I grew up in a cat house. Not in the 'House of the Rising Sun' sense, but rather a more concrete and furry phenomenon: a house with nine cats. Cats were everywhere, on every sofa and every chair, swarming the house and surrounding evirons with thier purry furriness, their living being.
And for the longest time, I identified as a cat person. Cats are soft and slinky, they insinuate themselves into laps and armcrooks and the extended waning afternoon of a good book. Cats give the sort of affection I'm comfortable with: slightly standoffish, but unabashed and complete, in its own peculiar way.
When I was ten or so, we added a dog to the mix -- Francois Couperin (Le Grand), a large and clumsy aging labrador who added a new dimension to my experience of pet ownership: companionship. Here was an animal who did things with me, rather than around me, whose experience of the world took place alongside my own, rather than in some nearby and sympathetic but ultimately unrelated plane. And another dog followed, this time a puppy that I got to pick, who alone of all his squirmy siblings crawled into my lap and fell asleep. His name was Merlin.
We got Merlin when I was 14, and as awkward and miserable as any teenage girl in suburbia. And he was a perfect companion, equally happy walking aimlessly for hours or sitting patiently while I sobbed into his fur. And when I fled periodically home from college, after hours of intermittent sleeping and crying on the train between Annapolis and Boston, Merlin was my comfort, patient and silent and perfectly, exactly what I needed.
But of course I did grow up eventually, and there was a wider world of needs than home and dog could provide. And Dog love is such a visceral, present thing, it doesn't lend itself well to long distance. It doesn't seem like its enough to stand outside on Chistmas morning with the dog you only see twice a year, to sink your fingers into the fur that gathers around his collar and hell him how much he means to you. But that's all I could do, and that's what I did.
When Merlin died this morning, he was already incredibly old for a dog his size. My mother tells me she was starting to wonder if maybe he was the only thing on earth that never would die, that would just keep going. But of course he couldn't. Nothing does.