Saying goodbye to a dog named Pumpkin

Pumpkin runs in the sand at a beach in Santa Cruz, just three weeks before she died.

I vividly remember the day she adopted me, me driving home with her 5-month-old paws on the dashboard, face tilted downward and pressed against the windshield. I remember wondering if I had made the right decision: Was I ready to take on a dog? We’d had family dogs when I was young, but I was an adult now, living on my own. She would be all mine.

She was with me for 11 years and 3 months – minus one day. On May 8, after a brief and aggressive illness, Pumpkin’s life came to a close. That evening, I brought her home from the vet, where she’d spent the day undergoing observation and tests. I’d felt a sense of optimism, knowing she was on medication and had an official diagnosis. But it was that evening, back at home and with me near, that she decided to let go.

In the two weeks since her death, I’ve had sobbing fits and feelings of frustration because she was still youthful and vibrant. In between those, I’ve had moments of clarity that have helped me come to grips with my new reality, one in which she is no longer physically by my side.

And I’m slowly realizing what a bittersweet moment her unexpected death on the floor of my kitchen was.

Bitter for the simple fact that she’s gone now.

But there are other things that have come into focus, things that have made me smile through my recent pain.

She was happy and “Pumpkin-like” almost until her final hours. Just three weeks before her death, a photographer friend took photos of her running and fetching toys at a beach in Santa Cruz. We’d planned to take them for some time, but things would come up and change our plans. Because Pumpkin started getting sick the following weekend, had we put it off just one more time, I wouldn’t have those beautiful photographs and memories that mean so much now.

I know some – perhaps many – will say, “Why such heartache? She was just a dog.”

Indeed she was a dog, but she was more than that.

Being single, without children and having no housemates besides that 17-pound dog for many years, Pumpkin was a constant companion. She never had to compete with anyone or anything else for my attention and love, and most of the time, wherever I was, you’d find her trotting along beside me or harnessed into the back seat of the car for a road trip.

Perhaps the connection we had played into her death. She’d been at the vet’s office the entire day while I was at work, and could have collapsed at any time while she was being watched over by the veterinarian and staff members. Instead, Pumpkin chose to hang on until I picked her up and brought her home, into her comfort zone, her familiar surroundings. We’d been home less than 15 minutes.

Although Pumpkin was considered a senior dog, I never had to watch my vibrant girl get “old” – she never lost her hearing or sight. She was never overcome with the pain and stiffness of arthritis. Never lost her happy spirit. Many times over the years I’d told her (and prayed) that when the time came, I didn’t want to take her to the vet and be forced to make “the decision.”

Maybe that was her final gift to me.

I’ve cleaned my house and car of her things: bowls, cookies, leashes, toys. Everything has been boxed up for now and stored – everything except her blanket, her car bed, four specific toys and two cookies. Those items were buried with her on my parents’ property – her second home.

What remains are random blonde hairs on my couch, memories of what an amazingly good dog she was and her noseprints on the inside car window where she was always buckled in. I’m not ready to clean them off just yet.

The hurt comes and goes, and gets better each day, but it’s still lonely to leave work and head to a quiet home without her there to greet me. Is another dog somewhere out there made just for me? Perhaps. But right now, I’m feeling selfish. I just want to grieve and remember all the happy moments spent with my sweet Pumpkin. And boy, there were thousands.

But when some time has passed and my wounded heart and spirit have finally healed, maybe – just maybe – Pumpkin will help guide another good dog in need of a loving home my way.

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