The email from my mother nearly gave me a heart attack.
“New addition to the family,” the subject line read. Mom had attached an image to the email.
Thousands of thoughts raced through my mind, but none of them could have prepared me for what the photograph revealed: a little white fluff with dark brown eyes and a small brown nose. The Bichon Frise puppy sat next to my mother, hardly taller than her ankle. He sported a red collar that would become his trademark in coming years.
Away for my freshman year at Syracuse University, I called my family with a stream of questions. In brief, I wondered, “What the heck were you thinking?”
A few weeks after I received that email on April 17, 2004, I returned home to meet Seamus for the first time. Shay was full of energy and athleticism, biting your pant leg one second and sprinting circles around the house the next. I’d sit on the floor to play PlayStation2, and within a minute have him at my side, nipping at my jeans, my shirt, my hand. I couldn’t stand it, just wanting to unwind after a tough semester. I wasn’t too sure how much I’d bond with this dog.
* * *
I sat at my desk April 3, 2017, planning the May edition of the Hamilton Post, when, at 1:30 p.m., a pain like I had never experienced washed over me. A sharp spasm developed on the right side of my forehead. I couldn’t focus, breathing became difficult. It felt like part of me was being ripped away. And then, an hour later, the headache disappeared.
It had been a weird day. My family’s mood had been a little dark since we had brought Shay to the animal hospital a day earlier for what doctors initially thought was an urinary tract infection. He had developed what looked like a swollen back or kidney. We were concerned for our dog, but never expected what testing revealed—cancer had spread throughout Shay’s body, and with a dangerously low platelet count, he had maybe a week to live.
At 13, Shay had slowed down, but he did not seem like a sick dog. He still loved to sniff around the yard, to make his mark on the neighborhood light posts, to eat his Science Diet chicken and barley entree. His was not a depressing presence.
Even during a visit at the hospital later April 2, Shay did not seem sick. Although I said “Goodbye” that night, I refused to believe it was for good.
Still, Shay hung on my mind April 3 as I tried to work. I waited for news. By 4, I put one and one together, rushed outside the office, hid behind a dumpster and called my mother.
“Mom, how’s Shay?”
She sighed, and gave me the news I feared the most: he had died at 1:30 that afternoon. They had been waiting to tell me in person.
And, just like that, Shay left my life as suddenly as he had entered it.
* * *
But, of course, Shay isn’t gone completely.
He lives on in the memories we created during his 13 years with my family. None of us could recall a dog quite like Shay. He matured out of the nipping phase, and channeled that energy into being a steadfast companion.
Bichons do not have a reputation for being particularly agile, but Shay loved to run and jump. He had springs for legs and a spine, and found a way to render any gate or barrier useless. He was, in my brother’s words, a floppy dog. Sometimes, the floppiness would lead him astray, and we’d find Shay with his rear in the air and his head stuck under the fence.
Shay was susceptible to something called “Bichon Frenzies,” where he’d unleash a day’s worth of energy in one burst. He’d run around until he found someone, bark at them and then run away. Sometimes, instead of running away, he’d merely run in circles, barking at himself.
Shay also never saw a person he didn’t like (or a dog he did like). He’d greet a stranger like an old friend, and he constantly needed body contact. If you had a vacant lap around Shay, you didn’t have it for long. He’d appear swiftly and suddenly, as if to say, “Hey there, thought you may want some company.”
He was a particularly constant presence in my father’s lap during breakfast and, in the evenings, next to my sister on the couch, cuddled in a blanket. He would follow my mother around all day inches from her heels, a shadow. He had an extra bounce in his step whenever my brother returned from California. He loved my fiancée with an intensity that made me figure I had chosen well; he would follow her to the front door as she left, and wouldn’t leave his watch until she had gotten in the car and pulled away safely.
Shay had something different with each person to let them know they were special to him, and he seemed to cherish those moments as much as we did. I have to say, these past few weeks, my legs have felt 19 pounds lighter, and that’s an emptiness I can’t merely go and fill.
The last few years weren’t too kind to Shay. About two years ago, he developed an abscess in his mouth that required a lengthy hospital stay and a dental procedure that left him toothless. With nothing to hold it inside its cage, Shay’s tongue flopped out from time to time, bouncing jovially with him. He wore it well.
As animated as he was, Shay was not a loud dog. He possessed an arsenal of moans and groans I don’t think we ever quite reached the depths of—he could share his mood in many ways. But he wasn’t yippy in a way smaller dogs often are, and he rarely used his voice. Above all, he never let his mood affect what he must have seen as his duty—Shay lived to please us and to be with us.
The Anthes household will be a less lively place without him.
* * *
Some more observant readers may say, “This seems familiar. Didn’t Anthes just write a similar column?” And the answer would be yes. We lost our first dog, Clancy, a bit more than two years ago, which has made this whole process more difficult.
The truth is, I procrastinated writing this column for weeks because when the ink dries, well, that’s it. That’s the end.
The finality of what had transpired hit me first in mid-April, sitting alone inside my parents’ house. I don’t think I had ever truly been alone there until last month, and my mind began playing tricks on me. I could swear I heard the jingle of a collar or the skittering of his nails on the floor. I’d come home from work, open the door and wait for Shay to run and say hello—then nothing. Silence.
I knew better, but it didn’t make the experience any less jarring. I still find myself glancing over to where his bed was, or forming a question in my mind about him before stifling it and tossing it aside. I know, in time, the pain from this will fade. But, just the same, I know the thoughts never will.
At some point about a week after Shay’s passing, I began questioning myself. What’s the point in all of this? Why care when the more you open yourself up, the more pain that comes later on?
I allowed myself a lot of time to think about this. It was, after all, the essence of life. And after hours of mental gymnastics, I’d always arrive at the same conclusion: Well, the point is to live as Shay did; to live with gusto, for the ones you love, without complaint.
I carry that lesson with me as a reminder of the 13 years I shared with Shay. I proceed with the hope that I can do him justice by brightening even a fraction of the days Shay made better for me.