Louie Lessons

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

I said goodbye to Louie at 2 p.m. on a Saturday, holding him close and telling him what a good boy he was as he let out a big sigh and fell asleep for the last time on a pile of blankets in a small room. Untreatable cancer took our big yellow Lab - known even in his old age as "Louie puppy" or "the puppy dog" - a month shy of his 10th birthday.

Liam, 6, and Maggie, 4, knew beforehand that Louie was going to a serious doctor appointment and that he was very sick. When I returned home with just a leash and a collar, we all collapsed into tears on the kitchen floor. My wife, Kate, and I took the kids to The Lego Movie that afternoon to give them an emotional breather. We went out to dinner, too, because home was full of heartbreaking reminders.

When we returned that evening, Kate and I instinctually approached the gate that keeps our yard fenced in, then realized latching wasn't necessary. Inside, dog hair lined our hallways and the dog bowl was full of food that Louie had barely sniffed.

I held Liam on the couch as he cried, answering questions when they arose, but mostly pointing him to all the lovable, quirky things about the puppy dog - how Louie would give us his paw if we prematurely stopped rubbing his chest; how he would emit what can only be described as a dog purr; how he had the silkiest, floppiest ears but didn't like it when you messed with them. The kids have no memory of Louie before he had lame hind legs, but they smiled as Kate and I told them how he used to run in circles like a lunatic in the backyard.

When the communal grief got to be too much we tried to redirect the kids' energies toward a game of Skylanders on the Wii, but eavesdropping on that was just as hard for Kate and me. Brother and sister were working through their pain aloud as they played.

"He was the best dog in the whole world. He loved everybody," Liam said.

"Yeah, anybody," Maggie replied.

"Maggie, you're blinking. You need more life."

"Come closer! I can't get over there, Liam."

"We'll never see him again."

"Never. We can get another dog maybe."

"Yeah, but we'll never forget Louie though."

"I thought we'd have good news when Louie came back from the doctor."

"But we had bad news. Really bad news. The worst news ever."

"I love Louie."

"I love Louie."

A few months ago I wrote about my kids' lack of a relationship with our dog, describing Liam's attitude toward Louie as "indifferent." Turns out I vastly underestimated the connection they had. I shouldn't have measured the relationship by how much time Liam and Maggie spent with Louie.

Death is still a somewhat abstract concept to them, so I think they operated as if he would always be there. They never knew life without him.

Kate works at the zoo, and her boss speaks often about the positive impact pets have on kids and how much it teaches them about animals. I knew that was true for myself, but I didn't realize how true it was for my kids. I thought they'd take a more active role in caring for Louie, which in retrospect was an unrealistic expectation.

What I didn't realize was how much they cared about Louie. They didn't fill his food bowl every day or initiate games of fetch, but they loved him in ways that didn't become clear to me until he was gone. And if I had to choose between my kids learning about responsibility or about love from Louie, I'll choose love any day.

-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer, often running his mouth about music invariouspublications. His two kids refer to Bob Evans as Bob Dylan's and still don't know the purple dinosaur's name.