Nemo is not named after a fish, contrary to what you may have guessed. I was the one who chose his name – although it was put to a popular vote amongst the family – and he is named after Captain Nemo of the Blue Nautilus, from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My family loves sailing and we wanted a sea-faring dog to come out on the lake with us, so we needed a dog with a sea-faring name. We brought Nemo into our family when I was eight.
Nemo and I were fast friends, but we weren’t always best friends; he will likely be the only friend I ever have who eats and reproduces – undigested in full – my favorite pair of ballet tights or who claws me for attention. Nemo has miraculously noshed an unreasonable number of my possessions and has jumped off our pier and landed on my head as I was swimming one too many times. But he also has been a loyal hiking companion, a dependable friend to share half of every apple I eat with, and an unrivaled provider of affection.
Nemo is in renal failure.
This weekend, pup and I were alone while my parents adventured with extended family in Canada, and while I’ve always relished time in solitude, it was one of the hardest weekends I can remember. Nemo is still quite healthy, and with medication and dietary alterations he may even live another two years or so, but Nemo, like all things eventually are, is noticeably dying.
We are all always dying, although we seldom think of it that way. By its very nature, aging is the process of dying: our telomeres shorten, our bodies lose their abilities to produce new cells to replace the dying ones, and eventually our bones and blood become a site for decay. Growing, much like disintegrating, is just a part of dying. Everything grows and everything dies. So is life.
But that doesn’t make it easier. Nemo will not be the first thing that I’ve loved that I’ll lose: my first dog died of cancer when I was seven and one of my dearest childhood friends died of leukemia when I was nine, but Nemo will be the first thing I love that I’ve ever really experienced dying.
The situation is perhaps not as morbid as I make it sound, however the truth is that it also may be. Nemo has lost eighty percent of the cells in his kidney and no longer has the ability to remove toxins from his body the way he’s supposed to. However, he still has an almost insatiable appetite (for all things dead, tights, and soap among other alleged inedibles), and still demands breakfast at four in the morning, followed by a rousing bout of morning “frizzle-bee” throwing. He still tries his very hardest to rip my arm from its socket when we go on walks. He can still go on walks in the first place.
But there are also a lot of things he can no longer do. Nemo can no longer go on long hikes, my very favorite pup-accompanied pastime, and he can no longer traverse the granite stairs of our house without the lights on, or he slips and falls on the hard surfaces. He is slow to jump in and out of the car, he is seemingly rid of his extended case of puppy moments, and today he turned down an offer to share an apple for the first time ever. I even offered him the pieces with less skin.
Nemo may have lots of life ahead of him, but as he begins to demonstrate the signs of a dog keener to nap time than play time, I am confronting for the first time in my life the process of losing rather than just loss.
Losing is indescribable. It is the palpable sadness of looking out at what’s in front of you and remembering how very little agency over it you have. Losing, like aging, is a slow and steady progression filled with fear and paranoia: yesterday I was borderline neurotic because Nemo was sniffing a lot. Someone actually had to remind me that sniffing is not, in fact, a symptom of kidney failure – it is what dogs do when they smell things. Losing is a rearticulation of everything around you that has not changed at all, but your relationship to it has changed entirely. Loss comes with a sense of definition, but losing has none to offer because losing is no different than anything else. We are always losing the things we love, little by little.
This weekend I’ve been losing Nemo. I lose him every time he wakes me up at one in the morning and then again at four because he has to pee in the middle of the night. I lose him when I wake up excited to go on a long day hike and remember Nemo can no longer handle such adventures. I lose him when I slip a pill into his dinner and when I can no longer share my nightly pre-dinner cheese and crackers with him. But I lose him in the normalcy too: every game of Frisbee we play will be closer to the last one and every time he nudges me because he wants more food will be closer to the last time I feed him. This may be the last summer I come home to my pup. But that has always been true – what is most treacherous is not the new things that have come with the potential of loss, but the recognition that I have been losing him this whole time. I’m always losing everything.
I know Nemo is just a dog, but to me he is also a friend and the embodiment of something more than just basic sentience with a tail. Nemo is the first thing I’ve ever really taken care of and one of the things I love most in the world. He’s made me clean up after him an intolerable number of times when he peed in the house because he was excited, or when he does it now because his kidney is failing, but he’s also the companion who laid with an out-stretched paw on my arm when I was depressed and could not get out of bed for months. Whether Nemo can feel towards me what I feel towards him could matter less because I love him unrelentingly, and I am not just in the process of losing a pup, I’m in the process of losing one of my first loves.
But as I write this now, I am only typing with one hand because Nemo is demanding the other one for an apparently never-ending back scratch, and he cries and head-butts my leg when I try to reclaim my hand. Nemo, while disappearing from me, is also still constantly giving. He gives me joy, and laughter, and a still ever-present sense of companionship. Even when Nemo is gone and my socks can live unthreatened by his monstrous appetite for cotton, he will bring me happiness.
Life is a constant battle of losing, but it is also one of gaining, of accumulating, of passing through, and holding on. I will lose many things I love in my life, but I will not lose my ability to hold onto them. Long after Nemo is gone I will remember the time he absconded from his hunt of our kitchen countertops with an entire pork tenderloin in his possession, and I will recall the feeling of his paw on my arm. Nemo is teaching me, sadly but sweetly, that just as growing is not so very different from dying, losing is not so different from gaining, and that holding on need not be bitter or anxiety-provoking for it is just a part of living and dying.
Nemo is my pup. He is my selfie partner, my walking garbage-disposal, and forever one of my first loves. He will not be my only pup, he will not be the only object of my attachments, and he will not be the only thing I lose. But Nemo, and losing Nemo, will always be the thing that first taught me how to experience loss not as an endpoint, but a midpoint, an uncontrollable and undeniable movement in our progression. I will eventually lose Nemo, but I will not lose my love for him. Living comes with dying, but it also comes with holding onto what we perhaps feel we may have lost. Clutching to what you love may be painful, but it need not be destructive. Loss is hard and losing is earth-shattering, and I know I will hurt immensely with every loss I experience.
But to Nemo, and to the knowledge that life will advance out of my control while all I can do is find pleasure in its motions, I will always hold on. You cannot lose something you do not relinquish from your grasp. I will lose Nemo and we will all lose much, but I will retain the happiness and love that is put into my hands as I live, and I will hold onto it tightly.
I know you’re a dog, Nemo, and I know you can’t read, but I love you, pup. I promise I’ll be holding onto you. Always.
"I am nothing to you but Captain Nemo; and you and your companions are nothing to me but the passengers of the Nautilus.”