My dog Pip’s heart is leaking.
Mine is breaking.
Pip is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed predisposed to mitral valve disease, a degenerative heart condition that leads to congestive heart failure.
I knew this before I got him, and I’ve been proactive about his heart health. For years, he’s had biannual echocardiograms, and we never had a bad result.
Until last month.
The echo showed his heart had grown larger.
As if he wasn’t already the most big-hearted pup.
But that’s a sign the disease is progressing. His heart is working too hard.
Suddenly, mine was too.
The cardiologist reassured me his condition wasn’t dire, that with medication, I could extend his life two or three years more.
During the appointment, I remained calm, clear-eyed, practical. I ticked off my prepared list of questions. I thanked him.
Home alone, I burst into tears.
Can you grieve in advance?
That’s what it feels like: pre-grieving.
It hit me, hard, that I’m treating the disease that will kill him. How do I steel myself for a losing battle?
That night, I couldn’t help mentally rehearsing cardiac emergencies—what was my plan if he collapses? How will I get him to the vet fast enough? Should I know doggy CPR?
In the days following, I’d snap a particularly good photo of him and think, this will be one of the photos I’ll look at when he’s gone.
Why am I torturing myself?
I know I should live in the moment and cherish the time we have, but it’s so hard to forget that time is running out.
Fellow Cavalier owners always stop us on the street to say hello, often asking Pip’s age, and then express shock when I say he’s almost eleven.
“Wow! You’re so lucky!”
They may be right, but they’re freaking me out.
It makes me feel like I’m walking a countdown clock, one already in overtime.
My levels of cherishing this animal, high as a baseline, are now out of control.
I’ve interrupted writing this column a dozen times to cuddle him. The poor dog can hardly escape my constant affection. And I’m loath to leave him this summer.
My mom and I left for France a week after his echocardiogram, and I dragged her into every old church to light a candle and pray for Pip’s health.
My friend invited me to her pet-free beach house in August, and I’m dragging my feet on making arrangements.
Am I the only human to have separation anxiety from my dog?
I get that this is over the top. Nothing bad has happened yet; Pip’s fine, you wouldn’t know he’s sick. I feel stupid on top of sad.
And I’m self-conscious the cliché of a single woman obsessed with her “baby” pet. I found ways to blame myself: maybe if I were married or had a child, I would have a different perspective on all this. Or at least I wouldn’t go through it alone.
(Never mind that I was only alone because I was too shy to talk to any of my friends about it.)
I feel embarrassed to be so weepy. For an Italian, I’m missing the gene that allows myself operatic emotion.
I use rationality as a ladder out of excessive feelings. I knew this stage would come, he’s already lived a long life for a Cavalier, every dog has to die of something.
But my Pip?
Cue the orchestra.
Love isn’t rational. It can’t be reasoned into obedience.
Trying to adjust to Pip’s new diagnosis, I mistakenly believed that walking myself through emergency scenarios or visualizing life without him might soften the blow when the time comes. I thought, if I could pre-grieve his death, it would save me grief later.
But it won’t.
Neither would being married or having a child. If I have to accept that my dog will die, I also have to accept that I’m going to be a heartbroken, emotional mess when it happens. There are no mitigating circumstances.
Except maybe this:
They call your heart a “ticker,” but it doesn’t keep track of time like a clock.
Eleven years can feel like a heartbeat. But likewise, I need no ticks at all to remember my past pets: the grassy smell of our Goldens’ paws, the clicking of Ruby’s nails on the hardwood, the softness of my first cat’s peach-colored belly fur.
All that love for them, now for Pip, has given my heart quite a workout.
But it’s strong.
And while they don’t live forever, our love for them lives on in our hearts, recycled, reused, and revived with memory.
Copyright Francesca Serritella 2019