My dog’s ashes are currently in a small silver gift box on my bookshelf. I loved my dog, but I hate that ugly box and its stupid tassel.

When my husband and I decided to cremate Bernie, we thought we would scatter his ashes along one of his favorite hiking trails, but doing so is illegal where we live. I hated the idea of us furtively dumping a baggy of remains in the always-crowded park. It didn’t feel like an appropriately jubilant celebration of his life.

I thought about burying his ashes under the orange tree where he liked to sit and bark at our neighbors during his last years. But when it came time to do it, I couldn’t, fearing that when we moved out of our rented home in a few years we’d lose our last physical connection to him.

So Bernie remains in the box on my shelf, a source of guilt and ambivalence, just as he was in life.

We adopted Bernie four-and-a-half years ago in the fall, a week after I miscarried a second pregnancy. I thought, if I can’t mother a human then I will mother a dog. An animal activist saved Bernie from certain euthanization at the shelter. He was a small mutt, probably more of a daschund than anything else. Animal control picked him up on the side of the road. His caramel-colored muzzle was spotted with scrapes and his hip was broken. I answered the activist’s ad and then Bernie, already fully grown, limped into my life and became my dog-son.

Bernie sat by my side through a third miscarriage that winter. In the dark months that followed, when I went outside, it was to walk him, and seldom for any other reason. He was fastidiously cared for and adored without restraint. When he and I were home alone together, I used to wrap him up in a blanket and rock him like a baby.

Early in the summer, I became pregnant for a fourth time and suffered my first case of morning sickness. I threw up so often that my vomit was streaked with blood from my esophagus, which was worn raw by bile. Around the same time, Bernie started throwing up a lot too. I joked that he had a doggy-form of Couvade Syndrome, the condition that causes sympathetic pregnancy symptoms in fathers.

When I was three-months pregnant and beginning to think that I might finally be having a baby, Bernie was diagnosed with canine lymphoma and given six-months to live, putting his death date as the same as my baby’s due date. He hadn’t been my dog for a year yet, but I couldn’t let him go. He slept between my husband and I in bed, his doggy breath warm on my cheek.

I shouldn’t have told my elderly and cheerless grandmother that I was putting my dog through chemotherapy to treat his cancer. “That’s stupid,” she snapped. “Let that poor dog die.” My grandmother comes from a time when every veterinary imperfection was remedied with a shotgun, but I worried that she had a point. She is an authority on living life past its expiration date.

Bernie’s cancer went into remission and he survived to meet my daughter. Then, amazingly, he held on to his remission to meet my son twenty months later. But living that long wasn’t easy on him, and it took its toll on us too.

Being a full-time caretaker to two children so young and a profoundly needy dog was hard. Bernie had regular visits with a veterinary oncologist and a shoebox full of meds. I learned to give him injections and mitigate side effects before he felt them. Midway through my son’s infancy Bernie earned the nickname, “The Straw,” as in, the straw who broke my back.

His behavior became erratic as he grew older and sicker. Once, Bernie escaped down the street and I had to chase after him with a baby under each arm. Since I was mid-diaper change when Bernie bolted, my son was peeing on me as I ran. Then, somehow, I caught the dog and had to carry all three of my charges home as urine dripped down my arm.

My husband and I joked that everything was Bernie’s dying wish: getting the crust of my sandwich, a quick walk around the block, or having his own patty on burger night. We laughed, but every Saturday that I didn’t take Bernie to the park, it felt like I was depriving him of his last chance for joy. He was a guilt trip on four legs. He needed so much from me. But whenever it felt like too much, I’d remember that he tolerated enough manhandling from the kids to make him eligible for doggy sainthood.

Bernie lived for more than three years after his diagnosis, attacking delivery people and chasing squirrels until one morning last fall when he was abruptly drained of his fire. If Bernie really did have a dying wish, it was probably to be an only child on his last outing. Our neighbors babysat while my husband and I took Bernie on a one-way trip to the vet. I held him as he drew his last breath then thought to myself how grateful I was that it was my dog dead in my lap and not one of my real children.

Now my guilt trip on four legs is a guilt trip in a silver gift box that I can’t throw away. I’d rather remember him from the professional portraits taken early in his cancer treatment, before the chemotherapy deprived him of his whiskers and eyebrows, or, more importantly, before he was ignobly outranked by newborns.

But I’m stuck with that tacky box, the best and worst reminder of “The Straw.”

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JJ KEITH's writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus.Net, Babble, The Hairpin, Alternet and Huffington Post. She has performed with The Moth, Expressing Motherhood, Write Club and others.

Keith holds a Masters of Professional Writing from USC, where she was also a full-time lecturer in the undergraduate writing department. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

6 responses to “Dog in a Box”

  1. JSBreukelaar says:

    A truly moving tale of doggie-love and loss amidst hard-won gain. I belong to a seasoned Bull Terrier chewing the scenery through his Fifth Act—I just found out that his eye drops have gone up to $200 a bottle. I can only imagine what your grandmother would say.

  2. Brit says:

    A moving piece!

  3. Rachel Pollon says:

    As you can see from my picture, I’ve got a thing for the canines also. That is some good love they provide, and bring out of us. I have my previous dog’s ashes in a decorative faux rock out in our backyard. My other dogs pee near it. I wonder if it’s disrespectful, but I’m glad to see him out there. I’m sorry for your loss. So wonderful about your children.

  4. Absolutely in love with the writing. Moved, engaged, teary and laughing. Great job.

  5. Julie Giese says:

    I found this quietly moving. An unapologetic look at how love and need sometimes dictate actions we may in fact be ambivalent about, and a great example of how pared-down language can effectively communicate depth of feeling. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. p.c. says:

    Beautiful Bernie-Great writing.

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