I am such a dumbass. I am sitting here on an airplane, a long flight to Washington, DC, and I decided to watch the in-flight movie, which was Marley and Me. I had read the book and enjoyed it, but had resisted seeing the film in the theater. Why? Because I am a big baby and I knew that I would end up crying. I cannot take any sad animal tales, and of course (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE LIVING UNDER A CULTURAL ROCK) the dog dies at the end of the movie. Oh yes, you get the whole full-on lifecycle deal, from seeing Marley as an adorable yellow lab pup to white-furred frailty. So, I did end up with stupid tears flurping out of my eyes, staring at the screen mounted on the ceiling of the plane, people walking past me to the bathroom probably going, “Ha ha, you big woman baby, look at you.” There was no trying to even be sort of surreptitious – the tears were too many and came too fast. I was wiping them away like every ONE SECOND. Thank you, United Airlines, for MAKING YOUR PASSENGER WEEP. Dammit. I bet my mascara is now in total fail mode, which will give me that adorable zombie look. Ah, well. I caint hep it.

Maybe I was a little more sensitive than usual today to a visual of aging and death, as it is indeed once again my birthday. I am not at all unhappy about my birthday, or turning 40-cough, though. All those years, whatever they turned out to be, they all really did add and make and build something more of me. I can feel it. It’s just something you know. It’s like each one of them shores up the foundation a bit more, completes a puzzle, makes you feel a little bit more every year that you know some shit about shit. When I was younger, I knew I didn’t know shit all, and now I am like 2/3rds full of shit. It’s very satisfying. It’s also rather a chuff-moment to know, with no question, that I look better today, as a 40-hah? than I did ten years ago as a late-30s Immersion Mother. That’s a sweet trick to pull off. Alright for me! If I can say that in another ten years, I promise you I will start a cult or at least attempt to sell some sort of useless facial cream on an infomercial. Don’t hold your breath or anything, though.

But getting back to the movie, and tying it in with birthdays and dogs, because this is what we are supposed to do in essays is try to make some kind of flowing sense, it occurred to me which birthday was my very favorite. It was not one of mine. It was not my kids’ birth days, because that shit is really f-ing painful and messy, and even though it was super super super cool that they were all gorgeous and healthy, well GODDAMN that hurt. It was not Ray Davies 36th birthday, where Dena and I gave him 36 separate ridiculous gifts from Woolworth’s dollar-or-less bins in Philadelphia. It is not Jeebus’s birthday, even though December 25th has always benefited me pretty strongly in the present department as well. No, none of those, really, although I have enjoyed many great celebrations of birth.

The birthday that meant the most to me, that I appreciated with all my heart, was my dog Hannah’s 10th. She was the first dog I had owned on my own as an adult, a beautiful Leonberger, with a reddish-black mass of fur, a smooth black mask, and lovely brown eyes. She was a big dog, 125 pounds, strong as an ox but utterly reliable and gentle and funny and remarkably attuned to peoples’ feelings. She had a wonderful zest for life, like Marley did, without any of the destruction or willfulness, other than some mild overexcitable behaviors at the front door. She was a real gem of a dog, and I knew from the day she flew from California to come live with us at 12 weeks of age, that we were very lucky to have her.

She had a pretty good life, I think. She had a family who loved her, as we grew from one excited three-year-old boy peering in her crate at the airport, to another baby boy who loved to smile at her antics, to finally a baby girl who thought giant fuzzy dogs were just the norm. She got to go on walks around the neighborhood, go on vacations to the mountains to explore rocks and smell fascinating smells, long car trips back to Wisconsin to visit her extended human family, and even went to quite a few gatherings of other Leonbergers, where she got to see her mom and dad and brothers and sisters again. She was given the best food, the best care, was trained well, and just cared for. She deserved every bit of everything we could give her.

But. What we knew was going to come, came, just far too soon. It was always going to be too soon, but these big dogs, well. At age nine, she was the last alive of her siblings. Two weeks after we moved to Washington, she began to limp. After a month of misdiagnoses, the real one came. Bone cancer, which is a sure death sentence; dogs with osteosarcoma rarely last more than a few months. The cancer invariably travels to the lungs, despite all treatment. It was very hard to hear, harder to know what to do. Her pain rapidly began to get very serious – not even morphine was cutting it. Two choices, which had to be made immediately: put her down, or amputate the bad left leg at the hip.

How do you know what to do, what is right? How do you ever know? The vet was kind, and was also willing to give his opinion on he would do if it were his dog – the surgery – but totally understanding and upfront about the serious financial costs and the fact that we would not be buying her cure, only some time.

I didn’t want her to suffer. I wanted her pain to end. I sat next to her as she lay on the floor panting in agony, and I tried to get the answer from her. I tried as hard as I could, somehow, to hear her, as she seemed to always hear me. Was it time?

We chose the surgery.

Having a dog come home missing a leg is a very traumatic thing, far more for us than it seemed to be for her. After a few falls on the new wooden floors, she adjusted and was actually running outside the day she came home. Her pain was gone, and she seemed like her old happy self again, glad to be here, sniffing the air and eyeing up birds and chewing on the biggest yummiest bones we could find. She had many more days of dog happiness, most of which was really just being with her family.

The time came, though, when everything we did to extend her life, make her more comfortable, no longer worked. The cancer progressed, and she did not seem as jolly anymore, and spent most of her day sleeping or quietly relaxing outside. I wanted so badly for her to make it to her birthday, in just days. Of course, she knew nothing of it. It was a marker for me, to have that number – 10 – to say she got there, that she made it to that number, double digits. I wished for her to have one more special day.

I ordered her a dog cake from the local dog bakery, with “Happy 10th Birthday, Hannah” written on it in dog icing, like she could read it. As I paid for the cake, I talked with pride about my strong, sweet girl, and the girl behind the counter teared up, and filled a bag full of lovely dog cookies. “Here,” she said as she handed it to me, “No charge.” I thanked her, touched at the kindness, and walked out with the cake and cookies.

We had a party for her. The owners of her sister Heike lived close by, and wanted to come celebrate. Heike had died of cancer two years before, and they still had trouble talking about it. But the day was happy. We had a nice dinner, Hannah schnarfed down her cookies and cake, and loved all the extra patting hands and smiling faces. It felt good, and I know it felt good to her.

Two weeks later, she was gone. There was no further doubt in the decision. She was struggling and no longer seemed happy or comfortable. I held it together OK until I walked into the room where she would die, and saw that the vet had spread out a pretty green-and-white comforter on the floor for her to lie on. I wailed, and fell to my knees in complete grief, brokenhearted. She was my girl.

In June, it will be four years since she has been gone. I think about her often, wish she knew our new dog Ellie, a Newfoundland mix, because they would have been great pals. I think about how she used to try to comfort me when I cried by putting her head against mine and standing so still. I think about her jumping up on the bed like a runaway train. I think how she loved to play hide-and-seek. And I think about her birthday, that last one, that good day, good even despite being in the shadow of what was to come, and it makes me smile.

Damn movie.