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Aug 6 2012

Yahrzeit for a Dog

By at 6:13 am

yahrzeit for a dogIn Judaism, the anniversary of a person’s death is called their yahrzeit. On that day, the mourner lights a candle, says the mourner’s kaddish, and reflects on the meaning that the deceased person had in the mourner’s life.

These rituals are, generally, not done for a dog.

If they were, though, Captain’s yahrzeit would be sometime in the beginning of August. He died two years ago under somewhat sketchy circumstances. First things first: Captain wasn’t even my dog. And truth be told, there were plenty of moments when I really didn’t like him. But the fact of the matter is that Captain actually changed the course of my life.

Captain belonged to Jon, who was then a single guy in his 40s living in Manhattan by the 59th Street Bridge. Jon had adopted Captain from the ASPCA almost on a whim in the summer of 2009. Divorced and having recently ended a relationship, Jon decided to fill the quiet void in his life with the unconditional love of a dog. I’d argue that in doing so, he got way more than he bargained for.

As a rescue dog, Captain’s provenance was largely unknown. From the look and size of him, he was most likely part boxer and part pit bull. He had a beautiful brindle coat that made him look like he was striped, leading most children to call him, unprompted, “The Tiger Dog.” When Jon adopted him, he was about 1 year old and 60 pounds of exuberance. He was a loud barker, a high jumper, and a happy dog who quickly became a recognizable fixture on East 57th Street and Sutton Place.

Captain was a mischievous, playful dog. Jon would often come home from work to find that Captain had chewed his way through a sofa cushion and was in the process of working his way through the leg of an antique table. Captain also arbitrarily alternated between being “potty trained” and not. Sometimes, he’d wait until he was walked to go to the bathroom. Other times, he’d leave a fragrant creation in the dead center of Jon’s living room, like a deliberate gift. He was also unusually clever: somehow, he figured out how to use his nose and front paw to open the door to Jon’s small patio, and sometimes, he’d relieve himself outside. Sometimes.

Jon and I met one another on a blind date in November 2009. At his request, I showed him pictures of my two young sons on my phone. He, in turn, showed me a picture of Captain. I had no idea how those three lives would intertwine.

I quickly realized that the cute snapshot of Captain I’d been shown bore little to no resemblance to the large beast who suddenly figured prominently in my life. As it became clear that I would be a frequent visitor to the apartment, Captain had trouble adjusting to the new reality. He clearly resented that I had taken his place in his owner’s bed, as well as whatever space I was occupying in his owner’s heart.

You may say I was being paranoid. But I knew I wasn’t imagining things. Captain showed his bitterness quite eloquently by eating my purse, several pairs of underwear, a bra, and my favorite pair of sunglasses.

“One night, he’s going to eat me while we’re sleeping,” I would whisper to Jon as we watched a movie on the couch.

“No, he won’t,” Jon said reassuringly. I’d look at Captain, who looked back at me, unblinking. I tried to sleep with one eye open.

I could tell that Jon and I were falling in love, though, in part, when Captain had mysteriously changed from being an annoying, potentially carnivorous third wheel into something much better and much less scary for this non-dog-lover. Don’t get me wrong: it still wasn’t so great to come back from a fancy dinner only to get down on hands and knees to clean dog vomit out of the rug. But Captain had somehow transformed from being merely an imposition into something more meaningful.

On some nights, Captain would lie across our feet in the bed– not just Jon’s, as he had originally–and I would know that this was an unspoken endorsement. Jon and I would lie in bed winter mornings holding onto one another for warmth–and would then realize it was far too cold, and that Captain must have gone out on the deck again. “He’s smart enough to SHUT the door if he really wanted to,” Jon would grumble good-naturedly as he got back into bed.

I no longer feared being devoured in my sleep.

On Sundays, when dogs could go unleashed until a certain time in the morning, we would take Captain to Central Park, and he’d run and jump madly until he was panting from exhaustion. Then we’d walk him home. On the way, the doormen at The Four Seasons would feed him dog treats and pet him like he was the hotel mascot. I’d hold his leash and rub the back of his neck; he would turn back to me as though for approval. I was in.

While Jon never really did train Captain, Captain most definitely trained Jon. Captain broke Jon into a life where someone else’s demands were paramount to Jon’s own. Previously, Jon’s life had been a strictly adult one–with no children, he was used to doing what he wanted when he wanted. In contrast, life with Captain got him accustomed to a life of unreasonable, round-the-clock expectations–as well, of course, to a life of unconditional love.

Without Captain, Jon’s transition to becoming a stepfather to two young boys– as loving as Jon is–might not have taken place as smoothly. But by the time he met my boys, Captain had already taught Jon how love can be unreasonable but can make you a better person, and how responsibility can engender patience. Captain taught Jon that when you love someone or something, irritants–whether teething, vomit or something else previously unimaginable–are surmountable and, in the end, barely noticeable.

I will always believe that that snowy day when we all went sledding together–the boys laughing and shrieking with delight as “The Tiger Dog” raced down the hill, chasing and jumping over their toboggans–was the day that Jon started to see all of us as a workable, doable, lovable family.

Jon and I got engaged in the summer of 2010, and I volunteered to take care of Captain while Jon went away on a business trip. The August weekend before Jon was set to leave, he and I took a trip to visit friends, leaving Captain with a dogsitter. On Monday morning, I would meet up with the dogsitter and then take Captain to my place for the week.

Jon and I returned to the city late that Sunday night. We came back to the apartment to a host of missed calls from the dogsitter, and an almost incomprehensible voicemail. I felt, in my gut, that something had happened. When Jon called the dogsitter back, I watched his face crumple as he listened.

The dogsitter had taken Captain, with Jon’s permission, to his neighborhood in Washington Heights. During a nighttime walk, Captain had pulled too hard on his leash–a sensation with which I was intimately familiar. Captain ripped the leash from the dogsitter’s hands, ran into the street, and was hit by a car. He died instantly. The car didn’t bother to stop.

We will never know if that was the true story of what happened or not. What I do know is that that was the first time I ever saw Jon cry, and they were tears of unadulterated sadness and love.

The next day, I sent Jon to the airport and waited till the boys came home from day camp. Then, I sat the boys down at the kitchen table and told them that Captain–the Tiger Dog, the dog they had so looked forward to becoming theirs–had been hit by a car and was dead. My younger son screamed with shock. My older one started to sob.

“Can we call Jon?” they asked. Overwhelmed by their sincere expression of grief, I said yes. I didn’t stop to think that maybe I should prep them on what to say and what not to say to Jon, on what would make Jon feel better and what would only pour salt in his wounds.

“Jon?” my older son said, a small quaver in his voice. “I’m so sorry about the Tiger Dog.”

“Me too, sweetie,” I heard Jon say. “Me too.”

“But you know something?” my son said.

Oy, I thought.

“What’s that?” Jon asked.

“You’ll always have us,” my son said.


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