Today, I lost one of the greatest blessings to have ever entered my life: my beloved Boxer, Rocky.
It is amazing how quickly that which seems stable and calm in life can be thrown amiss. I had seen him just three weeks ago, during my last visit to my parents’ home in Westchester. At the time, I had been very happy to hear that he was dealing well with the recent heat wave, surviving by huddling near the dining room air conditioner or lying spread out below the living room ceiling fan. He seemed more energetic than he had in a while, and I was looking forward to seeing him during my next planned trip, on my upcoming birthday. Rocky had always loved our family birthday celebrations, trampling excitedly through the torn wrapping paper as gifts were opened and jumping up on the kitchen table as cake was presented. No matter whose name might be on the cards, the family dog was always the center of attention.
Rocky won’t be there for my 30th birthday, or for my father’s birthday a few weeks later, or for my brother’s a few months after that, or for my mother’s the month after that. He won’t be there to sit beneath the table, begging for a piece of the turkey, on Thanksgiving, or to lay serenely by our fireplace on Christmas Eve. My buddy is gone, and I will miss him dearly.
My mom contacted me via e-mail yesterday morning; her message was sitting in my inbox when I came into the office, a quick note under the subject heading “Rocky”. He had developed congestive heart failure and was having trouble breathing. My parents hadn’t decided yet when they were going to put him to sleep, but they could tell he was beginning to suffer. My mom, in her infinite tenderness, asked if I wanted to come home to see him, or if I wanted to remember him as the energetic ball of joy that he had always been. I told her without hesitation that I would be home that evening, just in case the situation worsened faster than expected.
Last night turned out to be one of the most surreal and absolutely devastating nights of my entire life. Rocky looked the way he usually did. Aside from a nasty cough when he moved around, he was every bit as affectionate and excited to see me as he had ever been. In many ways, it was just like every other visit: the frenzied greeting when I walked in, the overtures to rub his belly, the constant desire to press up against me no matter where I was seated. And yet, all the while, I knew that it was unlike any other meeting between the two of us, as this would be the last time I would ever see him.
I cried when I entered the house, unleashing the pain that had been slowly building up all day. I sat beside him and petted his head, ruffled the scruff of his neck as he gently lapped my nose. I lay beside him and scratched his tummy, laughing as he kicked me with his back legs each time I stopped. And then, as I prepared to go, I gave him a hug, told him how much I had loved him, how much I would miss him, and said goodbye. As he always did, he attempted to follow me out the door as I made my way outside. Realizing that he could not come along, he ran back into our dining room, jumped up on the table near our front window and stared at me as I descended the stairs. My mom came up from behind him, took hold of his right paw, and waved goodbye. And there, as I watched him for the final time, tears streaming down my face, I mouthed two words to him: “Thank you.”
In relating the night’s events to my brother, I told him that that final image of Rocky watching me from the window was perhaps the most fitting of goodbyes. It was in that spot that he had greeted me each day, jumping up and down and barking, when I would come home from work while living with my parents. It had always been one of my favorite of his quirks: he knew the sound of the Metro North train that I took home, and the approximate time of my usual arrival, and would always position himself in anticipation as I made my way up the street. This look of excitement when welcoming me was matched by the sense of panic he displayed any I time I would depart. It is how I will always remember Rocky: as a friend, as a family member, as someone who loved me so unconditionally that he couldn’t wait to see me come home and could not bear to see me leave.
In thinking back on the last few days, I find it somewhat ironic that Rocky’s sudden passing came just a few days after I had put up a new profile on the dating website OkCupid: As I began my search for the happiness that a relationship offers, a remarkable source of affection in my life faded peacefully away. Love has always been elusive for me, the great white whale that has been both my greatest desire and most evasive quarry. There have been a number of reasons for this, but they are bound together by a common thread: self-doubt.
There was period during my teenage years when puberty overwhelmed me, and there is still a part of me that deals with the scars that those sullen days of low self-esteem left behind. I was reminded of that when I recently visited my alma mater, Regis High School, for an alumni comedy show. Following the performance, I took a trip down into the locker room, stopping in the restroom. I stared into the mirror hanging from the wall, bathed in pale, white light. I thought back to a time 15 years ago when I was too afraid to gaze at my own reflection in that very looking glass for fear of what I would see: a poor complexion, hair out of place, dark circles beneath my eyes. I thought back to my years in college, most of which were spent with a Mets cap pulled low across my face. To look at my own reflection and to hate what I saw was a torment I carried for many years.
I’m happy with my appearance as I approach thirty, if a bit worried about the increasingly-rapid onset of gray hairs slowly creeping up my sideburns, but it does not mean that I am wholly confident. And while I look back on past relationships, and unrequited longings, with the ability to recognize that the women I thought I loved were not the ones with whom I was meant be, I still feel the sting of those rejections: the sense that I was not good enough, that I could not compete for their attention, that in my shyness, I could not find the right words to make them love me back. I have spent an adulthood hating my imperfection, wishing that I could be someone other than myself.
It is only recently that I have begun to find solace in my own skin, to accept that I am good enough and that I need to change for no one. But it has been a struggle, and as such, I find myself becoming truly emotional when thinking about the people and things that have made me feel loved over the years, even when I did not love myself: My mom. My dad. My brother. My friends.
And Rocky, my faithful companion, who never stopped caring for me for a single day that we were together. I will never forget the beautiful creature who entered my life 12 years ago as a rambunctious pup and who brought me nothing but joy in our intervening time together. To him, I say thank you for bringing light into my life, no matter how dark things might have seemed outside of the confines of our home. I will miss you always.
As my mother said last night, in between the tears, while petting his head: “You sure gave a lot of love, sir. You sure did.”