Dean Poling: Speaking to the dog that's no longer here

·3 min read

Sep. 3—I don't say Nina's name as much any more.

Often, when I'm about to say her name, I catch myself.

Most of the time.

But sometimes, still, as I'm walking out the door, or walking into the house, or just because, I'll say her name. Spoken. Nina said into the air. Only to recall she is no longer here.

It's been nearly a year since our dog died and sometimes I forget.

Just for a second. Just long enough to say her name. Call it reflex. Call it muscle memory. It's not denial. I know she's gone. I know it all too well. From the empty spot where she used to sleep to the place in the yard where there's still a dirt patch instead of grass.

Early, I would forget more often. Knew she was gone then, too, but the habit, the ritual, of saying her name was still too ingrained. I never realized or thought about how often I said her name until she was gone and Nina was spoken to empty space.

Food on the floor happened less than a handful of times. Another action, another reflex, done without thinking, out of habit more than anything else. The tossing of a potato chip or another bit of food from my plate onto the floor for Nina.

A chip or tug of sandwich on the floor for a dead dog is a sad sight. One that will get you funny looks from family members, too. That habit was quickly broken.

As were other habits.

The bedding, food bowls, toys and other items were put away within a day or so of her passing. Her food and treats given to other people with dogs.

Little reprimands are gone, telling the dog to stop barking, or jumping up at things, the small things that we try curbing our dogs from doing. I don't find myself suddenly saying Nina's name in a correcting tone. At least not at my home. I have accidentally called relatives' dogs by Nina's name when they are barking or jumping. Another old habit, another old reflex.

In life, Nina often tested my patience.

She'd find or create gaps in the backyard fence. She'd slip under them then run around the neighborhood.

She once dug about three dozen holes in the backyard in a two-day period.

When she was young, if you didn't clear the dishes from the dinner table fast enough, she would jump onto the table to eat from and lick every dish she could taste.

In some of our old family recordings, when the boys were younger and little, I can be heard in the background telling Nina to stop barking or Nina, get down.

As Nina got older, and the boys grew up and moved away, then working from home during the pandemic, the dog and I called a truce. I read newspaper stories out loud to her before filing them. In response, she'd either look up at me wagging her tail in approval or bark in disapproval. Much better than Facebook critiques.

Those barks are quiet now. I write this in the empty hours of an early morning with Nina outside in a hole my youngest son and I dug in the backyard.

Still, knowing all of this, I may rise and speak her name as if she's still here. Not now, not while I'm thinking specifically about her.

But sometime soon, later today, or tomorrow, or next week, or next month, before I can catch myself, before I remember that which I already know, I will likely call out her name again.

Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times and editor of The Tifton Gazette.