Lisa DePaulo: “My Dog Is My Life, and One Day He’ll Be Gone”

From a story on by Lisa DePaulo headlined “My Dog Is My Life, and One Day He’ll Be Gone”:

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 fucking 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?

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. (He was nice, so of course I treated him like shit.) 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 cell phone 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.

I soon learned that Joey was born on October 26th. My late mom, Josephine, was born on September 26th, and my late dad, Joseph, on November 25th. 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.

“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 seven, 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 (wc of other crazy stuff, and … Joey!

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 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  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….

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 bullshit?” 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.”…

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….

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 fuck 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….

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 at this magazine 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 the fuck 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.

Joey turned 13 this October. As usual, we had a big birthday party. I have a bone-shaped cake pan. Of course I do. His closest friends came. And their humans.

Joey’s in great health. Every vet tells me that. But he is 13.

Yes, I know how lucky I am. But still: 13.

Recently I learned that he has to have his teeth cleaned, again. Under anesthesia! So of course, I’m freaking out. I took him for a $900 echocardiogram to be sure his little heart could endure it. It can.

But can mine?

Published as “My Dog Is My Life, and One Day, He’ll Be Gone” in the November 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
From a 2014 About Editing and Writing post headlined “Writing Great Profiles: How Lisa DePaulo Does It”:

One of my favorite profiles ever was the first piece I wrote for The Washingtonian—on James Carville (who was just becoming Bill Clinton’s Carville). No way that would have worked without his cooperation. The first day I showed up to interview him, in his “Bat Cave” basement apartment on Capitol Hill, he was on the couch in his underwear watching Andy Griffith reruns with a framed picture of Barney Fife by his Murphy bed and empty Jack Daniels bottles on the floor. You just can’t get that second-hand.

Years later, when I was at George, John Kennedy Jr. wanted a big profile of Maureen Dowd. Well, no one expected her to cooperate but to her credit she did not shut down her friends and family (not even ex-boyfriends), all of whom had insightful stories (some hilarious) to tell about her. Her mother said that when Maureen got hired by the NYT, she gushed that it was “the Tiffany’s of newspapers.” I really think if Maureen had cooperated it might have been a lame-ass piece.

As to method: I always like to email the subject first. A chatty email just saying what I want to do and why. If it’s a piece I am going to do regardless of cooperation, I don’t say “I’m thinking of doing this….” I say, “I’m doing this.” Even if they say no in the beginning, they often come around later, after they hear from their friends who have talked. The subject is either appreciating your questions or is enraged by them. Either way, the subject usually ends up saying something….

If you’re doing the story only if the subject cooperates, there’s the seduction dance. It often requires lots of detailed emails and phone calls. To a reluctant subject, I always first offer an off-the-record chat. And they usually take me up on it. And I keep my word about it being off the record. The idea is: Give me an hour of your time, off the record. If you feel comfortable, we’ll proceed. If you don’t, we won’t. It’s not only fair but it works: I have never gotten to a in-person sitdown and had the subject say no.

Do not promise anything you can’t or won’t or shouldn’t deliver. (Especially in writing.) Basically never promise anything but fairness. Always offer to talk to anyone they think you should talk to—but never promise to not talk to people they might not want you to talk to. And try to get them to really let you into their world. Or close to it.

I try to spend a day or two with a subject before sitting down and asking them questions. Some of the best stuff happens in unexpected places. Like on airplanes. Airplanes are great. If they say they are too busy traveling, travel with them. You’ll have their undivided attention and will see things like Nancy Grace making the sign of the cross before takeoff. Or Bobby Kennedy falling asleep and suddenly his head is on your shoulder. I always tell profile subjects: The more time you give me, the less time I’ll spend calling everyone you ever knew.

When a subject cooperates, the piece is more empathetic. I have never totally trashed someone who cooperated. That is something publicists don’t get. And on the topic of publicists, put your foot down early and often. A celebrity is always badly served when a publicist insists on sitting in on the interview (if they don’t trust what comes out of the person’s mouth, how can you?). I have made this argument frequently and rarely successfully.

One other important thing: I am far more flexible with a profile subject who is not media-savvy—i.e. not a politician or a celebrity. This goes not only for profile subjects but sources (especially when doing crime stories that require good reporting about the victim at a time when the family is distraught). I always tell those people from the get-go that I am reasonable. If they tell me something that they later feel queasy about, just tell me and tell me why. Sometimes I take it out. Sometimes I don’t, but always with an understanding between us of why it’s important to include.

I guess the bottom line is: Be honest with your subjects and they likely will be honest with you.

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