Growing up male in our society comes with perks and privileges. There is no disputing that. This is not, however, something many of us men think about as our society automatically assigns certain qualities and characteristics to us, purely based on our sex. Contemporary gender roles tell us we are supposed to be strong, assertive, successful, protective, dominant, and ready to take on responsibility, as situations dictate: a definition one might hear commonly voiced by any “average Joe” on the street.
As a man, I certainly do not find anything wrong with such expectations—this is what I have been conditioned for, since birth. After all, we are supposed to be the fathers, husbands, and leaders of the future, right? There is a downside to all this, however. Social expectations around “maleness,” while practical and utilitarian in many respects, can also be stifling and—at times—shaming in situations when stoicism and grit are not options.
Vulnerability is a shaky subject–appreciated by some, condemned by others—especially for those of us eat, sleep, and breath within the Hispanic culture. “Boys don’t cry!” We get that drilled into our heads very early on, which makes emotions and their expressions, potentially, very dangerous things. As we get older, however, these messages become tempered and our emotional boundaries semi-permeable. We live life, experience the turbulence of our uncertain futures, and come to understand that things are not always that “black and white.”
Despite such evolution, parts of the old narrative stick. There is still resistance to surrendering to emotions like sadness and grief. Perhaps, it is their associations’ weakness and loss of control. Perhaps, it is the fear of navigating emotional landscapes that remain relatively foreign to us. Whatever the reason, men do feel. They feel all kinds of things—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Maybe, we, as men, need to reconcile that fact and not be so afraid of what goes on inside. If we cannot be OK with being vulnerable, how can those around us—or society—be? A change in the male narrative begins with us, requiring not only courage but a willingness to crumble when the situation warrants it.
I learned that this week when one of my dogs passed away, after a short but brutal illness that not only made me see her with a new sense of clarity, but myself, as well.
Toffee was the third addition to the pack of six dachshunds/dachshund-mixes that I lovingly call “my children.” She was a miniature red-hair that stood out from the rest by contrast. She was much larger than my other three minis. She had hazel eyes and a pink nose. She talked (as much as a dachshund could) when she had an opinion to share. She refused to climb stairs or jump off the furniture, requiring valet service off the bed and couch to facilitate her daily activities.
Toffee was one of the most adorable puppies I had ever seen, smaller than the palm of my hand but with a bladder the size of her unique personality (hence, her nickname “The Urinator). Calling her “aggressive” would have been an understatement given her penchant for gnawing exposed body parts from which none of the other dogs nor myself were safe. While a handful during her exuberant puppyhood, she calmed down when she got older. She was quite content to sit on the far-left seat cushion of my leather couch—when she wasn’t chewing holes in it—watching TV or me watching me grade papers or paying bills on the internet. When feeling neglected, she would break the silence with a string of mumbles or fully articulated dachshund-speak, staring into my eyes, intently, from across the room. I, of course, would engage. A conversation with her could last a good ten minutes if she had a lot to get off her chest: I delighted in the conversations I had with that fourteen-pound meatloaf and—looking back—I don’t know how I will get along without them.
Then, things came crashing down on October 29, 2018 when she developed complications related to IVDD (Intervertebral Disc Disease), leaving her completely paralyzed from the neck down. Beginning with just her hind legs, the paralysis overtook her, leaving her motionless and unable to void on her own. The progression was particularly rapid, leaving her helpless in a matter of two days. Having had another dog who had the same condition but to a lesser degree, I anticipated surgery would fix the problem, but this was not the case. Ultimately, she was not able to bark, hold her head up, or, eventually, eat or drink—despite my best efforts to sustain her manually with kibble and a syringe of water in hand. The night when things seemed bleakest, I held her close to my body after the rest of the brood and I went to bed. Something told me this would be the last night she would be with me. I was right.
My alarm went off at six in the morning—the time scheduled for Toffee’s first bladder expression of the day. Prior to the alarm going off, she was craning her neck, as if to nuzzle me awake. Then, a lone bark broke the silence of the morning. My face hovered over her and I kissed her snout. She then proceeded to give me five very long, deliberate licks: an ability that seemed to disappear over the past couple of days. I held her close, stroking her neck, and told her I loved her when with a couple of jerks of her head and a soft exhale, my little girl was gone.
I sat up in my bed and pulled her limp, warm body to my chest and held her, tightly, while successfully pulling off the ugliest man-cry in recorded history. Immersed in loss, I sat there and succumbed to the avalanche of emotions that swept over me. I was devastated that she was gone. I was thankful that her suffering was over. I was angry that her disease had been so cruel. I was scared of a life without her.
I had to take control of the situation—and myself—so I stopped. I lay her back down on the bed and commenced to make final arrangements. Once I managed to locate a funeral home that did pet cremations, I fed the dogs, got dressed, and prepared Toffee for our final car ride together. I remember standing in the kitchen, allowing myself to breakdown between tasks, directing anger inward, telling myself that I hadn’t done enough and that I hadn’t given her the time I should have the last four, short years. Funny how emotions have to go somewhere.
I stopped my internal tirade just long enough to breathe. On some level, I supposed I needed someone to blame. Who else was there? But the past four days were telling me a different story, so I wasn’t going to let myself off that easy. In truth, like any other true “doggie dad” I had fought this battle along with Toffee. Yes, I wanted to protect her from harm, but that wasn’t the sum of my tireless efforts. I loved her and the thought of her in pain made me hurt along right with her. I didn’t know why it was so hard to connect with that. The hand feedings. The urine-soaked clothes. The rigid adherence to her medication schedule. The loss of sleep. The praying. I did them all without hesitation and would have done more if Fate had allowed, but it didn’t.
I think I cried all the way to the funeral home, which was an hour away from where I lived. Toffee was swaddled in a clean, white sheet on my lap. The closer I got, the more I cried. When I finally arrived, I was directed towards the back of the building, where she would be received. As I drove up, the girl I spoke to came out of the back door with a cart, on which I was supposed to leave Toffee’s body. I got out of the car—eyes, bloodshot– and asked the girl if I could have some time alone with her to which she agreed. I unwrapped Toffee and held her to my chest, cradling her head under my chin, against my shoulder. I noticed how cold she was, finally, believing she was dead. I stood there, weeping, clutching her tight under a Sunday afternoon sun, feeling like a boy who had just lost his dog.
I didn’t go home after I left her. I went to a bookstore. Had lunch. Stopped at my curio shop and finished up some work. I ran errands. I called my two best friends and proceeded to tell them what happened in between crying jags. One of them, Brian, asked me if I should go home to be with my other dogs at which point I replied, “I don’t want to go home because she isn’t there.” It was at that moment I realized how significant that little dog was to me and how deep my love for something outside myself could possibly run.
It is now two days, later, and I find myself crying every half hour or so, mostly without warning. I feel like my heart is breaking, intermittently; my grief coming in drips and drabs, making everything three times as hard. I question heartbreak’s efficiency and why it cannot happen all at once, but then I realize that human hearts probably can’t take that if they want to continue beating.
No one tells you how multi-layered grief can be: I supposed it is one of those things that must be experienced first-hand. I know if I am going to resolve my grief, I have to feel this. I have to accept this loss and let “sad” happen. That does not mean I have to lose sight of what is truly important out of this whole experience, however. I know I was honored to have her for four years. I know I was lucky enough to make Toffee’s last days as comfortable as possible. I know I was truly blessed to be there during her last moments. No matter what, I know I loved and was loved.
Daddy loves and misses you, Toffee. Everyday.
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