In our Intro Honors course, we’re reading The Things They Carried, with the introductory chapter by the same name. In that vignette, soldiers carry the burdens, literal and metaphorical, weighing them down. The heft of ammunition competes with the love letter; an ounce of the image of home piles on top of the mortar shell. We gave the students the assignment to write about the things they carry, on their backs or otherwise.
Lately, I’ve been carrying my dog. Today is the last day.
Tycho — “TEE-ko,” we explain, and if you give me the time I’ll clarify that it’s the astronomer, with the Latinized spelling but closer to the original Danish pronunciation, a fitting name mainly because it sounded playful and easy to call out as he’d bound across mountainsides — is the dog we picked out as a pup in a barn. It was before we had kids and before we knew things and before we’d moved and before we’d moved again. Tycho was meant to be a family member. Tycho was destined to be a hiking and skiing companion. Tycho was supposed to be the mellow dog of the litter. We got two out of the three.
Lately, Karyn and I have been carrying our dog up the stairs and down the stairs, and lately he doesn’t even try to argue, nor follow if we tread up the wood planks without him. That’s when we knew. I put on my shoes and he doesn’t try to follow me out the door anymore. He’s restful, comfortable enough once he lies down on his side, but it’s hard to move. His eyes look up with a soft gaze as we stroke his head. It’s okay, we tell him. And, he seems to say the same back.
The other day, we finished the supply of pills that the vet, our priestess in this process, thought might help. They didn’t. But at five o’clock, when I poured kibble into his bowl, he looked back at me and hobbled over to the refrigerator. His eyes asked for peanut butter, the delivery mechanism for the pills, even though the pills were gone. I pulled out the jar and gave him the untainted treat, and cried.
Tycho is the optimist of the family. There’s peanut butter. For most of his life, there was the tying of shoes, the grabbing of his leash, the opening of the door. Any of these would set him spinning, literally. We’ll all admit that it would have been nice if he would have broken a few habits — burrowing in between legs of strangers, jumping over the couch, eating all those things that weren’t meant to be eaten — but for all these he has always lived with passion for the important things. Scratching his belly or behind the ears he would thank you with endless licks, if you let him. He would leave other dogs and follow his family, tirelessly, without a second thought. His energy was boundless. He could leap and catch a frisbee, again, and again, with the very best of them.
More than anything, Tycho has been a friend. It’s cliche, and yet if you wanted to go on a walk or a hike or just head in the backyard, Tycho was the first companion to join. Tycho would go out with me even when no one else wanted to, in the cold and the snow, leading the way as I skied up the hill and chasing me back down. Running between my legs when I’d stop to get a drink, I’d pick ice from between his paws, and as soon as I made a motion he bounded off again, side by side as we’d rush down the path, egging each other faster. On other trips he slept with us in the tent; he was there when we stumbled across the moose on the trail; he’d be the first to wade into the water — and lie down in it regardless of cold or mud; he would run ahead, run back, repeat, the lead scout of the expedition. He was the perfect companion for all these adventures. Except for the time he found the dead skunk.
Besides the joy and optimism and the dedicated companionship, I think the hard part about seeing Tycho go is that he documents a timeline for so many other things. We carry him up the stairs, maybe in return for all the storylines he’s carried for us. I remember the two feet of snow at the first home we owned because it was his puppy self that leaped over, through, and under it. I remember the cradle that Anna slept in because it was his nose peering over into it. I remember the puppy class and the naivete thinking that dog ownership was a good pre-cursor for parenthood. I remember thinking, just a few years ago now, how dumb we were to get the dog whose life would surely end in the most formative years of our daughters, and how much heartbreak that would bring them. Now, of course, I know better. The heartbreak I was dreading was, is, my own.
In all this, the girls crying and Karyn crying and me crying and us trying to make sense of end-of-life and what that means and when it’s time, there’s the enduring piece behind it all. Tycho’s core, the joy and the optimism and dedication and companionship, is what makes all this so hard. I’ve been the beneficiary. I’m better off because of a dog, and I always will be, hopefully having learned something and continuing to carry it along with me from a dog who was supposed to be the least spirited of his siblings. Turns out his spirit was more than we’d ever imagined it would be.