I was about 8-years-old when I got my first puppy. A week prior to his arrival, my mind was racing nonstop on the topic of dogs and the thought of having company by my side like in those movies where the main protagonist’s dog lays by her feet while she does her homework. I wondered whether or not he would be pre-trained before we got him. I imagined how much fun having a dog was going to be, especially considering my belief that I didn’t have to put any work into training him. That was really silly because, as all dog owners know, that’s not how that works.
When Rocky came, I was beyond smitten for him. My mother’s boyfriend walked through the door with this tiny Siberian Husky pup. He was cradled and wrapped in a blanket like a baby. We circled around him, awing and cooing loudly at him. Imagine this small 2 month old pup arriving to this smothering household. Poor pup. From the way he’d move his head away from us when we’d try to hug his tiny head with our child sized arms, I could tell he was untamed, adorable, and anti-social. I knew I’d already love him to death.
His first night will never fail to trigger hair pulling memories for all of us. The whimpering was nonstop, all night. He only relaxed whenever someone was outside with him, holding him. Even then he still whimpered very audibly. I figured maybe he missed his mom, and a part of me felt really guilty about that. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t know he was taken from his mom only days after he was born. I didn’t know anything about rescue dogs or breeder dogs. My young mind could only piece together the thought that he might be missing his mom. I know I’d miss my mom if I only got to spend a few days with her.
There he was in my arms, still crying but not as obnoxiously as before. Today, we look back at his puppy years, and laugh at all the stress and anger he gave us. I never wanted a dog. I never felt the need for a companion. I had enough friends already. John, Felix, and Andrew, these were my friends, and we were close because we all grew up in Bushwick back when looking over your shoulder was a safety precaution. Including myself, we were the baddest niggas in our school. No one fucked with us. I was the smallest out of the group, a defect caused by my Ecuadorian heritage. It only meant I had more to lose if I didn’t prove my strength in front of the guys. I never wanted a dog. Didn’t feel like I needed one, but whatever my little brother and sister wanted, they got it. So there he was in my arms, and I had no choice. I had to stay up with him because I was the oldest, never mind the fact that I had class in the morning. We always remember that first night. It was so crazy because he would not stop for nothing. Rocky was my blessing, and my curse. Since I’m the oldest, of course I learned how to drive first. So guess who was asked to drive him to the doctor? Me. Me, me, me. I couldn’t hate my brother and sister because they were just young so of course they couldn’t help me out. Still, my mother assumed the whole world onto my shoulders. The responsibilities never seemed to stop piling on. First and foremost was the responsibility of being a good big brother to my younger siblings, but I also had to be this saint adhering role model for them, too. Then Rocky came, and, of course, it was my job to do what the little ones couldn’t. I had to carry the dog food up the four flight of stairs to our apartment. I had to chip in for his medicine. I had to help walk him. I had to drive him and my family to the park just so we could say we took him out. I had to do too damn much for this dog, and I’m going to miss every second of it. I never thought about it until he was finally gone, but I loved his animosity. He was a piece of shit for biting my little sister’s lip, though. I gave him hell for that. I reigned every ounce of my might and fury upon him. My little sister and my little brother are my prized possessions. One thing my dad told me before his time came was this: Cuidame los. Take care of them. That’s what I intended to do no matter the circumstance so when Rocky bit Katherine that night, I blacked out. I kicked him, punched his snout. Of course, he growled, still in attack mode, prowling low to the ground ready to bite anyone. Afraid and cautious, he ran into his cage, but I could tell he was trying to stand his ground. This made me angrier, so I ran to the kitchen and filled up a bowl of hot, steaming water. I came back to the cage and poured the water over him. It didn’t seem to hurt him enough, so I threw the bowl at his head as hard as I could. All the while I can hear my sister crying out. It wasn’t until we were at the hospital, in the middle of watching her doctor sew her lip closed, when she told us she’d been crying this whole time because she was afraid we were going to put Rocky down. This confused me, I was angry, but seeing my sister cry for this dog, who hurt her, who put her in the hospital, I could tell she loved him unconditionally. This truly baffled me, this kind of unconditional love. I suppose I loved him in a different way, not in the way that my sister just did, but in the way that he showed me a rage in him that I’d felt inside all my life. I understood him, and I admired the way he never backed down. I admired the way he never failed to react, like me. The next morning, I was still pissed at him, but he seemed gentler towards me. It was like there was a new understanding between us, and he became my friend. He became my companion, too.
Rocky had developed digestion problems when he was about a year old, which often called for multiple visits to the vet. This meant my mom pretended to hate my dog but we all knew she loved him just as much as we did. We knew he wasn’t the healthiest dog ever. At most, people might think he was really lazy, but then he’d get right back up to bother whoever seemed the busiest. Eventually we noticed he got chubbier, which was weird because we gave him a strict eating schedule and it was never more than two cups of special fat-free kibble, as prescribed by his vet. Then he started having trouble going up and down the stairs.
I didn’t want to go to sleep yet. I just wanted to spend time with my new dog. It pained my little heart to hear him cry. He hadn’t done anything for me, but I already loved him enough to feel his confusion, his frustration, his anxiety. Every howl begged me to stay with him, but my mom insisted I shouldn’t lose sleep over our new dog. Now, I think that’s a ridiculous thing to do to a child. All the excitement in me? How could I go to sleep? Looking at David holding Rocky, I wondered, Does he actually want to calm him down or is he just doing this so he can go to sleep? I felt the priorities were misplaced, so I capped the anger in me, dragged my feet as I walked back to my room, and tried my hardest to go to sleep. I tried. I could only imagine how exhausted my brother must’ve been, but I tried not to think about it. I guess my mind could tell that was too much guilt for a child to handle.
I was just as excited about Rocky as my little sister was. I could hear his howls from the room David and I shared. I thought there was something wrong with him, so I’d come out every 15 minutes, poking my head through the door, certain that mom would reprimand me for getting out of bed, but I had to see Rocky. Funny enough, my sister was doing the same thing, too, so the both of us continuously gave my mother the headache. I mean, she should’ve expected we’d want to spend time with Rocky. It was painful to leave for school the next morning. We could only imagine how confused he must’ve felt. Coming into a new home, having a restless night, only to wake up to no one. My sister and I have always wanted a dog, but we were told the same old same old, “We can’t have a dog because it’s too much money and he’s going to be cramped up in here.” We live in an apartment, so we tried to lean towards reason when mom told us this. Still, we were young, impatient kids, and truth be told, I needed Rocky. I was always a loner. In school, in the playground, I was an outsider. I guess everyone could tell I was different. It wasn’t because of my weight. (Although that was often the first thing kids, and my gym teacher, used to torture me) It was the way I spoke, the way I walked, the way I wasn’t aggressive like the other boys. I wasn’t like the other boys. I was just…different. Growing up, my mother talked to us about the sweet fruits of her marriage with my dad, about how the love between a man and a woman can be the most beautiful thing God gave us. I didn’t know how to let her know I’d never know that feeling exactly, or that being in love with someone was going to look severely different from what she’d imagined. So, I needed Rocky, and having him by side when I came out made the world less scary.
He was a difficult dog. We all banded together to give him showers. That stopped when he was about 2 years old. This wasn’t because we were too lazy to shower him, it was just excessively difficult. At the end of every shower, we were all very sore and drenched in a combination of water and fur. He was a very squirmy pupper. He didn’t know what staying still was, and his favorite thing ever was to shake off every possible drop of water from his fur. Of course, we were the receiving end.
One night, following these symptoms of fatigue, he began having trouble laying down. I was the first to see that. I stayed up all night with him until he finally lied down to sleep. I could feel his pain in every whimper, in every stagger or attempt to lie down. And I could tell he wanted to sleep. I could see it in his eyes. Glazed, very human. But it was just too painful for him to even sit. I didn’t know what to do so I tried massaging his back, hoping it might soothe him enough. Finally, my mom came out from her room, and asked what was wrong with Rocky. I told her. Everyone woke up to take him to the hospital. He got checked. It turned out he had a tumor, “benign tumor”, they said. Apparently it was slow growing, meaning he was supposed to have a couple more years. Only a couple of months after his diagnosis did his tumor burst in his liver, causing internal bleeding. He cried the whole night, we wrapped him in a blanket because he was really cold. We couldn’t afford another visit to the hospital or surgery, and we didn’t want him to suffer through healing after the surgery with him being old and all. We thought it wouldn’t be fair to him to make him go through all that again. So we stayed up with him. I really did hope that he would hold out through the night until we could take him to the vet in the morning.
The morning lasted forever. Like the cold start of the day often makes it feel, the day seemed to drag as no one noticed, but everyone noticed. I suppose they tried not to notice. I suppose they didn’t want to know what was happening to me. Shivering, wrapped in layers of cloth, we’re so feeble, so selfish, I wondered, “How come…” and it felt like I was talking but not loud enough so it sounded only in my mind. I couldn’t walk, I could only bend over like the breath was knocked out of me. My legs were aching in that way when death comes to knock on your door on a peaceful afternoon night. When the stars and the moon shine just right through the hospital window and the flowers wilt, soft and pure against the linoleum floor. But you don’t want to go.
But when morning came, he seemed to be in shock, like he was disoriented and didn’t know what was going on. My brothers took him to the vet, and they insisted I shouldn’t miss class. So they loaded him into the car wrapped in a blanket because that was the only way they could carry him without adding pressure to his tummy area. Heading to school, my mind was not with me. I couldn’t think and I didn’t want to. To be in school while Rocky was in pain. I didn’t want to.
I stepped away from my laptop to go get tissue. I needed a break from thinking about that incident. That never ending incident. I feel like I’m living in it every day. I have so many tabs open, I thought, and it’s almost like anything I’m doing right now is exactly what I’d be doing if Rocky was here, except for the crying part. That was what he left behind for me, pain and love. The tissue’s sitting next to me in his place.
I was underground at the W 4th station when I got the text. My oldest brother told me Rocky wasn’t going to make it, and to call him as soon as I can. My legs. I made the call, and he told me to make my way to the vet’s office as fast as I could. The stares, my hair sticking to my face, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about ruining my favorite jacket with all the snot I wiped from my nose. I clicked “End call”, a pressure that built up in my head from the night before got heavier, painfully pulling all my nerve endings to their extreme, and I wailed out, doubled over, into the air in front of me. My legs gave out and my mind blanked out. I wanted to get away from this world. To run from this world where Rocky would no longer existed within the next hour. He picked up my mom and I halfway the trip to save time. They waited. I waited. I’d grown up thinking patience was the key to a satisfying life, then I realized how excruciating waiting can be. As I sat there on the train, as I sat there in the car seat. Every second away from Rocky was ice to my cold arms and wet face. I looked out at the world moving on, at bikers passing us, at cars passing us, at people having hot coffee, at people laughing, at people begging for money. I just sat and looked, sobbing quietly, remembering.
Saying goodbye to my best friend, my baby, was the hardest thing I ever had to do. We all know it’s the memories of watching him grow up that made his death hard on us. I mean, it’s hard for any dog owner to lose a family member. Looking at the pain in his eyes, I knew putting him down was the right thing to do. But it still felt unfair. It felt wrong when he’d try to get up off the table because he wanted to go home. I wanted him to come home. I wanted it all to be a bad dream. The cruelest, most unreal dream. But every time I wiped my tears away, and the blurriness was no longer there to fool me, he was there. On that table, his veins prepped for a potion made to end of pain. To end the shock in his eyes, to end his cries. We were each given a few minutes to say goodbye to him. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something along the lines of, “You were always there for me when no one else was. You always reminded me what it feels like to love someone. I never felt truly alone because of you. You’re my baby and I’ll always love you. I really hope I’ll get to see you again someday.”