In any other year, my family might have lost our two beloved dogs months apart. But this is 2020, so the nightmare continues. Instead, they went back to heaven only eight days apart, leaving us devastated and heartbroken in an already difficult year. I want to tell you the story of Rhett and Nacho so you know how very loved they were.
Rhett Butler was a Yorkie. A big one. He had a sturdy little barrel of a body, yet that classic adorable Yorkie face and ears. He was a bottomless pit of an eater and a tenacious attacker of squeaky toys.
He was my sister’s companion for 13 years. She moved to Atlanta right after college for her first grown-up job, had her own apartment for the first time and decided she wanted a puppy. My parents found her one and when she came to pick him up she was so excited to have this little bundle of fur and joy who made himself right at home at her new place.
“Gone with the Wind” had always been one of her favorite books and she was in Atlanta, after all, so she named her little Southern gentleman after the main character. He certainly lived up to his namesake — a scoundrel with a heart of gold. As she put it, “He could be such a troublemaker and rabble rouser but he was also such a sweetheart.”
Rhett taught her what it meant to care for another living thing, to have to put another’s needs before her wants. In exchange, he was her constant companion; he gave her an outlet for her love and affection; he was her comfort when she was sad or lonely or lazy. He even let her dress him up in Halloween costumes and winter outfits. They would go on long walks in her neighborhood and he was well-behaved enough that she could take him into stores where people fawned over him.
Whenever she would come home to our house in Gainesville, Florida, where we grew up, she of course brought him along. It was in those times, when we were all holed up in our cozy house that our family felt whole.
It was Thanksgiving in 2016 when it became obvious that Rhett was losing his sight. He eventually went totally blind and as he got older required more and more care so that’s how he ended up “retiring” back to my parent’s house in late 2018. It was a pretty gut-wrenching decision for my sister and she always felt guilt about it, but she was about to get married and go on her honeymoon. Right after they got back they bought a house and she got pregnant. So taking him back to Gainesville was really best for Rhett, as sad as it was to let her first baby go.
It was a balmy night in Gainesville on December 21, 2010. I was living with my parents at the time and heading out to meet a friend for dinner. As I pulled my car out of the driveway, my lights illuminated a little creature with big, pointy ears skittering down the street toward my car. Was it a fox? I got out of the car and saw that it was a small, precious chihuahua. I called to him, but he was bashful and eventually scampered away. Later, at dinner, my mom called me and said, “Be careful when you get home. Your dad found a dog when he was taking out the trash and now he’s in the garage.” “I saw that dog!” I told her, and was so happy that he had found his way back.
It remains a mystery where Nacho came from. I like to think he fell from heaven. He had no tags, only a cheap plastic collar with a black shoestring tied to it. Yet, we would come to learn that he was completely house trained and crate trained. We decided to call him Nacho because that’s a popular nickname in Spanish for “Ignacio” and, well, he was a chihuahua. After a few weeks of searching for owners — online and through good old-fashioned putting up signs — no one came forward so we took him to the vet and he officially became ours.
He was the most charming dog and anyone who came over to the house, whether friend or stranger, fell in love with him like we did when we saw those big hazel eyes and tan-pink nose. He briefly came to live with me when I moved to Miami, but after a few months of feeling guilt all the time for having to leave him alone in my studio apartment, I decided that home in Gainesville — with a big backyard and doting grandparents — was where he’d have a better life.
And honestly, I love my parents and love going home to see them, but leading up to my visits I would daydream about holding Nacho, playing with him, and snuggling with him in bed before we got up in the morning. When he caught you looking at him, he would flip onto his back for a belly rub, and I would happily oblige every time. I couldn’t resist that face. I just adored him.
He was truly king of the castle. Even my parents will tell you that. For almost 10 years he was their joy.
So by 2020, my parents were caring for two “grand-doggies” — two companions to spoil and lavish affection on. Rhett, blind and geriatric at this point, slept for most of the day and only got up to go potty outside and to eat his meals and snacks throughout the day.
Late last year, Nacho started having an intense, gagging cough that was getting more frequent over time. In early April, we were devastated by the news that Nacho, who had been diagnosed with a heart murmur a few years back, had full-blown congestive heart failure. The five meds the vets put him on got it under control, but even then the vet cardiologist said he would consider it a success if he lived 9-12 months. We knew it was only a matter of time.
Fast forward to early September, my parents noticed Rhett deteriorating. In the span of less than two weeks, he was diagnosed with arthritis and kidney failure; he started vomiting, having seizures and bloody diarrhea; and on his final vet visit the ultrasound revealed a tumor on his pituitary gland and that his internal organs were a mess. There was nothing left to do to save him; he was already unconscious. My parents spoke to my sister, who was in absolute sorrow that she wouldn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him, and Rhett went peacefully on Wednesday, Sept. 16.
Before any of us even had time to fully process this loss, Nacho’s gagging cough had come back and became noticeably worse right after Rhett’s passing. My parents took him to the vet that Monday and got more bad news. He had an irregular heartbeat, fluid in his lungs, and was beyond the point when adjusting the meds would do anything for him. By then, he had also stopped eating which meant he was no longer taking his pills. His heart was a ticking time bomb.
Since he was first diagnosed, I had told my parents that no matter what, I wanted to be home for his final days. I arrived Tuesday and when I saw how bad he was, I didn’t feel right about waiting until later in the week just to give myself a few more days with him. His gagging was awful. You could see and hear how fast and non-rhythmically his heart was beating. He was so short of breath you could tell he was having trouble getting air. We genuinely thought he might not make it through the night. When he did, we made the appointment the next morning and we were all with him when Nacho went peacefully on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
It is hard to believe they are both gone from our lives. Just like that. I stayed home the rest of the week to work and the house felt so quiet and empty. Their spirit and presence gave it energy and life. We already feel their absence and miss them dearly.
I went back to Miami knowing the next time I go home, the doggies won’t be there to greet me. They are part of what made home home. I worry more about my parents, who suddenly went from having two dependents who filled their days to being alone together for the first time in years. They are surrounded by constant reminders of the dogs being gone. The way they cared for those dogs, in life and as they were dying, shows how generously and selflessly they loved them.
Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows this is the hardest part. We let them into our hearts and lives and they fill them. I am reminded of many lessons from The Little Prince and his Fox, but this one in particular:
When Rhett and Nacho came into our lives, they tamed us as much as we tamed them and so we needed each other. We belonged to each other. Out of all the dogs in the whole world, they were unique and special to us because they were our dogs. And we are forever grateful for the blessing of being their humans.