Nina died in December; she was a Chinese Crested/ teacup poodle mix. She came to me in the Fall of 2006. I was in a long distance relationship and my beloved dog Avery had died in the summer. I was like a drifting canoe, no paddles, just dogless. I wanted a small dog that would be easy to take on airplanes, as I had driven my Avery (a 62.5lb Lab/ Shephard mix) many times from New York to Ohio to see my boyfriend. I saw Nina’s picture online and applied to adopt her. That all came together (thank you Crest Care Chinese Crested Rescue + her foster mama, Cecelia) shortly before Christmas.
I introduced Nina to my boyfriend. Nina knew to throw up in my boyfriend’s truck, knew to poop on his clothes, knew that he would ultimately disappoint me. Nina knew everything. Why don’t we listen to our dogs better?
I had Nina for 5 months when she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. I had just lost Avery to cancer; I couldn’t let Nina go. She had the best surgeon, most loving doctors, and holistic diets. But Nina did the hardest work. She willed her tiny (4.75 pound) body through all of that. She had her teat removed, and one round of chemotherapy. After that one time, I knew she couldn’t endure chemo. She was so small and her hair fell out, her mottled charcoal/pink skin turned solid black from the drugs, leaving just her tiny black Chinese Crested face, like a little spider monkey. When a little boy on the street looked terrified and tugged on his mom’s pants to point at Nina, that’s what I said: “She’s a monkey”, and smiled. And thought, you– you– little boy, will be old and look like shit one day and by then your mother will be dead, so fuck you. I was mean mean mean, and defensive — do not look at my baby with anything but the most love and admiration, or I will kill you. I also thought, little boy, you will look like shit one day and be human, and that means really looking really terrible, while Nina, even at her most sickly self, was still a beautiful dog.
After chemo she would only drink water if I dribbled it into her mouth from mine.
The chemo doctor gave her three to six months to live post-treatment. She lived nine years. They called her “miracle dog” at her vet office, said they had never seen a dog come back from that point. She was a bad bitch, and she let everyone know. She wanted to walk where she wanted to walk, wanted to eat what she wanted …she wanted to let you know, well, most of your ideas are infractions, violations of her rules. I had thought when I adopted Nina that I would carry her everywhere with me, but, as it turns out, “everywhere” (in particular, shopping) was an infraction. She wanted to be on a “carry walk” around the block. She approved of stopping at the deli, sort of.
Mostly she liked being at home with me, in bed. If I dared to be sitting at my desk working on something at say, around 9 PM, she would stand in the hallway and bark at me– “what are you doing?! We should be snuggled in bed!” She was happy; she played “kill it,” which meant chasing a poor fluffy frog toy (or sushi, depending on the year) up and down our hallway and grabbing its neck and shaking it violently. It was so funny to see her, back from the brink, in a murderous rage; heartwarming to see her so strong, feeling her power, hearing her growl. She got all hairy again!
Bathing was always an infraction. She was giving me a death-stare during one particular kitchen sink bath, so I decided to bathe with Nina, and the co-bath was born! I would put on my swimsuit and hold Nina for her bath. She could relax this way. And I could see us, reflected in the chrome bathtub faucet, and I thought, this is exactly where I am supposed to be. The world could have their, well, world. I would take a warm bath with Nina.
She loved my vintage Crissa Cotique fluffy string jackets from the 70s. I have cream and navy. She could dig her little nails in and feel anchored, she seemed to feel safest hanging out on my hip, inside my Crissa Cotiques, walking around the neighborhood. I don’t wear those anymore. We liked to sit by the fountain in Stuyvesant town so she could get a little vitamin D. We walked. Even a month before she died, she took a 20 minute walk around the block. She must have felt pretty good that day. Sometimes I carried her high, up above my chest, just under my chin, and thought, “Finally I know why God gave me such big breasts!”– we liked to have our hearts as close as possible. She liked to perch on my chest. She slept there towards the end.
I made her a wrap from a gaudy 80s sequined sweater, so she appeared kinda like Elvis, in a sequined cape. I had a pea green sweater made (thanks Etsy) that was a hit with her, as there was no “over the head” feature. It had a long pointy collar, like a 70’s pimp. Her feet were so small that I once cut the tips of the fingers off my gloves and made little snow boots for her. Anything not custom was too big.
Nina had her few favorite people; her Auntie Coco was number one. I always suspected she loved Coco more than she loved me, but I was happy she had so so much love in her life. Extra love = extra life, maybe? Coco made up songs for Nina, loved Nina just as ferociously right back, and discovered Nina’s favorite music, which was Brightblack Morning Light. She loved her Uncle Jiggles (John) so much that on her last day she perked up and licked his nose. She loved her cat cousin Pierre Catwalk House, who lovingly caressed her face with his paw the last time he saw her. How do animals know everything? She loved her dogwalker Angel (much more than a dog walker, but that is the simplest description); he is a prince and an actual angel and a dog whisperer. On the occasions when I traveled, which I tried to avoid, she stayed with Angel and her canine best friend Pancho, a 110 pound Rottweiler. Angel sweetly texted me every day when she made a #2 and let me know how much she had eaten, so I could sleep at night. He visited her the night before she died. She loved him and trusted him, and I knew every time he took her outside, away from me, that she would come back happy and safe, and a little tired. She would take three or four little sips of water, sniff at her food, dismiss it as unworthy and go lay down.
For awhile she liked pot roast; her Uncle Jiggles introduced her to a Martha Stewart recipe, and she ate that for a couple of months. I, a vegetarian for 30 years, became pretty good (I think–at least Nina liked it) at making pot roast. This little bit of eating made me worry less for a while. She had always been a fussy eater, which seems like a small dog thing…maybe they just aren’t that hungry? But she was losing weight and seemed too relaxed. I’d lost my phone at a party the night before her sweet vet called with her test results, so I missed his call, maybe I knew something was wrong. I got my phone back (miracle) and called him, walking along Union Square and crying as he told me she had kidney failure.
For a few months she would eat the insides of a bagel, teeny bites the size of my pinky nail, dipped in cream cheese. By then I had become vegan, a.k.a. vegan-but-I-eat-bagels-and-cream-cheese every day. Nina would eat 4-5 bites and that was it. I took her to Tal Bagels every morning, and the sweet guys there knew to scoop the bagel out, but include the scooped out portion in the bag. That was for Nina. She would just be resting there on my hip. Then it became only McDonald’s hamburgers. At this point she was going for fluids three times a week; looking back, I wish I had seen the way to let her go before things got this bad.
But I wanted to have a will that matched her will to live, and stay together. If only her little kidneys had known what we needed them to do.
Of all the impossibly crushing things about letting go, I am worried that I will forget all the little things about her that I spent 10 years staring at and caring for, and absorbing love from. She had long poodle legs and her back legs were longer, making her permanently look like a puppy. Her saucer eyes had slick black eyeliner outlines, and white eyelashes. The pads on her feet were blackish/ brown, and her nails were black. Someone, before I got my hands on her, docked her tail. I want to time travel and murder this person. I will have to wonder eternally, what did her tail look like before?
My childhood was filled with church and more church. When I was pretty little, 6 or 7, my biggest concern was, do dogs go to heaven? I was worried about spending eternity separated from my beloved Poodle/ Beagle mix, Velvet. My church teacher, who must have been totally stupid, said, “No Sharon, dogs don’t have souls, so they can’t go to heaven” and I knew right then that this was not for me. While I rejected most of what church preached, as Nina declined I needed to believe that, as the bible says, she would be healthy in her afterlife. I guess people want to believe this, because it’s the only thing about letting go that seems at all like a positive.
I think I needed to create an afterlife for Nina to see her as whole again; she didn’t love shopping, but maybe now that she’s feeling better, she will come with me. By painting her I was able to look at pictures without (only) being sad, distracted by learning to paint her likeness. Her likeness includes: dusty charcoal Chinese Crested skin, clouds of white hair, the incredible pouf of hair on her head… teeny limbs (elongated for fashion, of course)…her eyes, her giant sweet eyes…the hardest part is her mouth, because it was really mostly hidden by her hair; it’s like a hint of a mouth. I started to paint Nina wearing clothes four months after she died. Before that I painted her seated at a vanity and crying. This is us, in one dog body, crying that we are not together, that I am 10 years older. But she isn’t; now she is young again, and shopping and showing the world her magnificent self, her endless well of sassiness.