Sometimes, life has a way of stabbing you in the heart. We've all experienced it - grief, and a whole rainbow of unpleasant emotions that come with it. Perhaps one of the most distressing ways that it does this is through guilt... honest guilt, for something that you were actually at fault for, and someone else paid the price.
When I was 11 years old, I inadvertently caused the death of my first puppy. It is a heart-breaking story, and one that I don't talk about very often to this day because I still wince with guilt when I think about it. But since I've been on a memory-lane kick lately, I thought that it might be good to write about it.
This puppy was one of the most anticipated puppies on the planet. The neighbors had a female Pekapoo, who they had bred to their male Pekingese before having him neutered. I was promised one of the puppies, for free. The reason for this is because I loved their dogs, with an earnestness only found in 11-year-old children. I walked them every day, and went over to spend time with them regularly, sometimes bringing treats with me. The dogs loved to see me coming. They would leap and cavort at the ends of their chains if I even crossed our driveway to go over to their yard. I can still remember seeing those dogs dancing on their hind legs in anticipation of my arrival.
I waited for the birth of the pups with great anticipation, and it finally came. There were only two pups in the litter. I was at the neighbors' house on a daily basis, down on the floor with the puppies. I was beside myself with joy, and couldn't WAIT to get my pick home. I'd already named her: Magic.
The day finally came, and I brought my beautiful little girl home. Her coat was silver, her muzzle black. She was tiny, and could curl up and sleep in the palm of your hand.
She slept in a box beside my bed, so that when she got lonely for mother and sibling in the night, I could simply reach down and comfort her.
Except that one night she would not be comforted, and I sleepily brought her up to lie up against me. I fell asleep, when I shouldn't have, and couldn't monitor her. She fell off the bed in the night. The fall crushed her chest, because she was so delicate at that tender young age. I found her, gasping for air, under the headboard. We desperately rushed her to the 24-hour emergency vet, but she died before they could even end her suffering for her.
I was devastated and completely eaten up with guilt. I certainly hadn't meant to hurt Magic, let alone kill her. I'd only wanted to comfort her and make her stop crying. But that didn't make her any less dead.
I didn't get out of bed for two days. I didn't talk about it to anyone, and had difficulty even shedding tears about it. I was just numb. Nothing anyone said could make me feel better about it... I mean, it WAS my carelessness that caused her death, even if I hadn't intended to. I mean, Dumb Luck played role in it, but Dumb Luck never would have entered the picture if I'd just left her in the damned box. Or been able to stay awake. Or any number of various possibilities that I tormented myself with.
I think that my parents realized that I wasn't going to so easily recover from this, and that I needed a distraction. I think that they also didn't want for me to feel like I was being punished... I was doing enough punishing myself; I certainly didn't need any more. So they decided to get me another puppy about a week after the incident.
I was very uncertain of it at first. I was afraid that I would kill yet another puppy, and even at that young age, knew that I would never entirely be able to forgive myself for Magic's death. I also felt guilty for still wanting a puppy, even after everything that had happened. Like I was being disloyal to Magic. But I went with my dad to a breeder who had a Pekingese puppy for sale - really cheap. In hindsight, I have to wonder if it was a bit of a puppy mill that we went to. The only puppy left was not in very good shape. He was even more delicate-looking than Magic was, and skinnier, and his coat was already matted. He was in all likelihood the runt of the litter. I was still on the fence about getting him, until the breeder put him into my open hand. He (the pup, not the breeder) looked up at me with his huge brown eyes, and looked so pleading. His little tail wagged hopefully, and his entire body language was asking, "Are we going to be friends?"
My heart melted, and my father paid for him on the spot. We took him home in a shoebox, and that puppy began the first of many days of his over-protected life. If I could have wrapped him in protective bubble-wrap and kept him in a hamster ball, I would have. I had completely learned my lesson, probably learned it too well. I'd panic if he got too close to people's feet, if the cats hissed at him, if it looked like he was going to try to climb up onto the furniture. I did my very best to keep him out of harm's way, which often just meant picking him up and retreating to my bedroom with him, away from all of the other distractions that the house can provide for a young pup.
This one was named Wicket, yes, after the Star Wars trilogy ewoks. (Yes, I was a bit of a geek, even back then. But have you ever SEEN a picture of a Pekingese puppy? They totally look like ewoks.)
Wickett lived a good long life, and died well after I'd gone to college, so as it turned out, I didn't have the "cursed touch" that I feared I'd had. I don't deny that what happened to Magic was a tragedy, and I certainly don't deny the role that I played in it. I will feel deep sadness for that event for the rest of my life, even though I know that it's not fair to me to beat myself up over a mistake made when I was 11. I am thankful that he lived such a long life. Wicket was my best friend during the painful growing-up years, and was a major stabilizing influence on me at a time that I desperately needed one.
There is little to be thankful for in Magic's untimely death, but it did teach me that you can, indeed, literally kill with kindness, and it taught me to use caution when handling animals, that sometimes what they are asking for is not what they actually need, or is not what is necessarily best for them. It also brought me Wicket, who I would have never known otherwise.
I guess in some ways, my guilt still plays a role in how I interact with my own animals. I am so, so very careful with them. It's made me hyper-vigilant. But one can't let guilt be a crippling force. Guilt could have kept me from ever taking in another animal again, for fear of hurting them too. Except that I would have cheated them out of a good life with me. And cheated myself out of animal companionship. So, I've taken that experience, and learned what I could from it. But I can't let it cripple me, deprive me of what happiness I can find.