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Michael Fitzpatrick '12: The dog days of summer

For those Brown students who are not native Rhode Islanders, even a short trip home during the school year is a major affair. My three-day visit this past weekend was no different, as I interrupted a rather taxing internship in New Mexico to take care of some business as home. Our family pet, a grizzled old Labrador retriever, had fallen ill and seemed unlikely to survive until my return in mid-August. For 12 years out of 20 I have known this dog, so to say that I love him like a brother is no exaggeration. Although I have been half-expecting him to shuffle off the mortal coil for over a year, I simply could not pass up the chance to say goodbye in person.

As hundreds of rising freshmen are presently discovering, the summer that separates high school from college is partly spent enjoying the company of one's family before diving headfirst into the waters of higher education. By the time freshman orientation rolls around, most (if not all) will be saying goodbye to parents, grandparents, siblings and their pets.

Compared to farewells to human relatives, a farewell to a cherished childhood companion can be strange and awkward. Pets, especially those one has known for many years, seem almost as deserving of a goodbye hug as a younger sibling. Yet the concept of a farewell is simply beyond them, and it almost seems selfish to shower them with an expression of endearment (more for our own comfort than for their sake) when they cannot understand the context in which it is given. They cannot promise to call or write, wish us well or ask when we will be coming back. They can only sit and smile obliviously as one promises to return home soon.

While some species (e.g. fish) will never notice an owner's absence, many others do become aware of this, sometimes only shortly after the fact. Two months into my freshman year, my mother told me (much to my surprise) that my dog would often scramble upstairs during late-night thunderstorms. He would peek inside my room, thinking I might be sleeping there, and then wander into my brother's room down the hall when he found my room vacant. In time, he learned to skip my room altogether.

Sadly, his days of seeking sanctuary from the thunder were numbered. While I was enjoying my first taste of college life, he was slowly resigning himself to old age. Joints once young and flexible became stiff, and the fur around his face turned white. By the time I returned for my first winter break, he could no longer climb the stairs.

If saying goodbye to a young or middle-aged pet is strange or awkward, parting with an elderly pet is even more difficult. Although one hopes that he or she will remain in good hands and good health, one has a persistent worry that one's pet is living on borrowed time. Each semester begins with a hope and a wish that the pet, like a grandparent or elderly friend, will survive four short months apart. Yet unlike grandparents, who can call, send letters, or email and Skype (if they're tech-savvy), a dog or cat can only wait patiently, receiving one's love and care by proxy.

Even if he or she is fortunate enough to endure one more semester, an elderly pet that one returns home to visit is never the same pet that one left behind. The processes of aging that are normally too gradual to notice, from graying fur to stiffening joints and hearing loss, seem to strike suddenly as each passing visit grows briefer and further apart from the last. The dog I left at home at the start of my second semester at Brown could no longer climb stairs, but the one that I returned to in May could barely walk around the block. Now, one year later, I am still shocked to find that my dog is nearly deaf and sleeps more hours of the day than those he spends awake.

Of the masses of eager young freshmen, I would make only one request: while your final days of summer will be filled with shopping, travel, packing and merry-making with friends and family alike, don't neglect to spend quality time with your pets; the chance may not come again.

Michael Fitzpatrick '12 has added "Marley and Me" to his summer reading list. He can be contacted at michael_fitzpatrick (at) brown.edu




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