I Dog Sit, and One of the Dogs Died
Making sense of death
Recently, one of the dogs I hosted died unexpectedly. Here’s her story.
Looking up from my morning coffee, I saw her hurrying past the cherry tree and toward the street. Oh crap, I thought as I ran to the garage. I laced up my shoes and shouted to Kie, “Call the owner.” “What?” “Call the owner!” “What?!” “CALL THE OWNER!”
I jumped in my car and drove around the nearest streets to find her. When I got home, she looked toward us from the road while blocking traffic. The morning commuters waited until they couldn’t wait any longer and then drove around her.
I crossed the street to try to catch her. But the more I followed, the further she ran. If I keep pursuing her, she will run into traffic. I turned around and walked the other way, hoping she might follow or stop running. Kie approached from the other side, but she ran past her and down the sidewalk toward five lanes of rush hour traffic.1
Four months earlier, Kie set up an account on the dog-sitting app Rover to help my stepson Preston buy a gaming laptop. Requests came in, Preston walked the dogs before school and after dinner, and within a couple of months, had paid off the computer.
The dogs brought so much joy to our household, each with a unique personality, that we decided to continue hosting. “Having dogs is so much fun,” my stepdaughter Amelia commented over the holidays. “We should have four dogs all the time.” We’ve hosted border collies, golden retrievers, huskies, malamutes, Labrador retrievers, chihuahuas, Shiba Inus, pit bulls, Australian shepherds, and mixed dogs. Many of the dogs came from shelters.
A couple of weeks ago, we received a request to host, let’s call her Gingko, a rare Shikoku dog breed named after an island off the coast of Japan. As of 2010, there are estimated to be only 100 in the entire U.S. We were curious and excited because even Kie hadn’t heard of the breed, and she’s from Japan.
Her caregiver, let’s call him Tom, had been stationed on an army base on Okinawa, had studied Japanese, and was equally eager to meet us. So he brought Gingko to our house for a “meet and greet.” She was beautiful, like a small wolf, but she was timid, so when it was time to go, Tom had to corner her to get her home.
The following week, Tom dropped off Ginkgo before work, and she paced our house like a captured animal. By the end of the day, she had relaxed a little, even poking her head into my office once. The following morning, while preparing to take the kids to school and managing two other dogs, one of whom had been peeing in the house, Ginko slipped through an open side door and out the front of the garage.
“She ran across the street toward the apartment complex,” said a county worker at the intersection where we last saw her. Kie and the kids, who were now late for school, scouted the parking lot while I looked in the garage. Amelia spotted Ginkgo, but she was already gone by the time we reached where she had been. I scoured the complex for the next hour and talked to every passerby. A tenant and maintenance worker last saw her running toward the train station.
Tom arrived at our house, and I apologized. “We can look forward to sharing a toast once we find her,” he said. We took separate cars, driving up and down every street where Ginkgo was last seen, expanding in concentric circles. We talked to pedestrians, bicyclists, and Amazon drivers. We notified animal protection services and communicated with a local volunteer who helps retrieve lost dogs.
By three o’clock, we weren’t any closer to finding her, and the volunteer said it was time to put up flyers. So I drove to the printer and then to Office Depot. While gathering supplies—plastic sleeves, paper plates, and packing tape—Kie called. “They found the body,” she said through tears. “No. Fuck! No.” “Tom would like us to go with him to recover her,” she said.
Speeding home while lost in a fog of thoughts and emotions, I jerked the wheel after hearing the command: “Take the exit.” Immediately I realized my error. “Goddamnit! You motherfucking piece of shit!” I yelled at the phone. Underneath the rage was that ancient inner critic: “The only thing you have to get right is to get home in the shortest possible time, and you can’t even do that. You’re such an idiot!” I awoke from my rage and realized that no amount of screaming would get me out of my situation: having to look Tom in the eye and apologize.
When I entered the house from the garage, Tom was standing while Kie sat on the sofa in the corner, weeping silently. “I’m so sorry, Tom,” I said as I cried. “You trusted us with Gingko, and we failed you.” “I know it wasn’t intentional,” he said, "and I’m not mad at you.” I apologized again, hugged him, and drove together to recover Ginkgo’s body.
She was lying peacefully between the fence built to prevent teen suicides and the parking lot curb, the right side of her face covered in blood. It was as if someone had found her and laid her there to rest. Tom cradled her in his arms, placed her in the large cardboard box, and covered her body with blankets. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” Tom said. I’m the one who should be sorry that you had to see that.
Walking back to my car, I sobbed deeply. Five hours of hyper-vigilant searching for her and to have it end like this—seeing her dead and motionless. The sudden finality of her life and the pain and sorrow I caused Tom was excruciating. She wasn’t supposed to die, and this isn’t how the story was supposed to end.
We drove Ginkgo’s body to the vet to be cremated, and Tom spent his last minutes with her to say his goodbyes. “Ginkgo brought us together for a reason,” said Tom as he returned to the car. “I feel like I lost a friend but gained two.” Still in shock and filled with shame and regret, all I could do was nod my head.
Tom made some calls back at our house, and then I dropped him off at the shop where his car was being repaired. The following day, he forwarded a photo from the breeder of a pup Shikoku who had been born the day before, the same day Ginkgo died.
What Sense Can We Make of Tragedy?
Preventing all of life’s problems is impossible. We all want life to be smooth and trouble-free. And we believe that with enough planning and attention to detail, we can prevent problems. So when things don’t go our way, we think something must be wrong and blame ourselves. If we had planned and acted better, this wouldn’t be happening.
But is this true?
Despite all our efforts, things don’t always turn out how we want them to. No matter how talented and diligent we may be, things fall apart. Life entails both pleasant and unpleasant. No amount of perfectionism and attempting to control our lives can prevent all of life’s turmoil.
That’s not to say we throw our hands up. Of course, we do everything we can to create positive outcomes. But when things don’t work out, as they inevitably won’t, we remind ourselves that we’re doing our best given our responsibilities and the complexity of our lives.
Each day I think about the pain, sorrow, and loneliness I have caused Tom. I wish I could turn back the clock and change our actions. But no amount of self-recrimination will bring Gingko back.
Blame and shame serve no purpose. While searching for Gingko, I thought, “How did Kie let this happen? But I knew it was a question without an answer. The mind likes to believe that pinpointing the source of the problem will prevent all future pain.
Kie was undoubtedly already being hard on herself, so there was no need to make her feel worse. The slightest remark can make our partner feel wrong, so I never asked her what happened and instead assumed equal responsibility. When we talked later, she asked herself the question I refrained from asking.
Birth and death are a part of life. Every living organism will die eventually. Every human born on this earth will age, become sick, and die. Understanding this intellectually is easy, but understanding it emotionally is another matter altogether.
Death feels like the ultimate haiku, that tradition of poetry designed to defeat the thinking mind and force intuitive understanding. Can we ever fully grasp the meaning of death? I don’t know. I’m still trying to understand it several years after an uncle's death. While we may not understand death emotionally, perhaps we can understand it through the unconscious, all-knowing intuitive mind.
I used to be afraid of death and dying because I still had so much living to do. But I didn’t want to live in fear, so I contemplated death daily for many years. Eventually, I made peace with dying. I realized that death is less about the fear of dying and more about the fear of not having lived. Today, I live how I want to, so if I were to die now, it would not be a problem.
My only regret is that I didn’t get to know you better, Gingko, and you died alone, confused, and afraid. Though we only knew each other for twenty-four hours, you left quite an impression.
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We learned that it’s best not to chase, whistle, or call out to a lost dog. When a dog gets hungry, it will return home. To facilitate, tie dirty socks to a tree in the front yard and pour chicken broth in a zig-zag fashion from the sidewalk to the front door, but don’t put out food.