I’d always assumed that death was something that happened to other people’s dogs, not mine. I was wrong.
Last Sunday, our wonderful Golden Retriever became a past tense: a “was”, not an “is”. Neo and I grew up side by side, but he’s gone now. I guess that makes me fully grown.
Neo joined our family in May 2004. We’d always wanted a puppy, and there was only ever one breed in the running. Goldens were reputed to be energetic, social and intelligent animals – the perfect fit for us.
We weren’t informed, however, that Goldens could also be quirky and eccentric. As Neo aged, he developed a unique personality. He never thought of himself as a dog. He considered himself to be a human being, and was most comfortable around people.
Our first day with Neo was tremendously exciting. He was so tiny – a defenseless, footlong bundle of fur that shivered nervously as we drove him home from the breeder’s. He looked like a Golden Snitch that had accidentally grown hair and a little pink nose.
His name was my idea. I was utterly obsessed with The Matrix at the time, and my parents agreed that “Neo” possessed three excellent qualities: it was 1) short, 2) unique, and 3) easy to pronounce, no matter what language you spoke.
I only had to wait a few weeks for my first adventure with him. It came on an auspicious date: the night of the Middle School Dance. Dad was traveling, and Divya and Mom had an important appointment. Neo would have to remain at home, unsupervised, for the first time. I was responsible for checking on him the second I got home.
When I locked the house at 8, Neo was safely in his pen, surrounded by a small mountain of chewy toys. What could possibly go wrong?
I headed out for the dance, and returned three hours later with my friend Martijn in tow (he was sleeping over that night). As we unlocked the front door, an overwhelming stench greeted us. It was definitely coming from the living room.
Martijn and I rushed to Neo’s pen, eyes watering, and struggling not to retch. There we discovered a very small puppy in a very large pile of shit. Neo hadn’t been satisfied by simply soiling his pen. He’d decided to have a little extra fun by rolling around, in it too. I’ll never forget the sight: our little Golden was now golden brown.
As a horrified Martijn set to work sanitizing Neo’s pen, I took the little ruffian outside to see if I could hose him down, shampoo him, and get rid of the smell. It took a while.
Neo was a prodigious urinator in those first few weeks. Mom spent most of the early nights both potty training him and cleaning up after him. How could something so miniscule produce such impressive volumes of liquid? It just didn’t make sense.
Then, all of a sudden, he grew. We returned to Thailand from Christmas Break 2004 to find that the puppy we’d left behind had grown into a gawky adolescent. And he wasn’t harmless anymore: we spent several weeks convincing him that his playful jumps were no longer a joking matter. He was only eight months old, but already strong enough to knock over an adult.
Neo was also turning into a committed licker. I’d come home from football practice every afternoon and collapse, exhausted, at the foot of the stairs. There, Neo would greet me joyously, licking the sweat off my arms, legs, and face with great affection and pleasure. Now that I think about it, it was pretty disgusting.
After I graduated from high school, Mom, Divya, and Neo and left Bangkok to join Dad in the UK. It was there that Neo truly came into his own.
In London, the glorious summer sunshine glinted off Neo’s fur. His energy was boundless, and he’d stroll through the city’s leafy parks and broad streets for hours without tiring. The Brits love dogs, and they showered Neo with affection whenever he accompanied us to pubs and restaurants. Unfortunately, it was in London that Neo discovered his fondness for other people’s picnics – a habit that remained with him for life.
Our little Neo was now a powerful, handsome adult. He always looked great, too: Dad would spend hours every week lovingly brushing him until his golden hair gleamed. We were all so proud of Neo – especially when the great Sir Paul McCartney said “nice dog” to my Mom as Neo and she passed him in St. John’s Wood.
From London, my family moved to Delhi, where Neo found favor with a new generation: the children of our helpers Sunita and Bina. A true extrovert, Neo would always light up when there were kids around, reveling in their energy and excitement, but always remaining patient and gentle.
On my infrequent trips to Delhi, I loved watching how much fun Neo and the neighborhood children had together. Divya and I had long since departed for college, so Neo had found himself new playmates. He didn’t just belong to us: he belonged to everyone.
Now that Neo’s gone, I can’t decide how I want to remember him. He was so many things to me: a quivering little ball of fur; a gleefully mischievous adolescent who’d launch himself into the pool if the gate was even fractionally open; a devoted devourer of unattended chapatis; a dignified, white haired 11 year-old who loved sunning himself on the balcony all morning.
I guess every family adopts a pet when they’ve reached a happy equilibrium: a place where there’s so much extra love to go around that it’s time to find someone new to share it with. Neo was just that: a symbol of love who illuminated the spaces he inhabited.
For me, the saddest part is that Neo is now confined to our memories, photos, and videos of him. He’ll never get a chance to make another new friend.
We’ll miss you Neo, but were blessed to have you for eleven action-packed years. Thanks for everything.
As Neo nears his 11th birthday, he's showing his age in a number of ways. As you can see here, the fur on his face, which was once golden, has turned almost completely white. His energy levels aren't what they once were, so he can't complete those long walks anymore and spends most of his time resting at home or sunning himself on the balcony (where I took this picture). One thing that will never change, though, is his love of a good head scratch (: