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When a dog is not just part of the family, but part of the house

She wasn’t supposed to get sick. Again.

Winnie, our beloved family puggle, could always be found sleeping in one of several places around the house: on the back of a couch, in her bed, or in my parents’ bed. She had become an extension of the furniture, an animate cushion. I’d often lie on the couch where she’d settle into a position just above my eye level, then I’d gaze up at her while she snored and tickle her paws until she got annoyed and withdrew them.

Winnie’s name wasn’t actually Winnie; my brother gifted her as a puppy to his then-girlfriend, now-wife, a little over a decade ago. They named her Princess. Princess became Prin, and Prin became Win, and my parents started calling her Winnie when it was decided that the dog was going to live exclusively with them. With one half of the couple in law school, and both with variable schedules, my parents became her caretakers and she became a fixture in their home. A loud, huggable fixture. An impermanent fixture.

She was extremely bright and learned early on where her treats were kept. She became accustomed to receiving one after her dinner and would scratch on the pantry door three times to signal her readiness to accept it. It didn’t take long for this behavior to transcend the quotidian evening notification and occur whenever Winnie felt like eating (often).

Like a catfish trawling the bottom of the riverbed for food, Winnie snatched any morsel that fell on the floor. She stood on her hind legs to attempt to swipe bites off of the counter. She licked the edible remnants left on plates. Loose candy needed to be kept in lidded jars after an unfortunate incident involving peanut butter cups. She had a predilection for white cheddar Cheetos, Greek yogurt, and turkey bacon. We’d been forced into the habit of bending down to rescue bits of our dropped food immediately lest she be mistaken into thinking that they were for her. Winnie made sure to position herself near my grandmother during gatherings to receive a steady stream of forbidden foods.

The dark wood blinds were left open to “let her look out” at the variety of animals that passed through the yard: deer, raccoons, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, and wild turkeys. She barked at all of them, protecting her homestead with a loud yet nonthreatening pitch that they took no notice of through the windowpane. My father bestowed upon her the title “Head of Security”—awarded for effort, not efficacy.

Preferring the company of people to other dogs, she was indifferent when confronted by another furry being. Rather snobbishly, she’d raise her head as far as her neck would allow to avoid contact with the creature, with eyes that suggested she’d like the visit to be over sooner rather than later. My father often remarked on her idiosyncrasies—how he’d never had a dog with such a “personality.”

She became for my parents much more than a family pet. She was their first grandchild—they referred to themselves as “Grammy” and “Grampy” in her presence. I became “Aunt Lauren,” and birthday cards were signed with her name included. Winnie’s sensitivity to heat prompted my dad to install central air conditioning. In the winters, the back deck received the first bit of shoveling whenever snow fell so that she had a clear path to the ground. They watched television in near darkness because she preferred dim lighting. They strove to put her needs before their own, apologizing profusely if they happened to arrive home later than her regular dinner hour or if they failed to rise to her first tap on the back door to be let outside.

Which is why her passing has been felt so deeply by my family. She wasn’t supposed to get sick. Again. And she definitely wasn’t supposed to be gone. Forever.

Nearing Valentine’s Day three years ago, she fell ill with a fairly horrific type of autoimmune blood disorder allegedly common in small dog breeds. As her leukocytes fought her erythrocytes, she became unbalanced, swaying as if drunk or without her sea legs. She was lethargic, pale, and most worryingly, not eating—something a healthy Winnie would never not do.

She was subjected to a series of blood transfusions at the veterinary hospital to bolster her cell counts, each time with the hope that this was the round to keep the levels high enough so that she could come home. It wasn’t until the veterinarian suggested a radical procedure involving human antibodies that she was well enough to leave—her pudgy, furry body able to function again without aid. Only nine years into our relationship, we all were not ready to imagine our lives without Winnie.

She was like a puppy again, until she wasn’t. The playfulness, the sass, and the sweetness disappeared as it had previously when the tell-tale symptoms appeared a couple of weeks before the holidays late last year. At the same veterinary hospital, she received the same treatments, the same procedures as before, but she never got better. We were forced into an abrupt goodbye after a blood clot lodged in her lung during yet another transfusion. We were so lucky, until we weren’t.

With her gone, the house is different. Less familiar and more austere, silence greets you when you enter the house these days. There is no friendly howl when you open the door after being gone all day, no worried face to gaze longingly toward as you pull out of the driveway. Her scent is steadily leaving the patches of couch fabric where she spent her afternoons napping. There are fewer prickly pieces of loose fur to stick to your clothes. Bits of food stay where you drop them—there is no urgency now to remove them.

Her food and water bowls have been put away, with her kibble and toys given to other canines in our family. My mother has been unable to get rid of Winnie’s bed; it still sits on a bench in front of her favorite window in the living room cradling the tin that houses her ashes. Sometimes I can still imagine her sleeping there, curled up like a fawn in the warm glow of the sun.

Lauren Palmer is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She enjoys critical discourse about art, design, literature, cinema, and culture.