“Let’s not do it today, how about tomorrow?” I say to my partner. We are both in agreement that our Rat Terrier named Lipton must be put down but neither of us can pull the plug, so to speak, not today. A month earlier, Lipton had been diagnosed with a collapsed trachea by a very young and caring veterinarian specialist who gave us little hope that the recommended yet extremely involved surgery would improve his quality of life, which had been reduced on good days to snorting and wheezing in an effort to push just enough air in and out of his lungs to carry on. The decision to put him down was eating away at me but it hadn’t always been this way. In fact, I was the last convert in the house, the last one to be a fully certified Lipton Lover.
Agreeing to a dog in the first place, took years. “No, not until the two of you are old enough,” I repeatedly told the boys, always feeling like my back was against a wall. The last thing we need right now is a dog! As a single dad in those early days, I did everything to avoid committing to a date, but I knew this strategy wouldn’t last long. “How old is old enough?” my son smartly asked sometime in the fourth grade, this after years with no serious push back. No longer would our single goldfish be enough. Friend after friend now had a dog and he and his younger brother wanted theirs. And, so began an unrelenting campaign.
“When?…When?…When?” both boys peppered me for months with the same question. My response would come after my partner wisely reminded me that if I kept holding out on the dog issue that there was a good chance our pet could outlive the both of us. “Not until you are in sixth grade and are old enough to take care of a dog.” There it was, finally blurting it out and totally arbitrary, but unmistakably a timeline nonetheless.
Although I had a dog when I was young, likely by the first grade — I never really grew attached to her. Muffy, our Cockapoo, received a fair amount of my attention when she was a puppy; however, this was long before her ultimate decline and more than a decade after I was appointed to regularly clean poop from her anus by cutting encrusted hair from this very delicate area with a pair of household scissors. No doubt, this task alone was reason enough to send my older brothers off to college several hours from home. Rightly so, Muffy would growl and bark at the mere sight of anyone with scissors in hand. To this day, I remain skittish encountering a dog for the first time.
Lipton’s arrival was a whirlwind. We had just returned home in what was becoming an annual summer San Diego vacation. We were in the habit of timing these beach visits in early August once summer sports leagues and Scout camps ended and right before the start of a new school year. It was early Sunday evening; we had just completed the seven-hour drive home, unpacked and I was completely focused on getting the boys to bed early. Unbeknownst to me, my oldest son had retrieved the classified section from the large Sunday paper in which he circled the very first ad under the header, “Rat Terrier.” “Here you go,” he said plain and simple, as if he was fully entitled to this moment.
Before this night, it wasn’t so much what kind of dog we would get or what we would call him but rather when. The boys already knew that they wanted a Rat Terrier after one their teacher’s got one. To me a Rat Terriers looked a lot like a Jack Russell and by all accounts had the same high energy and temperament and appeared a good match for two rambunctious boys. As far as what to call our new arrival, we had landed on it years before, after my youngest son asked me who made iced tea. On the spot, we agreed Lipton had a good ring.
“Dad, I start sixth grade tomorrow and you need to keep your word,” my oldest son said pushing the paper closer to my face. No one could argue that his execution was anything but clever. As a parent, I had spent much of my waking hours preaching the importance of keeping one’s word. “You promised,” he added for emphasis on the very night before the start of sixth grade. It all was incredibly effective, not to mention well-timed based on the previously established timeline.
Once the van door slid opened I knew we would not leave empty handed. Ten adorable Rat Terrier puppies ran around a makeshift pen. How this elderly couple, who lived some forty miles away in a tiny community called Tonopah, just happened to be “in the neighborhood” with a litter of Rat Terrier puppies on that Sunday night I may never come to fully understand; however, fate is as good as any explanation. Very quickly the boys agreed and picked the smallest, the “runt” of the litter, and did indeed name him Lipton after seeing a brown patch over his left eye which looked like the color of tea. This was followed by a late night run to Petsmart, with my older son and our complete reliance on the high school kid with the Petsmart polo shirt who recommended a boatload of puppy supplies, ensuring each item was essential to Lipton’s smooth transition. Three hundred dollars later, which included Petsmart puppy lessons, we returned home to find my youngest son positioning Lipton on a piece of newspaper so he would not tinkle on the tile. My boys played with their new dog well into the night. This would be the beginning of the end regarding my indifference to dogs
Later, there would come potty training, Lipton’s first road trip and numerous nights where he would be hustled into bed with one of the two boys, which I would only later discover the next morning when I would find the two, a boy and his dog, sleeping side by side. There would be a second round of puppy lessons after the instructor discreetly explained that as a result of Lipton’s “exuberance” he would benefit from more remedial instruction. Over the years he would win over all who met him. How could you not love a rugged little dog who wanted nothing more than his belly rubbed and a chance to chase a tennis ball over and over.
When it came time, it was difficult and sad. I had underestimated Lipton’s impact on each of us. My partner and oldest son volunteered to take Lipton to the vet. I wanted nothing to do with his final moments; I wanted nothing to offset the positive memories of a dog that I never thought I would come to love. In the final days leading up to this, all of us spent extra time with Lipton as a result of his labored breathing and sniffles and snorts, clearly reconfirming what we already knew – his time was near. My oldest son would stay with him until the end, emerging from the room in tears. In many ways this is how it should have been since Lipton was really his dog. He fought for him and more than any other, Lipton became his tried and true companion. While they were away, I gathered up Lipton’s toys throughout the backyard, coming to rest on a large boulder and unexpectedly I cried. Over the last week, we’ve all heard familiar noises throughout the house that remind us of him, not to mention the box of tea bags that sits in the cabinet with his name on it.