Dear Diego

The story of my recently deceased dog

We named our dog after Diego Rivera.

When I was a baby, my parents had a dog named Winnie. She was sweet, but when I started to crawl, she became defensive against the new four-legged creature roaming the house, and she started to snap her jaw when I came near. My parents then found her a new home with family friends, and she lived a happy life.

Once I could walk on two legs, getting a new dog seemed to be always on the table. I think my parents waited until I was old enough to promise to help with taking care of the animal. (I would be the one who filled the bowl with food every morning). So when I was five years old, we went to an adoption fair at the local Petco and happened to find a medium-sized, medium-toned brown puppy with pointed ears and purple spots on his tongue.

One of the staff members at the adoption fair explained his story to us: He’d been at the pound, only days from being put down, when she had rescued him, and he’d been with her ever since. She guessed he was around a year old, and he’d already been adequately trained on where to use the bathroom and how to sit. And when we played with him for the first time, he was immediately lovable.

At the time, he had a different name, but it made my parents uncomfortable because it was too close to the name “Cujo,” who was an evil, possibly possessed dog from a 1983 movie. Looking back, the name “Diego” came to us oddly. When I was born, my father remarked that I looked like Frida Kahlo, and, although it is not on my birth certificate, I have been nicknamed Frida or Katie Frida by a number of my childhood friends and their families. “Diego” came about in connection to this, after Frida’s husband Diego Rivera. (Don’t ask me why we thought it wasn’t weird to name our dog after my nick-namesake’s husband.)

But it stuck. And from then on he was my best friend. I’m an only child, and when my parents were working or busy and couldn’t play with me, he was always there. I took to calling him a dingo (he looked very much like these native Australian dogs), but we later tried to determine his actual breed. We never officially discovered his origins, but we came to say that he was a mix between an Australian cattle dog (so the dingo idea wasn’t completely off) and a Chow Chow (which explained his curly tail and partially purple tongue).

After less than a year of living with Diego, my father got a new job. We’d been living in northern California, in a small city called Walnut Creek near the Bay Area, but the job required us to move to Los Angeles. I was only five years old when my parents decided we would be moving, but I had already started kindergarten and had very close friends that I didn’t want to leave. I still remember it as a really hard time in my life.

Diego made the whole process a lot easier. Although we had to keep him in the kennel until the house was ready, and so we lived without him for awhile, having him made the house feel settled but exciting, and I felt that I wasn’t alone in this new place, where I would be starting school in the middle of the year.

He used to run away a lot, but his goal was never to escape. Often we’d find him nearby, and it seemed as though he hadn’t been trying to leave us, but had instead wanted to explore and lost his way when trying to come back home. One time we found him enthusiastically running with a jogger, and another time he was running around the nearby park. He was always lucky, for in order to reach the places we found him, he would have had to cross a few streets and avoid cars. Somehow he just knew what he was doing: an adventurer at heart.

Squirrels were always his greatest enemies. They tormented him at our new home, which had five large trees in the backyard that the squirrels could easily scamper up when he rushed out to chase them. Other times he had encounters with opossums or neighborhood cats. He didn’t really even like other dogs (except for a family friend’s female Chow Chow whom we came to call his girlfriend).

Until he was about 12, he seemed to be in a state of perpetual puppiness, never losing energy and running as he always had. His only health problems came from squirrel chasing injuries or ear infections that we later discovered resulted from a dairy allergy (we had to stop giving him cheese, one of his favorite foods). As he got older, the consequences of his immense energy caught up to him. He developed arthritis in his back legs and had trouble running, walking, and eventually standing up. You could still see the energy in his eyes, but his body just couldn’t keep up.

On a Sunday evening, a couple weeks ago, my dad suddenly texted me to ask if we could Facetime. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the look on my mom’s face. And then I just knew. I had really been hoping I’d get to see him one more time when I went home for winter break, but I also knew he was in his final days. His organs had started to fail, and my parents, now both working full time, hadn’t had much of a choice but to let him go.

I know it was best for him. And that he’s no longer in pain. I hadn’t seen him for the past two months anyway. But in my gut, when I think about going home, I can’t picture it the same anymore. He was part of why home was home. And I know I’ll be expecting him to come running to the door to greet me on December 20th. But he won’t. And I’m still working on coming to terms with that.