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I vividly remember the day my dad called to tell me that my childhood dogs were going to have to be put down. I was a senior in college and had been dreading that moment since I got those puppies in first grade. I had never loved anything more in my entire life. Sydney and Mel. Two amazing, loyal, dorky, lovable, Australian Shepards became my third and fourth siblings. For sixteen years, they were as implemented in our family as any of us. Holiday rituals included them, like having them search for Easter Eggs in the spring and opening their stockings on Christmas morning. Our family portraits always highlighted them, us circled around our favorite furry companions.
When we first got the dogs, I remember tearfully asking my mom how long they had to live. I understood that they had shorter lives, and in one of my dramatic first signs of having an anxiety problem, I was already freaking out about their impending demise. She had comforted me, saying that they would be around for a long time. It wouldn’t be until I was grown up and went off to college that they would pass.
And those had been very comforting words at the time. In elementary school, college seemed like a lifetime away. And I guess it sort of was. I hadn’t had my first kiss yet. Hell, I hadn’t even held a boy’s hand yet. I didn’t go through the phases of loving, hating, then loving my parents again. I hadn’t yet gotten into the Bermuda shorts trend. I had plenty of time to enjoy life with my dogs because college? That shit was forever away. So, I relaxed.
And then, just like that, college came. And for three years, things were fine. Sure, my dogs got older. But not like, dead older. Just older. They still ran out to greet me with giant dog grins whenever I’d come home to visit, and cuddling on the floor with them was still the main reason my brothers and I would go home for long weekends. At sixteen years old, they seemed to be doing just fine, so I kept relaxing.
It went downhill pretty quickly at the end. One week they were fine (in my mind, at least) and the next week, they weren’t. I really should have expected it, if we’re being honest. I should have been ready. But the day I got the news, I didn’t think twice answering my dad’s call. That’s when he told me, in a choked voice, that Mel wasn’t eating and the vet advised that both of my dogs, my family members, be euthanized at the same time.
It was, to put it mildly, utterly devastating. I visited one last time. I saw my dad cry for the first and only time of my life. And for the next three years, I had a pretty big hole in my heart. Naturally, as time went on, the wounds began to heal. I could think about my old pets without crying, and I was able to put up a few pictures of them in my new, adult apartment. Eventually, I was even able to get a puppy of my own, and I learned just how different it is to be in charge of a dog as opposed to just loving one as a child. Still, I fell deeply in love with my lab, Lula, and tried to convince my parents that it was time for them to get another pet. It wasn’t until they visited me, and truly remembered the love of having a dog in their lives, that they considered it.
A week later, they got Wyatt.
He was the teeniest little Brittany Spaniel you’ve ever seen, and I could tell from the sound of their voices that they finally felt whole again. When I met him four months later, I immediately loved him.
The thing is, this time? It was a different love. It was a cordial love. I loved him like I love my friend’s pets. Moreso than a random pup I see at happy hour, but as much as I want to feel like it’s a part of my life, it just isn’t. And no matter how often I go home to visit or see videos of him playing in the yard, Wyatt isn’t my dog. He’s my parents’ dog.
And it’s weird, you know? It’s weird to see another dog be at home in the house that held my own childhood pets. He runs around in the same yard. He lays on the same spot of cool tile near the sliding glass doors. Hell, he even drinks from the same water bowl. But he doesn’t greet me with the same enthusiasm. He doesn’t smile when he sees me like Sydney did, and he doesn’t curl up next to me on the floor like Mel did. My parents are his family, and I’m the outsider. The person who visits occasionally and seems to know her way around the house.
And I guess the weirdest part of it all is the realization that life moves on without you. Siblings will get married and start their own families and you’ll be the one who doesn’t fully belong when you visit at the holidays. Your parents get a new pet, or turn your bedroom into something else, or sell your childhood home and that’s what you really see — that your family will grow and change and adapt in ways that you don’t expect and suddenly, things are different. Your mom will stock the fridge with your favorite snacks and your dad will buy your favorite beer and you won’t be the one who helps cleans the house before the guests arrive because suddenly, you’re the guest, and everyone is scrambling to make you comfortable.
One day you’ll reach down to pet a puppy head, but this time the fur feels different. Because this dog isn’t the dog that was “home” to you. This dog is the dog that came after you.
And it’s not something that happens at once. Over time you become less of a staple at your house and more of an abnormality. But I guess that’s just how it goes. The pieces are supposed to shift, and where you once took up room, there’s now a space to fill. And just like you’re supposed to go off and start a new family, you parents are finding ways to cope with most of their own family leaving. I think that’s the hardest part about growing up. That while you’re busy changing, everyone and everything else is as well. And suddenly the spot you always sat in on the couch is taken by some ginger dog that doesn’t love you nearly enough and your parents tell you to go sit somewhere else. Because this isn’t your house anymore, and that isn’t your dog, and that spot on the couch is no longer yours.
So, you roll your eyes, pull up a different chair, and let that ginger ass dog take the seat on the couch that was yours for twenty plus years. Because, technically, that dog is your parent’s family now. And thanks to my parents’ lax training style, this is the dog’s world now, and we’re all just making room for it on the furniture. .