LOUISE O'NEILL: In a way, it feels ridiculous to be standing there in the dark, crying over a dog

It was August in New York when my mother rang. I was busy but I was always busy when I lived in New York.

There was always someone to see, some new bar to check out, some deadline to meet, some highly strung celebrity to cajole into wearing an outfit both of us knew looked ridiculous.

Busyness was like oxygen, people couldn’t survive in that city without either.

“I can’t talk right now,” I told my mother. “I’m late for work.”

“Okay,” she said. “I just wanted to chat to you about Jinky.”

“Jinky? Michelle’s dog?”

“Well, the family dog now. We’ve decided to adopt him. He’ll be here when you move back.”

“What? Why?”

“He’s lonely since Sam died and has no one to keep him company during the day.”

“Oh for... Look, whatever,” I said. “Just don’t expect me to feed him. He’s not my dog.”

Within a month, I was home. I was home and I was not busy. I was newly single, unemployed, back in the narrow bed that I had slept in as a child. I felt displaced, drifting through my days with no routine, waiting for my parents to return from work. Jinky was always there.

We would look at one another, me with suspicion, him with an instant adoration that flattered me. (I would later learn that he adored everyone instantly.) It took him about two weeks to win me over. We would sit in front of the fire and I would stroke his back, talking to him like he was my baby.

He sat next to me while I wrote my two novels, occasionally jumping from my knees onto the table, staring at the computer screen as if he was supervising my work. I could get quite jealous over his affections, wanting him to like me the best, but he loved all of us equally.

He would roll over in ecstasy when my sister rubbed his belly, he would insist on jumping up on the couch when my dad took a nap so that he could snooze next to him, I would hear my mother having conversations with him in the morning, telling him he was the best dog, the best dog, aren’t you Jinky?

When I moved to Dublin for six months in 2015, the first thing I did was call my parents and ask how he was. Pining after you, my dad told me, holding the phone up to Jinky and asking him to say hello. We all seemed convinced that it was only a matter of time before he learned how to talk. I told them about a theory that I had read which speculated that dogs’ personality was a manifestation of their owners’, that they took on the characteristics of the humans around them. We joked about it, saying Jinky was nicer than that, but really, he was the best part of each of us. He had the gentleness of my father, the friendliness of my mother, the sensitivity of my sister. He had more love to give than any person I’ve ever met.

“Jinky’s not himself today,” my father said this week when we started decorating the Christmas tree. “Normally he gets so excited when he sees the fairy lights.”

I looked at Jinky, drooping on his blanket in front of the fire, and we agreed that we should bring him to the vet in the morning.

I would usually bring him but I was drowning in deadlines, the submission date for my third novel looming, and so it was agreed. My mother would take over duties. (How I wish now that I had brought him, how I wish that I had given him one last cuddle and told him he was the best pet we could have asked for.)

And then my mother’s voice is calling up the stairs, wavering.

Louise. Louise.

I turn in my chair as she opens the door to my writing room, annoyed, no one except Jinky is allowed in here while I’m working. And she tells me that he’s dead; that he had an Addisonian crisis, that his organs collapsed, that the vet was incredible and did the best that he could. She tells me that Jinky was warm and comfortable, and that he died the way he lived, without any drama or fuss.

My father collects him from the surgery, still wrapped in his blanket. He looks the same as how he used when he was dozing in front of the fire, his back arched, his tongue hanging out. I’ve asked that we bury him in the patch of garden that my writing room overlooks, so that he will still be with me as I work. I hold him to me as my father digs into the ground, the lights from his van illuminating his work in the dark. It’s raining. Jinky hated the rain. And it’s quiet. All you can hear is the shovel against the earth, and the four of us sniffing back tears.

And then it’s done. It was so quick, in the end.

It’s a funny thing, losing a pet. My family has seen death, has known grief carving out our stomachs for its own. We know what it’s like to have an empty space at the table. In a way, it feels ridiculous to be standing there in the dark, crying over a dog. But we all loved him so much.

The house feels strange without him. It feels a tiny bit colder, just that bit too still. I miss him. When I first moved home, I don’t think I wanted to admit to myself that I was lonely, that I had built certain barriers to keep myself safe, to keep people at a distance emotionally. Jinky, with his unconditional love and his need for cuddles and attention didn’t care about any of that. He only wanted to love me. And in doing so, that dog cracked my heart wide open.


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