It’s taken me a while to be able to write anything about Rocco. On top of a profound sense of loss, something else rendered me inarticulate: some form of what I can only call trauma. Rocco’s last 24 hours were awful. I watched helplessly as seizure after seizure wracked his failing body. He fought so hard to keep living. For a day or two after we put him down, I had flashbacks to the sights, smells and feelings of those 24 hours. As more time passed, those flashbacks and memories began to recede. Suddenly, grief welled up from every corner of my empty home. The realization that hourly, daily, weekly, monthly routines would forever change sunk in, along with the realization that gone from my life, in what felt like an instant, was an immense source of love, friendship, joy and responsibility. As the traumatic memories receded, I stood face to face with grief.
At least now I can confront that grief. Until the trauma of those 24 hours receded, I couldn’t. As part of dealing with that grief, I offer this eulogy to my friend Rocco.
Rocco came into my life one October night in 2014. I went to the Iqaluit Humane Society society shelter to see what dogs needed homes. I didn’t expect to take a dog home with me that night. When I introduced myself to Rocco, he wagged his tail and sniffed politely, and then gave my hand a little lick. The staff told me he was likely part husky and part lab. His body was a funny shape: his head and butt too small for his barrel chest. And his fur, spotted and coloured almost like a beagle, was dirty and matted. When the staff told me how hard it was to find homes for older dogs, I decided to take Rocco home.
That night I gave him a bath. I remember he sat still, patient in the bathtub while I, a complete stranger, violated his personal space by scrubbing him all over. I remember thinking: what an easy-going dog.
That impression changed over the next few days and weeks of living with Rocco. I soon discovered he wasn’t always easy-going. He had a special sort of anxiety: he’d follow me around everywhere and just stare at me. I couldn’t sit on the toilet, cook dinner or read without Rocco staring at me.
At first it irked me. I’d even get frustrated and yell at him to stop watching me, tell him to go lie down or do something else dogs are supposed to do.
But somewhere along the way, I just accepted Rocco’s anxiety. It was a form of love, really. He attached himself to me, in part, through his anxiety. It melted my heart when I discovered that Rocco’s anxiety would disappear instantly when I sat down to play piano. He’d curl up beside me on the floor and sleep deeply.
In many other respects Rocco was an easy-going dog. He never ate out of the garbage can, he rarely made a mess in the house or barked. I could leave him at home during work hours and expect to find him sleeping peacefully in one of his favourite spots when I returned. When I was less-than-sober, he gave me weird but non-judgemental looks and rarely denied me affection.
He loved to lick my hands. Man, did he ever love to lick my hands, or my feet, or my pants. I don’t know if it was a neurotic thing, a tasty thing or an affectionate thing. But it was one of his quirks I came to love, even if I pretended that it annoyed or disgusted me at times.
There were a lot of quirks and moments to love with Rocco. Some may be peculiar to him, others are maybe just what dog-lovers love about dogs. But I was often overcome with a surge of pure and simple happiness just watching Rocco do everyday things.
Like eat snow. He’d wag his tail, sink his teeth into fresh snow and chomp away happily, surveying the horizon.
Or his groaning. Rocco had a whole system of communication around groaning. Especially when circling and settling down into a particularly satisfying puddle to sleep. He rarely barked or whined. Instead, Rocco communicated through groans, and I understood them perfectly.
On walks out on the Apex Trail, Rocco would find all sorts of disgusting things to eat, which sometimes caused him to be violently ill. But it was hard to begrudge him the obvious joy he found in digging up half-rotten animal parts and quickly swallowing them whole before I could wrestle them away from him. Especially when he would then come bounding up to me, tail wagging, looking utterly self-satisfied and contented. His happiness was thoroughly infectious.
At home, the mornings and evenings were my favourite times with Rocco. In the mornings, he’d eventually get up from where he was sleeping, pad on over to me, his head lowered, adorably groggy, wagging his tail, and nuzzle his sleep-dried nose into my leg. I’d sit down on the piano bench and he’d let me rub his head and his velvet-soft, stunted ears. I’d sit on the couch then to read, and Rocco would curl up beside me and fall instantly back to sleep.
In the evenings, he was always excited to go to bed with me. He’d jump up on the bed before I had finished making it, or wait with obvious impatience until I finished. Then, with a hrumph and a groan, he’d settle down by my feet and fall asleep.
It’s the mornings and nights I miss Rocco most now. Of course there are times I still look for him when I return home and open the front door. Sometimes I sit on the couch and wonder where Rocco is until I remember: he’s gone now. But it’s the mornings and evenings that I most miss my friend’s affectionate presence and his gentle, loving and quirky personality.
People have told me it was a good thing I did by taking an old dog into my home. But that’s not how I see it. Rocco gave me so much that I know, at best, I could only try to give back to him as much he gave me. When I first got Rocco, I couldn’t imagine walking him every day, least of all in the winter. I came to love those walks with Rocco – being around such simple happiness did my heart and soul a world of good. I can’t imagine what my transition to life in Iqaluit would have been like without Rocco—he was so instrumental and integral.
I’ll love and miss you forever, sweet, gentle Rocco. I hope where you are now you can eat all the half-rotten sealskins you want without barfing.