Nalu and Liko, in better times

Nalu and Liko, in better times

When your dog dies, even after a long slow decline as our old girl did today, it’s a feeling not quite like any other, a unique grief. Dogs are so completely unconditionally loving that having that presence go…well, I’ve cried harder today than I have at human funerals.

If you’ve read any of my books, you’ve met my dog, Nalu, who died today—she was the model for Keiki. I made her a Rottweiler in the books, because that’s how big Nalu was in my heart. Loyal, loving, intelligent, modest, tirelessly protective and fierce in her duty, Nalu never knew she only weighed thirteen pounds and was a Chihuahua terrier—and we never told her.

Until Nalu, we were the family who could never keep a dog.

Our attempts to have a dog as a pet began early, when Mike and I were first married, and continued periodically as our kids got older. There was the Shepherd mix that howled. The Dalmatian that we loved but couldn’t get tired enough to keep indoors in the Midwest. The beagle that turned out to be a fear-biter, and chomped not just me but the kids whenever nervous. Even after two rounds of obedience school, still my son’s hand was bitten one last time. I took the dog to the Humane Society and all of us wept bitterly.

“No more dogs,” I said. “My heart can’t take it. We just aren’t dog people.”

By then I knew what having a dog meant—dealing with messes. And barking, licking, jumping. Icky smells when you pet them and they hadn’t been washed. Hair, mud, and territorial marking. The need to be walked and played with—dogs are almost as needy as toddlers, and they never grow up.

We took a family trip to Kaua`i in 1999 and camped out at Haena Beach Park. Caleb was in sixth grade and Tawny in fifth, and they met a hippie girl who had a black-and-tan bitch with puppies she was giving away. They dragged me over the see the nest of dogs in the girl's tent, and picked up the smallest puppy in their joined hands because they both wanted her so much. “Please, Mom,” they begged. “Look how tiny she is. She won’t be any trouble.”

Indeed, the pup was tiny, no bigger than a guinea pig (which we had been able to successfully have as pets) and all of the dogs we’d tried before were much larger. She was cute, too, with big ears and black-and-tan points, and the hippie girl swore she wasn’t going to grow bigger than fifteen pounds. In a weak moment, I agreed. We carried her home from Kaua`i in my purse. We named her Nalu, which means ‘wave,’ for the tan-colored curl shapes on her cheeks.

Nalu got parvo within the first couple of weeks at home, and it was our first big test of commitment as dog owners. The little adopted mutt who was supposed to be a cheap, hardy dog and ‘no trouble’ ended up costing us nine hundred dollars in vet bills, money we didn’t have back then but paid off over time on the credit card. Nalu was a fighter and refused to die, and over time, we came to joke that she had at least nine lives, and lived every one of them fully.

Nalu never had to be housetrained, and she understood when we wanted her to go to bed in the laundry room, or take a walk, or come sit on the couch with us. She wasn’t a fussy eater, and she was low maintenance—all she cared about was us. She seemed to always know what our moods and needs were as a family, never thrusting herself upon us demanding affection, instead waiting to be invited, only coming to snuggle when someone was sad. She accompanied us on camping trips and hikes, her curly tail jaunty with joy, and tirelessly patrolled and guarded our home.

We let her have one litter of puppies, a memorable experience as she got pregnant by two different (small) dogs, and succeeded in bearing six adorable puppies that we easily gave away. It was a magical experience for the kids.

When our children were in high school, Nalu got sick with cervical cancer and had to have a hysterectomy. “This is the most expensive mutt ever,” Mike mock-grumbled as we worked to pay off yet another huge bill. “Wasn’t she supposed to be ‘no trouble’?”

She came back health-wise from that, and when the kids left for college, I began to worry she would die, and that I couldn’t handle it if she did. The empty nest was feeling really empty to me. By then Nalu was ten years old and getting gray around the muzzle, so I bought Liko, a purebred shih-tzu, thinking it would be fun to have two dogs, one of them “fancy.”

Liko has never been half the dog Nalu was. He’s stubborn, territorial, pees in the house no matter what we try, and needs to be groomed, which it turns out, is not something I like dealing with. Worst of all, he isn’t smart.

We had become so used to Nalu’s almost telepathic understanding of us that we’d forgotten how special she was, how no other dog but her worked for our family.

Over the last five years she aged, gradually becoming blind and deaf, losing weight and her appetite, needing to be carried in an out of the laundry room to bed, needing special food to be tempted into eating. She became incontinent, and slept a lot. Several times we thought she was going, but she always fought her way back, clinging to life and, we sensed, one more day of looking out for us, her sworn duty.

In the last three days, at sixteen years old, she stopped eating and drinking, crawling off to strange places. We knew she was trying to die. We found her behind the dryer, under the house, and last night, out in the long grass of the yard, shivering with the night’s rain.

She didn’t want to inconvenience us with seeing her like that—she’d always been modest that way, trying to poop or pee out of view, hating it when she wasn’t in the pink of health because she knew her suffering caused us to suffer.

Mike and I took her to the vet to be put down when she began to have convulsions this morning. We wrapped her in a red beach towel that said HAWAII on it and carried her into the vet’s in a laundry basket. Nalu was stubborn about that one thing—she wouldn’t die easy. She could have passed eight or nine times at least through all our years with her, and she refused to. Now it was our turn to do the right thing by her.

I’m a total coward, though. Avoidance is one of my main grief coping strategies. I don’t know if I could have followed through on being with her to the end without Mike helping me by joining in the misery of it. I sobbed into a harsh paper towel from the vet’s dispenser as I petted her silky head. She died with no drama, curled up small and quiet in the basket and by now, almost as tiny as when she was a puppy.

Mike and I worked together and dug a hole in the back yard, in the “pet cemetery” area that, in sixteen years of raising kids in this house, now holds the bones of countless bunnies, birds, guinea pigs and cats.

But Nalu’s spot is special, against the back fence, under the fan palm. I planted a climbing rose on her grave, and I can see that palm, and that rose, from any window in the house.

I’m proud of us. The family that could never keep a dog, kept one from the beginning of her life until the last minute of the end—and the world will always know her too, because she inspired Keiki in my books.

Thanks, Kaua`i hippie girl, for giving her to us. Thanks, kids, for begging me to say yes. Thanks, Nalu, for being who you were and loving us the way you did. Even with my heart breaking, I wouldn’t have missed having you in my life.

That's what happens when your great dog dies.

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