This is the second interview in what will eventually become an oral history called WOOF: Americans Talk About Their Dogs. The goal of the project is to interview as radically diverse a group of people as possible, to get them to talk about dogs from every angle possible, and, in so doing, to describe what it means to be a human living in the United States at this moment in history.
LEAH: In the beginning, I had not wanted a dog. It was more my ex’s idea. When we were first married, he and I had a discussion about our wanting kids. I wanted two.
Unfortunately, for the majority of our marriage, my husband didn’t work. He bartended a little bit, but he literally never had any type of full-time job. I ended up having to basically parent him. At one point, I got pregnant and then had a miscarriage, and I remember thinking that if I had had the baby, I would have the responsibility of the husband, the baby, and the three jobs I had at that time. Anyway, three years later, in 2001, we got a boxer named Luke. And I discovered I really love boxers. I like the way they look. They’re very childlike. There’s a humanness about them. It’s the sensitivity in their eyes.
Three years later we decided to get a second boxer: Beau. He was born on August 5, 2004. He was about three weeks old the first time I saw him. The first thing I remember about him was that he was nuts. I couldn’t hold him still, he was so wiggly. When I put him on the ground, he was literally trying to climb up the inside of my pant leg, as if he were saying, “Take me home!” He smelled like puppy breath—that breath when they haven’t had any solid food and they’ve just been feeding from the mom. His hair hadn’t grown in all the way. A clean slate, like a baby. No damage yet. Just pure. Sweet.
At first the breeder didn’t want to give us Beau. She said he was going to be one of her show dogs. About two days later she called and said she had fifteen dogs at that time that she was showing, and had changed her mind. Beau was pricey. I paid eighteen hundred dollars. I took a loan out of my 401(k), but he was worth it. I remember coming downstairs the morning after we picked him up and saying out loud, “I already love him.” It was immediate. I have some pictures where I’m sitting on a couch and I’m dressed all in white, holding him. I felt like a mom. Because you do. This little creature is dependent on you for every single thing.
After I brought Beau home, I had a baby shower for him. My best friend, Lucy, invited over my cousin and several of my friends, and everyone brought a present. Lucy has two boys, and she knew how desperately I wanted to have kids.
My ex-husband was home all the time, so he was home with Beau more than I was, so you would think that their bond would be a lot closer. I remember him complaining and saying, “Every time you leave the house, Beau sits by the door and just cries for, like, an hour.” Boy, he never did that when my ex left the house. He was just like, “Whatever.” I remember thinking, about a year afterward, It’s really odd that he’s so connected to me. It’s probably because he’s going to be my companion when things change in my life.
I definitely let the dogs come between us. The dogs always came first for me. I liked them to have nice things: a nice bed, very good food. They always got Christmas presents under the tree. They each had a stocking. For their birthdays, every single year I got them personalized cakes. On Christmas and Thanksgiving I would cook them chicken. At Christmas I would put the presents in a bunch of boxes or bags and semi-open them and then let them tear through them the rest of the way. And I paid way more attention to the dogs, physically, than I did to my ex-husband. Hugging them, kissing them, snuggling with them, all those types of things. I worried about them. If one of them had his head out the car window, I would have a vision of a tree coming by and chopping his head off. I was afraid to ever leave the house for more than four hours, because I was afraid it would burn down. I had a lot of these super-irrational fears, but a lot of that was wrapped around issues in the marriage. My husband couldn’t provide any emotional, financial, any type of stability. I felt like I had no control in my life. A lot of that manifested in neuroses around the dogs.
I remember the breeder telling me, “If you guys are going to have arguments, don’t have them in front of the dogs, because they’re very, very sensitive. It will damage them if you’re yelling and raising your voice.” And Luke would get upset whenever we got into arguments. He’d go into the backyard and hide. But Beau didn’t seem affected by it. They were so different. Luke was my dog and my husband’s dog together, but Beau was always mine, from day one.
It all fell apart really fast. When I bought the house, in 2006, my husband and I had a huge argument, basically about the fact that I had purchased that house. He had done nothing financially. There was no participation from him in terms of getting paperwork together, finding a mortgage, any of that type of thing. The one thing that he was supposed to do was to paint the outside of the house. He painted, like, a third of it, and left it, and it was humiliating. My dad, who’s eighty-five now, and my mother, who’s seventy-eight or something— they were a little bit younger at that time, but they actually finished painting the house because he would never finish it. And that’s what the fight was about.
My ex got into his car and left, and I was sitting in the corner crying. Beau came up to me and licked the tears off my face, and then curled up in a ball in my lap. I always knew he was there to wipe the tears off my face. Always. Always. Always. Always. Maybe it was just the salt, but I think it was more than that. Beau was concerned about being next to me and making sure I was OK. He was literally like a piece of me. Like a fifth limb.
There was never any conversation before my husband moved out. It was just fucking over. We were both done. It was both of us, but he made the decision. He took his backpack, blanket, and he left and never picked up a thing that he owned ever again. I think when it came to the dogs, he knew there was no fighting me, so they stayed with me.
During my divorce, I felt like my whole world was falling apart, even though it wasn’t. I hadn’t been happy in the marriage for a long time. But that fear of being alone again and the failure of the marriage and all that stuff. I credit Beau with giving me a reason to live. I took him everywhere. I took him running with me, I would take him to lunch with me. I could yell at him for doing something wrong or reprimand him or have a bad day and be grumpy with him, and he would still love me just the same. It was pure, unconditional love, and I felt like he was the only person in the entire world who really cared if I lived or died. Like he lived for me.
In 2007, beginning of 2008, I lost the house. I made just enough to pay for the mortgage, but I couldn’t pay the utilities or anything else. I was having garage sales every week so I would have enough money to make sure that the dogs could go to the vet and eat. I was living on popcorn and Diet Coke. My ex didn’t give a shit. He didn’t care if the dogs were starving to death. He was out buying thousand-dollar tires for his car.
When we moved out of the house, I stacked them in the car and I drove to Denver. We stopped in Las Vegas. We stayed for a week at the Loews hotel, and we had room service. They have a coffee-table book of some of the dog visitors, and Beau’s picture is in there; it says, “Beau of Tucson, Arizona.” When we got to Denver, he got to play in snow for the first time. We stayed there for about two months, and then my ex-husband asked me for spousal support. So I had to quit my job there because I could barely live as it was. I drove to L.A. and moved into this gross temporary housing place in Marina del Ray, where I had to sneak the dogs in. It wasn’t until 2010 that I was finally able to rent another house with a backyard. I was so determined to get them a yard. I had felt so guilty that I hadn’t been able to provide a better life for them, that they had to be around fighting, had to be around me on Xanax three times a day, going through a divorce, having road rage, and all the crap that comes along with going through a divorce. I felt totally wiped out, but also like a total survivor. Immediately, I put fencing up in the front yard so that we could have play dates. There were four or five dogs in the neighborhood that would come over on a regular basis.
That summer, on August 5, Beau turned six. I woke up in the morning and I told him, “It’s your birthday, Beau,” so he knew that it was going to be his day. We went and did his favorite things: we went to the park, we went for a walk along the ocean in Santa Monica. My neighbors Joanna and Hale came over with their dog, Tiger. A few other dogs from the neighborhood stopped by at some point. Everyone brought a present. Then I brought the cake out and we lit the candles and took a bunch of pictures. I would always put the cake down on his level so he could get the first slurp or shove his face in it. I would let him have that initial piggyness and then I cut out some little pieces and portioned it out to him.
Then one night, pretty soon after his birthday, Lucy and I came home from doing something, and when we got to the door, Beau was jumping up and down, excited to see us, and then he started coughing. Beau was never sick. I had always been worried about Luke because he had had health problems since he was about eighteen months old. But Beau was the healthiest dog, so I almost took it for granted that he was always going to be OK. But it kept going on for a couple of days, so I took him to the vet and the vet gave him some antibiotics. After two weeks, he was still coughing. The vet said they can sometimes have a residual cough. So on Saturday morning I woke up, gave him breakfast, and took him to the backyard to play.
I came inside for just a split second to get something, and all of a sudden I heard a crash. I came outside and he was having a seizure. His legs were crumpling up underneath him. He was stumbling back and forth, and he finally just collapsed. His eyes were rolled back in his head. I couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t breathe. It was like he was having a heart attack. I’ve never seen anything so frightening in my whole life. I was shaking him and screaming his name and finally he seemed to come to. His eyes rolled back into the center of his sockets and he lay there maybe two minutes and then he was able to get up.
They had to do a sonogram of his heart, and the vet told me he had a tumor in his chest cavity. That’s why he couldn’t breathe. That’s why he was coughing. I remember being relieved: Oh, it’s a tumor. I could just have it cut out. Then she said that they took a biopsy, and because of where the tumor was located, it was surrounded by all of these blood vessels and important organs, so it would be very hard to remove.
Lucy, who’s battling lung cancer, was in shock. It was surreal. It was in his chest and near his lungs and in all the same places she had it. I remember crying and screaming so loud through my lungs, “Why, why, why? Why can’t I just have one thing that doesn’t get taken from me?” I was feeling sorry for myself: “I have nothing. The only things I love in the world are getting taken from me way too soon.”
I went to the oncologist. Lucy and Maude, who’s another good friend, were with me. The vet said for sixteen thousand dollars they could give him another six to nine months, maybe a year. If that was too expensive, there was treatment B, which would get me three to six months. Then there was treatment C, which would give him some relief and give me maybe another month with him. I literally felt like she was trying to sell me a car. My friends were disgusted. They explained to her, “Leah can’t deal with that.” And it was true. There was just no way. It wasn’t the money. I couldn’t go through him having chemo, wondering every day when he’s going to get sick again, knowing that whatever we did, he’s got an expiration date coming up soon.
So I basically spent Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday saying goodbye to him. I didn’t sleep or eat the entire time. I played with him as much as I could without getting him riled up, and I just cried for four days straight. When I could finally get him to go to sleep during the day, I would just lie on the floor and stare at him. I went out to buy huge finger steaks, and all I ate that whole week was scrambled eggs and chicken and steak. I’d let him eat whatever he wanted. I got apples and chopped them up and I would sit outside on the front doorstep and feed him the apples. I got up at six and I drove down to the marina and I took him on the beach, which you’re not allowed to do. Let them give me a ticket. Fuck it.
I called the vet I used to go to in Sherman Oaks. She does home stuff, so I asked her to come to the house to do it on Saturday. I sent out an email to invite the people I wanted there. When Saturday came, I just sat on my couch and started counting down the hours till he was going to die. Or I guess I kept saying to everyone, “Until I kill him.” That’s what I felt like. I knew I was saving him from pain, but I also felt like I was taking his life.
Lucy came over first, like one o’clock. My dog walker came over next and brought me latkes and matzo-ball soup and sprinkled cookies from Junior’s. She knelt down to say goodbye to him. Then Maude came over. She had an appointment. She was going to come back after. She just held him and said, “Goodbye, Beau,” and left. The vet was scheduled to come at four o’clock, after her practice closed. Half an hour before, he was starting to go cuckoo. I had his favorite Jolly ball, this big plastic ball with a handle, which he was never allowed to play with in the living room. He was not an enormous barker, but he was so mad he was barking at it. It wouldn’t stop. He was frustrated because he couldn’t play with it.
My friend Hale came over, and then my dad came over with a full spread. Deli meats and pickles and all the stuff that you see at a Jewish funeral. Lucy has a video of Beau, which I can’t handle looking at, in the last few minutes before the vet came. He basically went to every person in the room, stood next to them, and paid some attention to them for a period of time, which was not his normal behavior. The last thing he did was go to Luke and lie down next to him. Beau loved Luke so much. I have final pictures of the two of them together where Beau had his arm around Luke like he knew that he was going to go. Then I picked Beau up and took him into the bedroom. Lucy came with me and I had his dog bed on top of my bed. The curtains were open and sunlight was coming in. We shut the door, and I said to him, “You’re sick. Mommy has to let you go. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re such a good dog, but you’re sick and I don’t want you to suffer.”
The vet was very sweet. The first thing he did was give Beau a little injection to make him sleepy. He fought it a little bit, but as soon as the medicine hit him, he kind of slunk down. I remember his little tongue was hanging out and I was just holding him. Everyone came into the room, one by one, to say goodbye to him. My dad was crying so hard when he came in that he was dripping from his nose. My cousin Lauren, who had had loss in her life and doesn’t cry very easily, was crying. They were all crying. It was awful. I made Lucy stay. I said to her, “You have to be in here with me. I can’t do it alone.”
Lucy says it was the most beautiful moment that she’d ever seen, and if Beau had to go, there couldn’t have been a better way, because it was just him and me, and I was holding him, and I was singing to him that song from the Brady Bunch, “Everybody’s laughing, Sunshine Beau. / Everybody’s grooving, Sunshine Beau.” I used to call him “Sunshine Beau” because he was like a little ray of sunshine. I combined that with the Queen song “You’re My Best Friend,” but I changed the words to “Oh, you’re making me live now, Mommy.” I remember looking up during the time that I was singing and the vet was crying. Then I just said, “We’re ready.” They gave him a shot. We waited about twenty seconds, and he got cold really fast. The vet listened to his heart and said, “He’s gone.”
They say if one dog is not in the room when you do it, it’s good to let them smell afterward so they’ll understand that the other dog has passed away. They can tell. So I brought Luke in and he just kind of smelled Beau. I went into the other room and I lay on the floor, and I was screaming, “I don’t want to have to try to get through this. I don’t want to have to wake up in the morning without him. I don’t want to live without him.” They wrapped him up, they took him out of the house, and he was gone.
You can either have them buried or you can have them cremated. I asked for an individual cremation. Sometimes they cremate a whole bunch of them, and you just get a mishmash of ashes. I wanted to make sure that I got Beau’s ashes. That Friday, Lucy and I went to the cremation place, which was like a dump out in Sun Valley behind an auto-body shop. Just disgusting. I remember sitting in the waiting room, and there were these three annoying long-nosed poodles. First of all, who would keep their dogs in the office of a cremation place? It’s so creepy. I’m sure they smell death all around them. And number two, people who have just lost their dogs don’t necessarily want to be around other people’s dogs.
This guy comes walking out with big rubber gloves on, because he’s the one that’s throwing the dogs into the fire to be burned. He doesn’t even take the gloves off, and says, “Can I help you?” We said, “We have an appointment. I’m here for Beau’s ashes.” He says, “You want to come and identify him before I do it so you know it’s him?” But I was like, “Oh, there’s not a chance.” So Lucy had to go in the back and look at him on the slab. He’d been passed away for almost a week, but she told me he looked just beautiful.
They came out with a box you could use to mail something, and that was Beau. A box of ashes was all I had left. People would say, “He’s in a better place.” I’m like, “Oh, really, in a fucking box? That’s not a better place. A better place for him is playing in the backyard with me.”
I slept on his dog bed that night with his puppy blanket. I wore his dog collar around my neck for probably the first month and didn’t take it off. Then I went and got a tattoo. Before he was cremated, I asked them to make a paw print. It’s one of the services they do. It was the most wonderful, perfect paw print you’ve ever seen. I took that to the tattoo artist and had it tattooed on my ankle with Beau’s name under it. That way he’ll die with me on my body. I felt like I needed to honor him in some way after everything he’d given me. I wanted him to know I’ll never forget him. He just had such a love for everything. The joy in him to go in the backyard and play was like the greatest thing in the world. I would leave for ten minutes and come back, and his greeting to me was the greatest minute in the world. He just literally didn’t care about anything or anyone except for me and Luke. It’s like his job was to bring me joy. I was the center of his world. He never really cared about anybody else. And there’s nobody on the face of the earth who ever could have loved him as much as I did.