Tink is a 4.9-pound Chihuahua, the size of a bread loaf. She pees on a square pad in the bathroom. She loves peanut butter and hates grapes. When I play the piano, she sings along—a wolf to the moon.
Tink was a mermaid for Halloween this year. Her costume hooked on with Velcro—a strap under her belly and a strap around her neck. She wore a silver spiked crown that accentuated her huge ears and stayed on her head with a chinstrap. The sequined mermaid tail fanned over her furry one like a suit of armor. She didn’t move while she was in the costume, just sat still waiting for it to be over.
We know Tink hates being dressed up, but our family does it anyway for 10 minutes each October 31st because it’s cute, because it’s only temporary, because we all have to make sacrifices for the ones we love.
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My mom found Tink in a pet store on a non-chemotherapy day.
“I bought this,” she texted me one afternoon while I was in college. Above the text, a photo of a speckled puppy with a hot pink bandana around her neck.
Mom had been looking for something to snuggle. She’d been in treatment for a year. Cancer peppered her bones, her chest, her back, her liver, her brain. With her energy drained, she was in bed often. Mom wanted someone she could take care of while everyone else was busy taking care of her. She found a match in Tink, who was small, severely affectionate and folded herself under the covers in the curve behind my mom’s knees.
I’d lay with them some mornings. I was 22, but liked that curling up next to Mom made me feel like a child again. I didn’t want to grow up if that meant she would leave me.
Mom would be asleep, and I’d sneak into bed with her once Dad left for work. When she was asleep, she didn’t seem as sick. I listened to the air leave her mouth, steady and soft. I tried to breathe in time with her, our stomachs moving up and down in unison.
I studied her face—the lines that fanned out at the corners of her eyes from 53 years of smiling, the way her lips opened just barely, the long slope of her nose. I traced her cheeks with my eyes, stopped on the shell curves of her ear, moved to the tiny freckle on her cheek.
I knew this wouldn’t last. Soon, there would be no mornings in bed, no more of her warmth, no learning her details as she slept next to me.
She was leaving. I didn’t know exactly when. I didn’t know why.
But there it was.
So I lay and listened to her breathe, beautiful and alive, our stomachs moving up and down together, Tink in between us moving to her own small, sleepy rhythms.
My least-favorite thing to wake up to: a tongue up my nose.
Tink loves salt. Snot, sweat, tears. Noses are gold mines. Her tongue is quick and agile and has incredible accuracy. I didn’t know how far my nose went into my brain until I met her.
Tink’s hair is long and five shades of brown, from light tan to dark chocolate, mottled and beautiful like the marble tile found in fancy hotels. Her ears sit atop her apple head like wings. If she were a mythical creature, she’d be a cross between a bat, a gremlin, a deer and E.T.
I’ve come to learn that most people hate Chihuahuas. They think they’re too small, too yippy, too timid.
“Dogs that small aren’t even dogs. If I wanted a rat, I’d just buy one!” I heard someone say once about a Chihuahua walking down the street.
But Tink has converted everyone she’s met. It’s amazing to me how many people have threatened to kidnap her.
She’s cheeky and smart, fearless and bold, and chases dogs 112 times her size. She’ll fall asleep on anyone’s lap, curl up under the covers of whoever happens to be in bed.
My dad calls her a whore—she’s always sleeping with someone else, hopping beds between my dad, my brother, my sister and me. Houseguests are her favorite.
Tink doesn’t judge, she doesn’t hate, she doesn’t want anything but companionship, a tummy rub, a little bit of snot. She’s perfect.
She’s perfect, mostly, because of what she did for my mom.
When Tink was small, Mom carried her around in her bathrobe pocket. Before Tink was big enough to sleep under the covers at night, Mom kept her in a cage on her bedside table. In the morning, Mom would look into Tink’s small sleeping face. She’d stare for 30 minutes, an hour, listen to her small squeaks and watch her nose twitch as she dreamed. When Tink finally woke, she rolled over her tiny body for belly rubs. Mom lay with her for hours, cuddling, falling in and out of sleep, feeling like she belonged to Tink.
Mom died on June 29, 2011. She had turned 53 on March 1st. I think my mom knew it would be her last birthday. She got herself dressed and went to a restaurant with her family and friends, but it was a show. Each minute was painful. Her body was slowly shutting down.
Months earlier, at the beginning of treatment, I stood with her in the bathroom, helping put on her fake eyelashes. By then, she’d lost her leg and underarm hair and most of the hair on her head.
“I’m all smoke and mirrors,” she said. She adjusted her wig, putting a clip in her bangs to get them out of her eyes. “Most women are, but I really am. You could look at me now and never know.”
At her last birthday party, she showed up in her wig and fake eyelashes, a new pink sweater set and a full face of make up, smiling and bright.
She’d made a special request to her friends. Instead of getting gifts for her, she wanted everyone to bring gifts for Tink.
And they did.
They brought Chihuahua calendars, baskets of treats and doll-sized sweaters. They brought rhinestone-studded collars, pink water bowls and heart-shaped bones.
Mom didn’t get gifts she wouldn’t have time or energy to use. Tink received provisions for the next five years. Like a loving couple, they were always good at compromising.
When Mom got Tink, she was so happy, she didn’t care what we named her, yet she had to pick something. Although Tinker Bell was the inspiration, we never use that full name. But it’s just right. She’s minute but mighty. She flits around with a distinct air of mischief. She’s lovely and graceful, but, much like Peter Pan’s Tink, she’s part of a greater story of mortality. When my mom was with Tink, dying was no longer the center of her world.
I wondered some days, when my mom held Tink, if that’s what she’d looked like when she held me as a baby. I imagined that’s how she’d have held my babies if she’d gotten the chance. How lucky they would have been to be held by her, like I was, like Tink was.
During my college graduation, a month before she died, Mom was in the hospital with internal bleeding. My dad and sister snuck Tink into her hospital room. There’s a picture of Mom in her patient gown, sitting in bed, an IV stuck into one arm, tubes reaching to the photo’s frame. Tink sits on my mom’s lap. They both look at the camera. Tink’s ears are perked up. Mom’s smiling.
I think we love animals because we see in them what we wish ourselves to be. Tink made the end of my mom’s life less somber. She closed some of the gap created by the confusion of having to leave too early.
And Tink got what she wanted in return: constant attention, someone to stay in bed with all day, a stationary nose.
To me, they were superheroes, a fearless duo—a too-small dog and a precocious, dying woman. Four pounds of sass and a life’s worth of fight. Obsessed and fulfilled and at home with each other.
They were what love is meant to be.
My mom died at home in her bed, full of morphine and anti-anxiety drugs. By the time she calmed down, her feet were on her pillow and her head was at the foot of the bed. She was backwards, and it made sense. Everything was backwards. She wasn’t supposed to be leaving. We weren’t supposed to be watching her go.
We were all there. My dad, my sister, my brother and me. My mom’s mom and stepfather. Mom’s sister and my cousin.
We sat with Mom on the bed. I stroked her soft hair, holding her hand. My dad held her other hand.
Over the span of an hour, her breathing slowed. She was too gone to talk, to move, to blink. We talked to her instead.
Tink climbed onto the bed, up the small set of stairs my mom had leaned against the mattress so Tink could get up on her own.
She licked my mom’s face. Her tongue moved up and down her cheeks with fervor. She kissed her eyelids. She kissed her forehead. She kissed her nose. She moved to the other side of Mom’s face.
She kissed everything all over again.
A few hours after Mom died, after they had taken her body away, I was downstairs, in the kitchen, maybe. I don’t remember what I was doing. The world seemed to be moving too quickly and too slowly at once. But I heard Tink from far off—her small, high-pitched voice. It was incessant—was she hurt? I ran up the stairs.
I found her in my parents’ room. She was on their bed in the exact spot my mom had just been lying. The bed was still warm from her.
Tink wasn’t in trouble, she was crying.
She threw her head back, but it wasn’t a song. Her body was fully engaged. She wailed in long, sharp yelps.
She was doing what we all wanted to be doing: howling for everyone to hear, howling for the world to have weight again.