by Ashlyn Inman
It’s strange being in a place that you spent most of your life in and feeling like everything is familiar except one thing. For as long as I could remember, we had a dog in the house. Even before we lived in this particular house, we had a dog in the family. Usually, more than one at a time. My parents had repeatedly said that once Jack was gone, they wouldn’t get another dog because they wanted to be able to travel without finding a dog sitter. I never believed them, but they stayed true to their word.
After Jack passed, I spent the entire week with my family mourning, and then went back home to Tennessee. I succumbed to the occasional crying fit, but whenever I saw his happy face shining up at me on my phone’s lock screen, I could simply imagine he was back in Turlock waiting for me. In the denial of distance, I could box up my feelings and put them to the side to deal with them later.
But there is no denial when you are standing in the house where the missing piece belongs.
My primary motive for going back home for more than a few days after I moved away—home to my parent’s house in Turlock, California—was that I wanted to spend time with my aging dog.
Now, my dog is in a box.
But the standard has been set that I must make the pilgrimage to my hometown for a few weeks during the holidays despite the lack of a living, breathing dog there to welcome me.
I love my parents, but there’s not much to do in my hometown aside from seeing family. Besides, I’d lived in much cooler places than Turlock—Myrtle Beach, New York City, Nashville—so I always figured that people could come to see me.
I don’t usually have access to a car when I visit my childhood home. There’s a rusty Toyota pickup truck that’s older than I am, but my dad is always wary of me driving it in case I’m behind the wheel when it finally decides to croak. Before my return for Thanksgiving/Christmas 2021, being in the house alone while my parents worked never felt lonely because Jack would usually be there to shove his ass in my face to distract me. But now, when I’m alone here, it’s like there’s a void. Because I’m actually alone.
Before you ask, I don’t have a dog at my apartment back in Nashville because my partner and I live in a tiny studio space that isn’t big enough for two humans, fourteen guitars, and a dog. It feels normal there, but the lack of a wagging tail just feels wrong in my parent’s house.
I’ve tried to rotate holidays between my family and my partner’s family over the years that we’ve been together, but I broke the cycle in 2020 because I wanted to go see my dog. Despite this, my mother, knowing that 2021 was technically her year to have me in Turlock for Christmas, somehow conned me into spending an entire month from Thanksgiving to Christmas with them. I had no work obligations because, like so many other people now, I work remotely. And my partner didn’t help anything by having to work through the holidays.
I’m not denying the impact of a first holiday without a human family member. I’ve been in that situation before too, and it is completely different from grieving a pet.
But the first holiday without a snout pressing into your thigh looking for table scraps? The first without the howl and scamper of overgrown nails on wood floors when it’s time for a walk? The first where you don’t get to hang up a stocking full of treats and squeaky toys? Fuck that shit.
I should probably mention that I am a quasi-Jew in a very Catholic household. I’m pioneering an interfaith family by converting to Judaism. My parents weren’t shocked by the revelation, but they did wonder where they had gone wrong. So I’m spending a month in a household that prefers to keep Christ in Christmas. Here I am, putting ornaments on a Christmas tree after lighting a menorah. L’chaim, am I right?
I will say my mom tolerated my explanation of “celebrating secular Christmas” but was less enthused by my calling the tree a “Hanukkah bush.” We all draw our lines in the sand somewhere.
Anyway, as I’m unwrapping ornaments, I find a red frame showcasing Jack’s paw print. I had forgotten that I had forced him to do that last year. Our local Bed, Bath, and Beyond had their day-after-Christmas sale, and I found a kit for making an ornament from your dog’s paw print for 70% off. Jack was getting up there in age, and I thought, “No time like the present.”
Thank God I did, because it ended up being our last Christmas with him before he went in The Box.
And thank God the kit included multiple pieces of paper. Jack was…energetic, to say the least. The print immortalized in the ornament is quite smudgy because he didn’t understand the gravity of me trying to get the perfect impression. He wiggled and grunted as I had to half lay on him to get his paw on the ink pad and paper just right. Each time I went in for a new impression, he bowled over and thumped his tail to demand a belly rub. It was hard to stay on task with his light brown eyes, big floppy ears, and speckled belly begging for affection. Even harder to roll his eighty-pound body over to get enough pressure to transfer the ink. Don’t worry—he got his pets as soon as I ran out of ink. And I got at least eight copies of his paws, with varying degrees of success.
Before the people at the pet crematorium put him in the box, they took an impression of his two front paws for me. They were perfect in a way I couldn’t capture, but the messy ones say a lot more about his character.
Like most pet owners, I had a habit of telling my dog about my life. Since he lived in California and I lived across the country in apartments “too small for a howling coonhound,” we had a lot to catch up on. Jack was the most indifferent about my spiritual journey. Dogs don’t see religious differences—they only see head pats and ham chunks.
I’m staring at a blank Word document, willing words to appear. I slump into the dining room chair, fixing my eyes on the white tablecloth. I want to work, but The Box feels like a magnet pulling me to confront emotions that I’ve been pushing down.
I finally decide to go for a drive just to get in motion. Anything to stop myself from just staring at The Box, ruminating on the what-ifs. I climb into the truck, pray that today’s not the day it decides to kick the bucket, and take a lap around the town.
It always amazes me how Turlock is trying to be something it’s not. The town has grown a lot since I was a kid, but it’s still a small agrarian town suburbanizing itself where possible. There’s on road that runs through the town where on one side there are perfect little home and on the other side are tons of trees and abandoned melons rotting in a field.
You can move into the fancy house, but you’re still one step away from the yellowed watermelons who never found their purpose.
The first time I saw Jack, I thought he was a beagle whose legs had been stretched like taffy. My parents surprised me with him as my Catholic confirmation present when I was thirteen.
My parents each had their own dog, but one of my mom’s work colleagues had emailed her about a dog up for adoption. A year before, the family had found a scraggly dog wandering aimlessly in an orchard. They had picked him up, brought him to their house, cleaned him up, fed him, and named him Jack. But then they got pregnant, and their house would be too full for the dog they took in. My mom responded to the email immediately, saying that we would take him. She didn’t even run it by my dad.
He was mine, but he would be an outside dog with the Rottweiler. I was over the fucking moon.
Jack didn’t stay an outdoor dog for long because he was prone to skin cancer and the California sun would cook up tumors on his belly. We thought the house would protect him, but cancer has its ways.
At the end of the day, I can be thankful that those people found a dog that looked like an overstretched beagle wandering through a field and didn’t leave him high and dry like an old melon without purpose.
My phone was cradled between my ear and my shoulder while I tried to Tetris my belongings as into the brown moving box in front of me. It was early December 2020, and I had a lot of shit to do and was pretending to do it while I talked to my mother.
“Are you almost all packed up?” my mom asked on the other end.
“Uhhhh,” I croaked as I looked around my messy, half-packed room. “Sure.”
I could practically hear her frown. “Ash, you’re coming to California in a few days, and then you’re moving to Nashville right after. You need to have everything together.”
“I know, I know,” I sighed and readjusted my phone. “How’s my baby?”
“He’s doing good! We took him on a nice long walk today. He’s getting quite spoiled.”
“As he should be.” I paused and set down the item in my hand. “You know, we’ll have significantly more space in Nashville.” (A lie.) “Jack could come live with me.”
“His breed is originally from Tennessee; he could, you know, explore his roots.”
“Honey, we’ve talked about this.”
“I know, but—”
“But you can’t afford to have a dog right now, and if something goes wrong, you’d be forking out a lot for a surgery to keep him alive. And Jack is comfy here. He doesn’t need to take a cross-country trip when he’s fourteen.”
“He’s my dog, though.”
“And he’ll always be your dog. He’s just your dog that lives here.”
In March 2021, my parents were getting ready to come see me in Nashville when Jack started acting strange. A trip to the vet made it clear that cancer had taken over, but he was still standing, and I was on Facetime crying, telling my mom that we couldn’t put him down. They boarded him at the vet and got on the plane, but all any of us could think about was our dog in a cold cage refusing to eat. So my parents changed their flight to go home early. We were all on edge, and I think they wanted to protect me from what they knew was about to happen, but I was twenty-five years old. I didn’t need to be protected. I just needed to see my dog.
I immediately started looking for a flight to go with them, but they said I shouldn’t. We fought about the money I didn’t have for a plane ticket. We fought about time and work.
I don’t talk back to my parents. I rarely get angry with my parents. But I yelled until they agreed that me going to California with them was the right thing to do.
We sat in the airport thinking, All this for a dog.
In some delusional world, I thought that Jack would perk up when he saw me in person in Turlock and start eating again. That we could chalk it up to a dramatic doggie tantrum.
But you already know how this story ends.
His tail thumped when he saw me, but his eyes were tired. No, he didn’t want to eat. No, he wasn’t magically better. No, this wasn’t just a tantrum.
The vet said that unless he started eating, the best thing we could do for him was euthanize him.
What a lovely word for, “kill your dog.”
We didn’t believe the vet when she offered this course of action to my parents a few days before because Jack was still standing, and it was sitting in our mouths again now like a pill that didn’t get washed down properly. You don’t—you know—do that to a dog who is clearly okay. He could lie down. He could get up. Albeit with some effort, but he seemed okay. The last night we had Jack in dog form, I pumped up the air mattress and set up camp in the living room next to his bed. I fell asleep stroking his fur. I woke up periodically through the night to see if he was still breathing. A part of me wished he could go peacefully in his sleep, so we didn’t have to make a decision on his behalf.
The next morning, our family spoke quietly about what to do. We knew what the ethical choice was, but none of us felt quite right about playing God. But the alternative was to watch our dog starve himself to death or wait until the cancer finally pulled him under.
My dad said I didn’t have to go into the room when they did it. But he was my dog, and I wouldn’t abandon him at the end. I flew all this way so he would know how loved he was. And isn’t that what everyone—human or animal—deserves in their final moments? To be surrounded by those who love them most?
Back in September 2020, I was asked an extremely important question.
“So, why do you want to be a Jew?”
I fished for words that wouldn’t sound silly to a rabbi over Zoom. I was taking the first steps in my conversion process, and this was the first meeting I had with my mentor. “I, uh, I grew up Catholic, but as soon as I went away for college, it just slowly stopped making sense to me. And Judaism was always there and intriguing. And then I started dating my boyfriend, who is Jew-ish.”
“And are you converting for marriage?”
“No, he didn’t want me to convert. He doesn’t believe in organized religion. I started learning about Judaism because it interested me, and the more I read, the more that made sense.”
She smiled, “Such as?”
“Such as, that healing the world means caring for the people in it, and a man in the sky won’t save us; we have to save ourselves. The idea that we’re all connected. The fact that you—a woman—can be in the clergy.”
She laughed at this. “Yeah, I can imagine how different that must be.”
“I just, I realized that I believed that the world was too sad and shitty for the Messiah to have already come. And I was drawn to the idea of the Divine in everything, so here I am”.
“Here you are,” she grinned knowingly, as if I’d grown up in her synagogue.
The first time I tried to get work done after he came home from the crematorium,
I sat in this spot at the table and couldn’t stop glancing at The Box sitting up on the china hutch.
Slowly, the words on the computer screen got blurrier, and moments later, I was sobbing. My
dad, who had already gone to bed, came out to see what was wrong. All I could mutter between
ragged breaths was, “My dog. Is. In. A. Box. And. He. Shouldn’t. Be.”
My dad held me like I was five again.
So here we are, eight months later, and although I haven’t lost it again, the house still feels desolate when everyone’s gone. In some ways, you get used to it.
“I miss my dog,” I mutter to no one in particular. Now that I don’t have a dog to
say this to, I just seem crazy talking to myself in an empty house.
I consider leaving the house again. But in small-town California, there’s only one good coffee shop. So I’m stuck with the catch-22 of going there to work and potentially running into someone I don’t want to talk to, or hanging out with my dog-in-a-box in the ghost town of my house.
I’m not sure who was more antsy, him or us. He’d barely moved in a day, but now that we were in the sterilized vet’s office, he was prancing around, trying to put on a show for us.
I wanted to argue again, but his eyes revealed his exhaustion and his white muzzle refused to eat and, according to the vet, his sturdy bones had betrayed him, and they said it was time. But right then, he was still standing in front of me, his head pressed into my chest while I massaged his floppy ears.
I wanted to argue with my parents, who were speaking in hushed tones while I silently cried.
I wanted to argue with the gray-haired male vet who had seen Jack throughout his life when he announced that my boy had hit a tipping point and the cancer was poised to win.
I wanted to argue with the blonde vet who looked much too young to be a vet as she explained the procedure after walking in and meeting Jack for the first time.
I envied the other people in the waiting room, bringing pups in for routine checks or shots. The last place I wanted to be was in an asymmetrical white room with abstract prints of dogs and cats in vibrant colors.
We were told we would proceed when we were ready, and in that moment, I could have built a home in that room to prolong what was coming next. I didn’t know if I would ever be ready. Was Jack even ready? The antsiness in his step couldn’t hide the tiredness in his eyes, and I knew we were doing the right thing. (I would second guess this a lot in the following days.)
He had an orange band-aid with a pink heart on top of it wrapped an inch above his paw. That’s where they’d put it. They laid him down and I sat behind his head, holding his other paw and whispering to him how much I loved him and always would. My parents flanked me and laid their hands on him too, and the much-too-young vet did the thing that vets do when you have to do the worst thing imaginable.
His eyes closed, and we watched his short-haired coat of black, tan, and white heave a few times before he huffed one last time.
I can’t tell you what anyone else said that day, but the soft soprano of the vet gently saying “His heart has stopped beating” is forever burned in my brain as much as the last time I saw my dog.
Jack came home in a 12×6×12 cherry box a few days later.
I’ve been afraid of fire since I was little, so I tried not to think of how they fit my dog into such a small box. But I wanted to take a part of him with me home. I prepared the urn, but I asked my parents to fill it while I was out of the house. I, a twenty-five-year-old woman, was too afraid to look inside The Box.
My mom told me later that he looked like a pile of snowflakes. Bright, brilliant white.
Strangely enough, when my dog died in April, I had an overwhelming urge to talk to my rabbi. We had just covered Jewish funeral rites in “Jew Class,” and when my dog died, I wanted to tear my garments and sit Shiva. Which felt ridiculous because I was talking about a dog. I emailed Rabbi Juli to ask if it was normal to gain a deeper understanding of funeral rites through the death of a dog. She asked if she could call, and we talked for thirty minutes about life, death, and pets. We talked about the different ways converts find their way into Judaism. We talked about the variables of life after death. We talked about how Jewish death rites are more for the mourners because they’re still on Earth and need comfort when their loved ones are Gone.
There was never a scenario where at my lowest moments I had a phone call with a priest. I barely wanted to talk to family, but here I was, pouring my heart out to a rabbi I had only known for a few months. She didn’t make me feel silly, she listened attentively as I told her about Jack’s quirks, and she helped me find some semblance of peace.
Before we hung up, she said the traditional phrase Jews use when someone close to them has passed. “May his memory be a blessing.”
Judaism is vague about life after death—they want you to focus on your time on Earth. It’s open to interpretation. There’s a concept of hell, but it’s more like purgatory. Some say reincarnation. Some say our souls return to the Divine Essence. Yes, I know, that sounds a lot like becoming a part of the cosmic Force from Star Wars. But the idea that my dog’s soul is permeating the air around me is comforting. Even when I’m in this empty house in human form, and he’s in a box.
At the same time, the traditional Christian idea of him howling and prancing around heaven comforts me too. That he’s somewhere up in the clouds, howling at the wind, wagging his tail at me until I join him.
Who knows who’s right?
All I know is that my dog is with me, box or not.
by Josephine Florens
Ashlyn Inman currently lives in Nashville, TN. She works as a managing editor at Permuted Press and is currently working toward her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her essay “Okay” was recently published in Women Write Now: Women in Trauma, an anthology curated by Edna J. White.
Josephine Florens is a professional oil painter . Was born in Odessa, Ukraine on September 22, 1988. Lives in Bad Grönenbach, Germany, as there is a war going on in Ukraine. Website is https://josephineflorens.com Graduated from Odessa National Academy of Law and received a Master’s degree in Civil Law , graduated from Odessa International Humanitarian University and received a Master’s degree in International Law. She started painting in 2017. She studied individually at the Art-Ra school of painting. Josephine Florens is a member of the National Association of Artists and Sculptors of Ukraine , member of the Odessa Marine Union, Ukraine, honorary member of the Union of World’s Poets and Writers. Creates oil paintings in various genres, such as portrait , landscape , still life , genre painting , animal painting , marina . Works with oil paints. The painting styles used in the work are realism, impressionism, mixed styles.