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Almost Human

by Barbara Rady Kazdan

Always asking, “What’s next?” "Why?" and "Why Not?" solo, sassy Barbara Rady Kazdan loves back roads travel and forward thinking.  Find this empty nester and lifelong change agent enjoying her feisty friends and weekly writing workshops in Silver Spring, Maryland, en route to far-flung family, and online at achievingchangetogether.com

What a lovely dog in every sense, physically beautiful but also with a charming, friendly personality and a radiant aura of happiness. You gave him such a wonderful life, and he spread his joy in it generously. 
longtime yoga classmate

I called him "Bunny" - that's what I called each of my children, and still do, so what if they're middle-aged. A name reserved for the people I love most, and for Toto, my loving and lovable, almost human 50-pound shaggy sheepdog. Those people I love most? Scattered across the map. Toto? My constant companion.

Every morning, I'd open my eyes, stretch, say "Good morning, Bunny," and kiss his furry head as I headed for the bathroom. But now his spot, diagonally across from my pillow, is empty. So is the spot where I kept his night-time water bowl. As I move about the house or step outside, there's a void where he'd be, close on my heels, keeping me company, keeping an eye on me. Everything inside me rises to protest: This isn't right!

Toto wasn't just a people dog; he thought he was a person. When I'd hug my grandchildren he'd stand on his hind legs to join in. "Group hug!" they'd shout. When my eldest granddaughter shared my queen-sized bed, he slept between us. 
"Is he allowed on the couch?" A guest asked, watching Toto rolling around on it as she entered the room, doing his happy dance - so thrilled to have company. "Allowed?" I answered. "He thinks he owns it."

When I hosted the bridge group, Toto would stand under the table the whole time. Someone asked, "Why doesn't he go lie down?" I knew. Toto stood there because there was no chair for him but he thought he was part of the group.

Would you leave the room while your companion was dining? Rude, right? While Toto was chowing down, if I left the room he'd abandon his food and follow me. So I'd sit, read the paper, or bustle around the kitchen doing busywork until long, noisy slurps of water announced his meal's end. 

The other day as I put out the trash, my neighbor was walking by; pausing at my driveway, I knew he was wondering wordlessly why Toto wasn't there. He nodded and walked on, afraid to ask. Not so the painter, Joe, on hand to finish a job in progress. "Where's the dog?" he asked. "He died yesterday," I said, watching his expression shift from conversational to compassionate, sunny to sad. "Oh. He was always around, watching me work, wanting to play. I'm sorry." 

Toto's magnetic personality attracted dog owners, children, even the mail lady, who'd stop to give him treats. Often neighbors would stop and let their dog off leash to play with him. An adorable tot used to toddle up our driveway to play with my dog while his own two beagles waited. His mom told me: "All day Justin keeps saying "To-To, To-To." 

Toto and I kept up running conversations. I'd talk, he'd listen. Intently. 

"You're gonna love what's happening today. Jenna's coming to visit."

"C'mon out, it's beautiful." He'd shoot by to roll in the grass with childlike abandon. 

"Look, we got a package!" He'd be right behind me, peeking through the open door, checking it out.

"You're okay," I'd tell him, when he whimpered in his sleep. Magically, his breathing would resume its steady beat.              

Toto understood situational English. If I said, "Just Mommy," before leaving the house, he'd head straight for the living room couch, where he could watch the neighborhood action through the bay window. If I said, in a conversational tone, "You're going," he'd charge to the door, his whole body wagging. 

If dogs had IQs Toto's would've been off the charts. When I had to leave the house, we'd do a little dance. My goal? To have him go out and come back in before he suspected my exit was imminent. For a long time, as soon as I put shoes on, he'd know. No way would he go outside. Easy; I'd leave shoes till the last minute. Then he upped his game, like "he had me at hello," the minute I put on makeup or opened my jewelry box he'd be on to me. I'd pretend to check the mail; he'd follow me down the driveway to the mailbox. Once he connected those dots, I'd have to come up with a new trick. In desperation one day, I put him in the car, drove around the block, and came home. He jumped out and hit his usual spot before following me in. I'd tell friends who were picking me up, "Don't come early." I needed lead time. Now I come and go with no drama. Is that easier? Yes. Better? No.        

Some of our rituals: 

            -He took the invisible fence seriously. No way would he go near the end of the driveway, even on a leash. To take him for a walk, I'd drive him past that scary barrier, then park in front of my house. 

            -During my morning and evening ablutions he'd take up his post outside the bathroom door, left ajar so he could see me. (No telling what that water might do.) 

            -If I forgot his evening treat, he'd stand near me, staring, until I noticed the time and produced. 

            -Just after I turned off the light at night, he'd lay with his back against mine for a few minutes before moving to his corner of the bed. So comforting...so viscerally absent now.

After hearing the news, friends made time for me in their busy holiday schedules. "Want to come over for dinner?" or "How about lunch and a movie Saturday?" 

"Sure," I'd answer. No time constraints, no need to make arrangements for Toto. Who asked for this new freedom? 

If dogs took the Myers Briggs, Toto would've been a strong extrovert. He loved people. Somehow people got that - strangers would ignore their own pets to gush over him. Even the vet thought he was special. Last summer after his checkup, he said, "Would you mind staying a while after your visit? We've been waiting for Toto. We'd like to feature him in a promotional video for our practice, would that be okay?" I knew why they'd waited. Sure, he was a Catalan Sheepdog, not often seen in our area, but it was his personality-plus-puss that practically shouted, "I love people, especially you!" At the vet's, while standing on the elevated exam table, he'd plant sloppy kisses on the tech hugging him so he'd keep still. When the vet got in range, he got kisses too. I could almost hear Toto saying: "You want to push, prod and poke me? Would that please you?"  Happy faces made his day.

"He was a special part of our family and we'll truly miss him," my daughter wrote. "Toto was such a loving dog. We'll always remember his quirky personality, his puppy-like and innocent face, and his loyal devotion to you."

"We felt like his godparents," my friend and yoga teacher Kate and her husband John said. Every week for years Toto enjoyed a playdate with their dogs while I was in the studio, stretching and striking poses. "Even the cats like Toto!" Kate exclaimed. 

After each class, as we gathered in the hallway to put on our shoes, everyone took turns petting him. If I'd left him home they'd ask, "Where's Toto?" 

After learning of Toto's dire diagnosis, Kate said, "If he gets to the point where he's beyond help, I'll go with you." But on the December morning when the universe declared, "Time's up for Toto," Kate had a class to teach. 

"Could John come with me?" I texted.

"Of course. He'll drive." 

An hour later, John and I took turns kissing Toto goodbye, both choking back tears. 

Nine years before - almost to the day - on another dreary December morning, I'd come home alone from the hospital newly widowed, but not to an empty house. Toto was there to comfort me. We went on to make a life together. Every day for those nine years he factored into my plans. After a class or meeting, I'd skip a planned stop at the grocery store on the way home. "I'll go later, with Toto."

Whenever I came home, I'd walk up the steps to the carport door, open it and exchange kisses with my cuddly companion. Now? No one's waiting at home, craving my company, needing my attention. After a 42-year marriage, three children, a parade of pets - always considering other's needs before my own - it feels like the end of the line. Suddenly there's no buffer between me and solitude. Life is challenging me again: "Where's that resilience you've called up before? Still have some in reserve?"

I know you're thinking, "How about getting another dog?" Maybe. Not soon. It wouldn't be fair to expect a new pet to fill those loving, faithful, furry paws. But I do have a lot of love to give, and I sure would welcome a canine companion's unconstrained joy and unconditional affection. 

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