A Sad Story About a Good Dog, Adopted in a Pandemic
My wife and I adopted a ‘pandemic puppy’ to make self-isolating less lonely. It didn’t work out like that.
“I think we should get a dog.” This was my wife, Alex, our first night sheltered in place. I was on the couch, in sweatpants, eating a burrito; Alex stood before me in jeans and a black blazer. In the crook of her right arm she cradled a laptop full of research she’d conducted on Bay Area dog shelters. She twirled her free hand as she spoke, like a lawyer addressing the court. “And I think it should be a puppy. A young puppy. Preferably with floppy ears. What do you think?”
“I think it’s a great idea,” I replied quickly, aware that her question had not really been a question, and that it would have been unwise to offer my honest opinion, which was that I thought adopting a puppy to be a bad idea. My reasons were mostly selfish. For one thing, though several months of quarantine-style isolation did seem ideal context for puppy-raising, I had imagined spending those months in a starkly different way — like by investing bullishly in myself. I wanted to read the New Yorker, write a novel, acquire abs (burritos notwithstanding). I wanted to install bookshelves. And it was hard thinking of a better way to torpedo that dream than by adopting an animal predisposed to destroying furniture. I had also long suspected dogs’ love for man to be more transactional than man likes to admit — that what dog-behavior we interpret as love is, more often, hunger — and so more generally, I doubted whether the new-puppy destruction to which Alex and I would be submitting could possibly, ultimately, be worth it.
Then I met the puppy in question. Nola was a three-month-old, foot-and-a-half-long Lab/shepherd mix with a gold coat she hadn’t quite grown into, eyes that gleamed like large buttons, and a brow that conveyed, in turns, bemusement, befuddlement, and serious thought. (And her ears: Boy did they flop.) Alex and I met her inside the small, Band-Aid-colored front office of a dog shelter in Potrero Hill. She was standing at attention in a pen in the corner. Her cuteness was hypnotic. She cocked her head at us; we, helplessly, cocked our heads back. By the time I snapped out of it, Alex and I had signed the pup’s paperwork, decided on the name, and started back for our apartment in Oakland.
“Can you believe this?” Alex said, as Nola set about exploring her new home, padding and skidding around with her too-large paws. She became excited, bumping into the walls, stumbling over her legs. In a balletic display, she sprinted at, careened into, and flipped off of the couch, landing on the carpet with a mirthful thud. I was concerned but only briefly, for promptly she bounced back up, cast a curious eye, and took a big, indiscriminate poop on the floor.
“I actually can’t,” I finally managed, reaching for the disinfectant. Then, under my breath, to myself: “What have we done?”
My nerves didn’t last long. Once the poop had been cleaned up and the puppy pads and chew toys deployed, I was able to get to know this little creature — and that’s when things started to change.
First, I became fascinated by her. I discovered that we shared an affinity for games that involved tumbling around on the ground. I came to relish her unique puppy smell, a mix of pencil-shavings and bread. I began to admire her courage. And though her tastes proved typically canine — she loved chewing on things, distrusted mirrors — it was clear to me that she was singular, possessing qualities and preferences entirely her own. She liked being held like a baby at the window. And she enjoyed being read to, or, at least she appeared to enjoy being read to. That night, in a Hail Mary to get Nola to fall asleep — she despised the crate we’d bought for her to sleep in — I laid down beside her on the other side of the metal gate and read from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I’d been rereading because it’s awesome. By the time I’d introduced Nola to Josef Kavalier, her eyes were closed, and her head was resting on her paws, and then, my God, she was sleeping. I, naturally, at this point, made my conclusion that Nola enjoyed being read to. Then I entertained the notion that I might possess mystical, dog-whispering powers.
By Day Two, I’d fallen under the impression that Nola was the smartest dog in the world. “She’s peed on the puppy pad three out of the last five times she’s gone to the bathroom,” I remarked to Alex, like a dad at a Little League game. “Show me another dog who can do that.”
Nola seemed to learn quickly, and, moreover, she seemed to enjoy learning; I imagined her brain as a shiny laboratory, buzzing with miniature dog scientists. Even more impressively, she seemed to intuit the importance of family, of togetherness; all she wanted, pretty much all the time, was to be with Alex and me. This struck me as wise, and — nuts though it sort of sounded, given that Nola was a dog, and that I’d only known her two days — I thought that maybe I could learn from it.
Turns out, I already had. We spent the next day, a Saturday, playing roll-around-on-the-ground, celebrating Nola’s bowel movements, and introducing Nola to our family and friends over FaceTime. It was one of the best days of my life — even though I didn’t do any reading, writing, or ab work. It was amazing. I felt like I could see what Nola saw. I remember coming out of the shower to find Alex and Nola asleep on the couch, Nola curled up like a comma, Alex gently snoring, and having it hit me. This was all I needed.
The contentment was enlivening. I’d been growing increasingly anxious about the dystopian state of things. It was nerve-wracking to read in The Economist about how the future of life on Earth would most likely resemble the movie 28 Days Later. It was nerve-wracking talking to friends who’d been furloughed. It was nerve-wracking talking to my parents.
But suddenly — so suddenly! — with Nola, I felt insulated from all that. I understood why everyone and their mother had been adopting puppies. Outside, the world might be rife with fear, but inside — equipped with kibble, coffee, several hundred puppy pads — we were content. Our apartment was an island, and we, its privileged inhabitants.
Then Sunday came, and with it the obliteration of our delusions; the moment we woke up, we knew something was wrong. Nola wouldn’t eat, drink, or wrestle. When she peed on her puppy pad, she didn’t accept our proffered treats. She had a cough.
We went online. We found a service that connects pet-owners — for $40 a conversation — with veterinarians online. “Sounds like kennel cough,” we were told by a man who sounded roughly my age. He prescribed Robitussin.
We decided to do a bit more research. That’s when we came across a word we’d been introduced to, briefly, at the dog shelter, when we were signing Nola’s adoption papers, in reference to a disease Nola might have been exposed to in their care: “parvo” — or, more specifically, “parvovirus,” which operates in much the same fashion as the coronavirus. Those it kills often die on ventilators.
Nola, we determined — obviously, Jesus — needed to be tested. Still, we reassured ourselves on the drive to the Oakland Veterinary Hospital that we were merely being cautious. Nola didn’t seem that sick — certainly not as sick as the puppies we’d read about online. Look, we remarked, she’s still licking our faces! We agreed that the test was but a pitstop; on the way back, we’d pick up the Robitussin.
Then we arrived at the hospital, or, more specifically, the hospital’s parking lot; we weren’t, of course, allowed inside. Rain fell. We waited. Five minutes later, a technician emerged. She was dressed in full protective gear — gloves, mask, whole thing. She motioned for us to roll down the window. “Are you the owners of Nola?” she asked. Her voice was muffled by her mask, and it was hard to tell whether she was happy, nonplussed, or scared. “Yes!” we replied, insisting on happy. The technician nodded, and then reached with two hands through the open passenger’s side window. I honestly can’t remember whether Alex or I petted or assured Nola that everything would be alright — that we loved her and that we weren’t abandoning her — that’s how quick she was gone. All I remember is grabbing Alex’s hand, suddenly terrified. “She’ll be right back,” I tried to say, lacking the verve.
An hour and a half later, still in the parking lot, we received a call from the doctor who’d administered Nola’s test. We put her on speakerphone. She confirmed that Nola had tested positive for parvo. Then she recounted a litany of horrible facts: the virus had spread into Nola’s lungs. Nola would require hospitalization, intravenous fluids, intense antibiotics, potentially a ventilator, and she still might die; mortality rates for her disease ranged as high as 90%. And hospitalization was expensive. Most families can’t afford it. Indeed, she posited a figure that, if borne out, would account for all the available money Alex and I had to our name. She insisted that if we opted not to hospitalize Nola, we weren’t bad people; it was a difficult and, for many families, solitary option. She asked us what we thought.
She was a part of what we thought about when we thought about “Us.” It felt like we’d had her forever.
We had no fucking clue. Thinking was, suddenly, hard; it felt like we’d been jumped — beaten and arrested for a crime we didn’t commit. Certainly, we hadn’t been ready for this. My heartbeat thumped in my jaw. I looked at Alex and there were tears in her eyes and then there were tears in mine, too. The rain fell harder.
We decided, wordlessly, that we would try to save Nola, whatever it took. I’m not sure either of us really considered the alternative. I understand why some people might find that extreme. We’d had Nola less than a week! But in that time, we’d also built Nola into our future, and as such, built her into our lives. She was a part of what we thought about when we thought about “Us.” It felt like we’d had her forever.
We informed the doctor of our plan.
“Nola’s lucky to have you,” the doctor replied. “Now, unfortunately, I need you to go home.”
“Wait!” I blurted. “Isn’t there a way we can see her, before we go?” I was suddenly furious. Also panicked. This was, as I would soon learn, a kind of madness, one unique to the moment, the madness of powerlessness. I thought of Nola curled up with Alex on the couch, and I thought about how I needed to protect her, and didn’t the doctor know that I needed to protect her?
The doctor’s reply — worn down, no doubt, from being issued so many times — made clear that it didn’t matter.
Four days later, on a ventilator, Nola died. Alex and I received the news the same way we’d received every other update that had come from the hospital that week: huddled over the phone, squeezing each other’s hand, lit up by anxiety, angry. Only now, it was over. We’d been living on a kind of jerry-rigged life raft, clinging to its sides as the ocean roiled. And having it be over was like having the ship splinter and fall apart. It felt like sinking. (I thought of Josef Kavalier, the hero of me and Nola’s favorite novel, who responds to the death of his 12-year-old brother — whom he had been working to extricate from Nazi-controlled Prague — by attempting to drown himself.) And then the only thing we could think about was that we hadn’t said goodbye — hadn’t so much as petted Nola before she’d been plucked out of the car. She’d probably thought we were monsters.
The weeks that followed were consumed by the task of challenging these thoughts. It was hard, less like surviving at sea and more like walking through swamp, the task itself always pulling you back. I found it hard for a while to look around the apartment — still strewn with the vestiges of Nola’s presence, which we couldn’t bring ourselves to throw out or put away, like her chew toys, the illimitable puppy pads — and see anything other than Nola’s absence. It swallowed everything that had previously filled the space — happiness, warmth, sound — and replaced it with a hollow loneliness far worse than that which, by way of adopting Nola, we’d been trying to evade. It also didn’t make sense—there was no Why to explain the What—and this was deeply unsettling, made us nihilistic, distrustful.
What we’ve tried telling ourselves, however — what we’re trying to force this experience and really in a way the pandemic as a whole to teach us, to hammer into our heads — is that though in life there often isn’t a Why, there is always a How. As in, how you interpret whatever bad thing has happened; how you decide to remember it; how you decide to deal. And the How is essential. Focusing on it is restorative. It tempers your perspective.
Nola, we know, for example, did more than merely die. She left behind more than just her absence. She changed us. In my case, she taught me that I have room in my heart for a family, showed me that I do in fact love dogs, deepened and made more dynamic the love I feel for Alex; she made me less of an asshole. I’m better for having loved Nola. I think of a quote attributed to Anatole France that my mom sent me the night Nola died and that I at one time would have rejected but that now seems kind of cool because it sort of makes sense: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” To be sure, Alex and I only feel incomplete now because we know, thanks to Nola, what it’s like to be closer to whole.
It’s easy to slip, forget these things, and get mad, but we’re keeping at it. The other day we retrieved Nola’s ashes from the hospital. Back at home, we went down the list. (This is our routine.) Remember, just because we didn’t say goodbye doesn’t mean Nola didn’t know that she was loved; yes Nola’s story was short — too short! — but stories don’t need to be long in order to be impactful; and, yeah, even though our apartment still feels empty from Nola not being in it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also made more lovely by the memory of her harrumphing around the living room, or cuddling up on Alex’s lap on the couch, or of how happy she seemed — how happy we all were — that last Saturday night when we finally let her up on the bed.
This pandemic sucks, but we’ll persist, and one day, we’ll be that kind of happy again. Hell, we may even get another dog. And when we do, we’ll be more aware of our good luck, including the chance to say goodbye, should we get one. Which, if we do, we’ll tell that dog what I wish we would have told Nola: Oh yeah, little one, you were loved.