“I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) “In Memoriam”
The death of a loved one is never easy. Three of my grandparents died during my college years; my maternal grandmother died much later at 99 years and 7 months of age. My dad, who lived a true American life, died two years ago at 92. My best friend, Jim, died suddenly at age 48 in 2013.
I grieved. I wept. I prayed for their souls. I grieve and weep and pray still.
Earlier this week, I experienced a death like no other. My little Gina, a black lab and chow mix, died in my arms in my home in New Jersey. She was 16 years and 10 months old.
Jim and I adopted Gina in 2005. She was rescued off the streets of New Orleans six weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck. Dr. Karen Dashfield, a loving and selfless veterinarian from northwest New Jersey, rented a tractor-trailer and drove 2,600 miles to New Orleans and back.
While there, she rescued 187 dogs and cats that had been abandoned by their owners when they fled the city. She brought them all to New Jersey and fed, cleaned, x-rayed and vaccinated them, and put them all up for adoption. She did this at her own expense at the Sussex County Fair Grounds during the winter of 2005-2006.
One day, on a lark, Jim and I wandered into the barn she was using, and we found the dog we had been longing for. I had never had a dog due to maternal objection in my youth. We went back the next day to visit the dog with whom we both had loved at first sight, but she was gone — adopted by someone else.
Two crates away was a beautiful jet-black, wolf-looking, shy but anxious black lab and chow mix. We adopted her. We named her Evangeline — after one of the good folks in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” — and we called her Gina.
Gina changed my life. Like many dogs, she was loving and loyal. And, like many dogs, she naturally drew people to her. My mom, who for nearly all her life was terrified of dogs, fell in love with Gina. Mom — who is totally apolitical — got herself appointed to the board of directors house committee of her condominium association solely to change the house rules so that Gina could come when I visited. Mom, who was fearful of all things canine — teeth, odor, droppings — loved it when Gina jumped onto her lap or on my dad’s.
Animals bring out the best in us. They are our little angels. They unify us around them. We wonder what they know and what they comprehend. We give them the benefit of all doubt. They love us simply and unconditionally.
Gina was happiness itself. She was only unhappy in the presence of other animals. While walking her once in Central Park, in New York City, she chased a cop on a horse. What a sight. On my farm, she chased deer and bear.
Gina became my best friend. We walked many hours together in New York City and at my farm. Chows love to kiss, and Gina was no exception. Her kiss was, of course, a lick. She once licked my face 228 times before I decided enough of a good thing was enough. She kissed me many times every day that we were together.
Since COVID-19, Gina and I had been living together at my farm. By then, she was suffering from the ravages of age, particularly arthritis and a torn and irreparable canine equivalent of an ACL. Therapy at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan worked for half a year, but then age caught up to her.
At the time of her death, she was hard of hearing, couldn’t walk, occasionally lost her appetite and was incontinent; however, she could still kiss. Even in the ICU, she kissed me every day when I visited. When the vets told me her time had come, and they could do no more for her, I brought Gina home. I slept next to her bed on the floor, lest she leave this veil of tears alone.
When she refused food, I knew she’d eat like a wolf the next day. But when she refused water — she loved water — I knew her end was near.
When she was breathing hard and slowly losing consciousness, I held her in my arms. Her tongue was dry and gray, and she lost control of it. “Gina, give Daddy one more kiss before you go,” I said three times. No response.
Her favorite vet was with us when the end came. He told me that sound is the last sense to go in animals. I tried her one last time, “Hey, Gee (as I often called her) you know how Daddy loves you. Please give your Daddy one last kiss.”
In her own way, she did. She reached up to my face and pushed her snout onto my lips, and then, in my tear-soaked arms, her beautiful heart and her labored breathing stopped.
Rest in peace, my sweet angel. We will be with each other again.