Ricky tribute photo resizeA few years ago we joined a tradition. Like a growing number in our multi-cultural community, we saw in the Mexican anniversary of La Dia de los Muertos an opportunity to remember our own dearly departed.

In our case it was our pets of yesteryear we wished to commemorate. No slight to our human ancestors was intended. It seemed, however, as if the dogs and cats formerly part of our family were in more need of sustenance in any afterlife. Or perhaps it was more to do with our own need for comfort.

Speaking for myself, I envisage my human forebears well able to take care of themselves in whatever spiritual dimension they now occupy. On the other hand, who takes care of dogs and cats in the great beyond? Is there a class of angels assigned to dog walks and endlessly throwing toys stuffed with catnip? OK, a slightly absurd notion I agree. But if you’ve spent years anticipating canine and feline needs it’s hard to let go.

So each autumn, as late October darkens desert evenings, we buy marigolds, the flower apparently favored by returning spirits, and retrieve from storage our Day of the Dead paraphernalia. Umpteen framed photos take their place on the temporary altar in our dining room, and dishes of water and treats await the summoned specters. Pride of place in recent times goes to a digital frame which conveniently recalls images of dogs dating back to childhood (which, I should say, was quite a long time ago).

This year’s observation, scheduled as usual for November 1st and 2nd, and as usual extended a few extra days, has been a particularly poignant one. Three weeks ago Ricky, our celebrated Chihuahua/poodle mix, departed this life. Animals, in our experience at least, seem to pass on quickly rather than linger. That’s probably the best way to go, but the shock and distress for their people can be hard to take.

As it happened, we were already embroiled in one critical situation when news of Ricky’s diagnosis reached us. My wife Nancy was recovering from cancer surgery on the other side of the country. One evening our neighbor phoned our temporary digs in Boston to say Ricky wasn’t his usual upbeat, assertive self.  A visit to the vet and then an ultrasound confirmed prostate cancer spread to a lymph node. Nancy and I agreed, I had to return home to care for him.

At first, Ricky wasn’t too obviously ailing. He was still up for a morning walk and I could still tempt him with morsels of favorite foods such as pasta and rice. But gradually over the next two and a half weeks he grew less inclined to eat. His wooly white body, never more than 15 pounds, turned to skin and bones. A rattle of the leash no longer prompted a rush to the door.

In a normal family context, watching a loved one of whatever species lose appetite for food and then for life has to be one of the worst experiences imaginable.

Eventually the options were reduced to what is generally considered the kindest. A traveling vet came to our house, and on my lap, in the familiar surroundings of our patio, with our other two dogs in attendance, Ricky left this world.

Considering the sorrows we hear about every day, it may seem indulgent to mourn a relatively elderly dog. But loss is uniquely personal for those directly affected. No one else suffers quite the same vacant spaces in heart and home, or fleetingly glimpses the ghost where a short time ago there was a curled up bundle of fur and the steady pulse of sleep.

Once a pet psychic told us that Ricky was not a dog who dwelled on the past. We had more than a few chuckles over that. There seemed to be truth in it all the same. Ricky had more reason than most to be affected by early traumas. We first encountered him in a rescue group. Photos from that time show him as a tangled skein, eyes invisible under bedraggled fur. Unseen in the photos were the ticks clamped to his tender parts. He had already been returned by one adoptive family because he didn’t get along with another pet. With us however, he almost instantly became a member of the family.

As cats and dogs come and eventually go in the course of our lives, we’ve tried to avoid favoritism. Each to his or her own, however, and sometimes that means one gets treated differently from others. Ricky’s forte was the outdoors. Age or infirmity or disinclination tended to restrict our other dogs. Ricky, on the other hand, was game for any trail or campground.

Even in the preparation stage, when appropriate clothes and footwear were being selected, he quickly figured out whether he was invited. If a suitcase emerged from the closet, he settled into glum inertia, knowing he wasn’t involved. Let it be a daypack and hiking boots though, and he was waiting at the garage door.

For over a decade there hasn’t been a walk or camping trip that didn’t feature Ricky. He and I followed trails for miles through the Superstition Mountains, kayaked across Canyon Lake, climbed Picketpost Mountain, to say nothing of daily walks in parks and other favorite haunts. In other words, there’s not a place I can go where I won’t be treading in his paw steps.

Dogs have a relatively short lifespan, we know. For that matter, so can loved ones of other species. We love nonetheless, knowing it can’t last forever and yet willing to pay that price. It’s worth it, no question.

Ricky, Canyon Lake edit 2