Remembering Winnie: What Our Pets Teach Us About What’s Important

Remembering Winnie: What Our Pets Teach Us About What’s Important August 24, 2021

Our dachshund Winnie died a week ago. She spent a bit over twelve years with us; for the first nine of those years, she was part of a three-dog pack where she often struggled to establish herself in the pecking order. I often said that Winnie was the “middle child” of the group. Our Boston Terrier Bean was Jeanne’s favorite, and our other dachshund, Frieda, was my soul mate (as well as the clear alpha-dog in the pack). But Winnie had the last laugh by outlasting her sisters. Bean died five years or so ago, and Frieda moved on three years ago, leaving Winnie as the last canine standing. After Frieda’s death, people often asked us if Winnie missed her. Our answer was always a resounding “NO!” Winnie never gave any indication that she was anything but thrilled to be the only dog in the house. And she took full advantage of it.

I loved Winnie from the moment I saw the picture of this little black-and-tan dachshund that Jeanne sent me while I was on sabbatical in Minnesota during the Spring 2009 semester, with the caption “We always have room for one more!” We did, and two or three weeks after I returned from sabbatical in May we headed over to Connecticut and picked her up. I always loved Winnie, and I believe she came to love me, but our relationship did not fully develop until Frieda died. When Jeanne was away, Winnie’s first reaction to being alone with me in the house was to hide under our bed. But over time, she learned that I was just as capable of feeding her, rubbing her belly, and catering to her every perceived need as her real obsession, Jeanne.

Winnie’s favorite possession was a cow squeak toy that she used to celebrate exciting events, such as Jeanne coming home (even if Jeanne had only been at the grocery store for 30 minutes). Upon Jeanne’s arrival, Winnie would find her cow, significantly longer than she was, locate a squeaker that still worked, then run around the house squeaking the toy furiously in celebration of her mother’s return, sort of like Harpo Marx honking his horn to communicate. If Jeanne sat on the floor, Winnie would interrupt her celebration long enough to slide in for a belly rub, then take off for more running and squeaking. I realized that I’d risen in Winnie’s estimation one day when I returned home, and she marked the occasion by finding her toy and giving me one solitary squeak (no running around).

My usual nickname for Winnie was “Winnables,” but I think the most frequent phrase I used to describe Winnie to those who had not met her is that “she’s an odd little animal.” Winnie was the embodiment of passive-aggressive, quick to hide under the bed when something unusual or out-of-the-norm happened, but equally quick to jump out of hiding and bite a stranger’s ankle if she or he surprised her. If she had been a human, she probably would have been on the spectrum. Winnie had a rigid, detailed schedule relating to every aspect of her life. She learned from Frieda that dinner was supposed to be served at 4:30 sharp and continued that expectation even after Frieda was gone. Winnie slept with us every night, beginning at the foot of the bed on top of the blankets, then moving nightly around 4:00 in the morning to spend the rest of the night under the blankets.

Winnie was a cancer survivor. In late 2019, the vet detected a tumor on her liver that turned out to be malignant. The operation to remove it was successful; I did not realize until the follow-up appointment with the vet that she clearly was surprised that Winnie not only had survived the surgery but also was thriving. The vet called her a “miracle dog.” We were gifted with two more years with Winnie after this surgery, then found out a few weeks ago that the cancer had returned in a tumor on the other, more problematic side of her liver. After consultation with the vet, we decided this time just to let her live out the rest of her life rather than go through another surgery. When things shut down, they mercifully did so quickly and in a way that made it clear that she was ready to go.

In these still-early days since Winnie left us, I often find myself forgetting that she’s not here. A couple of days ago I got up early and patted the top of the blankets at the bottom of the bed to see where Winnie had burrowed herself. I am still surprised not to hear the “click click click” of her feet trotting toward the kitchen every time I open the refrigerator door. I thought I heard one of the strange sounds she used to make while sleeping this evening, but she’s making those noises someplace else now.

I’ve spent the last few days thinking and feeling about why I was so sad when Winnie died and why I miss her so much. It was so quick. It was so final. I cried like a baby that night, almost as much as when Frieda died—and I was much more attached to Frieda than to Winnie. But Winnie was a beautiful dog with a lovely spirit whose life we had the privilege of hosting and supporting for a dozen years. She was the center of multiple conversations daily. Jeanne’s favorite part of our daily phone conversations when she was away was my report on what Winnie was up to—which was always exactly the same thing. She decided early on what her story was going to be, and she stuck to it without wavering. There’s a lot to be admired there.

Winnie was the fourth dog who has lived with us from early years to old age and death. Each of them had a unique arc and story, just as we human beings do. What makes our lives with our pets so bittersweet is that their arc is four or five times shorter than ours. They regularly remind us that, just as the Psalmist says, living things “are like the new grass of the morning. In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.” We are all temporary creatures. Jeanne’s and my next dog, which will undoubtedly be coming within the next few weeks, will possibly be our last, especially if it lives a dozen years or more as all of our other dogs have.

My Facebook friends and acquaintances overwhelmed me with the comments of love and concern when I reported with tears in my eyes that Winnie was gone. Several sent memes that I appreciated, including this one.

But the one that hit the mark most directly came from a friend and colleague from work. There is a reason why dog spelled backwards is “god.”

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