Saturday, August 22, 2009


I received a call late yesterday afternoon from my mom. I was still at work, and it was absolutely the wrong space to call me and deliver that sort of news, but she was in a hurry, and didn't have a choice. She and my dad were calling each of us. J., T., and I, to let us know that the family pet, Shiloh, had been increasingly ill all week, and they were on their way to the veterinarian, where, if he was suffering at all, they would have him put down.

Shiloh has been with us since I was in seventh grade. My parents were big on responsibility, and when their three children began making noise about getting a pet, it became a teaching opportunity. There was research involved. We could each choose the sort of pet we were interested in, and we would then need to present our parents with a fact sheet on the pricing, care and supplies necessary for the type of pet we were interested in. J. famously researched a ferret, absolutely convinced that this would be the best pet ever. I believe that idea was shot down because ferrets aren't always the greatest with babies, and, at the time, mom was providing child care for a baby of a friend in our home a few days a week.

Fact sheets led to our first air-breathing pets (we'd had tropical fish for quite some time), given to us by friends. Brent and Jack were the first in a succession of hamsters, with whom we did all sorts of things. We put them in one of those clear plastic "hamster balls" and let them roll all over the house. (One of the hamsters, I don't remember which one, always headed straight for the stairs and rolled himself down the staircase.) There were the inevitable bites. The forcing them to squish up their bodies so that we could laugh as they crawled through the tubes from a roll of toilet paper. The fights over who's turn it was to clean the cages. The most famous incident in family hamster lore is the suicidal hamster, whose wheel was attached to the side of his cage. He would climb the wall of the cage like a ladder, lay on his back on top of the wheel, and roll himself off, headfirst. He was found one morning, in a little heap. The suspicion has always been that he landed just the wrong way while playing his dangerous little game one night, and broke his neck.

Somehow, the hamsters convinced mom and dad that we were capable of more responsibility, and, when I was in seventh grade, we started visiting the local animal shelter, looking for a dog. Dad had grown up with dogs, and I think he wanted that experience for his children as well.

Shiloh caught all of our attention. He wasn't crazy or barking, but genuinely seemed to like people. There was a waiting list, and we weren't the first, but we were delighted when we were called and told that we could come meet him privately, and see if he was a match. He was.

There are so many memories of Shiloh. We're fairly certain that he'd been abused and abandoned before we adopted him. When we first got him, we weren't certain how housebroken he was, and the first full evening we needed to go out, we shut him in the laundry room in the basement, where the cement floor wouldn't come to any harm should an "accident" occur. He panicked. We came home to no mess, but the back half of the door was chewed off to about half-way up. If we'd been gone much longer, he'd have made it through the front door.

There were years of fighting over who had to "scoop" - the dreaded job, especially in the spring when everything that had built up between snowstorms had melted to the grass.

And there were annoying moments. He was a lover of people, and a lover of people food. He stole more than his share of treats over the years (half the filling of TWO pumpkin pies, a bunch of fruitcakes, a variety of cookies, a few steaks, and other treats). He had this annoying habit of expressing his joy at seeing you by running at you full speed, barking with glee. (He scared a lot of little kids this way, despite being the most gentle animal ever.) He'd whine and beg if you didn't pay enough attention to him, and one of my favorite of his habits was the way he'd plant himself in front of you when you were sitting on the couch, and wait until you scratched his chest with your foot. If you did it a while, and stopped before he was ready, he'd lift a front paw and bat at your foot, with this look in his eye that said, "you still need to pay attention to me."

I'll be forever thankful that I stopped at my parent's house after work last night. I wasn't sure what I'd find, since I hadn't heard from them since mom had made that first call. They were at home, and so was Shiloh. The vet wasn't able to see them until 10 p.m. last night. I had dinner with mom and dad and an aunt and uncle and got to spend a few times saying goodbye to Shiloh, just in case. I asked mom not to call me last night. I didn't want the news right before needing to sleep.

I waited until an appropriate time this morning, and then I called to find out what had happened. Our pet died last night. Peacefully and quietly, at the vets office.

Mom and I cried together on the phone. Shared a few memories. And a few moments of laughter.

And, the we started talking about our plans for the day. And that was really the moment when I had to laugh instead of cry. One of the things mom was thinking about doing was returning a recently purchased, unopened bag of dog food. My imagination ran away with me as I pictured the scene, and I couldn't help but laugh at the thought of the poor clerk serving her today. "What's the reason you're returning this?" "Well, our dog died last night." I've worked retail for a lot of years, and I just wouldn't know what to say when presented with that as a reason for a product return. And mom and I laughed and laughed at the thought of that poor sales clerk!

Maybe my sense of humor is twisted, but I needed that thought this morning.

I must say that I found myself surprised at the capacity my heart had to love Shiloh. (Whom I mostly referred to in my fonder moments as baby.) To be honest, he was mostly an annoyance to me for the last several years. A leg injury a few years back, and some renovations in my parent's house shrunk his world until it really consisted of only the kitchen and backyard, and he made his inability to be with "his people" known through an annoying habit of whining and barking. I wasn't expecting to grieve quite like this for a pet.

But he's been part of our family for a lot of years. For most of the really and truly formative years of my life. And hearing my mom describe the last little bit of his life to me was both beautiful and heart-ripping.

Goodbye Shiloh. You were very much loved, a part of our family, and you'll be missed.