Twelve years ago on my son Henry’s birthday, he got a puppy he named “Dixie.” She was an adorable brindle-bulldog mix, and Henry thought she was just the best girl ever. I still have the incredibly sweet Christmas ornament that Henry made that year with “Dixie” scrawled on it in glitter glue.
That year — the one following the birthday where he received Dixie — was a very hard one for Henry, and for all of us. Henry’s dad and I separated. And then the unthinkable happened. I was out walking Dixie (on a leash) in the parking lot of the apartment complex where the kids and I had moved temporarily, while the dust settled from the big changes in our family life, when Dixie — who was maybe 9 months old at that point — saw something. A cat, another dog…I still don’t know what.
But whatever it was, Dixie got super excited, and she yanked away from me, pulling the leash out of my hand and dashing directly into a car crossing the parking lot. She was hit in the head and died on the spot. It was HORRIBLE. The driver felt awful, I felt awful, and oh my GOD…having to tell Henry when he got home from school that day that I’d let his beloved Dixie get away from me and hit by a car ranks right up there as among the most painful, difficult conversations I’ve ever had with one of my kids about anything. And he was just heartbroken. It was truly awful.
After he quit crying, I told Henry that we could wait to get another puppy if he felt like that would be better, or we could start looking at shelters sooner — whatever felt right to him. Being a little kid, as sad as he was about Dixie, he was quickly ready to bring home a new dog pal.
So the next weekend we headed over to the animal shelter and checked out the available litters pf pups. One adorable, wiggly pile of 8-week-old puppy cuteness stood out immediately; there were 4 or 5 pups that all looked pretty much like purebred dachshunds…and then there was Fiat, a classic black and white Jack Russell terrier puppy who looked like the single adopted puppy in the litter of dachshunds. The shelter adoption lady explained to us that the mama dog had looked like a small mutt, but that clearly these pups had both dachshund and Jack Russell genes. While the doxie genes had dominated in this litter, some throwback JRT genes had decided to pop out in this black and white puppy.
And that’s how Fiat came home with us. Henry loved him from the moment he saw him: the “different” pup in the litter of conforming puppies. Henry chose the name Fiat because, like all Jack Russells, this new little puppy was a speedy thing, zipping all over the place. And since Henry’s father is a very avid hobby enthusiast of the (much maligned) Italian sports cars, the new puppy became “Fiat.”
Fiat the dog quickly proved himself to be just as quirky and unreliable as the small and sporty vehicles after which he’d been named. He chewed. He peed (and worse) everywhere despite our best efforts at crate training (well, we probably could have done a better job, but most dogs eventually would have figured this out, and Fiat NEVER did). He sometimes barked incessantly at imaginary things that only he saw. He dug. In short, he was a classic Jack Russell, with all the wacky little behaviors that make them such a funny but endearing breed.
Henry and I did try taking him to a 6-week dog obedience class when he was about a year or two old, but he flunked out. That’s right. On the night of the next-to-last class, the dog training instructor took Henry and me aside and said she’d be giving Fiat his graduation certificate early because she’d kind of prefer that he didn’t come back for the final class the next week. Henry and I found this hilarious, and he kept that fake graduation certificate for Fiat tacked onto his bedroom wall. But no matter how annoying Fiat was, he was always sweet to a fault, with the jolliest attitude you can imagine: sweet to kids of all types, and eager to love on whomever would let him wiggle and drool all over them.
But as much as he liked everybody, Fiat reserved his greatest love for Henry and Henry did the same. They LOOOOOOVED one another. For an entire decade, Henry and Fiat were inseparable. Fiat slept with Henry each night, and any time Henry was away for a few days — at his Dad’s, camp, wherever — Fiat was SO EXCITED to see his boy when he returned home. Fiat’s obnoxiously uncontrollable behavior never, ever improved. In fact, it’s possible that Fiat’s general ability to follow house rules got even worse as he got older.
During the 9 months that 17-year-old Henry was away for inpatient addiction treatment in 2009, Fiat was clearly depressed, and many of Henry’s letters home inquired about his dog and asked me to send him photos. During the 5 weeks that Henry spent in the hospital before he died in May of 2010, he asked again and again whether I would bring Fiat to visit him in the hospital. I asked, but the nurses weren’t so keen on the idea of a hyperactive, not-well-housetrained, overweight Jack Russell coming into their workspace, which I totally understood. But Henry never stopped asking about Fiat until that last week, when he lost the ability to speak at all.
When Henry died on May 31, 2010, his obituary mentioned all the things that were most important to him…including, of course, his relationship with his beloved dog, Fiat.
Last weekend, 24 months after Henry left us, so did Fiat. As a small-breed dog, he should have had at least a few more healthy years, but he declined pretty fast after Henry died. He never lost his good humor or unfailing willingness to pee anywhere he wasn’t supposed to, but he definitely lost a certain spark. And over the past six months, we started noticing that his hind legs were floppy and not working right. The vet diagnosed something called “Degenerative Myelopathy,” a progressive disease that would only get worse before Fiat could no longer walk at all. In a strange coincidence, Henry also died of a progressive demyelinating illness called “Delayed Post Hypoxic Leukoencephalopathy.”
Last week, I knew it was time for Fiat to go join Henry. Despite his high spirits, he was increasingly unable to walk, or to get back up if he lost his balance. He was not yet in any significant pain, but there is no treatment for Degenerative Myelopathy, so I didn’t want Fiat to get to the point where he was left helpless one day for several hours while we were all at work or school before anyone found him.
It was time.
So I called our vet and made the appointment, and on Saturday morning Fiat and I went alone together. I sat with him quietly while he passed and the staff at our veterinary clinic, knowing what I’d been through almost exactly 24 months to the day, gave me privacy to be alone with Fiat until he was gone. I held him in my lap, wrapped in a baby blanket he’d always liked to gnaw on. And I whispered in his ear that he would now get to go be with his boy again, who was waiting for him with a tennis ball. I told him I would catch up with both of them later.
And then he was gone. From here, anyway.
The other children are sad, but they understood that Fiat could no longer walk, and that he would now be with Henry. Jon buried him in a special place in the backyard, still wrapped in the baby blanket. Some time in the next week we will have a family “Celebration of Fiat” get-together, and tell funny stories about all the things he managed to pee on, chew to shreds, or otherwise destroy in his decade in our family.
And last night, for the first time in quite a while, I dreamed very vividly of Henry he was with Fiat and they were happy together.
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