In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Saying goodbye to one of the family

In a world rightfully preoccupied with major tragedies and infamies of all sizes, my loss may seem pitifully small and insignificant. But how does a writer say goodbye to a dog that, more than a pet, was a member of the family?

All I can conjure are words of love.

My Azabache was 14 — that’s 98 in human years — when he died early Tuesday at an emergency animal hospital where I rushed him in the dawn hours, not so much to save him — I knew he wasn’t going to survive this new health crisis — but to end his suffering humanely.

To say that he lived long and well, as the cliché goes, would be to understate all he meant to our family.

I brought him home on a summer day as a way to assuage the feelings of sadness that would surely fill my teen daughters’ hearts with the move of their father more than 300 miles away.

I assumed a dog would bring insurmountable joy to our home — and that I would climb the one echelon I needed to claim my prize of World’s Greatest Mother. They had always wanted a dog, but I had stood firm against another critter in the house. Now that they were older — and more responsible, I lied to myself — Azabache seemed the perfect addition.

I was, of course, dreaming.

The excitement over the cuddly bichon frise puppy lasted the first hour Azabache was home — until I announced it was time to walk him and everyone suddenly had an important phone call to make, homework to do. Tired of begging, I declared at the top of my lungs one day: “From now on, Azabache is my dog. You hear me? If I’m going to be the one to feed and walk him, he is mine. Only mine. Understood?”

I got no complaints from the peanut gallery.

And so it became, without doubt or objection, Azabache and me.

With hindsight, I see that the girls didn’t stand a chance.

Before he was home, I had named him after the good luck charm Cuban mothers pin on their babies to keep evil eyes at bay. I went on to spend his lifetime explaining his name. He was white, and the stone on an azabache is black, but that was okay with me. Not only am I a ready-made contrarian, but my Azabache’s eyes were as dark as ebony.

He did become my good luck charm — and quite the character.

He climbed on sofa tops with the agility of a cat and chewed paper with the appetite of a goat.

When my oldest daughter got married in my home on a Halloween night, Azabache trailed her to the white garden trellis, then plopped himself on the train of her dress the entire ceremony. We tried to take him away, but he wouldn’t budge. He’s in all the pictures.

Thanks to him, I never knew loneliness in the years after graduations, marriages, faraway moves.

Nothing, not even food, made him happier than my presence. He followed me around the house everywhere, even wrote with me.

As I tapped on computer keys, the house perfectly peaceful, he would curl up under my desk, his head resting at my feet like a pair of warm winter slippers.

The only time he ran away from home, he strolled into the house of a neighbor who had his door open, climbed on the man’s sofa and charmed his way into a temporary stay. As I searched for him, a comedy of errors kept us apart far too many hours.

Now I can’t begin to imagine what it will be like to arrive in this house everyday and not find him elated, eager, ever faithful.

He had me wrapped around his paw from the moment I saw him at an Aventura pet shop, when he broke from the pack of bichons and came to me.

From then on, he was mine. Or, I should say, I was his.

The rest was paperwork.

My last act of love was letting him go.

He died on a soft bed in a cold room. He didn’t like being held or squeezed against one, and my youngest daughter and I honored this personality trait, and stroked his white little head and back to the end, his forever sleep. I cried, but my heart smiled when I discovered hugging him one more time that he had gotten at least one last good roll in frog poop.

It’s a small tragedy as losses go, this friendship gone, a small indignity the $866.45 bill to formally diagnose and euthanize a moribund animal.

But as I write these words, I start to know what loneliness means.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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