08/02/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

My Mom and My First Dog, Now Both Long Gone

I stopped by earlier today to visit my parents' columbarium niche, en route to a meeting and uncharacteristically ahead of schedule. These visits are always filled with vivid memories, some welcome and others not so much. I realized that it's now just over 10 years since a conversation with my Mom on her 80th birthday, a conversation worth remembering.

Eighty years is a lot of years, and by then they were not wearing well on my mother. While it was then and still is easy to picture her in younger days, it became so very hard to see her in those last few.

At the time, we were getting ready to move my folks here from Arizona. We'd found what felt like the right place, an apartment in an assisted living center that also had a dementia wing. My mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. My Dad, someone we'd long joked had spent his whole life too busy giving heart attacks to have one himself, now had a bad heart and had been in and out of the hospital a lot. The plan was for them to have their own apartment with loads of support for the basics (meals, transportation, things to do) up until my Mom would need something more. And at that time, they'd still at least be near each other, as much as possible like they'd been for the past sixty years.

Although anxious, they were excited about the move, about being close enough to see us. The conversation focused mostly on that. And then without any sort of transition, out of the blue, Mom asked if I had made sure to bury Jasper, and did I do it properly, with respect.

Jasper was my first dog. He came into my life when I was twenty-one, by then out of my parents' house for five years. I'd never been allowed pets as a kid, except for my fish, because mom thought of dogs as a source of dirt and cats a source of evil. Over the years and the many pets they'd seen me with, Mom had come to appreciate my dogs, even love a few of them, and tolerate the cats, lizards, guinea pigs and parakeets.

I remember it so clearly: This question about Jasper really threw me. It seemed to be about Jasper, and about so much more as well.

I'd learned enough about Mom's diagnosis to know to try and go with her when she headed down an unexpected path, that correcting her only served to confuse and hurt her. So I said yes to the question, because it was true although now long, long ago. I loved Jasper, and when he died I did all I could do with respect and great sadness.

As we talked on the phone, I remember walking over to look at a photo of me and Jasper from a million years ago. It's one of my favorite family photos. In that picture we're both young, he's maybe six months and staring up at me with his great smile. My curly hair, not a grey one among the mass, mushrooms grandly around me in the style of the times, 1975. We are young, happy. Today, I am older than my mother was when that picture was taken.

I know I must have felt it, but I don't remember if I said it to her: that family is a complicated thing, that loving is sometimes harder and sometimes easier, that missing those we love is always bitter, that remembering what was good is a sweetness. I hope I said something that made her know that I was glad she had asked this question and that, yes, when my big and wonderful dog died I did everything I knew to do to commemorate his life and to tell him, even though he was gone, that he will remain remembered and loved.

I hope they both know that, now.