Last night, my first dog Oreo died. He was a little black-and-white shih tzu who spent a wonderful fifteen and a half years as a constant companion to my family. I’m gutted, but I also know it was his time and that he lived a long, happy life. This week, I’d like to memorialize him by sharing a little bit about his life and our relationship:
Flashback to the Fall of 1999: I’d convinced my mother to maybe let me get a dog for my birthday (by the way, “maybe” totally meant, “yes, but only if you kiss my butt for a little while first” in Nance-language). Originally, I wanted a Yorkie, but as many puppies as I met while we surveyed breeders, I was having trouble finding one that called out to me. As my 14th birthday neared, I worried I’d never find a dog, and that my mother would lose interest in our search and change her mind. Then she suggest we meet a shih tzu puppy instead. “They’re small and personable,” she reasoned, “and wait ’til you see how cute they are!” This was, of course, before the days of obsessively researching breeds, breeders and rescues on the internet, so I pretty much had to take her word for it. I agreed to meet a puppy on my birthday, December 3rd, 1999.
I remember playing a basketball game in a puppy-fiending haze and then taking a long drive with my mother to the breeder’s house in Eastern Connecticut. When we walked in, the breeder kindly told me to sit on the couch while she went to get the puppy.
“We only have one left,” she explained, “he’s the runt of the litter, but I think he’s got the best disposition of them all.” I held my breath as she walked into the other room. Nance gave me a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. The breeder returned with a ball of fluff no larger than the size of a grapefruit in her hand. She placed him on the floor to sniff me, and without hesitation, he ran as fast as he could up my legs and torso and went straight to licking my face like crazy. Never had I ever loved a creature so quickly and with such abandon. I caught my mother’s eye as a mischievous smile crept across her face.
We’d found him. He was coming home with us.
“I want to name him Oreo,” I said decisively. It wasn’t the most creative name, but it just seemed to fit. He was so cute, you could gobble him up, just like a cookie. He was so tiny that a puppy collar wouldn’t even fit on him. We had to buy him a kitten collar in the smallest size.
When we pulled into the driveway later that evening, my mother said, “just walk up to your father and show him the puppy. Say nothing.”
“Wait, you didn’t tell Dad?! I thought you were going to talk to him! He’s going to be so mad!”
“No he won’t. Not when he sees how cute the puppy is. Besides, it’s your birthday. He won’t yell at you on your birthday.” She had a knowing glint in her eye, and I sensed that she was right about how he would react. My father would never agree to bring another animal into the house (and for good reason, since he always got stuck taking care of them, even though he was never the person who wanted them in the first place), but he also wouldn’t kick a pet out. He was a softie at heart.
(Author’s Note: I reiterate that these were different times, and acknowledge that surprising someone in the household with a pet is a huge no-no. I would never do this again, and highly discourage anyone from doing so).
I brought Oreo into the house, shaking with nerves. My father was standing in the kitchen. I approached him as he caught a glimpse of the fur ball in my arms. “What’s that, a rabbit?!” He asked, confused. He was used to us just bringing home all kinds of animals and springing them on him. He didn’t seem at all surprised.
“No, a puppy.” I said, and put Oreo onto his outstretched hand. He was so small, he sat right in my father’s big palm with room to spare. He wagged his tail enthusiastically, putting on his best “look how adorable I am and please don’t send me back, mister!” show.
“He’s cute,” my father admitted, and handed him back to me.
And that was that. Oreo was cleared to move in and became a fixture in all of our lives. He wormed his way right into our hearts with his sweet demeanor and energetic puppy sociability.
I remember staying home from school “sick” for a few days in his first couple of weeks just to be with him all day. We’d lay together and nap and I’d try desperately to help house train him. He became my best pal, following me around the house, and never letting anyone else ever sit next to me. That was his spot — right by my side. He was a true companion, full of personality, affectionate, a bit protective. He was my guy.
I hated leaving him when I went away to college in New York City, and even tried to take him back to school to live with me one time. Although I learned quickly that he hated being an only dog (my parents were so smitten by then that they’d gotten another shih tzu as a companion for Oreo), so I dutifully took him back home to Connecticut.
Every time I’d go home to visit my parents, Oreo would put me through the same wringer: at first, he’d be ecstatic to see me. His whole body would shake with excitement and he’d shower me with love and affection. That is, until he remembered that I’d abandoned him for the city. Then he’d act really cold and throw me shade left and right. He’d look over his shoulder at me and roll his eyes, or walk away when I called him, as though to say, “you left me, lady! Get in line!” After a day or two, he’d stop trying to resist me and let me back in again. “You’re staying this time — I knew it! We’re back together, the old partners in crime! YES!”
And then I’d reluctantly him leave again. So was the pattern of our relationship and our love.
He grew a lot more comfortable with my abrupt entrances and exits later in his life. He understood that we didn’t live together, but that when we’d see each other, it was special Chelsea-Oreo times. I visited home to spend time with him as often as possible, and after I graduated Fordham, he started to visit me in the city once or twice a month along with my parents at the apartment we shared together. He still insisted on being right by my side, and would often sleep in my bed with me, while his two sisters slept with my parents in their room.
Some things I adored about him:
He loved Wheat Thins to an unhealthy degree: He pretended to be selectively deaf for the backend of his life, but always exposed himself whenever a box of Wheat Thins would be opened in the next room and he’d come running like a little bat out of hell.
He was a grumpy old man: A grumpy, slightly judgmental old gay man, if you ask me. He had no time for nonsense, and would complain to anyone who would listen if someone or something was annoying him. He did this with incredible vocal fluctuation. Sometimes, I really thought he was talking to me.
He hated to exercise: and on the off chance that you took him on a walk that was longer than a block or two, you would need to give him positive verbal encouragement the entire time. He was a major lap dog.
He was protective of me: Not in a I’ll-bite-you-if-you-come-near-her kind of way, but in a much more subtle, gentlemanly way. He’d show his quiet disapproval of my boyfriends by turning away from them and outright ignoring their existence. “Oh, you’ve brought HIM?!” He’d communicate with his eyes to me privately, “I had no idea you were still super into dating losers! Get it together, darling, you’re not getting any younger.”
I knew Dave was different when Oreo met him for the first time, and sat right in between us, rather than on the other side of my lap. He even let Dave pet him, and looked into his eyes. Maybe he just had a thing for big muscles and blue eyes — who knows what that crazy little man was thinking. In my mind, I saw approval. Maybe I manufactured it, or maybe it was there. All I know is, Dave was the first guy I brought home that didn’t totally repel my favorite furry guy, and that was enough for me. Deal sealed.
I’m so incredibly thankful for the years I was able to spend with Oreo, and that he was in good health for the majority of his life. I’m going to miss him immensely and am having a hard time imagining life without him as a fixture. There’s also the fact that losing him feels a bit like a double blow: I’ve lost my first dog, along with another little piece of my mother — a symbol of the strong, beautiful connection we shared. But in the end, it comforts me knowing that I loved them both so fully.
I’d like to close by sharing a poem I wrote about Oreo in the Spring of 2000, when I was 14 years old. It’s a little silly, as most poems written by children are, but I think it’s the perfect memorial:
Knowing That You Were Mine
the first time I saw you —
your glowing eyes,
filled with adventure, youth, curiosity
And how I held you —
your fragile, tiny body
so gently, as though holding an infant
I cradled you in my arms
knowing that you were mine.
You’d show your affection
with kisses; nuzzling me
And I would smile
knowing that you were mine.
I brought you home
and put you down —
you were tentative at first
but your little legs could keep still no longer,
I played with you
knowing that you were mine.
The days passed,
and I grew fonder of you
Even though sometimes,
it’s hard to clean up your messes
I love your warmth,
to hug you, kiss you, love you
the perfect friend — my little dog,
It comforts me
knowing that you were mine.
I love you, old boy. You’ll be missed.