By Shawna Kenney
“Thank you for being an awesome dog,” the veterinarian said, kissing Nolan’s copper-colored head before making the final injection. Nolan died in my lap on Feb 5th. My husband Rich and I were still grieving when the global pandemic hit in March, but getting back to normal, able to talk about other things, adjusting to the missing canine energy in the apartment. I finally started sleeping through the night—after having to get up to check on him so much in his last weeks, when the cancerous tumors in his leg enlarged, making it difficult for him to get comfortable.
When it looked like everyone would be staying home awhile, and news stories announced animal shelters emptying due to an increase in adoptions, and all of Rich’s home renovation work dried up, we decided to foster a dog. Tilly was a 70-pound white Pit bull mix recovering from skin cancer surgery. She wanted nothing more than to sit close to us, snore on her bed, and to sniff freely in the yard. We couldn’t let her on the couch or off leash, due to the rescue’s regulations. She had to sleep in her crate—actually Nolan’s old crate, each night, per the rules. She was not our dog—we were merely readying her for adoption.
For two weeks we walked her around the neighborhood, cuddled her, slowly introduced her to the other dogs in our building, and posted adorable pictures of her on social media captioned: “Adopt Me!”
On a Thursday, after returning from an exhausting walk full of pulling and squirrel chasing, the three of us entered our gated yard and released her from her leash, remembering our previous dog trainer had said sniffing helps dogs relieve stress. She investigated the grassy perimeter and then treed a squirrel, barking her odd squawky bark in excitement. A neighbor emerged with his little dog, Otto. We waved hello from more than six feet away. The dogs barely seemed to notice one another, until before we knew it Tilly was on top of Otto, her jaws around his throat. Rich grabbed her collar and the neighbor reached for his dog. They twirled into a cyclone of snarls. Otto yelped. I flashed back to our classes with Nolan, when our dog trainer had advised that if we ever encountered a dogfight, pulling the back legs of either dog back and up could end it. I grabbed Tilly’s two back paws, securing my hands around them, and lifted them into a wheelbarrow position. She released her grip on Otto. His owner cradled him and ran inside his apartment as we fell to the ground holding a panting Tilly back.
Back inside, I dabbed blood from her jowls and she curled into sleep in her crate as I washed blood from my hands—hers or Otto’s? I emailed the neighbor a profuse apology, stating my concern for his dog. A visit to the vet later revealed one puncture wound but thankfully no broken bones. “He’s in good spirits and should be okay,” he wrote back.
We called the rescue organization, admitting fault for letting Tilly off leash, conceding that ours was not the proper set up for fostering any dog that could not be around other dogs. We agreed to return her. Perhaps offering her freedom in the yard was living vicariously while we were mandated to stay home, without access to hiking trails, beach walks, concerts or other ways we soothe ourselves. Her presence had been a positive distraction from the climbing death tolls in daily headlines. We confessed our mistake, that this responsibility was too much for us right now—caring for another being as it becomes harder and harder to care for ourselves, as I work 14 hours a day as a freelance writer and my husband tries to find ways to be useful—cooking, cleaning, making grocery store runs, applying for unemployment.
Tilly climbed into the truck willingly, like she had the day before when we had driven to a pet store for treats. We drove to the rescue organization’s building, which is attached to the same veterinarian’s office where we had last seen Nolan in his earthly form. A volunteer met us at the back door wearing jeans, a scrub top and a black mask. We wore our N95s, leftover from when Rich had work. After handing Tilly’s dogfood and bed over, we walked her from the backseat over to the volunteer, pressing her leash into a gloved hand.
I don’t know if the young woman could see my eyes, red and raw from crying. “Thank you… and I’m sorry,” I said as I backed away. Could she see that I was sincere?
“No problem,” she said.
“We hope she finds the right home,” Rich said.
“She will,” she said, so confidently. It sounded like she was smiling.
As we walked away, she tried leading Tilly into the facility, but Tilly wouldn’t budge. She steeled herself and looked back at us, confused. “Do you want to say goodbye?” the woman asked.
Tilly came over, tail wagging. I kneeled down and kissed her white velvety head.
“Thank you and I’m sorry,” I whispered. “You will be okay.” Tilly nuzzled my face with her black nose, then turned and walked inside.
In the car, I leaned my head on the dash and cried a guttural cry as Rich rubbed my back. Gasping for breath, I pictured my new inhaler where I’d last seen it, back on my desk at home.
The earth is getting quieter, they say. Around the world, without the vibrations generated by cars, trains, and buses, seismologists have observed a dramatic reduction in ambient noise. In its absence, they have detected subtle earthquakes and other seismic events that previously wouldn’t have registered.
We drove home through empty streets. And against a clean dusky sky in Los Angeles, men were selling masks on street corners where they once hawked oranges and water.
Judge’s Comments: Shawna Kenney explores the deep pain of losing a beloved pet as the world is turning upside down. When she describes opening her home and heart to a foster dog, joy jumps off the page. When things take a turn for the worse, her agony does the same. Kenney takes us on an emotional rollercoaster throughout the piece.