The Pandemic Loss I Didn’t Expect

Deena Shanker

I used to half-joke that I needed a dog-sized BabyBjörn to help me escape the apocalypse with my cockapoo. Barley was not good on the leash, and even though she would sprint on occasion, I knew that if we were racing away from zombies, she would, without a doubt, slow down our mad dash from Manhattan.

As it turned out, when we fled the island, we were driven out by a pandemic, not the undead. We left in a Honda CRV packed to the brim with food, luggage, toilet paper, a two-year-old, and a body-sized pregnancy pillow called a Snoogle. No BabyBjörn was needed: Barley sat on my lap. Nobody was comfortable. But we were safe, and very privileged to have my in-laws’ beach house at the Jersey Shore to run off to. 

Barley played no small part in our decision to leave. She required at least four walks a day, or eight trips in a large apartment building’s elevator, through its lobby and around the block, all in the epicenter of a lethal global pandemic

Our exodus must have felt familiar for the dog, who had left so many places with me during our thirteen years together. She joined me when I moved  from the East Village to Philadelphia for law school, and when I returned to New York each summer and, for what I thought was the last time, after graduation. Then she flew across the country with me when I slunk off to California, escaping a stunted career as a corporate litigator. She was with me on my final return to New York too. 

We lived in more than a dozen crappy apartments and a handful of decent ones. In the most recent, she curled up at my feet while I nursed my daughter and when my milk finally dried up, I put the baby in her crib and took the dog for a walk, a ritual I had mostly pawned off to my husband since the later stages of my pregnancy. My husband and I planned vacations around her, picking destinations with lakes for her to swim in, and grass for her to roll in.

Now, we were leaving the city again. And Barley’s age had begun to show.  Among the pasta, dried beans, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, and Cheerios we’d packed, we also had several pounds of rice and multiple cartons of eggs because my old dog had reached the point where I had to cook for her. 

When we were both younger, she begged whenever I ate — if Barley could say one word, observed one roommate, it would be, “please.” But now  Kibble was long gone. Canned food had lasted a few weeks. Soon after arriving at the beach house, she stopped eating the eggs too, and we started spending $10 for a pound of kosher ground beef to cook with her rice,  mixing in leftover peas and corn and apple peels and anything else, all of which she happily ate, making us feel better both about her health and our extremely minimal food waste.

But still, I worried. I stockpiled both rice and beef, worried we would run out. I cooked, I froze, I measured, I fed, and then I worried more.

Barley’s health problems began in earnest three years ago, when my Dad, a vet, found a mass in her abdomen during a routine exam. An ultrasound found a tumor and surgery revealed it was dangerously close to major blood vessels in her liver. Even the specialist couldn’t get clean margins. The tumor would come back. A little over a year later, we found another malignant tumor, this time on one of her back haunches. Another specialist. Another successful — albeit temporary — treatment.

Life went on, and we complained that Barley was waking us up earlier in the mornings, and asking for walks later in the evenings. In the fall, she stopped eating for a few days, even turning down treats, and we thought that the tumor was finally catching up with her. We sent her upstate to my Dad for an exam, but before she even got to the vet hospital, she pooped out the six inches of toilet paper that had been making her sick, and was back to her normal, jaunty self. Foolishly, it felt less like a dodged bullet and more like an affirmation that she would be with me always.

When we first arrived at our beach house/bunker, all had seemed well enough. She’d always  loved this house — all the space, the big backyard, the meaty meals so unlike the vegetarian food I cooked at home, the beach a very short walk away. 

Just over a week before her last day, she was running down the surf again, not coming when we called, my husband forced to chase after her and bring her back. Barley did not swim in the ocean like the Labs and the Goldens, but she ran along the surf to chase a ball, laid her tummy in the wet sand, and was always surprised when she got hit by a wave. 

My daughter and I watched, playing with sand toys, laughing at the silly doggie. We stayed out for more than an hour. 

But a week after that, I had to carry her for most of that very short walk. After a brief but valiant attempt at some digging, Barley started licking sand and then threw up. The whole thing was a disaster that, start to finish, lasted less than thirty minutes.  This would turn out to be her last beach trip. 

It was also the second day of Barley’s bad breathing, the thing that worried my Dad more than her occasional shaking or falling down the stairs or even her seizures. I took comfort in the fact that she was still eating. But the next day, despite three helpings of breakfast, she barely touched her dinner.

Monday morning, after a very hard night and another skipped meal, we went to the vet. Due to coronavirus precautions, an employee took our dog to see the doctor while we waited in the car. Then the doctor called us, and we listened, with my Dad conferenced in, to how sick Barley really was. She was anemic, there was probably internal bleeding and fluid around her lungs, she might have a brain tumor, too. Maybe it was heart problems but probably it was cancer. We could leave her there for a few days of testing and a 50/50 chance of coming home, still extremely sick, for a few more final days. Or…

We hung up. We cried. We called my Dad. We knew what we had to do but it didn’t make it any easier. My Dad, of course, had some Torah to share. It was a “chesed shel emmet” or a “true kindness,” he said, because she could never repay it. 

For thirteen years she had given me so many kindnesses. Through dumpings, firings, and moves, Barley licked the tears from my face.  Here was a last kindness I could give her. 

Even in coronavirus, they let you in for your final goodbye. Barley was happy to see us, and for a moment I thought she would walk right out, my happy doggie. Instead, we sat with her on the floor and we told her how much we loved her. We held her and we petted her and we said over and over again that she was such a good girl, and she kept up that labored breathing with her eyelids so heavy and I knew she loved us back but I also knew she was very, very tired and needed some peace. 

And now, here I am, in a pandemic, seven-and-a-half months pregnant, and there is death everywhere and I have no dog to lick away all these tears. My own little tragedy is, of course, minor compared to the massive one playing out all over the world. But within the four walls of our beach house, it feels boundless. I thought two full-time working parents with a toddler was stressful. I didn’t realize that having that dog sleeping at my feet also steadied them. Now we have broken hearts and I am crying all the time and my daughter says, “Mommy Daddy so sad miss doggie.”

And I am so mad at myself for not loving that dog better or appreciating her more or putting her on joint supplements or cleaning her teeth or getting her a little staircase to get up to our bed or sleeping on the floor with her that last night or just walking her longer or better or whatever I could have done to show her more that I loved her and I never would have made it through those unhealthy relationships and the short-lived law career and those hard, early days of motherhood without her. I should have at least filled up her bowl a little higher these last few weeks. In the end, I threw away five days worth of beef and rice. 

I know we will get another dog eventually, but it won’t be in a house that isn’t ours, and it won’t be with a newborn baby, and it won’t be Barley. It will be something else, and that will be good, too, I know. Until then, our family is just smaller, sadder for now, and, like the rest of the world, taking it one day at a time.

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