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  • Writer's pictureLiz Weiner

Mourning The Dog I Never Had

I regret not adopting you

Photo by Honest Paws on Unsplash

My brother got a puppy yesterday, to whom I am a proud auntie. If I am being honest, I’m more elated with the new puppy than when my nephew was born. Maybe because I feel closer to Marc than my other brother, or perhaps because I like dogs more than people.

Marc waited 20 years to be in the right place in his life to take on this responsibility because he wanted insisted on doing everything the “right way.” He reminds me of my single 24 year-old-self who became whole the moment I adopted Tovi; only I wasn’t nearly as responsible and prepared as he is now. Still, it worked out, and better than any other relationship I’ve had — he was my “once-in-a-lifetime dog.”

I’m shamelessly living vicariously through Marc as I have the privilege to witness him change through the love of a dog. Maybe it is especially meaningful because I missed out on that attachment this dog around, having adopted a dog I can’t seem to connect with. A dog who is deeply troubled, forcing me to be the strong one — a role I was not prepared for. Four years later, she remains a burden more than a friend and my mental health has further declined as a result of being a caretaker for such a dog. I know how bad this sounds, but I speak the truth even when it’s not pretty.

I called Marc to see how their first day was going, and he told me she cries a lot because she misses her mom and siblings. I thought about how confusing it must be for a dog to be taken from all they know and placed in a brand new environment: grief, confusion, and fear all swirling around her head. My heart broke for her. He assured me that she would be OK in time, but this is part of the adjustment period. “It’s especially sad that what she misses is no more,” he said. “All of the puppies went to their new homes. She has no normal to return to. Everything changed, only she doesn’t understand that.” It’s hard enough when we do understand that we miss something there is no going back to. I can’t imagine yearning for a life that we think waits for us.

My mind — face dripping with tears from the dormant memory that awoke — shifted to the night I Simon slept over as a trial adoption, so to speak. I met Roxanne through my local shelter’s website in a section devoted to people looking to rehome pets directly, bypassing the shelter admission.

Rachel’s father had died a few months earlier and her elderly mother, who was getting ready to move into assisted living, couldn’t care for Simon. Living in a rural area, Simon had spent most of his days outside — time he used to spend out there with Rachel’s father, but now he was alone. No more McDonald's runs in the old pickup where he stuck his head out the window and took in the cool breeze and delicious smells of the drive-through. Simon and his dad were inseparable, and now it was just him; he had lost his life partner.

I had lost my soul dog the week before I met Simon. If I’m being honest, I contacted Roxanne the day after Tovi died. I wasn’t ready, but I was in what I can only look back on now and describe as an anxiety fueled manic state, truly believing another dog would take the unbearable pain away. I couldn't stand to sit with pain then — terrified of any uncomfortable emotion, I ran to find something, anything, to numb the pain. Plus, Simon eerily resembled Tovi, and in my mind, I thought he could replace him… As if relationships just transfer. Nothing about that time resembled rational thought.

A week after we spoke, Rachel and her husband drove out to her mother’s house and took Simon on a road trip to meet me and Jason, his potential new owners. At the sound of the doorbell, I turned the knob and opened the door to be greeted by Simon, who trotted right in, tail high. He casually walked around checking out this unfamiliar home — even gently greeting our cat — but he was more aloof than I had expected for our first meet. Those were my unrealistic expectations, though. I expected fireworks to go off between us— I now know that's not how it works. Expectations and assumptions kill what could be. I didn’t think in grays then — my mind could be summed up as an old black and white television from the ’50s that was dumped into this decade. I was stuck in a mindset that wasn’t on par with my wise, responsible, adult mind, transported back to a childlike state of needing everything now or crumbling into a tantrum. He wasn’t Tovi; there was no magical fairy-tale reunion like the one I had made up in my head.

Assuming it was just a meet, I wasn’t planning on adopting him right then and there, but Rachel seemed to think that was the plan. Although I never felt pressured, she wondered if I would want to keep him for the night as a sort of trial. I was a little hesitant because I didn’t get that “You’re my dog” feeling, but I figured I had nothing to lose. As he scratched his unkempt body, dragging his overgrown nails against our recently refinished wood floor, I silently worried he would damage it. Don’t think I don’t know how awful that sounds and how much I regret that thought.

The moment Rachel left, it hit me that I wasn’t ready. All day, Simon jumped on the glass panes beside the front door, whimpering to get outside. I worried he would damage the glass. It was clear he didn’t want to stay inside, and I didn’t have a fenced-in yard — at a minimum — for him to have at least some supervised free time outside. Despite the gazillion long walks I had taken Tovi on every day — walks that I lived for — I decided he needed a home with a yard. (As if he couldn’t adjust to life on a leash.) I wrote him off as needing to live in a more rural area. I convinced myself he could never be content being inside. His whimpering continued throughout the night, and I got no sleep.

That morning he had to go. I was exhausted and his presence only caused me to miss Tovi more. He felt like a stranger in my home that looked like Tovi but wasn’t him. I was broken then, I looked alive, but I was dead inside and now burdened with another layer of shame — ashamed of yet another poor choice and a previous twenty-four hours I yearned to forget ever happened. I told no one about this.

Early that morning, we drove for an hour through a torrential downpour to bring him back to Rachel’s house. The kind of rain that you can’t see the car in front of you, but I couldn't wait until it cleared up. I couldn’t wait for anything at that time. Just like driving through that rain, I couldn’t see clearly. And the tears made everything even more blurry.

It took me a few weeks (and after I had adopted the wrong dog and was now committed) until I found myself mourning the loss of Simon. He would have made a great dog—a great hiking partner. But I couldn’t do it. It was too soon, and his grief was triggering mine. We had both lost someone we loved deeply. Our entire worlds as we knew them had shattered. And I didn’t know how to empathize then, too wrapped up in my own pain to realize he too was grieving and that relationships take time to build, and I didn’t give him that space. I had failed at being a dog mom.

Looking back, I’m ashamed that I expected him to just be my dog when I knew him for less than twenty-four hours. He must have been confused and terrified in my unfamiliar home, and I didn’t give him the chance he deserved.

I’ve since gotten a job as a shelter, and I know better. Dogs can take a long time, understandably, to adjust, which is normal. As I hear myself telling prospective adopters these words, it hits me every time how much I wish someone told me. I stress this at every adoption, perhaps because I know all too well what can happen if a proper adjustment period isn’t respected. Just because Tovi fit right into the puzzle of my life, not all dogs are like that, nor should we expect them to be.

This was close to four years ago, and the memory continues to haunt me. A week after Simon, I ended up impulsively adopting Millie, a 5-month-old dog. She turned out to be…let’s just say, behaviorally challenged and a terrible fit for this baseline anxious owner. In my rational mind, my internal checklist included a box for an adult dog whose personality was developed so I could make an informed decision — I never dreamed of adopting a puppy and the baggage that comes with it, especially with her. But I needed a dog that day, so I went into a shelter and literally called, “dibs!” on the very first dog I saw. I would never suggest making a decade+ decision like this.

If I thought I was broken then, Millie’s presence killed me. And four years later, I still struggle to feel genuinely attached to her. I fantasize about what life might have looked like if I had adopted Sweet Simon, and my heart fills with shame and regret. I didn’t know it then, but he was meant to be my dog.

I’m disappointed in myself for not giving him time. I often feel like I am being punished with Millie. Why hadn’t I kept Simon a few more days? Why had I blocked out the part about the adjustment period when a new — and in this case, grieving — dog came into my life?

I was so broken then. I was a shell of myself. All rationality in my mind had gone into dormancy, and it wouldn't come back for some time. I wreaked havoc on my life, and for a day, his. I often wonder what happened to him — but just for a millisecond because it hurts too much to stay there.

I wish I knew then what my brother knows now: That crying is normal and won’t last forever. That this dog’s world had turned upside down and the weight of confusion and fear that must have been swirling around in his head. That we could adjust and grow together. That relationships take time to build, and if given the chance, we could have gotten to know each other and grown each other.

I don’t know how to make amends. I suppose the closest thing to amends is the advice I give to new adopters to set them up for success. I don’t know how to forgive myself, so I move forward as I have for the last four years, with a heavy heart. I hope he found the home he deserved, yet I don’t want to know where he ended up. If it is in a great home, while I would be thrilled for him, I will grieve what could have been. If he didn’t fare so well, well, I couldn’t handle knowing that, knowing the life we could have shared.

Wherever you landed, Simon, I hope you are happy.And I will never stop missing you.

Written by Elizabeth Weiner

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