A Devastating Loss

“Angel came down from heaven yesterday; she stayed with me just long enough to rescue me.” The words are Jimi Hendrix’s. I’ve been listening to the song for the past eight months dreading this day. I began to hum them the day I learned Penelope would die as a result of her lymphoma.

Penelope was a border collie. For just over 11 years, she was by my side. Now she is gone. I am broken.

She was pure joy, an energetic and eager friend who never walked when she could run, who sprang to her feet whenever I so much as moved. She was always in search of work; I became that work, and she gave my all the loyalty she had.

Love defines us, and, somehow, this dog taught me things about love I hadn’t really learned before. She trusted me completely, and I worked never to violate that trust. She did not understand the silken words of an advocate. She trusted actions, consistency, and was a close student of my every gesture

Many years ago, I owned a dog named Xanthippe; she was named after Socrates’ wife, a woman so difficult, the reports go, that he was driven to the streets to philosophize, rather than stay home. I was not ready for a dog when Xanthippe stayed with us. We put her up for adoption after a disastrous year.

But I was ready for Penelope.

She was named after the patient and long-suffering wife of Odysseus. While he wandered home from Troy, Penelope waited for him, loyally fending off the many suitors who hoped Odysseus had died, and that they could take his wife as their own. She worked at her loom, promising the suitors that when the shroud she was weaving was done, she would choose a new husband.

Many years had passed since Odysseus had gone missing.

By day, she wound the shroud’s warp and woof, but by night, when the suitors slept, she undid the day’s work. She was faithful, you see.

I liked the image of this lover waiting for me throughout the days of my life, and I imagined the two of us growing old together, somehow fooling myself into believing that we’d age and die at the self-same rate.

We nearly lost her just after she was born. The veterinarian’s face tensed during Penny’s first check up. A heart defect. We had a decision to make, and we opted for surgery at Tufts, in Boston. She was one of the smallest animals ever to have the surgery.

Within weeks, she was bounding around, wild with excitement about everything. Years later, she ran headlong into a branch, injuring an eye — more surgery. She’s been to the vet any number of times for dings, cuts and scrapes. Life with Penelope was full-contact sport.

We tried to work sheep with her for a while, but she was keen, too keen to be trained without serious effort of the sort a full-time lawyer could not sustain. One day, I was in a corral with her as we circled some lambs. She grabbed the rear leg of one, and ignored my command to release. I grabbed her by the neck and haunch, lifting her up. She looked startled, as though the Rapture had come. I swear I heard her giggle, although I know she could not have done so.

“I knew her grandfather,” a shepherd once told me. “She’s just like he was — stubborn.”

But I loved her just the same.

Penelope loved tennis balls. Whenever we were out on our land, she’d run to and fro searching for a stray. When she found one, she’d come running, always running, to drop it at my feet, and hunch down looking at me. She wanted me to throw it or kick it away from her, always in search of work.

She wore grooves in some of the fields we’d work, always running the same route, covered in spring mud, or leaping through deep snow. We worried she’d run herself to death in the summer’s heat.

She was ferocious when it came to me, a “resource guarder,” an animal trainer once told me. But when she knew she had me all to herself, she’d leap into my lap, tuck her head beneath my chin, and turn such that her stomach was up and ready for stroking. I’ve spent hours humming to her, even singing — never mind that I cannot carry a tune.

Our children were scandalized by how much my wife and I came to love her. I think they felt as though we had replaced them with her, and with her brother, born of the same litter, Odysseus.

“I guess in a way we did,” I once told my oldest. “You’ve all grown and fled the coop. We still have love to give.”

It’s hard to lose something you love. I cried each time a child left home; I’ve cried imagining saying goodbye to Penny. I’ve more tears yet to shed for her.

One of the veterinarians at Central Animal Hospital in North Haven gave us good advice about when to say goodbye to Penny. “She’ll tell you when she’s ready,” they said.

And it was so. She went from a bundle of constant energy, to having good days and then bad. Even at the end she could muster a joyful bark when I returned home. But then the long stares, the difficulty getting up, the effort to give her tail the smallest of thumps.

“Thank you, Penelope,” I’d tell her as we sat. “Thank you for all the love you gave me. Thank you for your patience and always being faithful. You made me a better man.” I slept on the floor with her the last few months, taking her in, sheltering her.

Her brother Odysseus is still home with us. He was so good to her as she lay dying, always hovering nearby to protect her. Like us, he now wanders alone, this time he’s looking for Penelope. So am I.


Also listed under: Journal Register Columns


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