It was 2004, and she had been pining for a pet for two years. I didn’t believe she’d get one. It was a dumb idea. I pictured the huge sheep dogs and German shepherds that lived outdoors in our Bosnian homeland.
Now that we were in the United States, Mom pictured a little poodle or terrier she’d keep in the house, which seemed extravagantly American. At the time, my brother, Eldin, and I had no jobs, thousands of dollars in student loan debt — I was 24, and had just finished graduate school — and two parents recovering from major illnesses. We couldn’t afford a purebred.
“Let’s go to the Humane Society and rescue one,” she said.
We knew what it meant to be rescued. With the help of a few brave Christian friends, my Muslim family had miraculously survived the ethnic cleansing campaign against us in the Balkan War in 1992. In January 1993, we escaped and, after 10 months in Vienna, arrived in the United States to make a new home in Connecticut.
Mom didn’t wait for me to go to the shelter. I came home after my physical therapy internship to find her on the lawn, holding the leash of Shadow, a feisty little orange-haired Pomeranian puffball, 10 pounds and 10 years old. For Mom, it was love at first yap. I didn’t pet him, fearing he’d bite. He’d probably bark all the time.
We never had dogs in Bosnia, just a parrot; my aunt had ducks and turtles. Yet Mom recalled the sweet white mutt who’d follow her home from elementary school every day. Once he stopped, she missed him. Now she hoped this goofy-looking mini-creature could turn us back into the normal, happy family we were before the war.
“We’ll be nobodies here so you and your brother can be somebodies,” my parents had said. They’d chosen the United States so we could get a good education. We felt blessed that the Connecticut Interfaith Council adopted us.
But almost as soon as we arrived in Connecticut, Mom was given a diagnosis of breast cancer. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation that a generous local Jewish oncologist and surgeon wouldn’t charge for. Then, in 2001, Dad suffered a stroke and Mom got another terrible diagnosis — ovarian cancer.
When Eldin and I were kids in Brcko, our whole house hummed. But for a decade in Connecticut my mother was in a bad mood, complaining about her medical treatments, fretting over bills.
Suddenly, with Shadow in the house, she began to smile again, whispering to him in baby talk. When he sat up on his hind legs, begging with his paws up, she giggled. My 65-year-old father, Senahid, who was relearning how to talk after his stroke, was speaking in a garbled half-English, half-Bosnian hybrid. When he commanding the dog to “come here” that first day, Mom joked, “At least they both don’t understand each other,” and laughed hysterically.
That Saturday she took Shadow to the nearby beach. Returning, she giddily reported how he’d buried his little nose in the sand and chased sea gulls. She rushed to Petco to buy him a blue sweater, carefully trimmed his coat. She let Shadow eat the Bosnian food she still made us, but without spices or salt. He’d lick his mouth, wanting more.
While he loved people, Shadow was a snob with other canines, ignoring them. His favorite toy was a yellow duck he’d make squeak. Weirdly, when Mom watched Animal Planet on TV, he hated the sight of other animals. He’d lie down, kick his back legs, pedaling and growling like crazy.
When Eldin visited, I put Shadow in front of a cat on television to make the dog go insane. Eldin cracked up. My parents found it hilarious too. When was the last time we’d all laughed? Shadow lightened us up. He was the only joy my family shared in America.
Shadow was needy for mom’s attention. He wanted her to scratch his head, flipping over so she’d rub his stomach too. When people came by to see her, he’d bark and snarl a tough game – until they’d pet him. Then he’d nuzzle. (Luckily we never had a thief.) He wouldn’t wake Mom up in the morning to be walked, quietly waiting by her bed. Once she awoke, he followed her everywhere — that’s how he got his name. I liked that he was unobtrusive, as if sensing all we’d been through, knowing we couldn’t handle more strife.
My parents were proud when our graduate degrees helped me and my brother land physical therapy jobs in Manhattan in 2006. I soon found a great apartment in Queens, close to Eldin’s.
Before I signed the lease, Mom’s cancer spread to her lymph nodes and spine. She refused painkillers and hospice care, preferring to die drug-free at home, with Shadow. When she couldn’t make it upstairs, she’d sleep on the living room couch, Shadow on the floor beside her. When she couldn’t walk him, Dad did, speaking the mixed language that Shadow now understood.
For the next six months, I lived with my parents. I’d ride the train to my job in the city. On the way back, I’d pick up food and bandages. At 10 p.m. I’d take over Mom’s care. Shadow would grab the leash in his mouth, running to me as I walked in. I hugged and petted him. Mom told me he’d been staring out the window for hours, waiting for me. In the mornings it was agonizing to hear Mom moan from the burning pain caused by open wounds all over her body. What upset her most was when Shadow, her devoted companion every day and night for three years, stopped sleeping next to her, as if he feared being so close to death. He’d sleep on the floor, 10 feet away.
On Feb. 7, 2007, we stood by at home as a nurse closed Mom’s eyes for the last time. When the coroner came to take her body away, Shadow screeched so loudly I had to carry him to a different room. He was traumatized. That night he slept under my bed. He was my dog now. We bonded by mourning silently, together. I didn’t cry.
Back in Brcko, my grandmother, devastated by the death of her youngest child, had a fatal heart attack. She was buried 4,000 miles from her beloved daughter. I still couldn’t shed a tear.
A week later, Eldin called, while I was leaving work for the night. “Shadow’s gone too,” he said. He’d died of a collapsed trachea, at 13. Pretending I’d forgotten something, I went back to my office. Now tears poured from my eyes, a torrent of shock and built-up grief.
I flashed to the Road Runner cartoons I’d liked as a kid in the Balkans, when I’d perversely rooted for the coyote. I felt like him now, the pathetic character who kept losing, no matter what. He got shot, blown up, burned, squashed like a tomato by an anvil landing on his head. The hits kept coming.
Yet finally I felt relief that Mom’s 13 years of pain were over. The Trebincevic men started over in Queens. We asked the veterinarian to cremate Shadow. I keep his remains on my living room shelf, his leash wrapped around the urn, next to a photo of my mother. He’s wearing the blue sweater she gave him, looking proud and lucky that it wasn’t too late for him to have a happy family either.
Kenan Trebincevic, a physical therapist in Manhattan, is the author of the memoir “The Bosnia List,” written with Susan Shapiro.