The creature’s personality was big enough for thirty nicknames. He started as Dexter, but over the years, permutations of the name rolled off our lips. Even our guests tried new ones: Decker, The Dex-man, and Dexy, to name a few. And Robin’s daughter Ava thought his name was connected with his habits. She called him Lickster.

In 1996, Husband and I did everything I wouldn’t approve of now. We bought Dexter from a pet store in a mall, we smuggled him into our apartment in married housing at UND where he was an illegal resident for eight months until the Flood of ’97 forced our evacuation, and we fed him people food from the get-go. 

Although he was only ten pounds, he was larger than life. He came before the girls did and acted as their guardian, mashing his hot-dog form next to their swaddled selves on the couch when they were freshly home from the hospital. He was my companion when I nursed them.

But for all his love and commitment to the family, he was too spoiled to be enjoyable at dinner time. His yipping under the table annoyed me so much I would toss down a scrap to get a minute of quiet. I knew exactly what I was doing—that it was counterproductive—but I figured my mistakes with him would be balanced by my consistency as a mother to my girls. And we’d endure the spoiled dog situation only so long; Dexter wouldn’t live forever.

Our miniature dachshund was raised in captivity, the girls later said, and that’s why he was dying to escape our yard for adventures beyond. He just didn’t know how good he had it on the inside. His naughty bolting through the gate sent me chasing after him—often with a baby on my hip—searching neighbors’ yards and bushes, my irritation and fears mounting.

Glenda liked him and kept him while we were away on trips. Her cats didn’t appreciate his exuberance, but he didn’t mind their opinions—or eating their cat food. And he sure liked Glenda.

Dexter started as my baby. But as dog years go, he quickly surpassed me in age. We watched the accelerated ravages of time on his little body. We knew from the start miniature dachshunds could live to be fourteen to seventeen years old, but it doesn’t sink in when you hear that pronouncement from a pet store employee. You only hear the cuteness of the tiny puppy nestled in your arms.

Dexter had kidney issues at the age of eleven, but some meds and better food helped. He greyed around the muzzle, walked more stiffly, and his body took the shape of an eggplant, his once manly chest appearing to have slipped down to his lower belly. We added Old Man Wiener to our list of nicknames.

By the time he was fourteen years old, I started having to get up with him several times each night. Husband made the decision, saying it was time. But I bought doggie diapers when Dexter couldn’t hold it anymore. Husband shook his head, but let me keep on.

“Am I really this person?” I said after two months of doggie diaper changes.

“Apparently so,” Husband said.

“I know he’s just a dog. I always said we’d say goodbye to him if it came to this.”

“But here he is still.”

Dexter didn’t seem to be in pain, but on December 19, 2010, something changed. He stopped eating for two days. A day later, disoriented, he tumbled down the stairs to the basement. He sat at the bottom, looking up at me with rheumy eyes. Horrified, I ran down and carried him up again. He swayed and tipped over when he was outside. He vomited blood into the freshly fallen snow.

I called our vet, explaining it had to end today. No, there was no one at the office to do it, they told me. I called a mobile vet service who came to people’s homes. No, they were completely booked. I made a third call, this time to the vet at the end of our street. Yes, they could help us. They scheduled the fifteen minute appointment. We sat on the couch together as a family, cradling Dexter in old blankets. We all said goodbye.

As a family, we drove the four blocks to the vet’s office for Dexter’s 10:15 appointment. The girls and I sat in the car while Husband carried our friend inside, still wrapped in blankets. I watched the minutes tick by on the car’s clock. The girls cried in the back seat. Twenty minutes later, Husband emerged, red-eyed. He climbed into the car, handing me the empty blankets and collar.

But it was December 22, and we had cookies to make. We cried our way through the Sand Bakkels and raspberry thumbprint cookies, Christmas music our backdrop. We sobbed through the chocolate cookies, the Haystacks, the O Henry bars, the dipped pretzels. We talked about our furry friend and how committed he had been to us, how frustrating at times, and about the knowing look in his eyes when we told him today was his last day.

We plated up the fresh cookies, slipped the plates into Ziplocks, and pressed a label onto each for our neighbors—Dallas, Glenda, Bruno, Mr. N, and more. As an afterthought, I reopened the bags and slid our family Christmas card under each plate. We dried our eyes, bundled up, and set out to deliver some Christmas cheer.

We made our usual stops, and when we got to Glenda’s, we told her about Dexter and shared a cry over her plate of goodies. Then we moved on to the next house. But Mr. N wasn’t home. We left the cookies on his front step.

Hours later, I heard a knock on the door. I glanced out the window. Mr. N. I remembered six years earlier—the last time he had come over.

“Hi,” I said, opening the door to him.

“You gave me your card,” he said. “Thank you very much.” He held it in his hands.

“You’re welcome.”

He rattled off our girls’ names, pointing to each of them in the family picture. I smiled and nodded.

“I’m sorry I haven’t put up Christmas lights on my house since you moved in. But tell your girls I’ll put them up next year. Just for them.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He walked back down my front steps, and I watched him cross the street to his house.

Though just a small thing to me, the Christmas card mattered. Names mattered. I thought being “neighborhood nice” with my smiles and cookies was enough. But it was only a surface affection, not a real showing of myself. I rethought my whole philosophy on that day in December. I would give of myself more, no matter how messy, painful, awkward, or inconvenient the response. It could change everything. But mostly, it would change me.

From then on, Mr. N called us by name. He hollered greetings to us when we were outside. And true to his word, he put up Christmas lights every year after that and we enjoyed them, knowing they were just for us.



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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.