It would have been an otherwise ordinary summer day between my freshman and sophomore year of high school, but this particular Tuesday was going to be a monumental one for me. It was the day I was finally getting my braces removed.
After my mom and I celebrated with ice cream sundaes, I felt a bit down trodden. It’s that ‘now what’ feeling when the last Christmas cookie is eaten and the lights are taken down. I thought I would feel like a new person without a mouth of metal, but truthfully I felt that if anything, now I was missing a bit of my identity.
So in typical Jane Gilson fashion, she had the impulsive idea to buy a puppy from an ad she saw in the paper. Beagle puppies. I didn’t know much about beagles, besides that they were cute as hell, so we called the ad and took a ride over in my mom’s dark blue ford pick up truck.
Now, let me tell you something about me. I am, and always have been, animal obsessed. And this is a trait I get from my mother. We adore all animals in a borderline crazy way, but we can’t help it… it’s just who we are. My house was always a revolving door of pets. A few cats, dogs, some goats, chickens, bunnies, gerbils, a pet squirrel, I mean you name it, we’ll take it in and love it to pieces. But it had been nearly two years since we had a dog, which was quite the dry spell for 21 Elm Street.
So naturally when we pulled up the dirt driveway and heard the howls from a group of too cute beagles, we were already smitten. There was only one puppy (if you could call him that) left for sale. The breeder named him Bull, and for good reason. He was a brut, the very opposite of a runt. But oh my God, was he the cutest thing we had ever laid eyes on. These soft as silk floppy ears covering his brown, white and black face. And this tail that stood straight up in the air… it was just as long as his whole body! And these dark brown pupils that made you feel like you were staring into a human’s eyes. We were in love.
In the truck, he sat between us in the bench seat and we took off for his new home. But it wouldn’t be a quiet ride. Bull howled relentlessly for the entirety of the 15 minute drive. I mean, it was so bad we were actually worried he might be in pain. Any other reasonable person would have made a u-turn right back to drop him off where he came from. But my mother and me? Well another trait we have is that we’ve got uncanny positivism that everything will work out just fine. So with the windows down and the music up we tried to drown out the furry siren going off between us.
It didn’t take too many treats to get Bull accustomed to his new life with the Gilsons. After little deliberation he was re-named Rocco after the cartoon Rocco’s Modern Life. His howling didn’t stop… it was just refocused. Now, he howled for three reasons. The first, if he was left alone. The second, if he hadn’t been given a bone within the hour. And the third, as a welcome when my mom, papa or I came home.
Training was never brought up. There was no crate, he slept in bed with us from the moment he came home. Begging at the table resulted in getting fed scraps, and if he pulled on his leash or stopped short, you did the same… the walk was for Rocco’s enjoyment. 21 Elm Street was never really big on structure and rules, and Rocco enjoyed the luxuries of ‘ruling the roost,’ as my mother would say it.
The rest of that summer I spent outside with Rocco. Hiking out to the cranberry bogs, taking him down to the waterfront with friends, letting him eat the rest of my ice cream cone. He was a complete pain in the ass… which everyone who met him would tell us, but we didn’t care. As my mother also proudly said, ‘he was our pain in the ass’.
As my sophomore year came and went, Rocco lost his puppy smell and grew into his paws. We kept waiting for him to mellow out a bit, but in hindsight he only got worse. Nothing was safe from his chompers. I’m not talking digging through the trash – that was a petty offense for Rocco. No, he went for the gold. Brand new shoes, hairbrushes, entire pieces of furniture, I mean anything was fair game. One time he ate a disposable camera and another time he ate my razor from the shower. And underwear! He’d gobble them down by the dozen. My father normally being the one to find the aftermath would yell “ROCCO” at the top of his lungs and drag him outside. Now, if you’ve ever met a beagle you know how intelligent (and stubborn) they are. Rocco was no exception. He Knew damn well that he wasn’t supposed to chew everything and anything in his path, but he didn’t care. He knew the worst that would happen is that he might not get a bone for the next 30 minutes… and that was something he could give up for a nice pair of new sandals. Plus, let’s be serious.. my mom would always cave for a bone howl, no matter how devastating the current destruction was.
Speaking of getting shooed outside.. Rocco was hard to please when it came to the outdoors. Really, I had never met a dog that absolutely hated being alone. In the early years, you actually had to go outside with him. He would howl relentlessly if you put him on the hook. But say you fumbled hooking the chain onto his collar? Game over. All loyalty right out the window. He would mad dash to the road and take off down the street. I mean full gallop as fast as his legs could take him. Every once in awhile, when I was running after him screaming “Rocco! Rocco! You want a treat?! Rocco! Come here!” he would turn, lock eye contact with me, smirk, then keep trotting away. I’m not kidding, that little shit would actually smirk. But normally he wouldn’t even bother turning around. He’d take off for a neighbors house and we’d either track him down or have the cops give us a call letting us know that Rocco has tried to take up residency elsewhere and then give us a stern reminder of the leash laws. Right officer, like we wanted our dog to run away again.
When we finally went to retrieve him we’d find him cozied up to his new family. The nerve! We’d drag him into the car, trying to explain that Rocco does indeed have an excellent life not worth running away from. I mean, talk about embarrassing. Needless to say, before my junior year, Rocco was a local celebrity (or local nuisance, tomato/tamato).
We knew Rocco was the devil because our friends and family would constantly remind us of how misbehaved he was… but we didn’t see it. Or at the very least, my mom never did. She was intent on fulfilling that dog’s every wish, the majority of which were ‘more bones please’.
Bratty he was, but God was he lovable. I mean talk about snuggling. He’d curl right up to you so close that you could feel his heart beat. He loved us, but he also had a big heart for everyone. My mom always praising his redeeming quality to anyone who would listen, “there’s not a mean bone in his body”. And it was true.
Another year flies by and I drag home a fluffy orange kitten my senior year of high school. No one protests, but we do have a discussion about how Rocco’s going to react to losing his only child status. We predict it’s not going to be pretty, but being an optimistic bunch, decide that everything will be just fine. So, I walk into the house, greeted by howls, holding Calvin, who is too young to be scared. Rocco comes barreling over, jumps up on my legs (something else he was infamous for) and incessantly sniffs the kitty. I plop to the floor, not really knowing what to expect, and the most beautiful thing happens… Rocco starts licking his new brother. And a best friendship was born. From that day on, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to catch them snuggled up together or sharing the same water bowl… that is until Clara came to live with us.
I had just graduated college and was living in California, and Rocco was starting to get a little white in the face. He hadn’t slowed down on his bone consumption or howling, but he wasn’t jumping as high or chewing quite as much. That summer, my dad drove his camper across the country to pick me up in California with a dog he had found in the Mojave Desert. Clara was wild in every sense of the word, and we were both a little worried to see how she would fit into life at 21 Elm Street. After a near death experience for Calvin the cat, we realized that Clara didn’t share Rocco’s love of felines. Fortunately, the two pups did have something in common… they lived for a good walk in the cranberry bogs. So fall became winter and the dogs bonded, running after one another in the snow, trying to beat each other back to the house for a bone or three. Rocco taught Clara the rules of the house… which were basically that there were no rules. And Clara could get snippy with Rocco and jealous of the attention, but Rocco never cared. He knew what he had always known, this was his house.. he ruled the roost.
A year later I sat on the weathered linoleum floor in the kitchen and kissed the dogs goodbye. I was moving back to California, but this time for good. After that I flew back when I could, but always made sure to come home for Christmas. It’s a running joke that Rocco is the Christmas beagle. Kind of like snoopy, but perhaps more of a character. Christmas was Rocco in a nutshell. A day where we would dress him in a size too small argyle sweater and have him unwrap the dozens of presents we had bought him. Everything from squeaky toys to actual bones from the butchers shop to a bulk size box of milkbones. And believe it or not, he would actually retrieve his present from under the tree, hold it between his two paws, and unwrap it… carefully tearing every last piece of wrapping paper to uncover the present. Anytime it was a squeaky toy he would look up at us disappointed, like really? No bone? Then wait for his turn to go under the tree for another present. Growing up in a family of three, Rocco gave life to Christmas. He made us howl with laughter as he howled for another present. But the best part was that when I was home for the holidays, Rocco always made sure to come visit me in the middle of the night. He’d hop right into my twin size bed and snuggle up to me for a bit before going to check on my dad and eventually returning to the comfort of my mom. He was a family dog that kept our family together.
For the past three Christmases I’ve worried that it would be his last. He’s had tumors, breathing troubles, and this horrific runny noses that makes him sneeze snot everywhere. I mean to the point where I would leave the house in a nice outfit only to have a stranger stop and point out that there was dog boogers down the back of my leg. Did I mention that we were also addicted to lint rolling because of Rocco? But a little snot and hair never hurt anyone, what did was that I could see Rocco getting older and slower every time I came home.
Two years ago, we had the talk. Rocco’s not going to be with us forever you know, my dad said as we watched the dog pee on the porch… too lazy and bratty to walk onto the snow covered grass to relieve himself. He was almost as white as the snow now, but he still had a glimmer of puppy in his eyes that he never lost. My mom chimed in that Rockys not going anywhere and called him in to give him a big hug, and of course, a bone.
The next time I visited, I had brought home a little chihuahua mix my boyfriend had found at a gas station, Shelly. Rocco had recently had surgery to remove one of his numerous tumors. He had regained some energy, but I was still shocked by how old he seemed in comparison to Shelly, who he wasn’t very interested in meeting. One day he didn’t even get out of bed when I came home. Where was the howling welcome? I felt panicked and fought back tears. That night, the conversation got a bit more serious over scrabble. We agreed that as long as he still howls for his bones, he’s meant to be here with us.
A few visits later and Shelly, my now fiance and I came home for Easter. Rocco came barreling out of my mom’s bedroom wearing a birthday hat, and you guessed it, howling. My mom following behind him laughing, asking, “seriously guys, isn’t he the cutest dog you’ve ever seen?”
I gave Rocco his birthday present and we marveled at the energy he had. Of course, It was no secret that his health was worse. He made this long deep hacking noise that made all of us jump out of our seats. And the snot! It was worse than ever. Sneezing boogers over anyone within a three foot radius. But we didn’t care. It was Rocco’s birthday party and we were going to celebrate properly. And celebrate we did. I’m pretty sure Rocco got a full ham dinner with the fixings that night, and even our relatives didn’t mind when he jumped onto the table to beg for food. Lucky for him, we had just got a packet of raw food for dogs toronto. That night when I was leaving, I whispered to Rocco that I loved him and stared deep into his dark brown eyes, that were now filled with cataracts. His nose was dry and crusted, but I kissed it anyways. This was my puppy, the same one who howled all the way home 12 years ago. And God what a pain in the ass this dog was, but I sure hated saying goodbye to him.
That was our last goodbye. My mom called me today and told me, between sobs, Rocco had stopped howling for bones.
There’s something about losing a dog that feels so raw. I can’t even really differentiate it from losing a loved one. It’s this pit in my stomach, fogginess of my brain, hollowness in my heart. It’s a cruel joke that pets only live for a fraction of our lives when they have the power to shape and change them in imaginable ways. There’s no greater gift for me then the unconditional love of a pet, the wag of a tail, the howling welcome. 21 Elm Street will never be the same, not even close. That was Rocco’s home, we just lived in it.
There will never be another dog like Rocco for me. He wasn’t just some pet I had for the better half of adolescence… he was my friend, my sibling. He listened to my cry through breakups, howled to get me in trouble when I got home too late, made me appreciate the beautiful crevasse of the world I inhabited. I would do just about anything to give him one last bone and big kiss on the forehead. I love you Rocco, good thing all dogs go to heaven.