The first time I saw Carl was in his fourth week of life, a tiny English Bulldog with paws the size of caramels and a head too fat to squeeze through the bars of the baby crib he struggled to escape. The last time I saw Carl was ten years later on Christmas Eve, when I’d left him wrapped in a blanket on the cold linoleum of the vet’s office. A snub nosed shit-storm come to life as a well muscled bag of wrinkled dog flesh, Carl was the very best of us for an entire decade. He passed four days ago, and the asshole has left a considerable gap in my soul, one I shall fail to plug during the remainder of my holiday vacation with cheese, drinking in the bathtub, and this wayward attempt at a eulogy.
Fresh to Colorado and newly married, my wife and I drove for hours to steal Carl away from a breeder whose house smelled like yogurt and moldy TV Guides. It had that now-familiar brume of the over-tired dog breeders — the kind of folk with a maniac’s haircut, likely made their own soap, and wouldn’t mind sharing a popsicle with a doberman. Baby animals and their accompanying funk were wedged among the knickknacks and school photos, plastic dishwasher soap bottles converted into feeding devices, and much like the four-hour mark in a melatonin overdose — warm milk and red animal nipples could be seen from all corners.
Two boys remained in the expensive bulldog litter by the time we’d arrived, the well brindled Carl and the shrieking all-white bulldog whose tender belly was in Carl’s mouth. “Pick me, goddammit, or I’ll festoon this crib red with his insides,” his insane behavior seemed to say. “He is weak, and I am strong. I alone am worthy of love.” My wife and I looked at each other as if we were witnessing someone beat their children at a public rest area — unsure if we should interfere or simply place bets like the other rednecks. A hefty deposit and a short wait later, we carried him away from his champion show-dog parents and their equally bizarre titles.
“What’s his name?” the breeder asked as we closed her front door behind us.
“His name is Carl! Okay, bye!” Her face slackened as she learned that our boy was to assume a moniker nowhere as regal as Snow Pea, Princess of Courtney or Rolls Royce.
Beloved and charming everyone who’d ever laid eyes on him, Carl was our family avatar. Situated in every photo, asked about during every phone call, he grew into a massively strong and handsome bull-hound — an iron-thick skull and a face that looked like marshmallow chocolate poured over a pile of carefully placed rocks. I freelanced out of our home for the first six years of his life, Carl following me to and from the office for work, taking breaks and naps with me, and there was no finer a listener when I celebrated a new contract, nor a better shoulder when I lamented some rotten bastard of a client. I laughed, fought, and wept deepest with that animal. Without fail when my wife or I fell ill, Carl held our legs down through all the wails and coughs it would bring, ensuring the sickness would never lift us away.
His favorite food was an apple. His favorite scratch was between his toes. Unlike his brother, Herman the Pug, he hated beer only one degree less than hot sauce.
Carl was plagued by allergies, slobbered and shed relentlessly, and like any bizarre dog engineered over a billion years of man’s influence, he had every allergy or infection an animal could mysteriously acquire. I had handled or had been sprayed with every possible gross fluid or infection that a dog could have thanks to Carl. He was impossibly tough though, the hardest son of a bitch I’d ever met — the kind of guy you’d dare to eat a beer bottle or trade a fiver to watch him break a windshield with his forehead. More than once during considerable pain and high fever, I found Carl crazed and sweating it out in a corner like he’d just snorted a mixture of Robitussin and gunpowder. Kneeling, I’d pat his head and ask what was wrong. With the slow practiced stare of a high-school bully and panting wildly, he would look me in the eye and project his dog thoughts into my brain. “Don’t you dare call the hospital — I’m not a girl, like you. Now, hand me that light saber and tell the ghost of Jonah Hill that I’m ready for Mars.”
For all the gross, he was a contradictorily rare specimen of health for the breed. English Bulldogs were constructed in some turn of the century laboratory by the kinds of men who fucked produce and thought the world was flat. Thanks to their execrable designs, bulldogs further devolved into squat little monsters who breathe as elegantly as a polyester jock strap and often have trouble with stairs, yet Carl could run MC Escher’s worst sketch, and — for most of his life — slept with the quiet smooth rhythm of a Brian Eno song.
His favorite blankets were made of felt. He hated bath time. His favorite toys were old tupperware containers. He once wore one as a helmet, then bull-rushed a set of folding doors clean off of their hinges.
Carl joined my wife and I right after we were married — born, in fact, while we were on the road to our new home. He patiently ushered two dumb twenty-somethings through the start of a marriage, our first home, job after job after job, the rich parts and the poor parts. He tolerated our inexperience and weathered our demands, refereed our fights and turned his back when we made with the gross stuff. He showed our Pug — now alone as alpha — how a dog should behave and how he shouldn’t, terrified every repairman who knocked on our door, and religiously guarded the baby gate when my son was born. Carl helped us break in our first house, taught us patience, showed us love, moved across the country with us and suffered through the indignities of old age with an elegance I will always envy.
He began and ended every day with huge wet kisses. He spilled half of every bowl he ever drank. He hated the sound of an unfurling garbage bag. He once climbed onto a table and ate two full plates of food before we noticed. He liked to steal potatoes.
When his face went gray and his eyelashes white, he’d lazily look at me as if to say, “Sorry Pop, I got old by mistake.” No more stairs thanks to arthritis, dozens of pills, steroids, adrenal failure, swelling from allergies, struggling to walk, and a few infections he could no longer swing his saber at. In one routine vet visit too many, I explained to the doctor through my blubbering that I wanted her to kill my best friend — the very best of us has had enough.
Two needles, one last quiet conversation with my perfect baby boy, and with a deep sigh, Carl left to rejoin whatever cosmic stuff allowed us to have him in the first place. I have likely cried harder only when I was born.
Several years ago when a co-worker’s dog passed on, I wrote her this gross and touchy email to try and cheer her up. She dog-sat for us on occasion — and just now when I went to dig that old email up, I felt it was more appropriate this moment, for me, than ever.
Paraphrased from 2012:
They tell us that everything on this planet came from stardust — literally all of the life here shares the same hydrogen and helium and carbon and whatever else is on that big chart I failed chemistry with, everything swirling in the cosmic soup from exploding mega-things off from the whenever and wherever. With respect to one’s personal religion, this is still a comforting thought for those of us who don’t quite ring-in that we’ll be dancing around in some gumdrop place with marble floors, fluffy clouds, and all those long lost pets there to greet us. This also makes losing a dog all the more difficult to rationalize and accept.
However! Dogs came from stardust, too.
There are dogs now that can smell cancer, there are dogs that we’ve found can detect an oncoming thunderstorm or even predict and warn their owners right before they have a seizure. Dogs comfort the dying and walk the blind. Dogs help raise the kids and guard the house. Dogs can smell fear, and they can smell grief, too. In five hundred years we’ll find out that dogs could speak perfect English all along, but after hearing the garbage we have to say, they simply decided against it.
Your dog was in pain, yet you had the tenacity to do what was best, as hard as it is to do a thing like that to a family member. Carl can always tell when I’m grumpy, and when I have a cold he’ll do anything to lay in my lap like a sixty pound sack of warm cereal. A needle isn’t glamorous though, and it isn’t how I truly want Carl to go. I want him to be lying there, looking in my eyes, gut-shot from our bank robbery gone bad. He’ll slap a revolver in my hand and spit through bloody teeth, “Do it bro, do what needs done.” I’ll try to tell him to hang on, but after an awesomely tough cough, he’ll punch me square in the nose.
“I love you bro, always did,” he’ll say. “Now stop being a pussy.”
With tears in my eyes I’ll chuckle and nod, put the barrel to his temple, then as the camera pans out you’ll hear me mutter something righteous, like, “You and me against the world.” Queue a single gunshot, possibly followed by a sweet-ass explosion.
Your dog could sense your grief, right up until the end, and you have to know they approved of your sadness not one bit. Dogs don’t like it when we’re unhappy. It makes them unhappy, and then, inevitably, someone is going to pee for attention.
So cry it out, get angry, you know this is the sucky part and you’ve probably been here before. However, be aware that in whatever transcendental form your dog’s ancient stardust has now become, they’ll not be pleased again until you’re smiling. Take the other pets out for fast food, they’re as unhappy as you right now.
Laugh when they shit on everything.