, “This is just terribly sad.” I agreed. He asked if we would ever get another dog. I asked if he wanted one. He said, “Yes, so I can stop feeling so sad and stop missing her so much.” Well. Okay then. Time to get another dog.
We — my wife and I, along with our older boy, who loves the propaganda film Eight Below — decided that we would get a husky this time. And we would name her Luna. Because it’s a nice name for a husky. But also because our older boy thinks that Luna Lovegood, a character in the Harry Potter books, is “really sweet and good person. Because she’s so loyal. And dogs are loyal.” “So,” he explained as patiently as he could, “we should name our new dog Luna.” Allowing kids to name pets is risky. When my mom and dad let me name our dog when I was six years old, I chose Fridley, a combination of the pup’s parents’ names: Bradley and Friday. Luna, though, would work. Anyway, how could I argue with the boy’s reasoning?
I began calling every husky rescue service on the West Coast, asking if they had a dog that fit our desired profile: female (my wife feels outnumbered in a house with three boys), patient with kids (the baby still can’t be trusted not to pull a tail or grab an ear when we’re not looking), and young (we can’t have another dog die on us in the near future). A day or two later, I heard back from the wonderful people at Husky Camp. They had a dog that might work for us. So I got in the car last Saturday and drove seven hours to Rancho Cucamonga, where I met Luna.
Luna saw me, pinned her ears back, dipped her head coquettishly, and began wagging. Then she rolled over. In the parking lot of a PetSmart. In a strip mall in the distant suburbs of Los Angeles. Hoping I would rub her belly. I did. There’s really nothing so wonderful as love at first site. Well, that’s not entirely true; there’s also having a dog lie with her head in your lap while you make the seven-hour drive, down the Grapevine, across the Central Valley on I-5, all the way home to Davis from Southern California. And then there’s the look on the older boy’s face when he sees his new dog. And the look on the new dog’s face when she sees the older boy. And the look of glee on the baby’s face, as he points at Luna and says, “dug, dug.”
Luna’s had a hard time during her ten months on this earth: she lived on the streets as recently as a month ago, ended up in a shelter for about a week, had puppies and lost all of them because she couldn’t produce milk, contracted endometriosis, had to be treated for parasites, got spayed, and then tangled with some of the other dogs at the rescue. But she’s doing okay now. She comes with me to work. She learned to open my office door, even when it’s locked, today. I found this out when a colleague poked his head into a department meeting, and said, “Um, Ari, there’s a puppy running around downstairs in the hall. I’m guessing she’s yours.” (Maybe there’s something to be said for dumb dogs like Hannah. Because smart ones like Luna make all kinds of trouble.) I think she’s beginning to realize that our house is her home. And she loves the kids, though her wagging is more restrained than Hannah’s was. The older boy told me tonight that he still misses Hannah and “won’t ever forget her.” But, he added, “now I love Luna. And she really loves me, daddy.” I agreed.