By Jeffrey C. Turbitt
I lost a member of my family this week. There won't be a funeral. There will be no well wishers. No one will wear black. Some will even casually dismiss as absurd the melancholy that permeates my soul right now. You see, Shelby Turbitt wasn't my wife, child, parent, aunt or uncle; she was "just" my beloved dog for twelve years.
Shelby greeted me every time I walked in the door. She walked on the Oleai Beach Path with me. She watched television with me. When the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, the first time they did so in my mature lifetime, she got as excited as I did -- she just didn't know why. Friends move, stop calling or start ignoring our emails, but our pets are always there, especially if we take care of them -- at least for the relatively short time on Earth they grace us with their presence. She went to the vet each year. She was spayed. She got her preventative medicine. That gave her a relatively long and healthy life. I would urge all pet owners to find a way to do the same. In return for that investment, our pets add a bit of a soft touch to us -- even to a cynical SOB like me. They make us smile. They do things like give sight to the blind and teach children about love, loyalty, friendship and responsibility. They also act as companion to a lot of lonely senior citizens that tend to be forgotten.
It is indeed true that animals aren't people, and lots of good arguments can be made that we dote on them excessively. I "get that" on a pure reason basis, but we people aren't just Apollonian and guided only by reason. We have a Dionysian side that makes us human, not robot, and that makes the pain I feel very real and not the least bit diminished by any rational arguments from those purely practical people capable of minimizing this event -- an event that traumatizes many people who probably feel they need to hide their very real grief.
As couples tend to marry and have children later in life these days, pets tend to become surrogate children. Pet spending has doubled in the U.S. from $17 billion in 1994 to more than $34 billion today. When real children enter our lives, pets do tend to take that backseat. I noticed that trend myself. Shelby understandably went from being the only other living thing in my erstwhile bachelor pad, at least if I cleaned away the mold in the bathroom that week, to the dog that was part of a human family of four. She wasn't as prominent in my life. My older boy took on more of that role as her prime companion, but she and I still had all that history.
I still remember shamelessly walking with her when she was a puppy in the parks near Rutgers University in my mid-twenties for the express purpose of meeting college women. It worked, too. She was a great ice breaker. Every woman I dated had to pass the Shelby test. I knew I was going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to deal with than her, so she was a pretty good filter for potential romantic partners. When I took her into my life, I never imagined becoming an overseas teacher, but that was what I decided to do. I thought briefly about giving her up given the complex journey I was about to make, but she had woven herself into the fabric of my life way too deeply, so I brought her to travel the world with me. I like to joke that this little dog spread fertilizer further and wider than the John Deere Corporation.
In humans our hearts are our weakest organs -- perhaps our pets play a role in softening them. In our pets, kidneys are their weakest organs. Kidneys filter away toxins, kind of like Shelby did for me. Hers began to fail. The veterinarian noticed she was having trouble concentrating her urine a few months back, but there were no other symptoms, and I was never going to do any radical steps to extend her life anyway. I don't believe in that even for people, really. She continued on without any sign of anything unusual for a few months. All of a sudden, I noticed she had lost weight -- weight she perhaps could afford to lose given how well my wife fed her, but there really was not much else pointing to a problem. In a blink of an eye it seemed, she went into kidney failure, vomited blood several times and died quickly and naturally in the middle of the night as I petted her and begged God for a miracle -- or at least to ease her pain. It was a harrowing experience. Nature and the circle of life can be a cruel and relentless mistress. It hurts really bad. There is a scene in Pulp Fiction where Butch asks Marcellus Wallace, after their encounter with the hillbillies, if he is "OK." Wallace responds, "I'm pretty f****ng far from OK." I feel a lot like Wallace right now.
Good night sweet girl. You touched me more than you could ever know.