Years before I was born, my mom adopted a dog named Emily. She (my mom) was young, naïve and had no intentions of owning a pet, until one day her neighbor stopped by with the cruelest of ultimatums: he was moving, and couldn’t take a pet with him. If my mom didn’t take the dog, the neighbor would have no choice but to put it down. Given that my mom has a heart the size of Madagascar, the decision was a no-brainer. Within hours, she was a first-time pet owner.
Admittedly, I don’t remember all that much about Emily. By the time I was born her best days were behind her, and by the time I was a cognizant, functioning tiny human, she was down to her final months and days. When we did finally put her down, I remember being upset (any kid that age would be), but for my mom it was a cataclysmic event. When you’re that young, you just don’t realize the hold a good dog can have you.
Fast-forward a few years, and my sister and I got the urge to have a dog again. We begged and pleaded and pulled out the little kid heavy artillery of “We’ll feed him, and we’ll walk him and you’ll never even know he’s there.” That’s what little kids do, but my mom wasn’t convinced. Either that or she simply wasn’t ready for another dog.
We went to the pound a few times and came back empty-handed, before one day, we eventually met Oscar.
If I had to describe Oscar that day, the best I could come up with was that “He was half German Shepherd, half Australian Cattle Dog, and 100 percent personality.” All these years later I still can’t totally put my finger on it, but from the moment we walked in, something was distinctly different about him. He didn’t look different, he didn’t sound different, he didn’t move different, but he was different. All the other dogs in the pound were saying “Pick me!! Pick me!!” He was saying “You’re going to pick me, let’s go outside and I’ll show you what you’re getting.” To quote Les Miles Oscar definitely had “swag” and an hour later our family had a dog. I’ve heard many times that in life our pets choose us, we don’t choose them, and there may not be a better example of that anywhere than Oscar. He decided we were the family for him the second we walked in the door. We never stood a chance.
The first afternoon we got Oscar home proved to be plenty eventful, and he proved to be every bit the mutt he was cracked up to be. He welcomed himself to our house by taking a big gulp out of the toilet (Remember, I was like 13 at the time and honestly thought stuff like that only happened in the movies) and later he jumped out an open screen door, sending me on a wild goose chase to get him. The whole time I was terrified he’d get hit by a car, but for him the whole thing was just a big game. Like me, he never took life particularly seriously.
Of all the memories of that first day, the highlight probably came a few hours later, when my grandma- yes that grandma- came for a visit, and was met with two paws, a wagging tail and drooping tongue she definitely was not expecting. Safe to say she was terrified, and in the dramatic way only she could, put down her own ultimatum to my mom: It was either her or the dog. “Tell your kids they’ve lost a grandma,” she said. It’s hard to believe, but that same woman would later go on to feed Oscar roughly 15,000 slices of cheese straight from her refrigerator. Everybody eventually grew a soft spot for Oscar.
Like every other dog, those early years were where most of the memories are. He loved chasing squirrels and I was with him on two separate occasions when he got sprayed by a skunk. I took him on some epically long walks (he really, really loved the snow). I took him camping (he really hated the canoe and refused to get in. It turned a five-minute ride to the campgrounds, a 45-minute walk through the woods). He even came on vacation with the family for a week-long trip to New Orleans. The most vivid memory from that trip isn’t eating baguettes or a visit to the Superdome. No, it came on a morning walk when Oscar picked up a scent and dragged us to a corner of the park that most interested him. It took us about 15 seconds, but eventually we realized that what he was sniffing was actually a well-bundled up homeless guy trying to catch a nap. Thankfully, he was also a homeless guy with a good sense of humor.
That one run-in aside, Oscar was just about the smartest dog ever. I know, I know, everybody says their dog is the smartest, but I’m sorry, mine actually was. Yes he knew how to sit and beg and roll-over, but I mean come on, what dog doesn’t know how to do that stuff? At the same time, how many other dogs learn to bark when you ask for a “password” before opening the door to let him in the house? How many of them learn how to bring an empty yogurt cup (he loved blueberry yogurt, by the way) back into the kitchen after they’re done licking it out? Oscar knew both, and about 200 other commands I can’t remember off the top of my head. There is a reason that my uncle started calling him “the Einstein of dogs.” Frankly, it may have been a compliment to Einstein (ok, that might be a stretch).
Speaking of that yogurt, let me tell you, this dog loved food like no human being you’ve ever met. Frankly, if it wasn’t for his incredible metabolism and ability to run for hours on end, I’m convinced he would’ve ended up in one of those fat dog GIF’s that get passed around the internet from time to time.
Regardless, it’s like I said: This dog loved to eat. I’m not sure totally when it started, but it probably didn’t help that I got a job at McDonald’s when I was 16 (What do you want? I needed money!) and used to sneak him home leftover breakfast food every Sunday. Eventually he got older and wiser and singlehandedly turned himself into the best beggar you’ve ever met. For the last several years of his life I didn’t eat a single meal in front of him without two paws or a sad looking face firmly planted in my lap. Most nights he ended up eating more of my dinner than I did.
But of all of Oscar’s culinary loves, marshmallows were far and away his favorite. Don’t ask how or why we found this out, but once Oscar did discover them, it was like a spoiled housewife finding an unused credit card at the bottom of her purse; simply put life was never the same again. From then on marshmallows were the preferred treat of choice, and withholding them the preferred punishment when he wasn’t good. At some point I eventually trained him to gently take the marshmallows from right out of my mouth (wait, is that why no one wants to kiss me these days?) and when he got older, it was marshmallows that literally got him out of bed in the morning. Again, don’t ask me why that was. But that dog definitely had a sweet tooth.
I could go on and on for another 5,000 words with the memories, but at this point I’ll spare you. Then again, that’s also one of the great ironies about dogs. You take them in, care for them, feed them walk them… but at some point, whether you intend to or not, they become more than a pet. I didn’t live with Oscar for all 14 years of his life (or anywhere close, actually) but I still probably spent more quality time with him than everyone other than a couple close family members. I have more distinct memories with him than I do any of my closest friends. And really, that’s the true beauty of being a dog owner. You think you’re taking an animal in for humanitarian reasons (it needs a good home, your kid wants one, whatever), but in the end, the dog becomes more than that. They become your friend. They become your confidant when you need someone to talk. They are a companion on a million of life’s little adventures. They become part of your family. They become an extension of you.
Of course if the memories are the best part of the dog owner, the worst part is undoubtedly watching it slowly die in front of your eyes. There’s nothing you can do to prepare for it beforehand, and nothing to do to stop it once it starts. It is quite literally one of the most painful things you can live through.
For those who’ve never had a dog, it’s kind of hard to explain, just trust me, it’s different than watching a human get old. For example my grandma just turned 96, which means that when I was born in 1985, she was… old as hell. As a matter of fact, as much as I love my grandma, I’ve only known her as old. Sure she’s been varying degrees of old as the years have passed, but I never really knew her when she was vibrant, energetic and young. But Oscar? Crap, I was there when he was two-years-old drinking out of the toilet. How did he get old so fast?
In essence, that’s the worst part: No one can prepare you for the day that you wake up and realize that your dog… isn’t really your dog anymore. With Oscar it happened relatively quickly. As I mentioned earlier, he’s part shepherd, and any past or present shepherd owner knows what’s coming next: His hips went. Fast.
I moved back to the town I grew up in back in 2009, and even though he was old at time, Oscar was holding up relatively well. Gradually, that started to change though. One day he’d jump right on the couch next to you and hang out. Then one day he didn’t have the spring to do it. One day he ran fine. The next he ran with a limp. Then that limp became an extended limp, and eventually it got to the point where he could barely walk anymore. Everyone who has ever owned a shepherd is nodding their heads right now. It truly is awful.
As things got worse, my mom did everything- I mean some really above and beyond stuff- to keep Oscar one step ahead of the aging process. She changed his diet, got him special boots for his back paws and took him to physical therapy. Eventually when none of that worked, and (I can’t believe I’m admitting this publicly) she got him a wheelchair type thing that helped him walk around. Sure the neighbors gave our suddenly handicapped dog looks every time he left the house, but who cares? When it comes to your loved ones, you do whatever you can to help them along.
Eventually though, even the wheels weren’t enough, and the poor old man could barely stand on his own feet, even with them. As I watched him barely able to move, I couldn’t help me think about the old Chris Rock joke, on how some diseases (like paralysis for example), will never, ever get cured. Rock referenced Christopher Reeve- the guy who used to play in the Superman movies- when he said…
“Superman can’t walk! Superman can’t walk! What kinda f***ed up s*** is that! Superman can’t walk."
With Oscar it wasn’t quite so dramatic (or profane), but similar. This was a dog that spent his youth chasing squirrels until he was damn near death, and now all of a sudden he couldn’t even walk? Again, I go back to Rock and ask “What kinda f***ed up s*** is that!” It was awful. It was painful. It was the saddest thing I can ever imagine witnessing.
Of course if Oscar were any normal dog, he would’ve made it easy for the family, and let us know it was that time. Unfortunately, much like his owner, he was stubborn as hell and wouldn’t go down without a fight. He remained incredibly vibrant, and incredibly, well, full of life into his final months, even as he barely left bed except for walks. He still barked every time he heard someone at the door (or in his last few weeks, when he thought he heard someone) and ate every last bit of his food (he was an undercover fat kid until the bitter end). In some ways, he was still the dog I’d grown up with. Not many, but some.
But eventually even we couldn’t rationalize anymore and decided awhile back that this would be the week that we said goodbye. Our family planned it. We discussed it. And on a personal note, I was actually ok with it. He was 15, and it was just his time. Nothing to be sad about here.
And that’s honestly how I felt up until Oscar’s final few hours. The weight of what we were doing finally did hit me on Monday night, when I stopped in to see him, kneeled down to pet him and it hit me: “Wow, this is the last night he’ll sleep in this house.” I followed up by bringing him McDonalds the next day for breakfast (for old times’ sake, of course), and my mom cooked him a steak for dinner. My grandma, the woman who told my mom “Your kids have lost their grandmother” when we first got him, even stopped by and sat beside him for a while.
A few hours later we were at the vet, and saying our goodbyes. Admittedly, the process was a lot harder than I ever expected.
Look, the truth is that I’m 26-years-old (soon to be 27) and trust me when I say, I’ve seen some shit. I’ve had close family members die, close friends die, seen tragic accidents, I mean, I’ve been there. Still- and I hate to be dramatic- but nothing was quite like this. No matter how much you prepare mentally, you’re never going to be ready for the moment when you decide to take the life of someone you love some much. You start questioning dumb things you haven’t questioned in months, stuff like “Is this what he really wants?” “Could we have done anything else?” “Can he hold on for a little while longer?” Even if you know the answers to those questions, it doesn’t make the process any easier.
Thankfully, Oscar let us know, as even staring death in the face he was braver and nobler than most people will ever be. For a dog that spent his last few weeks at home sporadically crying and whining (maybe from pain, maybe from discomfort, maybe from loneliness), he was remarkably calm at the vet’s office. In the moments that we all said our final goodbyes he had the same, “I got this, don’t you worry” attitude that he did the day we got him. A few minutes later he was dead, just days before his 15th birthday.
As I reflect back on my time with Oscar, I can’t help but think of what a full life he lived. Nineteen-ninety-seven (the year he was born) was a long time ago, and he sure did do a lot of fun stuff in those 15 years. To put things into a sports perspective, when Oscar was born, LeBron James wasn’t a highly criticized NBA veteran, but a 13-year-old middle-schooler in Akron. Derek Jeter had one ring as a member of the New York Yankees. Want to hear something really crazy? Our family got the internet at our house just a few months before we got him (yes, teenagers of America, there was a time, not so long ago actually, when folks didn’t have the internet in their houses, let along on their phones). Not to mention that he also visited New Orleans before Katrina and New York before 9/11. Once he gets to heaven, Oscar will likely be the most cultured dog there.
In the big picture, I can say that I’ve never met a dog who was more loved. Actually, I take that back: I don’t know of a single person or animal that was more universally loved. Not just by friends and family, but by complete strangers, neighbors and people like my grandma, who hated dogs for the first 81 years of her life before opening her heart (not to mention her refrigerator… repeatedly) for him. I can’t think of one person who Oscar met that he didn’t touch.
On a personal note, I can’t even tell you the stuff I’ve gone through since the day we got him; that dog was by seriously by my side for everything. He saw me grow from insecure, quite teenage kid to the man I am today. He was there for my middle school graduation, my high school graduation and my college graduation. He met every significant girlfriend I’ve had in my life and even stuck around to see me publish my first book. I quite literally don’t have a single memory of my life before we got him.
At some point, there will be more dogs in my life. But there’ll never be another one quite like him.
Oscar buddy, I can’t tell you how much I miss you.
Thank you for everything. You did so much more for me, than I could’ve ever done for you.
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