I didn’t get poison ivy this summer. I usually get it from my back yard, which is a wooded lot in Illinois. Instead, while I was away in New York for an internship, my dog died and I picked up a violent variety of Manhattan crabs. There’s a coming-of-age anecdote there, if you look too closely.

I’m joking, of course — about the crabs, at least. My dog really did die. But the parents are fine — better than I thought they’d be since my dog collapsed at the dinner table. It’s pretty much just them in the house now — you know the gears of age are turning when you start worrying about your parents, and not vice versa. 

But I guess they’ve been dealing with the death of the dog longer than I have. They called me right after he collapsed and, yeah, I cried. But it really doesn’t hit you until you’re back in the old house and realize how quiet it is. Or you see the spot where the dog’s bowl used to be.

This isn’t an obituary for a dead pet, I promise. But it is a story about why the death of a family dog really matters.

I was in Washington Square, near New York University, when my mom called — the dog had a tumor around his heart. There’s no feeling quite like hearing your mother cry — it sticks you in the gut and stays there. I hung up quickly. I didn’t want her to hear my voice cracking.

Crying is fine in Washington Square, though; about a quarter of Manhattan’s crazies gather there daily. There was one lady chewing on her hand, and another man with a dead parrot on a leash, and me, a hirsute 21-year-old in hysterics over a golden retriever.

I know why I reacted that way, and it wasn’t just about losing a dog.

We bought the dog when I was 13. Mom put the kids in the pickup truck and drove out to McHenry, out in the country, to a farmer whose golden retriever just had a litter. I was going into eighth grade and it was the summer my cousin, Allie, came to stay.

Allie’s home life back in Boston wasn’t ideal, so for the summer she lived with us in Illinois. It seems sad now, but back then it was magical: We had the pickup truck, my older sister had just gotten her driver’s license, and every night that summer we could make it to McDonald’s before it closed and get ice cream for a dollar, which we’d eat in the truck bed while we looked out over the lake.

But suddenly it was already August. Eighth grade loomed just around the corner, and the light at the end of the tunnel was the puppy. He ran with us around the lake, he slept with us in the bed of the pickup.

And then, suddenly, I was 21 and in New York. Eight more summers had turned to fall and then winter without me even noticing.

And then the dog was dead. A tumor on his big, stupid heart. And it seemed that summer was dead. The weather was hot, but all it did was make my suit sticky. After graduation, there would never be another summer of freedom. But with the dog’s death, that summer before eighth grade came back. I smelled the tobacco smoke stuck to the truck’s interior. I saw the progression of constellations. I heard Allie crying on summer nights.

Washington Square was getting dark. I started walking to my apartment, but then kept walking. About 10, I reached Central Park, about 50 blocks north of my place. I don’t remember getting home. But the next morning, Thursday, I got a call from my cousin Allie. She would be in New York for about an hour the next day, en route to her home in Boston. Things with her parents had turned for the better years ago, so after she left that summer I rarely saw her. The call seemed like providence.

We planned to meet at some food festival in Midtown, before she hopped on the train at Grand Central. If I sprinted to the subway on my lunch break, I could catch her.

At about noon I snuck out of the office and loosened my tie. I was already sweating through my shirt when I got to the subway platform. I sweated even more when the train broke down somewhere between Union Square and Grand Central. And then, after a half-hour of waiting, I finally emerged from the subway. Allie’s text came through: She couldn’t get a hold of me and had caught an earlier train. Off to Boston.

It was about 12:45 p.m. I had to be back to work sometime in the next half hour, but I sat down at the food festival and had something to eat. I loved New York — the culture and cuisine were palliatives for loneliness and a low paycheck.

But here I was, crying into an artisanal, gluten-free pork-belly kimchi taco. Was this worth it? Being half a world away from home? Did I abandon my aging parents in an empty house for jazz concerts and fusion street food?

It’s not just about the dog. It boils down to this: Time moving forward can be a lot to handle, sometimes, and that’s OK. Each year feels shorter than the last. We lose people. Whole patches of our lives can only be remembered through the people we spent that part of our lives with. Like Allie, and in a way, like the dog. It feels like when we lose them, we lose a whole chunk of ourselves. But this doesn’t have to be true.

I wound up getting poison ivy, by the way, on some cliffs outside Boston, visiting Allie. I left New York a little early and made a trip of it. We had 99-cent ice cream — with beer, now — by moonlight on the cliffs. Then, a week later, I flew home, to my parents’ house. I faced the place where the dog’s bowl used to be. And I paid attention to the way things are today.

Tom West can be reached at tkwest@umich.edu.

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