Half Deaths, Half Lives

i. Half-Death

Our dog was names P-Chan, which is an unlikely name. It was the name of a character from the anime Ranma 1/2, a combination of “P” for Pig and “Chan,” a way of addressing small children in Japanese, a diminutive form. The character was black, with white spots, so was our dog.

The dog was my little brother’s idea, so he got to choose the name. I can’t remember what my reaction was at the time. I didn’t want a dog at all. A long time before, when I was very small, our neighbor’s dog had “bitten me” – nipped me, I realize now, a meaningless event, but one to which I had addressed great significance – and I had become Afraid Of Dogs. They seemed unknowable, untrustworthy. Certainly more trouble than they were worth.

This dog, of course, was sweet. And playful, and loving, the way all the best dogs are. She had short legs and a broad chest, topped with two bat-like ears that stuck straight up into the air. Part-corgie terrier-part-pit bull was the diagnosis. An unlikely pairing. But as luck would have it, a good one.

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P-chan was affectionate and wild, a runner that would take any opportunity to explore her newly-expanded universe. Famously, my brother noticed one day that she had gone missing, and ran across the street in a panic, calling her name – only to see her in the back window of an animal control van, smiling as she was carted off.

I went off to college shortly after that, and life went on. When I came home, my brothers had left or were leaving, and P-chan’s future was uncertain. So when I had saved up enough money to get an apartment with some friends, I took P-chan with me, and she became My Dog, rather than Our Dog.

We had our times and our adventures, and life moved on. Things happened around us. My father died, and my relationships began to fall apart. I withdrew from the world. I moved out of the apartment with friends, and soon was living by myself.

But of course, I wasn’t by myself, because P-chan was there.

The small apartment we shared was, for more than a year, my whole world. I had stopped going out, stopped calling friends; I was too hurt to risk it. I shrank into myself. I recorded sometimes, but mostly I felt useless and unable to do anything about anything. Life was happening to me, and I didn’t have the strength to sway it one way or the other.

I thought every day about killing myself and never did.

It was P-chan that kept me rooted in life. She needed to be fed. She needed to be walked. One time she figured out that she could get around to the front of the house through a hole in the fence, and she did so. When I realized I sprinted out of the house it a complete panic. “Oh no oh no oh no,” I thought. And there she was, trotting down the sidewalk, none the wiser.

Every night, she climbed into my bed and slept next to me. For a long time, she would be the only living being to do so. I could reach out in the middle of the night and put a hand on her chest and feel her breathing. She was keeping me alive.

When things started to turn around for me, slowly but steadily, I took her with me. We moved in with my girlfriend and her dogs, and P-chan became part of an extended family – Thao, and Phineus, and Bela, and Sloane.

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P-Chan and Phineus.

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P-Chan and Sloane.

And soon, my girlfriend became my fiancee, and my fiancee became my wife. And P-Chan was always there, and always the same, until she wasn’t.

The problem with old age is that it happens slowly, and you don’t catch it in the act. I remember the first time I noticed P-chan having trouble getting back up on the deck after running out to the backyard; soon, it was more trouble, and soon, it was impossible.

So we adjusted, the way you adjust to a warmer climate or a mild pain; I helped her up on the deck, and then I carried her. And then I carried her outisde as well, and should couldn’t get up the stairs to our bedroom any longer, so she slept downstairs, and then she slept most of the day. I wondered if she had cataracts, I wondered if she was deaf. She wandered into the kitchen and stood in the corner.

But she still ate all her food, and she still liked to be pet. She didn’t whimper or yelp in pain. So I convinced myself that she was fine, just getting old, but that she had always been there, and so we should be there for her.

Then she started shitting in the house, and I cleaned it up. A little at first, and then every other day, and then every day. And soon she would go in her bed, and she wouldn’t remember, and I’d walk downstairs to find that it had gotten all over her, and that she had slept in it.

I didn’t want to take her to the vet, because I knew what they would say, so why go? And Thao never said what she was thinking, though I knew she was thinking it, and I’m glad she didn’t because I don’t know if I could have forgiven her.

In the end, I didn’t have to. It was just one more day, of cleaning her up, of carrying her outside, of watching her and holding her – because by now she had stopped holding herself up to urinate, would just lay in the grass and look up and look out and it wouldn’t be clear if she knew what was happening – that I changed my mind.

So we had someone come to the house. We made an appointment that just sat there on the calendar for a whole week. On the day she put her head in my lap and I stroked her head, ran my finger down the white streak that ran right down the center of her muzzle, scratched behind her ears. And a Very Nice Woman shaved a small spot on P-Chan’s leg and stuck a needle into it. And a few minutes later it was over.

I didn’t opt for a cremation, because what did it matter? And how could I know anyway? And so when they carried her away I thought of the mass grave she would go in, and all the other bodies that would be in there with her.

She had kept me alive, and I had killed her. And I hoped against hope then that this had made us even, that I had done right by her. But I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now.

I just know that my best friend is dead, and I wish more than anything that she wasn’t.

II. Half Lives

Shortly after, Thao gave birth to Oliver Hau Barrett, my son. My son.

I don’t know what I think about fatherhood. I don’t feel like a father. I feel like Some Guy who Has a Baby, but it isn’t quite the same. I’ve felt the oxytocin and other chemistries that come online when I hold him, when his skin is on my skin for any length of time, the molecular infrastructure in my mind that was put there to bond me to him.

And it worked, of course. It’s had millions of years to develop, perfect the process. It works whether you know it’s working, or not.

Often I find myself thinking of the people that don’t get to know about Oliver – the people that will never get to meet him, that he’ll never get to meet. My Dad doesn’t know Thao and I got married, all those years after I would sit in his car talking about her, after he told me that I might be on a fool’s errand, that maybe some things that feel meant-to-be just aren’t. My Dad doesn’t know that I’m a Dad now, and that some of the things he would tell me have finally Come True. He doesn’t get to know that. My son doesn’t get to pet my dog’s head, to feel her lick his face, to put his head on her belly and feel the heat inside her, the slow steady rhythm of her breathing.

There are so many impossibilities in this life. So many things we can love that won’t love us back. I think about what I want to do for my son, what I, as a father, can hope to achieve. I can’t promise Happiness; I don’t even think Happiness is a worthwhile goal. When you get it, it’s temporary; whether you get it, is up to you and you alone. So happiness is out. I certainly don’t expect Oliver to pick up my “trade,” whatever that is. So what’s left?

More than anything, I just want him to have perspective. To see his world as a sliver of a much larger one; to see his life in the context of other people’s lives. I want him to know – really know – that before he was born, there were people that could have loved him, that would have loved him; but they happened to die just a bit too early. And so it’ll be with his father, and with him.

I think if he can know that, then he can live in this world, and make the most of it. I hope that’s true – for his sake, and for mine. Otherwise, it will be so hard to love something this much.