In a boy’s life, there are a number of rites of passage allowing him, in some sense, to become a man. There’s his high school graduation, his first car, and his 21st birthday, to name just a few. For me, however, each has come with great ceremony but no great sense of growth. I feared it might only be at my retirement party that I no longer felt like a little kid anymore. Until my dog died.
Ever since I argued with my fifth grade religion teacher, who claimed dogs had no souls and thus could not go to heaven, I’ve been preparing myself for the day my dog’s life would end. Every time I went back to Georgetown after a break at home, I assured myself that if this was the final goodbye, it would be enough. But all that preparation was still inadequate to deal with what feels like your childhood being ripped away from you like an old Band-Aid.
I had Rocky since the fourth grade, and through everything since then, every accomplishment and every failure, he played the role of the painfully selfless companion to a tee, tying together a family and asking only for an occasional stomach scratch in return.
Without words, he taught me how to be a friend and how to be compassionate—traits that define manhood—much more than a cake or diploma could. Without him, I’ll have to uphold his Mufasa-like lessons, despite my sadness in seeing his empty spot next to the couch.
Going home on break will never have the same appeal. Despite my parents’ best efforts, no one was ever quite as excited to see me home as Rocky, who, without fail, would barrel down the stairs at the sound of the front door and dance around me until I could put my bags down and kneel down with him.
My feeling of being home was always best epitomized by the sound of his 85-pound body hitting the ground with a “Hmph” when he had circled his spot on the rug enough and was ready to lie down, as if he couldn’t be bothered to lie down slowly, or with any measure of grace.
Nothing is pulling me home strongly anymore. I can see my parents anywhere, and I can call them whenever I want. My brother has his own apartment, and my sister can visit me any weekend. It was always Rocky that excited me about breaks, because he was what was unique about being home, what I couldn’t get anywhere else.
Without that, going home isn’t what it used to be, and despite holding on to my childlike excitement for Christmas morning (which I probably will maintain throughout my retirement), I won’t be nearly as eager for winter break.
Not having Rocky home has made the prospect of graduation, fully moving out, and being an adult a lot less difficult to consider. And so, though he’s not there to nudge my hand when I momentarily stop petting him, he plays an essential role in helping me adjust to necessary changes, as he did when I started high school, or applied to colleges, or left for Georgetown. His absence is doing now what his steady presence had always done in the past.
In his last feat of saintly selflessness, Rocky assured us in his own way that putting him down was the right thing to do. Though I would love to make him give me his paw one more time, I don’t think I’d bring him back if I could. I could not have asked for better a time or a better dog, and sad though it is to see him go, it’s something everyone must go through.
I consider myself lucky that his inevitable death came while I was a senior in college, when I needed to be able to surrender ties to my childhood home. Though it’s tough, it beats waiting until I can rent a car to consider myself an adult.