Do Dogs Commit Suicide? Saying Goodbye to a Beloved Dog
For the past few months, readers have been asking what has happened to my “Rex and the City” columns, and, more pointedly, asking what happened to the dog we called Rex (his real name was Wallace). Well, the truth is, he died. Almost six years ago. His death was sudden and tragic and traumatic and I cannot write about it in detail because it is too sad. But, long story short: After five years of marriage, Ted and I finally divorced in 2002. It was the right thing to do, and Ted and I still love each other; but apparently Wallace did not think our divorce was the right thing to do. He died the day after I moved out.
Ted and I had agreed upon joint custody of the dog, and the plan was that I would take Wallace for the first two weeks after my departure. I’ll never forget the sense of both excitement and sorrow I felt as Wallace and I drove off to my new cottage in Hyde Park. I remember looking at him in the back seat and telling him that we were starting a new life, in a new house. “You’ll love it,” I told him. “We’ll be happy together.”
But that didn’t happen. My new life stopped almost as soon as it had begun. We arrived at the cottage late at night, and in the morning, he was killed by a truck driver, a contractor, going fifty miles per hour down our dead-end dirt road. I hadn’t even unpacked.
I have since heard many stories about pets dying—suddenly, mysteriously, and/or unexpectedly—shortly after their humans separate. Who can explain this? Do he not want to live without us, his trinity? Did he feel his job on earth was complete? Was it suicide?
I still don’t know. All I know is that I felt that not only had I lost my dog—I’d also lost the only pure love I’d ever had in my life. Dogs are love, period. Love on four legs.
I cried every day for two years.
The sense of loss was all-consuming. The pounds fell off me, eaten away by anxiety and sorrow. Plus, what was the point of eating if there was no dog to lick my plate? For months I grew more and more depressed, sinking into misery and into my bed, crying during the day, and even in my sleep, for I dreamed of Wallace constantly, sometimes seeing him maimed, sometimes believing he was alive again.
Then there was the guilt I felt for not protecting my dog, and the agony I felt at the fact that Ted totally blamed me. There was the anger at the man who had killed my dog, who had not even stopped until he realized he had reached a dead end. Then he had to turn his truck around and face me—me, who stood in front of his truck like that protestor at Tiananmen Square. I remember pointing my finger at him, my voice choked, my body heaving in shock, saying to him: you killed my dog. He accused m e of being a bitch, then grabbed my dog’s legs and dragged his body to the side of the road. “Don’t touch him!” I shouted, but it was too late. I stayed with the body for hours, until Ted got there—Ted who had to drive up from New York. I had had to call him and leave a message on his cell. On his cell! Our dog is dead. I’m sorry.
The electronic voice said: If you are satisfied with your message, please press 1. To re-record, press 2.
Oh, if only we could re-record our messages, and our entire lives. I would still be married and our dog would be 12 years old, a senior with a grey-muzzled face, happily hobbling down the sidewalks of Park Slope.
To send your message, press 3 for delivery.
I blamed the contractor. My anger turned into a crazed obsession as I contacted lawyers and plotted all sorts of revenge. But legally there was little I could do, because dogs are “property.” Apparently I “owned” Wallace, but we all know a human/dog relationship is not like that. We are stewards to their happiness and well-being. And they are steward to ours.
I became determined to prove this to the public and to the lawmakers. I called attorneys, newspapers, animal advocates, even the crazy lady in Brooklyn who had forty cats. But none of this brought Wallace back. He remained dead. I remained angry. And I guess I remained dead, too.
Meanwhile, readers and editors of Bark magazine kept asking when my next “Rex” column would appear. Believe me: I wanted to continue to writing about Wallace, because it would mean that, somehow, my beloved dog would live on. But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be witty. I couldn’t write light, humorous little stories about his cute doggie antics and comic dog-in-the-city episodes. Maybe next month, I kept telling my editors and myself. Maybe next month I’ll be “ready” to write about him again.
The Bark columns, to date, had covered only the first six months of Wallace’s life. I obviously had a lot to say about this dog. Sometimes one column might chronicle one short day in this dog’s rich and varied dog-life. I wrote about his first trip to Central Park; his first encounter with a man dressed like a hot-dog; his first experience being forced to dress like a drag queen for a doggie Halloween contest. I literally have hundreds of pages of notes about this dog (I’m talking more than five hundred!) and I would have been happy to write about him forever. Because I was writing about laughter and love.
Anyway, that was all cut short when he died. It’s not easy to write about someone who wasn’t supposed to die. Not like that.
There was so much I hadn’t yet written about: Marrying Ted, spending five years arguing with Ted; watching the dog get sick every time I tried to leave; and then, finally. Then the accident; calling Ted; Ted arriving at the scene, sobbing; Ted falling to his knees before Wallace’s body, saying “My boy, my boy.” Ted refusing to allow me to touch him. Me telling Ted I was sorry. Ted saying “Get out of my face.” Ted later refusing to let me have any of Wallace’s ashes. Me eventually stealing a small portion of the ashes, which Ted still doesn’t know about ’til this day.
No, I could not write about any of this. For time had stopped somehow. Sorrow, fear, and guilt kept me trapped. At one point I was so distraught I consulted an animal communicator. I guess I wanted someone to tell me that Wallace was okay somewhere, and that his death wasn’t my fault. She said this, and more. She said Wallace had come forth to be my helper. She said he had also come forth to learn two lessons: One was that people can be mean and the other was that people can offer unconditional love. (Boy, did he help me learn this, too).
She also said—and this is what gave me the most hope—that Wallace would come back to me. As another dog.
Thus, I began my search. I began to spend hours on the Internet, trolling through dogs on Petfinder.org. I had a few set criteria. The dog had to be a rescue and he/she had to be either a French Spaniel (what I believed Wallace to be) or an English setter/Springer Mix (what Ted believed Wallace to be). But anyone who has ever but the words “spaniel” or “setter” into the search engine at Petfinder knows that hundreds of images will come up. On any given day I might see 324 cocker spaniels, 276 Springers, a handful of Brittanys, one King Charles mix and four Clumbers. “Setter” brought up hundreds of English, Irish and Gordon Setters. I wanted them all. (French Spaniels never came up because they just aren’t that common in the States.)
I would search until the sun had set and the house was dark and there was nothing but me and a blue screen and 798 spaniels. I felt, in many ways, like some kind of porn addict, trying to find true connection in a lonely world. But for months no connection came, and I remained dogless. And empty. (Note that in all this time I never searched for a man!)
Rumi once wrote: “do not grieve for loss/because everything you lose comes back to you in a different form.” The problem was, back then, that I wanted Wallace to come back to me in the exact same form.
This can be an obstacle if you’re trying to adopt another dog. Every night I looked into the eyes of a thousand dogs and ask, “Wallace, is that you?” But I couldn’t find him, which left me bereft. Plus, how do you pick a new dog? Especially if you believe your previous dog was perfect and irreplaceable?
There were a couple of near misses: Polly, the sweet, half-blind Pit Bull mix who had been found stabbed and starving on the roof of an apartment building in Brooklyn. Arnold, the droopy-eyed Bassett I met a shelter in Hyde Park, N.Y. Café, an actual French Spaniel who had been relinquished by his guardians, a young couple who had divorced; neither wanted to keep the dog because he reminded each of the other. I never met Café—he was being fostered by a breeder in Montreal, Quebec—and yet to this day, he stays in my mind. I’m pretty certain he was meant to be my dog. And it would have been good karma to pick up a new dog right where my old one had left off. And yet I could never manage to “find the time” to drive up to Canada.
In 2003, I came very close to adopting an English Setter who looked exactly like Wallace, but my application was denied. (That is another long story. It took about six months to recover from that rejection.)
I once even found a dog named Rex! Rex was being fostered at the very same shelter at which I had found Wallace years before. This Rex—a Great Dane puppy—had mischievous blue eyes, and I immediately wanted him. But others had already expressed an interest—a young couple from the city. I watched them as they discussed whether or not they should get this Rex. In my eyes, they were Ted and me all over again, trying to figure out whether to follow their minds or their hearts. I sent them a silent blessing and drove off.
Around that time, I was approached by an editor who wanted to publish a book version of the columns. I was thrilled! Publishing a book had long been one of my dreams. So I spent months writing an expanded version of the columns, carrying the story through my divorce and Wallace’s death.
When I finished the book I was told that my acquisitions editor was leaving my publishing house, and that a new young woman was “inheriting” me.
And she didn’t particularly like the book. “Umm, there’s a problem,” my new editor said. “You see, we want a happy ending. We want you and Ted to be married, and we want Rex to be alive.”
“But this is a memoir,” I said. “It’s my life. This is what happened. You’re asking me to revise my life?”
She asked that I end my memoir in a different place, namely, at the moment Ted and I got engaged. This felt wrong. “I wanted a happy ending, too,” I told my editor. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”
“No one wants to read a book about a dead dog,” she said. (And note that this conversation took place two years before Marley and Me was published—the bestselling memoir about a dead dog :)
In the end, I was overruled by the publisher and my agent. And so, because I did not trust my own instincts, and because I trusted this editor, I agreed to cut my life story in half.
It took several months to write this half-memoir, and in that time I stopped searching for dogs on Petfinder. Part of the reason was that I was living in a cottage in Woodstock that had no internet service. Part of the reason was I felt icky about not being able to write the truth, which made me feel like a bad person, which made me feel I didn’t “deserve” another dog. But I think the main reason was—and it feels shameful to admit this in a dog magazine—I had started to enjoy the freedom of not having a dog.
This is what I did in my time between dogs: I traveled. I spent six months working as a decorative artist at a Buddhist retreat center in Colorado. I spent one summer at the Byrdcliffe artists’ colony in Woodstock, and another glorious summer at Edward Albee’s artist colony in Montauk, a hip seaside town that has no leash law. Every morning, I’d ride one of Albee’s rickety three-speed bikes down to the surfer’s beach and watch dozens of dogs frolic on the shore. (I called this “getting my dog-fix”). Back in the city, I went on countless dinner-and-movie dates with friends.
In my dog days, I’d have skipped the movie because I would have felt guilty about leaving Wallace alone in the apartment for so long. But now, I was “free” to a certain extent. I never had to get up four times in the night to take my diarrhea-boy out in the middle of a snow storm in February. I never had to risk getting poop on my hands if my plastic bag happened to have a hole in it. I never had to worry about smelling like dog drool or if my dinner guests were going to find white hairs in their food. All I had to do now in life was take care of myself and I definitely had more time on my hands. I could stay out for six, eight, ten hours.
But to what end? What price freedom? I still had no love, and no warm body weighing down the bed at night (note again that I am not referring to a man).
I missed having a dog most during my morning walks. Wallace had introduced me to that best of life habits, and I am happy to say that I kept it up even without a dog. But it always felt wrong. How could I walk without a dog when there were so many needy dogs out there in need of fresh air and exercise?
Only a dog person will understand how guilty I felt at walking without a dog, and also how it was neurotic it was that my two opposing forms of guilt prevented me from getting a dog. There was the guilt about not “saving” Wallace versus the guilt against not saving a new dog. If you’re Catholic or Jewish and a dog person, perhaps you will know what I mean.
Anyway, the lesser guilt won out, and I began a new dog-search in earnest. Oddly, once I began trolling through Petfinder again, my Wallace dreams resumed, and I would wake up sobbing every morning. I saw the same gruesome images over again. The dream-me was helpless; the dream-me tried to scream, but no sound came out. Nothing but guilt, guilt, horror, horror. I finally consulted a therapist, who said I was showing classic signs of Complex PTSD. (Hey, I’m a complex person.) This therapist advised me to consciously replace the traumatic images with happier ones.
It wasn’t so hard to come up with a happy memory of my dog. There were thousands, millions. There was one for every second of every day of the six years Wallace lived at my side. Watching him eat made me happy, watching him sleep made me happy, watching him kiss Ted sent me into the higher planes of joy.
Here is the image I chose: it was a sunny day on Cape Cod, just a few months before Wallace died. We were walking on a deserted beach—with a sky so blue and sand so white it hurt your eyes. I hadn’t officially left Ted yet, and the question of whether to leave or stay weighed heavily on my mind and heart.
But Wallace seemed beyond that question. For hours, he leapt into the surf, frolicked in the waves, and barked at the inert shells of horseshoe crabs. When gulls flew overhead he’d spring into the air, trying to catch them, and when a tern came along he tried to catch that, too. The tern, unperturbed, zipped and zoomed low along the shoreline, its wings positioned like those of a fighter jet. Wallace delightedly pursued the tern at top speed. The funny thing was that, instead of flying off to safety, the tern continued to zip back and forth along the shore. It seemed to be playing a game with my dog.
This went on for hours. I’ll never forget the sound of Wallace’s paws splashing in the wet sand, or the look of pure joy on his face as he chased his friend the bird. He seemed to know that I was unhappy, that I was on the verge of making a life-changing decision. Both he and the bird seemed to be telling me: joy is the means, not the end.
I remember thinking on that day that Wallace had never looked so completely and jubilantly alive. I remember thinking that everything would be okay if I left Ted.
So now I began to practice holding that image in my mind. Daily. Soon I began to cry less and laugh more. Soon, I was even able to say the word “dog” without sobbing. Mostly, I began to forgive myself. I began to remember that, to his dying day, Wallace knew I loved him. And I knew he loved me. No life can be more complete than that. To love and know love.
Fitzgerald once wrote: “There are many kinds of love, but never the same love twice.” He was talking about a girl, of course, but I believe the same applies to dogs. I also believe that, just as we change, our idea of the perfect dog can change too. I now know that I can never replace Wallace, but I can expand upon the lessons we had learned together.
So I am happy to report that I have found a new love: a French Spaniel mix named Chloe. She is perfect. There’s a long story behind how I found her—or rather, how she found me—but I shall save that for the future—my dog-filled future. And, even though it is hard to say goodbye to Wallace and goodbye to my column “Rex and the City,” it must be said and it must be done. For saying goodbye to one love is the only way to open up to another. So: goodbye, dear Wallace. And hello, dear Chloe. Perhaps this is the happy ending my editor wanted. It was there all along.