I know this isn’t good writing. This is stream of consciousness, my thoughts this morning as I say goodbye to my much-loved dog. I usually despise posting such personal things. Today this is the only way I can send him this letter.
The day I picked you up, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. You seemed lethargic, unhappy. You were overweight, and your hair was dull. The Petfinder ad had said “young male.” You were not that young. Your eyes stared into space, looking for something, or more likely you had stopped looking for anyone. The woman who had you hurried you over to me, handed me your twine leash, hurried away. You went with me without complaint, with no backward glance.
“He smiles,” she said. “Don’t be frightened when you see it.”
You didn’t smile, for the first day. You spent the long ride to Mom’s with your head on Sophie’s lap, content to just lie there. She scratched your head the whole way.
When we got to mom’s, she worried for her other dogs when she saw this hulking deer-colored dog with his head down and his Mohawk-like ridge of hair. It didn’t take long to win her over, as you were always the consummate gentleman. You brought your ears down, and you wagged your nub. You rubbed your face on the carpet in the house and you started to relax. We went hiking, the day after I got you, and you were joyous. You ran up and down the steepest hills you could find in the mountains above Mogollon. You wore yourself ragged, being free. I wondered if you would run off, get lost. You made sure to keep me in view. You weren’t a dummy, ever. The next morning you were so stiff from all that exercise I had to help you out of your bed. Then you smiled at me, all crooked. Your lips curled back and you showed me all your teeth in a lopsided Elvis grin. You wagged and wagged that damn nub. There was no way I could have been frightened of that smile. You were mine, now, so that was that. I would take you and love you no matter how you turned out. That’s what I do with things that are mine. I felt a fierce protectiveness for you already. For a while I heard whispers in the park, “Man that’s a fat Doberman.” Not for long, I thought, and we went out walking in the Tucson heat every day. No more “free feeding” in a bowl in a field in northern New Mexico. No more lack of attention from an owner with too many foster dogs. You slept there, by my bed, from then on.
I got you home, and you loved the kitty right away. You were excited to meet all these girls, in this big old house. You liked the yard, but you wouldn’t stay out there if I wasn’t out there with you. You wanted to be with me, all the time. I wanted to be with you, too. I wish I could have quit my job and spent all of my time with you. I wish I could have taken you everywhere with me, because I know nothing would have made you happier.
With our daily walks and a good diet, you started to shine. Your hair grew back over the patchy bald spots when you started getting fish oil every day. You muscled up, grew sleek. You looked so beautiful people would stop in the street and ask what kind of dog you were, or to tell me what a good-looking boy you were. We went hiking in the mountains often, and you would run far ahead on the trail scaring people you burst upon. What is this monstrous beast crashing through the underbrush? Sometimes they would shriek. You would come tearing back to me, worried about that shrieking person. You would wait for me, and then would tear off again.
Once on the trail along the arroyo, we were running and you didn’t have your leash on. This guy ran up beside us and you didn’t notice that he wasn’t me. He ran much faster, and you followed him loping along. I was sure you were gone, and too embarrassed to call out for you. I was out of breath, and slowed, then stopped. I listened for you, I whistled and called. Nothing. I didn’t know you well enough at that point, we’d only had a few weeks together. I was afraid someone would take you to the pound. Suddenly, far away, I heard thundering feet. You must have realized he wasn’t me. I imagine the sniff, the freaked out look in your eyes, and the realization hitting you that you had left me behind. You came into view far up the trail, and you were running back to me as fast as you had ever run. Slobber was flying, your eyes were wild, and you skidded into me with the most profound look of relief. I was happy too, you silly dog.
“Don’t ever run away from me again,” I told you. And you never did. The whole way back to my car, you sniffed my leg every few steps to make sure it was me. My sock was drenched with drool by the time we reached the car. You did that regularly, for the rest of your life. You never forgot that feeling of being lost from me.
Everyone you met loved you. You were so good. You were patient with kids, you sniffed everyone’s crotch equally to see what they were all about. I never saw you dislike a person. Sometimes you were mean to dogs, but mostly they deserved it. I never had to tell you something more than a few times, and you learned it because you lived to make me happy. You knew when to cross the road, you knew how to wait, and stay, and lay down. You already knew how to shake. You let me know that by offering me your paw. Nothing made you more excited or dance harder than when I said the WORD. W-A-L-K. I had to spell it, because you learned it right away. I loved your happy puppy dance. I’ve never seen any dog bow down and hop in quite the same way. You attached yourself to my leg in true Velcro-dog fashion. Your eyes followed me anywhere I moved. If I was sad, you knew it, and you came close to comfort me. You were polite, and didn’t lick, unless I really needed a kiss. If I went to the bathroom, you waited outside the door for me. You would come in if I didn’t close the door.
Watching you hurt has left a gaping wound in my heart. Saying goodbye, choosing your time, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I want to vomit, I want to scream, I want to turn back the clock and spend every moment of your life with you. I feel cheated that I only knew you for…was it almost 7 years? August 2005, my email says. The vet guessed you were about 5 years old then. All I know is how lucky I was to know you. I know if I have a soul, that means you do too. I would never believe we are that different, that I have something you did not. Only the ability to talk to people. You talked to me with your eyes, all the time. Your expressive golden-brown eyes with their funny little eyebrows.
You showed me that your back hurt, you pointed it out to me. You woke up howling in the night. It must have been bad enough, back then. Over a year has gone by since you first started doing that, and I didn’t notice. I noticed your leg shaking, you being less stable on your feet. I wish I had asked a vet sooner, but I am afraid it might not have mattered.
We took a hike in the Gila yesterday, to help us say goodbye. I knew it would hurt you, but you didn’t care. You didn’t want to stop and rest, even though you stumbled and your muscles shook. This was where you were happiest. After the walk, at home, I saw your eyes go perfectly round when you saw the cheeseburger I was about to give you. You vacuumed the whole thing up piece by piece. Last night, because of the walk, the pain was really bad. You woke me with your panting, but you didn’t say a word. I held you in my arms and finally felt acceptance for what I had to do. I haven’t realized you are gone yet, it hasn’t sunk in for me though I watched you take your last breath and I held you and petted you as you passed over, to wherever it is we go. That was the one place I couldn’t be with you. I am glad I could be there as you went. You have blessed me with your gentle presence and by sharing your life with me. I will hold you always, close to my heart. I hope we meet again, out there. No matter what you look like I think I will know you. That soul would be hard to miss. There’s no such thing as “just a dog.” You were THE dog, you were my love, and I am not ashamed of that.