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Emily Layden Headshot

On Paper, Adopting a Dog Was a Very Bad Idea

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Writers insist upon the details.

This is why when I tell people that my dog Leland was hit and killed by a car I frame it exactly that way: and killed. If the fact is left out, I find, people will ask in some awkward phrasing if he was -- which is most certainly worse. There is no place for inference or ambiguity in this story, not even the carefully constructed kind.

Here is what happened. The day before a hurricane of supposed unprecedented strength was to shellac the entire northeast -- the day after I had returned to my hometown on a mid-semester break from the New England boarding school where I am an English teacher -- my dog Leland was hit by a car and killed almost on impact. He was playing with my dad in our large and seemingly safe yard when he decided to run after a woman walking her own dog past our house. We do not live on a particularly busy street. There was no traffic -- nothing save very bad timing. I was not there when it happened. This matters because I have since learned the extent to which my craving for details will carry. When my dad called me, he did not include and killed and although I already knew I had to hear him say it to eliminate any doubt. When I got to the house I had to ask where it happened. I had to ask if there was, you know -- a mess.

There is the temptation here to write the traditional narrative about life and loss and Dog -- the relatable story, the one about how a dog is a member of the family, the one that ends in the realization that the time had and the life built together makes the pain of the end worth it. While true, this is not the whole story. Because Leland was not quite 11 months old when he was hit by a car and killed almost on impact we did not in fact build a life together; because I was barely 23 when I adopted him and am not yet 24 now, I had never before felt this particular kind of pain. I believe they call it grief, and I did not expect to meet it this way.

Leland was a shelter dog. I rescued him almost nine months ago from a foundation on Long Island and brought him home to my two roommates and our converted three-bedroom apartment when my life in New York was coming to a close. I was not particularly lonely in New York, but I was also not particularly happy. I did not really have the money to afford a dog. I did not really have the time to properly raise one. I had just turned 23, and I was acutely aware of the fact that my life was at any given moment semi-permanent. I have learned that there are people who are dog people -- I am one of them -- and I had reached a point where I could not walk to the subway in the morning without stopping every harried dog owner and I could not look at photographs of our family dog without crying; however illogical or hyperbolic it may sound, I came to compare my own emotions to that of a young woman who so desperately wants a baby that the sentiment transforms to need. And so on a rainy Saturday morning I drove to the rowhouse-dotted border of Queens and brought back to Manhattan a puppy with too-big ears and oversized paws who slid in a matter of a few drool-covered minutes into a most secure corner of my heart. I named him after my alma mater -- a moniker whose old-money stateliness in no way matched Leland's personality.

Leland peed all over our kitchen. He shredded our living room rug. He had a habit of destroying his toys in a matter of seconds, peppering our already cluttered apartment with stuffed-animal body parts and tennis ball fuzz. He needed to be walked or run six or seven times a day. I brought him on the subway. I took him to all the dog runs. Once, we made the trek to Central Park, where I lost a day-old, one-month-unlimited metro card but could not have cared less because Leland was learning to fetch. In the evenings, Leland and I went for walks along the Hudson River, down through Battery Park to the tip of the Island. It was my favorite part of the day.

When a new job gave me the much-needed excuse to leave New York, I packed up Leland's crate and the red bone-shaped mat for his bowls and his food and his tick medicine and moved for the summer (my job as a teacher started in the fall) back upstate, where he quickly adopted the role of annoying younger brother to our family dog, Hudson. He chewed holes in our walls and peed on our rugs and dug ditches at the roots of trees and barked incessantly. As he grew from puppy to adolescent he became more like me, as dogs and their owners do: His energy was without limit, and I believe we fed off of one another's restlessness. He made friends with my best friend's dog Sophie, and together the four of us went on long walks. When Leland met the man I love he seemed to understand, and did not bark or growl or jump or empty his bladder on his leg. Although Leland was not Marley, there is some of that: We all fell for him, and so as the summer wore on he became ours as much as mine.

In both the abstract and physical sense there are pieces of Leland everywhere -- he is woven deep into the memory fabric of the past year; there are hundreds of photos on my iPhone, a pillow with his name; a chewed cover on a favorite book and a broken dog tag tucked into my coat pocket. Each still frame is fogged by the sudden tragedy of the end; the sense that they are pieces of a beginning rather than an entire story. Of the pictures of Leland on my iPhone, most are like this: Head cocked, ears up, looking me straight in the eye. What now?

Two days later, the storm passed and the morning uncharacteristically warm and dewy, I walk out to the rough spot in the road by the third fence post from the driveway. Although I do not think I really want to or even expect to find anything I feel the compulsion to try to see - to know in some concrete way, to have the details -- exactly where my dad held my dog while he died. Standing in the middle of our not-particularly-busy street (looking for what? Tire marks? Hair? Blood?), a woman jogging slows as she approaches, removes her headphones.

"I'm sorry about your dog."

I stare. Turns out her neighbor is the woman who was walking her dog past our house, the dog Leland chased, the woman the oncoming car swerved to avoid and hit and killed Leland instead.

The jogger offers a half-smile, apologetic but not uncomfortable. Empathetic, I think, is the word. Sliding her headphones back in, she calls over her shoulder as she turns away -- "They just love to run."