It wasn't her fault, of course, but Noodle, my family's glorious white standard poodle, died at a very inconvenient time, just when I needed her most.
Almost nine years before, just as I was moving out to attend college, Noodle had moved into our house. She was a comforting presence, not only for her fluffy white fur, but because of her oddly human facial expressions. My favorite was one of slight bemusement that told me, "calm down already." In 2003, at almost age 30, I went home for a long visit, looking forward to the comfort of Noodle's steady gait on walks to the park, just like the ones we had when she was a puppy and overly concerned with herding the neighborhood squirrels into submission.
When I say "long visit," what I really mean is "utter crisis," because my husband's Army Reserve unit had been called up for what ended up being a 14-month deployment to Kuwait and Iraq. I was trying to get used to a new world of hand-written letters and constant worry. Even though I was an adult, and proud of it, our house near Boston was agonizingly empty without Rob—the absence of his shoes by the door and the disappearance of his calls saying when he'd be home for dinner were getting too heavy. So I fled to my parents' house in Maryland—a place of steadiness and comfort, a place that was still a genuine "home" to me.
I'm sure I knew, somewhere, deep down, that I could get through the time apart. Still, I desperately looked forward to recuperating while surrounded by family, old friends, and Noodle.
But things didn't go as planned, and a turn of events sparked many quips of, "Well, bad things come in threes." Soon after Rob left, my grandmother fell and injured her pelvis, so my mother traveled down to Florida to help with her recovery. Then, while Mom was gone, the magnificent Noodle, only eight years old, suddenly lay down and wouldn't get up. A frantic trip to the vet's, an emergency surgery, and a very sad phone call later, Noodle had died from a ruptured spleen. The walks to the park and games of catch-the-stuffed-hedgehog that I'd looked forward to would not happen. She would no longer be able to comfort me.
At that moment, I wanted a lot of things that I couldn't have. I couldn't have my husband with me. I couldn't have my grandmother walk without pain. I couldn't have Noodle back. Maybe I couldn't even come home again. The Rolling Stones song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" started to echo in my mind, and I reeled with the clichéd pain and frustration of it all.
We ask so much of dogs. We want them to adapt their bathroom schedules to our sleep needs. We want them to be in a playful mood when we feel like running around and laughing, and we want them to live as long as we do, staying consistently energetic and ebullient even as we get older. That's a lot of pressure for a sweet little animal, a high standard, even for a standard poodle.
All the same, in the tragedy of Noodle's death was the final gift of a dog who tried her best to meet all of my needs. On that terrible day I realized that, in the end, home is an awfully big place that includes living beings as much as physical structures. On that day, for me, home stretched all the way to the Middle East, up to Boston, down to Maryland, and up again to heaven, where dogs and dreams live on.