Losing Sal

No, my dog wasn’t my child, but caring for her brought out my parental instincts

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Last month I lost my best friend. She made me laugh effortlessly; she was mischievous; she was part of my daily routine. I miss her.

I am referring to my 13-year-old golden retriever: a girl dog named Sal.

Losing a pet is a peculiar experience. Animal lovers understand: Your pet is a family member. Others don’t really get it. They ask, when are you getting a new one? Like you’re replacing a broken toy.

Dog people know better. Too much, too soon.

I met Sal as a sweet, eight-week-old puppy in 2000. She was a gift from a boyfriend, a relationship that didn’t end well. After a doomed attempt at “sharing custody,” I fought to keep her, despite being in an unsteady place in my life. By the way, I had no previous experience with dogs. She was my first pet, not counting the childhood goldfish (and we all know how that ended).

This was a big decision and it was all mine. I did not solicit opinions from family or friends. I was doing it.

So there I was. Alone in a cramped apartment with a rambunctious puppy. Oh, did I mention I have condition called lupus? If you’re not familiar, it’s a chronic condition that affects the joints and muscles. Which means, despite being an active, energetic person, I experience fatigue that comes and goes like the weather. One day I’m hiking to the top of Runyon Canyon feeling like Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic; the next day I might have to stay home and rest — with copious amounts of ibuprofen and Ben Gay.

How would I take care of Sal when taking care of myself was challenging enough? It didn’t matter. I said yes. She forced me out into the world, and we were off and running — or at least walking at a fast clip. To the hills, to the park, to the beach. We got a ton of exercise. She needed to run and I needed to get out. We were made for each other.

Sal had to say hi to every dog, which meant I had to say hi to every person. She licked my face, which made me laugh — and exfoliated my skin. She helped me exercise consistently, which made my muscles happier. When I was down, her silliness would pull me out of a funk.


The author and Sal share a beach day
(Courtesy of Lisa Kenner Grissom)

In terms of temperament, we were uncannily similar. We’d have crazy bursts of energy and then take long naps. We loved to dance and swim. We enjoyed being outside on a nice lawn in the sunshine.

Fast forward to 2003 when I met an adorable guy. His even temperament and quick wit complemented my spontaneity and goofy sense of humor. If you ask, he’ll tell you that he fell in love with both Sal and me at the same time. When he proposed, Sal was on the field with us at Fairfax High. Marriage and a house ensued but we decided not to have kids.

I know some people think: She’s one of those people whose dog was like her child. No. I don’t pretend to compare a dog to a child. But caring for an animal requires parental instincts. I was a fierce protector of Sal, shooing away aggressive dogs that didn’t have her best interests in mind. Sal did not have a mean bone in her body — she gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. She even tried to make friends with a skunk, who, not understanding her language of love, promptly sprayed her in the face.

We had many years full of capers and fun. Then, things started to change.

In 2009, the fur on Sal’s face turned white. I didn’t notice at first. She’d always be a puppy to me.

In 2011, our two-mile walks became half-mile walks became walks around the block.

In 2013, my expert retriever could suddenly no longer catch the ball. Big wake-up call.

In her final weeks, she could only make it to the corner and back. Her world kept shrinking but she found ways to squeeze the life out of it. Her passion had been to roll on lawns and she had several neighborhood favorites. She could hardly walk, but she’d still flop on the grass with pure joy. Passers-by would wave and laugh.

Then, almost overnight, there would be no more rolling. The end came quickly. It was like watching an elderly person decline in an accelerated time lapse. Rather than going to the cold, clinical vet’s office, we arranged for ours to come to our home. We hugged her and gave her ear a last scratch before she was gently put to sleep. She was ready. We weren’t, but the time had come.

People tell me I gave her a wonderful life. But the truth is, she gave me mine. Now that she’s gone, I still have to live it. When five o’clock comes around — her typical walk time — I take myself for a walk. An homage to Sal? Maybe. A reminder to continue the routine we created together? Definitely. With that in mind, I offer:

The Salpup’s Guide To a Happy Life
(Dog translation in parentheses)

  • Eat what you enjoy. (Diets are silly.)
  • Smile every day. (Let your tongue wag.)
  • Exercise should be fun. (Play ball! Run! Skip!)
  • Appreciate nature — not just from afar. (Roll in the grass. Mud puddles!)
  • Sleep well. (Naps = Good)
  • Kiss the people you love often. (Lick them.)
  • Be yourself. People will either get on board or they’re not for you. (No translation needed.)

Lisa Kenner Grissom is a playwright living in Los Angeles. Her work has been performed in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. Her award-winning short play Tattoo You will be published by Samuel French in 2014. Sal was named after the title character in the children’s book “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey.

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