Not my dog: Loss and other life lessons

One November many years ago my son taught me something about how the streams of love and loss flow through our family.

It was the day our dog died, an eight-and-a-half-year-old Springer spaniel named Bandit. Before school that morning, we discovered she had spent the night on the front porch, not moving to her doghouse to sleep as usual.

Immediately I wondered what was wrong, and when I went to check, she didn't seem to be able to move by herself. I took her to the Wasilla Veterinary Clinic right after getting the kids off to school.

An hour later, the vet called and said there wasn't anything he could do, that all of her organs were full of cancer. I wondered why we hadn't seen the illness coming, and then my mind whirled when he asked what I wanted to do. My husband, Gary, was at work on the North Slope, so I couldn't discuss it with him.

My first thought was how this would affect the kids – Bandit had been a friend and playmate for most of their young lives.

The vet said he could sew her back up and bring her out of the anesthesia, but she might only have hours and she would be miserable. Or he could give her an injection, she would not wake up, and they could cremate her.

I decided on the injection, but I told him I had to bring the kids over after school so they could say good-bye to their dog. The vet said he'd position her on her side so the incision would not be noticeable.

I said yes to the offer of cremation, too. After all what could we do with a dead dog in the middle of November? We'd had an unusually cold fall with temperatures down to minus 20 degrees and 15 inches of snow covered the ground around our house.

As soon as our daughter Erin, whose 11th birthday was that very day, and our son Patrick arrived home from the school bus, I talked with them about Bandit. I thought I explained everything fully and truthfully, going along with our family policy of not sugar coating things.

Driving to the veterinary clinic seemed to take forever although it was only five miles. When the receptionist told the doctor we were there, he took us into the little room where Bandit lay so still. He explained to the kids how he had determined what was wrong with her and asked if they had any questions. They did, but I don't recall what they were.

Then he said he had to go, but that we could stay as long as we wanted. I was in no hurry, as I knew this good-bye was important. When they both said they were ready to leave, we ran a couple errands in Wasilla and then ate dinner at the newly opened McDonalds as a treat for Erin's birthday.

Once home, Patrick said, "So when are we going to go back and pick her up?"

"We're not going to pick her up," I said. "I didn't make any arrangements to pick up her ashes."

That is when he came unglued.

"Mom, you aren't going to cremate my dog like you did my sister!" my 13-year-old son nearly yelled at me. I was surprised by both the words and the emotion.

Either I hadn't explained clearly enough, or he hadn't been listening to that part of the explanation. There was no reasoning with him.

When he was four, his little 14-month-old sister had died from spinal meningitis and Gary and I chose cremation. It was discussed at the time, but probably hadn't been talked about for years.

Patrick said, "You could do anything you wanted with Kelley and I didn't have any say about it, but this is my dog and I don't want her cremated."

I said I would call the vet, but that it was after 6 p.m. and it may already be too late.

I called and left a message on the vet's answering machine. "Please," I said. "We have changed our minds. If you have not already done so, please do not cremate Bandit."

I got a call through to Gary later that night and told him about the events of the day. "I hope and pray that Bandit hasn't been cremated, but I have no way of knowing until tomorrow. If I'm able to go pick her up, we will just have to put her somewhere for the winter. This is terribly important to Patrick."

I was so relieved the next morning to get a call from the clinic to come pick up Bandit. When I got home, I put her in a cardboard box and placed the box on a planting bed out in the greenhouse. I told the kids she was out there, but never heard another word about it all winter. We missed her and did talk about her now and then, but not about her physical location.

One spring day in late April, I noticed Patrick, Erin and Gary coming back from the side of the woods, all with shovels. Immediately I knew that Bandit's burial had taken place and although I wondered why I hadn't been invited, I thanked God again that there was a dog body to bury.

Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at

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Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan now residing in Palmer.

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