JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The best dog

 

My dog Norma died today.

I wasn’t sure I’d start crying while typing those five words, but the tears are streaming for probably the 10th different time this afternoon. I am, with no exaggeration, devastated.

D-e-v-a-s-t-a-t-e-d.

Norma was the best dog. Not merely the best dog in our house (she was the only dog in our house) or the best dog on our street or the best dog in our town. She was, simply, the best dog—an adorable, affectionate, opinionated cockapoo who gave less than two shits about any other canine (the late Mookie being the exception) but was a magnet toward the hand, arm or foot of the nearest human.

Before we purchased Norma some 11 years ago, I’d never had a dog. As a boy growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y., the only pets allowed in the Pearlman household were guinea pigs and the occasional fish. And while it was certainly sad when a Spunky or Sparky passed, well, there’s only so much bonding one can have between human and guinea pig. So they came, they lasted a couple o’ years, they passed, they were buried, their stinky cages were put to the curb. End of story.

Norma, though—I mean, anyone who has had and loved a dog knows that it’s just … so … friggin’ … different. In a way, we weren’t even supposed to have a Norma. Back in early 2009, when our kids were 5 and 2, the wife took our daughter Casey to the local pet shop, just to look around and gauge interest in an animal. We certainly weren’t ready for a dog. Certainly were not going to make the purchase at a pet shop. But there was this one semi-mangy little spud of an animal. Beige. Her curly hair was grown in crooked. She was a bit older than the others. The wife—again, just to feel things out—sat in a little pen with nervous Casey and this unfamiliar animal.

Just.

Feeling.

Things.

Out.

What transpired is family lore: Norma walked up to Catherine and plopped her tiny head on the wife’s crisscrossed legs. And Catherine turned to Casey and said, “Uh-oh. Better call Dad.”

That’s how we landed Norma.

Initially, we were going to call the dog Kelsey, after the name that inexplicably kept popping up as my sister-in-law Leah’s caller ID. But then we thought it’d be funny to anoint her after Norma Shapiro, my wife’s then-88-year-old grandmother. We called Norma (the woman) to check in, and she loved the idea.

Norma, it was. [amazingly, Norma the grandma is now 100 and in great shape]

At first, I hated Norma (the dog, not the grandma). Fucking hated her. I dropped a bagel, and she (the dog, not the grandma) grabbed it. When I tried pulling it away, she (the dog, not the grandma) growled at me. She was a pain-in-the-ass puppy. Barking all night. Bark! Bark! Bark! Despised her kennel. Picky eater. Occasional shits and pees in the house.

Then, something changed. Maybe a year after we first brought Norma home, the wife and kids went away for a few days. I decided I’d let Norma sleep on the bed with me, just to see how it went. And … wow. Pure love. That was the end of the kennel.

There was always something oddly reassuring about knowing Norma was there. Hearing her take a breath. Seeing her stir with an unfamiliar noise. She smelled like salted peanuts. But not in a bad way. She took unrivaled pleasure in belly rubs, and had a wide-eyed, frenzied reaction to people scratching in between the grooves of her paws. When you patted Norma atop her head, she would open her mouth and offer a look that cooed, “I could not be happier. I … just … couldn’t … be … happier.”

Norma had a slew of nicknames. Casey initially liked to call her Madam Noomsie III. That was shortened to Nooms. The wife called her Norms. One day, about five months ago, Norma rose from her favorite backyard sun-basking spot with four or five wood chips stuck to her fur. I said, “Here comes Captain Wood Chip!”—and a new nickname was born.

My daughter and I assigned Norma a pro-life, anti-Democrat hard-core Republican identity. Oftentimes the dog would enter the room and Casey would say something like, “Norma is tired of the gay rights movement. She just wants marriage to be between a man and a woman” or “Norma believes Donald Trump is the one person to lead America.” Then we’d look at Norma, who just wanted a carrot or a head pat. We’d laugh.

As a stay-at-home writer, I viewed Norma as my sidekick. That’s not an exaggeration—I’d sit in my chair, jotting down words, and she’d be on the bed behind me, waiting for interaction. I’d say, “I dunno Norma—does this sound right?” or “Norma, do you think Troy Aikman was better than Steve Young?” She never answered, but—in a way—she did. With a look. With a bark. With a sideways glare. There was beauty in having her here, by my side, as company. As companionship. As reassurance. As a friend.

•••

Norma didn’t seem right yesterday. She was sluggish. Lingering under a desk. Didn’t eat a carrot.

The daughter and I brought her to the vet, and they did tests. Then more tests.

Her body, it turns out, was filled with cancer. There would be no recovery.

I’ve lost grandparents who I loved dearly. But this, truly, is a new level of pain for me. The vet called earlier this morning, while my daughter and I were driving. She was on speaker for a few moments, but I had to take her off. Tears started running down my face. Casey’s face, too. They said we could try and maybe extend her life a month or two, but that the compassionate route would be to let her die peacefully, with dignity.

We sat the kids down and explained the situation. We all cried. A lot. Then the wife went to the animal hospital and held Norma for a final time. She FaceTimed me, and allowed me to say farewell. Norma wasn’t Norma any longer—unresponsive, staring off into nothingness.

I later called my nephew Jordan, and that’s when it all really hit me. I hung up abruptly, sat by myself in front of the house and exhaled these loud, excruciating discharges of anguish. I feel as if someone has taken a machete to my innards. All carved up. Nothing there.

I know, ultimately, I’ll feel better. The days will move forward. There will probably be other pets. Circle of life and all.

But Norma was my first dog.

And, in that regard, my first love.