“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
— Rabindranath Tagore
In August 2006, my parents, my sister and I were sitting in the waiting room of an animal shelter. Soon a door opened and one of the workers was practically being dragged along by a small, white-furred dog whose breed will forever remain a mystery. We got up from our seats and the dog immediately started jumping and moving around us, taking in our scent while letting us stroke his head and his back. His name was Cooper and he became our trusty companion for years to come.
While my parents talked to the worker, my sister and I grabbed Cooper’s leash and took him outside. The bright sun warmed the earth on which we walked, and our new buddy’s tail was wagging back and forth, and there was a happy glimmer in his eyes. There was no resistance, no awkwardness, no fear. Our bond was forged organically and instantly, like it was meant to be.
Later, when we were driving back home, Cooper curled up beside me on the backseat of the car, and I knew then and there that I had made a friend for life.
Cooper’s history was somewhat troubled. Once upon a time he and his sister, Pesto, lived with a married couple who ended up getting a divorce. The two siblings were sent to an animal shelter and stayed there until another family came along and took them in. This family lived in a house with an enormous backyard, but the siblings—naughty as they were—would find a gap in the fence and they’d escape into the surrounding fields to chase after rabbits and other critters. Seeing as the family disagreed with Cooper and Pesto’s frolicking but were unable to stop this, they decided to bring the dogs back to the shelter.
It was at this point in time that the siblings got separated. First a family came by to adopt Pesto, and Cooper remained awhile in the shelter. To this day I wonder what it must have been like for them to get separated like that, considering that they had been together all their life. Besides, Cooper had always shown certain signs of intelligence. For example, he always recognized people he had met before. And when I once lost my boy in the park just outside our neighborhood, it turned out that he had walked all the way back home and was waiting for me by the front door with a look in his eyes that said: “What took you so long, man?”
But his ability to recall wasn’t just restricted to our neighborhood. In 2007 we went to Sweden, and this was the first time that we had a dog traveling with us. On the road to Sweden as well as on the journey back to Holland, we stopped at the same hotel in Lübeck. When we entered the building on the return trip, Cooper immediately went up to the room where we had stayed before.
Honestly, there were times that I looked into his eyes and I wondered what was going on in his head. What was he thinking of? What was he feeling? Was he ever missing his sister? But these questions would never be answered.
Of course we had to get used to caring for our dog in the beginning. The first mistake that my sister and I made was not bringing a plastic bag to clean up his crap when taking him out for a walk. So, after he took a good smelly dump in someone’s front garden, we quickly walked away, hoping that nobody had seen us. My sister and I still joke about this every now and then.
I also vividly remember the first time I gave him a snack. We had just come back from a walk, and Cooper followed me to the kitchen. While I grabbed his snack from the box that we kept in one of the cupboards, he got ready to leap the second that he laid eyes on the snack in my hand. Not really knowing what to expect, I was nervous about him accidentally biting me, which, in hindsight, was rather silly of me. It didn’t take long, however, before we turned this into a game. I’d run around the living room with his snack and he’d give chase. Sometimes he’d even change course and come at me from a different direction. The moment he managed to grab the snack, I held onto it, and he started to growl while wagging his tail, and our eyes were fixed on one another. Finally, I’d let him win and he’d lie down on the rug, celebrating his victory by munching on his prize.
Speaking of which, Cooper knew what kind of food he loved. My dad used to make tuna pizzas, and he’d give a single piece of fish to Cooper, who’d be sitting in the kitchen waiting for my dad to do so. At first my dad would buy a single can of tuna, but once it dawned on him how much our dog loved the fish, he’d buy an extra can just for him. Then there were the fresh cow hearts which were a special treat: Cooper devoured those in seconds.
But we couldn’t stay home with him all the time. Both my parents had to go to work and my sister and I had to go to school. My dad would come home during his lunch break to take him out on a walk, and that was reassuring. But still, whenever Cooper was home alone I wondered what he was doing and thinking. Whatever it was, clearly he was waiting for us to come back to him. He’d greet us with great enthusiasm, jumping up and down, barking, running around. I’d hug him and stroke his fur and scratch behind his ears, and he’d stay in my arms and lick my hands. There was unconditional love and loyalty between us. A friendship that couldn’t be broken. A kinship that won’t be forgotten.
Yet he only ever stayed home when it was absolutely necessary. We planned our vacations and trips so that he could come with us. For example, the first time we took him to the beach, it was like Cooper had never seen such a place before in his life. He started zooming across the beach, defying the currents of the wind and burying his face in the sand. Then he dashed into the water, but apparently it wasn’t what he had expected it to be. Almost immediately he turned around and raced back to us, reeling and panting and shaking his wet fur. He looked helpless and confused, and seemed scared of the water.
Fortunately, he enjoyed being in the car while we were riding off to foreign countries. He’d lie on the backseat, with my sister and I sitting on either side of him, and every time we arrived at a rest stop or a hotel or our destination, he would get up to see where we were. These journeys must have been wondrous experiences for him, as we had left our natural habitat behind and found ourselves in strange new lands.
I remember certain events, which were as remarkable as they were funny. During our vacation in Sweden, Cooper was struggling in the heat while we were standing on the shore of a lake. Knowing that he was scared, my mother resolved to pick him up and put him in the shallow water. The second that he found out that he could stand there and easily walk back to the shore, his fear seemed to subside completely and was replaced by a love for bathing. He still wouldn’t go swimming, but as long as his feet touched the muddy soil, he was fine.
Another year we went to the south of France, to the Verdon Gorge. We descended the slopes to get to the water down below, but it wasn’t easy because we had to move along small ridges. We were worried about Cooper, but it turned out that we really had nothing to worry about, as our buddy hopped across the rocks like a mountain goat.
The next year we visited Norway, where we climbed the 1607 meters high Bitihorn. Once again our buddy showcased his climbing prowess, finding his way up with ease, whereas we had trouble seeing the right path sometimes. When we reached the top and the wind blew through our hair, I saw him taking in the world around him, the valleys, the trees, the clouds. His tongue was hanging from his mouth and he was panting, and as always he was wagging his tail. When I looked closer I could see the sky reflected in his eyes and it was beautiful.
In Switzerland we walked from a weather station at the top of a mountain to the village of Zermatt. We trudged through the snow, and Cooper darted along, his fur perfectly matching the white coating on the mountain. And in England we went to an old castle, where Cooper roamed the edges of a cliff and made my parents nervous. I remember grabbing his harness and pulling him away from the cliff, back to safety. I doubt that my boy was ever in any danger, though. He was smart and skilled and understood how far he could go. He probably understood this far better than any of us silly humans.
What I enjoyed especially were the many walks in the park just outside the neighborhood. We walked under the hot summer sun and through the cold winter snow. We listened to the autumn leaves crumpling beneath our feet and watched the world slowly growing greener as springtime was drawing close. In the park I always removed Cooper’s leash and we often walked off the beaten path to his favorite spot between the tall trees and the bushes. It was there, in his company, that I came up with most of my story ideas; hence I’ve included him as a character in my fantastical universe—it’s the literary resurrection of my best friend.
You see, in 2015 my mother told me that Cooper had cancer. I remember being so angry when I realized that the first vet we had visited had told us that he couldn’t find out what was ailing our dog. I couldn’t—still can’t—understand why that man hadn’t seen what was going on. This was his job, after all. Stricken by grief, I wanted to blame all of this misfortune on that one guy. Hell, I wanted to punch him in the gut and tear him to pieces. My world had turned dark, like there was a veil draped over my eyes that filtered out colors and warmth and joy. Any time I looked at Cooper and saw him hurting, I cried, and I felt so damn helpless. It took a good long while until I was able to accept my buddy’s fate, but even then all of this was so surreal to me. Cooper had been our companion for years, and now cancer was stealing him away from us forever. It wouldn’t be a peaceful death. It wouldn’t be beautiful. It wouldn’t be the perfect conclusion to a life of happiness. No, it would end in pain and tears and misery. Or so I kept telling myself, not realizing that it was the grief talking instead of me.
We postponed putting him to sleep, which I thought was selfish, but at the same time I full well understood how hard it was to let go, so I couldn’t blame anyone for that. There were even moments in which Cooper seemed to feel a resurgence of vitality; he would walk around like before, wagging his tail, sniffing the bushes. Yet whenever I’d stroke his fur I could feel the lumps under his skin and it shattered the illusion and it broke my heart.
On the 22nd of February around 4 pm another vet visited us with a needle and anesthetic. Cooper was lying on the floor in our living room. We were sitting around him, saying our goodbyes. I kissed the top of his head and was silently crying. I remember the vet saying that sometimes to love is to let go. I looked at Cooper and his white fur shimmered in a beam of sunlight that shone through the window. His breathing had slowed down and his eyes were half-shut. He seemed so peaceful then. So perfectly content. So ready for what was about to happen. It was like he had accepted his own fate already. Then the vet injected the anesthetic and Cooper faded into the light at last.
Not long thereafter we received his ashes in a jar, which we scattered among the trees in his favorite place in the park. I still come there every now and then. I visit his resting place and pray for him, and if the weather is nice I sit down on a log close to where he lies and I meditate under a clear sky.
All things considered, I’m grateful for the time we had. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to care for my little buddy. I have no regrets, because I know that I did everything in my power to give him the best life possible. We traveled the world and we walked beneath the stars. It’s this realization that diminishes sadness and hammers home the lesson that putting him to sleep was the final act of protection from pain and suffering. A final act of love. A final act of caring for my best friend. As hard as it was then, I have come to understand the necessity, the responsibility, the truth of the matter. Death hurts because we grow attached, and there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, there’s beauty in this, for it shows how much we love each other and how much we mean to each other. We were there for him until the very end, as we ought to be. In that sense, despite the bleakness of his disease, his passing was peaceful and beautiful and the perfect conclusion to a life of happiness.
I miss you, Coop. I still think about you every day. And every so often we are reunited in my dreams, and I hug you, and everything is right, and everything is as it should be, and I wake up with a smile.