– By Kevin Kypers. Sussex Pet Nanny
In October of 2011, I was almost 22 years old and felt pretty independent from my family—or at least I wanted to be, as much as possible. As a senior in college I was living in a closet-sized Chinatown apartment in Philadelphia with my roommate Andy. I had just returned from the laundromat, Andy had reheated dinner from the night before, and we were watching The Simpsons—the episode with the three-eyed fish. Mr. Burns was lamenting “Brother, Can You Spare A Time” when I stepped into my bedroom to receive a call from my father, stifling tears. Tiffany—our family dog who from the time I was about 9 years old I thought of as a sister—had passed away, very suddenly and unexpectedly. I returned to the living room/kitchen to Andy seated on our tiny couch (holding his plate of food in his hands because we didn’t have a kitchen table) and reported the news to him. Andy attempted to get me to tell him about the first day we brought Tiffany into our home. I recalled how she was scared but had the courage to beg for Burger King. “She sounds like a great dog,” he said—God bless him, uncomfortably sitting with a plate of reheated eggplant as I was bent over the arm of the sofa very quickly becoming a complete mess of tears and snot. I excused myself and walked aimlessly through the streets of Philadelphia until the early hours of the morning.
It felt painful to me every time someone said “she was a great dog”. In my mind this seemed to trivialize what that relationship really meant to our family. I do not mean to sound melodramatic—I wholly recognize how fortunate I am to have my parents and brother and am under no delusions I know what those losses might feel like. That said, after the loss of a close high school friend just one year before and then my grandfather just a few weeks after, I felt I gained some perspective on how the loss of a beloved person feels altogether different from the loss of a beloved pet. Humans have much larger reverberations: there’s a sense of communal mourning. All recognize the tragedy of a young person leaving us too soon. All can praise the accomplishments of a long life well lived. But in many ways the life of the family pet begins and ends with the family. Even people who knew your pet likely only knew them on a superficial level: “He was a friendly cat”, “She had such a pretty coat”, etc. Only your family understands the subtleties of an expression, the daily routines, what brought them the most joy, what caused the most anxiety…
Tiffany truly was the center of the Kypers household. Every voicemail I had received from my mother since leaving for college was about Tiffany, like the time she allegedly had a fight with her boyfriend, the neighbor dog Spanky. With Tiffany gone, what did we even have to talk about? Our celebration of all things “Tiff” was evident in our family Christmas cards. A 2002 card designed by my father to resemble a magazine tabloid had a photo of Tiffany wearing a dopey set of antlers with the headline “TIFFANY CALLED ON BY SANTA TO GUIDE HIS SLEIGH FOR THE AILING RUDOLPH!” As I reviewed these old cards and photographs, I remember not being able to decide which was more like a dream: that she was gone or that she had been part of the family at all. In any case, I was dreading Christmas more than anything. I was fortunate enough to be living in Philadelphia—even being in the house in New Jersey and seeing all of her favorite spots empty was enough to bring me to tears. But the thought of an empty stocking, of a Christmas morning without Tiffany snooping through gift bags—it was too much to conceptualize. I was never a particularly big fan of the holiday, but that year I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. If I had my way I would have stayed in my cold, tiny apartment until New Year’s.
But I didn’t stay in Philadelphia. I came home. I even got my hair cut (short enough to donate) to appease my mother. I attempted to tamp down my unusually extreme distain for “holiday cheer” to my average distain levels. When I was reaching a breaking point on Christmas Eve, I avoided saying anything overtly nasty about the holiday and instead privately listened to some sad songs and wrote a bad poem. As much as I hated the idea of being in that town and in that house, I knew my family were the only people who understood what it was to lose, not just “a dog”, but to lose our dog. And somehow, I feel, this helped us all to learn more about each other. All of our gifts for each other seemed extra thoughtful and everyone’s appreciation for their gifts felt extra sincere. Christmas morning was not at all the somber affair I had been dreading for months; we were all smiling more than I would have ever thought possible. That is not to say the morning was not without it’s tears, particularly when my father presented my brother and me with photo albums of Tiffany throughout the years and personalized tree ornaments each with a picture of us with our sister/dog.
By the following Christmas there was another puppy living in the Kypers household, with all of her own mannerisms, routines, joys, and fears. (Let’s just say I don’t think Santa would trust her to guide his sleigh, but I always trust her to make a lot of noise on Christmas morning.) With each passing year we gain new family memories to reflect on: career anxiety, political squabbles, maybe even some good stuff mixed in. But whenever we start getting on each other’s nerves, whether I’m living far or near, I try to remind myself of that first Christmas after our collective world got turned upside-down. It is a reminder for me that family is intrinsically bound. These people (and animals) are bound to you by a shared history and even if they leave your life—for one reason or another—those bonds still remain.