Jarrel De Matas

Jarrel De Matas

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

—Miss Maudie,

To Kill a Mockingbird

If I were to amend the famous quote from Harper Lee’s classic novel to suit my purpose for writing this column, it would say: dogs don’t do anything but love us, that’s why it’s a sin to give them away.

Communities nationwide are struggling with an insidious problem—an overburdened stray animal population. It’s been paradoxically exacerbated by Covid-19 because as much as we’ve experienced a “pandemic puppy” boom, the gradual easing of restrictions sees the pets we once relied on to keep us company and help us stay sane now being returned—or worse, discarded.

Last July, when my partner’s mother passed away, among the many left to mourn her loss was a ten-year-old black and brown dachshund, Dante. He was a stubborn but faithful dog. I was reluctant at first to take in Dante. The very first time I met him, he growled at me, which all but confirmed my suspicion that we could not coexist under the same roof. But we did.

In September, we decided to provide care for Dante until he recovered from his own loss. Now, in July, Dante’s sudden death doesn’t only recall his owner’s passing last year, it also allows me to reflect on the life he gave me.

This column isn’t just unapologetically self-serving—as a writer and now previous dog owner, I’m hoping to come to terms with my grief and the realisation that I never got to say goodbye. All I am left with is the sound of Dante’s cry after being run over, and the sight of the last reflexive twitch of his tail.

My own feelings of rage, shock, denial and extreme sadness aside, maybe this column can also serve a greater purpose, that by describing the profound impact my dog’s life and death have on me, I hope to stir something inside of you—emotions that compel you to see animals as companions.

So, before you choose to cast your companion aside, consider again Lee’s quote that pets do nothing but love us. In my case, Dante also taught me invaluable lessons.

Dante taught me how to love unconditionally. His impatient barking to be fed on mornings demanded that I change my personal routine to accommodate his—and I didn’t mind.

He would rummage through our indoor bins to gnaw on whatever his small body could reach—I also didn’t mind. And I certainly didn’t mind him jumping on either the sofa or chair to sleep on my chest or lap when there was evidently more space for both us if he slept on the floor instead. I didn’t love Dante in spite of these quirks, I love him more because of it.

Dante taught me perseverance. His greying hair, 17-pound body and short legs didn’t prevent him from attempting to reach the coffee cup that we put on the desk after its initial place on the coffee table was too easily accessible. During his daily walks, Dante would always ensure I take the alternative route where the neighbour’s female dog lived, a dog much taller than he was—as most dogs were. The gate that separated them, although making Dante visibly frustrated, didn’t stop them from at least rubbing noses.

Dante taught me hope. He would wait patiently, expecting us to give him our pandemic-discovered homemade pizza, whining indefinitely until one of us cracked.

He became my shadow, following me around the house, and when I stopped he would look up at me as if expecting me to acknowledge him for the umpteenth time. Maybe he didn’t want to miss when I opened the door which would allow him to excitedly dash outside, his floppy ears making minor rotations as he ran.

Dante wasn’t quite a “pandemic puppy”, but the joy and companionship he brought was no less impactful. If you did get a puppy or dog to keep you company during the pandemic, understand there will come a time when the pandemic is over—but your dog should remain under your care. It’s a shame to let your animal companions go. I couldn’t dare give up Dante after ten months. He had to be taken from me.

By writing this I hope to acknowledge his tragic and sudden death and, in some way, to say goodbye to a soul that taught me the value of life.

—The author is a PhD student and teaching associate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

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