Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”
Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.
I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.
I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.
My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.
But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.
A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.
Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.
More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.
I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.
Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.
Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.
Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.
I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.
Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.
Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”
Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.
Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”
By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.
Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.
I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.
Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”
“Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.
Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.
I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.
And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.
So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.
I never saw him again.
The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.
Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”
At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.
When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.
What kind of person was I?
Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.
And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?
No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.
As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.
But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.
But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.
Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.