Life lessons from my dad and my dog

How to live, to love, and to think about death

THANKSGIVING WEEK was a painful one for me.  In the course of four days, I lost my dog and my dad. A week that was supposed to be filled with food and family was filled with loss instead. But my dog Izzy and my dad Ken both taught me important life lessons, which came into clearer focus that week; lessons on how to live, how to love, and how to think about death.

Strangely enough, my dog and my dad shared a passion for food.  Izzy, whose final months were filled with orthopedic ailments, was unstable on her feet and would often fall into a starfish plant on our kitchen floor. But when there was food in the offing, she would suddenly lose 10 years off her life, and would come bounding into the kitchen wagging her tail like an energetic puppy. She truly lived for food.

So too my dad.  But his food was not the fancy type they serve at nice restaurants with good wine (he did not drink). His go-to comfort food was his beloved bagel.  His typical Sunday involved showing up at the bagel shop (and there were many) at 5:30 a.m., always the first in line, giving feedback on how to improve the bagels, and then pretty much buying out the store.

Here’s how bad it got.  One bagel shop in Marco Island, Florida, was so sick of hearing his ideas that they finally added one of his suggestions to their menu.  That bagel became so popular that they decided to name it after him.  The “Kenny-Bagel” was made with a glaze and cinnamon and sugar and was to die for.

Dad gave bagels to everyone he met – from his car mechanic to his dentist. It was his way of sharing his love with the world.

His love was always unconditional, just like Izzy. I tended to misplace things a lot as a kid — my wallet on a plane, car keys on a boat, ski pants in a bag left behind. My dad was always my safety net; my go-to for getting me out of a bind. It would have been well within his rights as a father to scold me or hold me accountable in order to teach me a lesson. But he never did. He would never judge or demean or make me feel shame.  He laughed it off, picked me up, and just kept modeling how to do better.

Izzy with a stray sticker that attached to her nose as she was
searching the floors for food. She was a Cava-poo; a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Poodle.

My mistakes didn’t matter to Izzy either. If I forgot to feed her or fill her water bowl, she would not bark in annoyance. She would begin with a soft and subtle murmur and give me those puppy dog eyes that said “I know you’re a good person Doug, but might you have forgotten something this morning?”

Until her infirmity became debilitating, every time Izzy saw me (and anyone else), she would do a wiggle dance filled with joy. Her standard routine was to follow that dance immediately by offering you the chance to rub her belly.  And she was not subtle. She would flip on her back, kick all four of her little legs into the air, and wait with excited anticipation as someone, anyone, started the rubbing.  When you did so, you helped her achieve nirvana.

One of the saddest things for me in losing my Dad is the raw and painful realization that my children did not get as good a father as I did.  It haunts me. It is not that I have been a bad father; I love my children more than anything and I have done a lot of things well. It is just that I have not been able to achieve my dad’s level of mastery in so frequently and automatically putting the needs of his children above his own. Call it selfishness or narcissism or – perhaps more charitably – distraction or the failure to be as present as I should, but something has often gotten in my way.

I suppose I could rationalize my parenting and say that it was designed to teach my children more accountability and discipline to make up for the lessons I didn’t learn. But that would be dishonest. My personal truth is that I have devoted so much of my energy to my career that I had too little left over for the other important things in life. And I did not fully appreciate the extent to which little things can bring dignity and honor and value to my children. My dad did.

But all is not lost. It is never too late to improve, and I will.  And fortunately, I married a woman who shares my dad’s attributes, so our children have turned out to be model citizens, despite my shortcomings. A little more him than me, I think.  Maybe these qualities skip a generation.

Some might find me insensitive in comparing the life of my dad to that of a dog.  They would not be pet owners.  There is something so deep and personal about our connections with our animals. It is universal and goes back thousands of years. There may be no better expression of this in all of literature than the moving scene in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus reconnects with his beloved dog Argos after being away for 20 years fighting the Trojan War in Troy (and trying to get home).

The title page to Chapter XVII of the Odyssey, with a roundel
of gold leaf, which took 7 separate impressions to make. Argos is included. This 1932 Bruce Rogers edition of the Odyssey has been described as “indisputably amongst the most beautiful books ever produced.”

Everyone thinks Odysseus has died in the war and he has to disguise himself as an old man when he returns home so the many “pretenders” who are trying to woo his wife do not recognize him and kill him.  It is such a compelling moment because when he sees Argos, Odysseus cannot properly acknowledge or even touch him or he would blow his cover to his guide Eumaios. Argos, of course, is the only one in the city who recognizes Odysseus, and his response at the end of the scene makes me well up every time I read it.  Here are relevant excerpts from that scene:

As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any enjoyment from him …  As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaios seeing it, and said: ‘Eumaios, what a noble hound is that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks?

‘This dog,’ answered Eumaios, ‘belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone …  So saying he entered the well-built mansion and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after 20 years.

Homer, Odyssey, Book 17, lines 290-327 (T.E. Lawrence translation)

Over these past few months my dad and my dog have been on parallel paths; each enduring a slow gradual decline. It has been painful to witness. One would hit a speed bump and we would think it was near the end, only to recover and trade places with the other. They both had a fierce will to live but their endings were very different.

When I put my last dog down, it was not a pleasant experience. The vet struggled to find the vein to apply the lethal injection and my dog belted out in pain. It was about all I could take, and I belted out at the vet.  But I also remember having this lingering, sinking feeling: who was I to play God and choose when my pet should die?

This time was completely different. Perhaps I was influenced by the sadness of watching my vibrant, powerful dad slowly waste away to a fraction of his old self, but putting Izzy down was not painful at all. It was the opposite. I was so confident in the timing and felt blessed that I had the ability to humanely let Izzy go out on top – something I couldn’t do with my dad.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Ezekiel Emanuel’s powerful essay from 2014 in The AtlanticWhy I hope to Die at 75. That still seems early to me, and I do not believe in euthanasia (nor does he), but he makes a compelling case.  Who among us would not want to go out on top – before our mental and physical faculties start to break down, before we become a huge burden on our loved ones?

Emanuel says we all think we will live forever. He calls this the thinking of “American Immortals.”  He acknowledges that we will likely live longer than our parents, but notes that we will have many more years of incapacity. And that doesn’t sound too good to him.

People always cite examples of someone they know in their eighties or nineties who publishes papers, produces great works of art, and otherwise contributes significantly to society. But as Emanuel shows, they are the outliers. Unfortunately, the data is clear. By 75, “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

So where does all this leave us?  I don’t have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with making the most of the time we have left. Of trying our best to truly show up for life; what Teddy Roosevelt called “spending ourselves in a worthy cause” and what Brene Brown calls leading with vulnerability in order to live a brave life.

Perhaps that brings me full circle. My dad loved my writing, gave me encouragement and always told me to do more of it. He saved every letter I wrote to him and every article I published.  Maybe that is why I have had such an unprecedented period of creativity in the last two months of his life. In that brief time, I published six articles on topics as wide ranging as a major threat to the healthcare ecosystem in Massachusetts, the Praying Indians, and my town’s most ancient cemetery.

Was I trying to prove something to him?  To myself?  Give him more of what he was asking for?  Or maybe – as I felt him slowly starting to escape my grasp – I just started sensing my own mortality like never before, and the urgency that such a feeling arouses.

Meet the Author

Douglas S. Brown

Chief administrative officer, UMass Memorial Health
At 59, I am two years older than Ezekiel Emmanuel was when he wrote his provocative essay in 2014. I have 16 years until I reach 75. I don’t know what that birthday will bring for me, or whether I will even make it that far, but I do know what I will do in the meantime. I will live more fully, love more deeply, and embrace my mortality. And I can thank my dad and my dog for that.

Douglas S. Brown is a health care executive at UMass Memorial Health and a collector of rare books, including a beautiful 1932 edition of the Odyssey designed by Bruce Rogers and translated by T. E. Lawrence.  His dad, Kenneth Ira Brown, died on November 24, 2021, 4 days shy of his 87th birthday.  You can read his obituary here.  His dog Izzy was put down 4 days earlier.