I ought to be doing a hundred things but instead I’m messy crying in the supermarket parking lot.
This isn’t going to be one of the things I write with jokes or jetpacks or monsters. This is the other kind. A little over a week ago, I lost my best friend. Bruisersaurus Rex, the Chihahuanator. Bruiser. My co-pilot and best dog buddy. He’s gone.
It’s not real. It can’t be real. I can hardly stand how real it is.
Clever comedians make jokes about pets being heartbreak on layaway. Everything you love, you will eventually grieve– or you’ll leave them to grieve you. It’s a fucked up bargain. We really should read the EULA more carefully.
Before Bruiser, I wasn’t really a dog person. I had a (short) list of dogs I liked but I wasn’t the “SHOW ME PICTURES OF YOUR SMOL BOY PLZ” dog lover that I am now. It’s only after losing Bruiser, that I think I know why that was. We had a dog when I was young, a yellow lab that we got as a puppy. Her name was Sarah and she was a great dog. She was hit by a car and died. I was probably about six. Old enough that my mom decided I was ready to understand death. Memories from that young get mixed up with feelings. What I remember is a bloody blanket wrapped around her and sobbing in the failing summer light.
Here’s a pet for you to adore, kid. Now, go get your shovel because it’s not going to last.
I used to tell people that when I lost Bruiser I would fall to pieces for a month. I knew it would hit me like the falling star that killed the dinosaurs. What I didn’t expect is that I’d lose him less than a week before I had to fly to Anaheim and work with a team to make one of the biggest and most important awards shows for science fiction and fantasy writers happen, the 2023 Nebula Awards. I had this event I’d worked on for months that was really important for me personally and professionally, and then I had this unexpected and stunning amount of overwhelming sad. Falling to pieces wasn’t an option. I cried (a lot) for a couple of days and then I needed to set it aside and get the job done.
Don’t worry. Grief waits up and it finds you in supermarket parking lots.
I adopted Bruiser over thirteen years ago. I was 29 years old and like most 29 year olds, I was a disaster of a person. I had a house for the first time in my adult life with the room and backyard to have a dog. He was a second-chance rescue shipped up here from Bakersfield, California. A year-old, they guessed. He was skin and bones with mange on his great big ears. When I got to him in the tour of the humane society, he didn’t bark or run to get my attention. He sat, broken and lonely in the middle of his pen. His eyes told me his whole story. He’d been hurt and abandoned. He didn’t trust anyone and he wasn’t going to beg or pretend to be one of those carefree cartoon dogs. He was imperfect and he needed patience. I loved him immediately.
For a while, years before I adopted Bruiser, I tried to do this thing where I would look at myself in the mirror and say, “I love you.” It was the most absurd self-help-y weekday afternoon talkshow stitched pillow bullshit. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even do it with a silly voice. Growing up the way I grew up, with a lot of :gestures vaguely at a chart of trauma, abuse, and neglect:, I had a blackhole where most people have self esteem. Where many people have some notion of unconditional love or whatever the kids are calling it these days, I didn’t. The love I had came with warning labels. The love I had was Halloween candy with razor blades and needles.
And then I found Bruiser.
With his head floomped on my chest and his small heart thump-thumping next to me, I got to love something that not only wasn’t going to hurt me but loved me right back. I couldn’t be the husband or the friend I am today without that. I’d still be a skittish half-broken collection of traumas and deflections in a trench coat. Every day, I told Bruiser I loved him. Every day, I sang songs I made up about him while I cooked in the kitchen and he prowled underfoot for dropped treasure. Every day, I hugged him and he nestled beside me. I grew up with Bruiser. I became better. I accepted him and all of his quirks and he accepted me and made me think, “hey, maybe someone else might do that too.”
They should stop the world when your best friend dies. They should shut it all down. Not today, sunshine. Stay right fucking there, moon. Bruiser is gone and he deserves a better tribute than I can give him.
It’s so deeply weird not having a dog race to greet me when I come in the door, not having a pair of giant ears to pet within arm reach. He was — is– so much a part of my identity. My writing bio always lists some version of “little dog owner” or “little dog wrangler.” My wife and I have a second dog but it was Bruiser that made me a dog person. My first big short story sale is about a man and his dog after the world has ended. The main character has this long list of nicknames and terms of endearment. That dog is very much Bruiser. I cannot imagine how I write or live without him. I know that I will but the physics of it, the fumble-y wobble-y uncertainty of every day without my best friend, is unfathomable still.
We knew for weeks that we were going to lose Bruiser. He got sick in a hurry– cancer, it turns out– but for a couple of months we knew. By the end he couldn’t stand long. He couldn’t see or hear. He couldn’t eat. He was in pain and we knew. I thought when he was gone I would let out this great earthquake cry. I thought all my bones would break and I would fall. He was sedated in my arms when he went and all I could manage was crying and saying, “oh buddy, oh. Oh, oh, buddy.”
I wish I could write the most Epic Dog Tribute. I wish I could invite you into all of my Bruiser memories and give you a glimpse of how special and amazing he was. I wish I could shave off just a fraction of my affection and share it. I wish I could shave off just a fraction of this hurt. All I can do is express how much I loved him though and even then, I don’t think I can do that well enough. Not yet.
After Bruiser was still in my arms and I set him down one last time, I cried until my body ached from it. Muscles I didn’t know I had were sore for days.
I ought to be doing a hundred things but instead I’m missing him and that’s okay.
What I remember about Sarah, the dog that died when I was six, is my older brother’s tears. He ran away from the rest of us and wailed and my mom explained to me, because I was old enough to understand death, that my brother had never properly grieved our father. I understood even then that what we feel for our pets is about them and about more than them. I learned unconditional love from Bruiser and now he’s teaching me unconditional grief.
I loved Bruiser and he loved me. I accepted him and he accepted me. Our family grew but at the beginning, it was just the two of us. I told my now-wife on one of our first dates, “we’re a package deal.” You can’t have me without Bruiser. I will write so much more about him. I will cry so much more— so much more— for him. But for now, with my salty cheeks and aching guts, this is what I have.