One day, my dog Joey will be gone. Not today, not tomorrow, but the day is coming — and coming sooner than I’d like. I think about this way too much. And then I kick myself for spending time thinking about this, because it could be more time spent with Joey.
But guess what? I’m terrified. From the time he was a baby, I would sneak up next to him while he was sleeping to check that he was breathing. Now? I don’t even wait till he’s asleep.
How do you do it? How does anyone do it — prepare yourself for this incomprehensible and unfair loss? Dogs should live a lot longer than humans. And yes, we’ve all had loss. For me, it was two parents (early), a beloved editor, and, more recently, a wonderful friend who died by suicide. He left his precious dog behind, which made me think he was so terribly depressed, he actually thought Raj would be better off without him.
In my deepest, darkest days, that thought also crossed my mind. But then I’d look at Joey, and I just couldn’t leave him. Where would he go? How would he be taken care of? Joey has two godmothers — my cousins Cathie and Helene. I know they would lavish him with love. But during the pandemic, when I was living in Louisiana and beside myself, I had to think: How would they get there to get him with the travel bans? So basically, Joey saved my life. Because I couldn’t possibly leave him. But let’s not get too morbid here.
The day I got him — January 8, 2009 — I didn’t expect to get a dog; I was “just looking.” Oh, please, who walks into a pet store and doesn’t leave with a dog? (I’m leaving cats out of this because I’m not a Cat Person — allergies — but I am becoming one. They’re cute. And nuts. I respect that.)
But I digress. That day in January 2009, I went to a pet store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Yes, I rescued Joey from a pet store. So shoot me. But I did rescue him. Trust me. The shop was over-the-top: In one half, there were baby clothes. In the other half, dog clothes. You couldn’t tell the difference. New York. What can I tell you? And the puppies weren’t in cages, but in adorable Lucite bins full of pretty paper confetti.
I was with a friend and a guy I was dating at the time. We looked at the pups, then started to walk out of the store. That’s when my girlfriend said, “That one.” This adorable darling had picked his head up out of the confetti, as if he knew he was mine.
“This is a big decision,” my girlfriend said. “I want you to think about it. Let’s go to the restaurant next door for Bloody Marys and think about this.” So we did. It was late morning in Manhattan. A huge snowstorm was predicted. The three of us sat at the bar. But before the bartender even had our drinks mixed, I picked up my flip-top cellphone and called the shop. “I want Joey!” I said. “I’ll be right back.” Joey? Where did that come from? I guess he looked like a Joey. In any event, the name just came out of my mouth.
I soon learned that Joey was born on October 26. My late mom, Josephine, was born on September 26, and my late dad, Joseph, on November 25. Joey was born smack between them; of course, he had to be Joey! Okay, so he was also named for Joe Namath, my other true love. And if you ask Joe Biden, he was also named for him! A couple years later, when I was traveling with Biden on Air Force Two for a story for GQ, we were sharing dog photos, and he asked my puppy’s name. “Joey Obama,” I replied. I gave him that middle name because he was half black and half white, and because our first bonding experience was Obama’s first inauguration. (Usually I’d be in Washington for something like that, but I had a baby!)
“Aww,” said Biden, “you named him for both of us!”
“Yes, Mr. Vice President,” I replied. Anything for a story.
Back on the Upper East Side, we returned to the store to find this horrible little child, I’d say about 7, who was squealing, “I want this doggie! This is my doggie!” Oh, I don’t think so. I didn’t have to worry, though. Her father was nickel-and-diming the owners over the price — I mean, seriously? How could you bargain over a dog? Plus, I had said the magic words: “Put everything I need on the counter.”
Which is how I ended up with a $90 leash, a $250 Juicy Couture dog carrier (which he outgrew in two weeks), a bunch of other crazy stuff, and … Joey! Worth every penny.
By now, the snowstorm was in full force. The nice boyfriend and I somehow flagged a cab and delivered my 12-week-old baby Joey (in his Juicy Couture bag) and all his new gear home.
What a night it was. I’d never had a dog before. I’d never even had a pet before — damn those parents! — unless you count Perky, the 25-cent turtle from the Woolworth’s in Scranton. Perky didn’t live very long, because you get what you pay for.
Back in my apartment on West 52nd Street in Manhattan, I set up Joey’s “condo.” It was one of those fence things that you could make into a circle. Inside, I put his bed, a wee-wee pad, water and food bowls, and about 200 toys. (The shopkeepers would have sold me 300, but I have my limits.)
Now what? He was so little! Four pounds, three ounces. Smaller than a pork roast! The boyfriend and I sat on the couch and stared at Joey in his condo. Well, this wasn’t gonna work out.
The shop owners had told me not to put the porchetta — I mean, the baby — on the bed, because if he fell off, he could hurt himself. So I crawled into the condo with him and held him till he fell asleep. Then continued to do so for the next six months.
“You’re puppy-whipped,” said the boyfriend.
Oh, come on, I wasn’t that bad. I stopped sleeping in Joey’s condo when he graduated from Puppy Kindergarten. That was the day I burst into tears when he got his diploma. Then hung the diploma on his condo wall. To tell you the truth, Joey wasn’t the best student at Puppy Kindergarten, but he was the most popular. And we all know, it’s better to be the most popular than the valedictorian — something I never learned until I had a dog.
Joey Obama DePaulo was, from the jump-start, the definition of adorable. And he was hilarious. Havanese are like that. They’re super-smart and super-funny. Originally bred in Cuba, they have a poignant backstory. The short version: They were originally the lap dogs of the ruler before Castro. When Castro came to power in 1959, he tried to have them all killed. A woman rescued half a dozen of them and got them to Florida, where they began to be bred again. Or so the story goes.
Makes sense to me. My little Cubano-Italian always had a great survivor instinct. And a great male instinct. To this day, when I put him on the bed to cuddle with me, he indulges me for about five minutes, then hops off the bed and goes to his man-cave, which is under the bed. He has everything down there but a flat-screen TV.
I’ll never forget the first time I had to leave him overnight. It was to interview Denzel Washington in Los Angeles. As I sat in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel bar, which Denzel had reserved (all of it) because celebrities, you know, need privacy, all I could think of was, “I left Joey for this?” I switched my flight to the red-eye.
Then there was the time Joey busted his knee chasing a squirrel in the Hamptons. The closest 24-hour animal hospital was an hour away. It was the longest ride of my life. He needed surgery, of course. Our prince of a vet, Dr. DiPolo, consulted with the hospital. I went to the nearest Catholic church and lit candles. After surgery, Joey needed four months of rehab. He was so determined to get better. Every day on the long drive to the animal hospital for his doggie therapy, I would tell him, “You’re going to be just fine. But this is your college education.”
My baby, who would fold up his wee-wee pad when he was little and push it out of his condo, as if to say, “Ma, clean it up!” since he knew I was a slob. Who would stop in his tracks when the horsies came by on the streets of New York City and just marvel at them. Who would pick his little head up on the sidewalk when a siren blared and sing along with it. How will I ever hear a siren and not think of Joey?
How will I cope? Joey has been my constant companion for longer than I’ve had any other constant companion.
And he’s the only one who’s never annoyed me or pissed me off. Have I ever even yelled at Joey? Never. Friends of mine can tell you: That’s nothing short of remarkable. I think of the day-to-day things. Scratch that. I think of the minute-to-minute things. Joey is always here. He’s by my side when I wake up, when I go to sleep, and everything in between. When I’m writing, he sits by my chair at the computer. Or sleeps in his bed, which is a foot away. When I get on the phone, I fully expect him to bark like a maniac, which is the only time he barks, just to mess with me. He knows me so well. And still, that doesn’t annoy me, though it may annoy my editors.
Who will I watch CNN with? Joey has loved CNN since he was a little boy and Barack Obama, his middle-namesake, was on it all the time. It’s like he knew. Years later, when I was recovering from cancer, it was Joey who watched reruns of The Sopranos and All in the Family with me. How else could I have gotten through it? Joey got me through it. He even tolerated The Affair. He particularly likes Michael Smerconish on Saturday mornings, but I think that’s mostly because the name cracks him up. In Puppy Kindergarten, he couldn’t learn “come.” But if his teacher said “treat,” he would come. Believe it or not, if I say “Smerconish,” he comes!
I keep thinking of the many, many, many friends who’ve lost their precious pets. Do any of us know anyone who hasn’t? And hasn’t grieved for a very long time, or forever? A few in particular come to mind. Like my 90-year-old Aunt Betty, who could never get another dog after her Lucky died because she couldn’t bear the thought of losing another one.
Or my dear New York friends Peter and Nanette. For more than a decade, they’ve been adopting senior cats. How on earth do you do that, knowing how limited your time with them is? “Every visit to the vet is scary,” Peter tells me. “Of course, the blessing and the curse of being an animal is that — I think — you probably don’t really know you’re going to die.” He told me that as hard as it is, and even on the worst days, when the cats get sick and he and Nanette know the end is near, “We’re consoled by knowing that we’ve given them a wonderful and loving home. If I’m diagnosed with a terminal disease, I tell my wife, kids, and doctors: Please treat me like a beloved pet.” But damn, it’s hard. He adds: “Against all scientific evidence, I am convinced and consoled that one day we will all meet up again.”
My friend Theresa, who worked with me eons ago, lost both her precious Karma and her mom in a very short time, and I know she and her husband Don still cry for both. “Don’t even think about it,” she wisely tells me. “First, he’s a small dog, and healthy. Second, if and when the time comes, I’ll help you.” I know that.
But I do think about it. How can I not think about it? I just need to think less about it. I used to tell all of Joey’s vets, starting with Dr. DiPolo, “When the time comes, have two needles ready.” But I know that’s not what Joey would want. So what will I do? I know I’ll do what’s best for him, even if it’s excruciating for me. But at that point, it won’t be about me.
And afterward? Who knows? There’s nothing any pet-store owner can put on the counter to prepare me for this, no amount of care from a hero vet that will prevent the inevitable. I’ll just have to get through it. But not quite yet.
A few months after Joey’s 13th birthday — a gala event to which I invited 75 humans and their dogs (don’t ask) — during a routine exam, his vet discovered a tiny little thing, “the size of a piece of rice,” on one of his anal glands. She advised surgery, which freaked me out (I used to do novenas when Joey needed his teeth cleaned under anesthesia), but I listened to her advice. She saved his life. The little thing turned out to be anal cancer. And the surgeon, to be sure he got it all, removed the entire anal gland. So everything was fine! Then a few months later … another little piece of rice. Another surgery. And another malignancy. At this point, I found Joey a dog oncologist — yes, my dog has an oncologist! — and soon learned that the advances in veterinary medicine are gobsmacking. Humans should be so lucky to have vets. Joey sailed through chemo, and even licked another form of cancer (soft-cell carcinoma) that appeared as a lump on his hind leg.
Through all of this, he never changed. He was happy and lively and rambunctious and barked at me on the phone, and if he was anything else, I would have stopped any treatment.
Joey is now three months shy of 15 years old. Fifteen! Three months ago, we learned that his anal cancer had metastasized. He takes oral chemo now and is handling this beautifully, too. I never knew how strong my little boy was. But I know every day since this cancer stuff started is a bonus, a gift. Hell, I know every day I’ve had him has been a gift. And I know that that saying is true — that as horrible as the grief of losing them is, it is outweighed by the joy of having them in your life.
Remind me of that, okay?
Lisa DePaulo is an award-winning feature writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, GQ, and Philadelphia, among others.
This article is featured in the September/October 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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