Ten years ago this fall, while driving down a side street on my way to work, I saw two approximately ten week old Golden Retriever/Lab mix puppies running loose. In fact, they almost ran directly into the path of my oncoming car, but fortunately, with a screech of brakes and a pounding heart, I was able to stop in time. Startled, they veered around the car, and kept on going down the street, so I quickly turned the car around and pulled up beside them, attempting to head them off, as they were headed straight for a busy highway. Fortunately, they didn’t resist at all when I hopped out of my car, grabbed them up, one under each arm, and stowed them in the backseat.
I can so clearly remember how they looked that day – filthy, their golden (the boy) and strawberry blonde (the girl) coats streaked with dirt and grime, their xylophone ribs and hip bones jutting cruelly, their hides lax with dehydration. I remember their overlarge paws and ears, their bewildered, yet earnest brown eyes, and their hopefully wagging tails. And right they were to be hopeful, because their luck had definitely changed. My then-vet’s office was on my way to work, so I called them from the car and told them I was making an emergency stop with two little foundlings who needed a bath, a good meal, and some vet care ASAP. They weren’t wearing collars, and they had no microchips, although I would have fought tooth and nail to keep them from going back to wherever they had wandered away from even if they had.
The male puppy, who looks more like the Lab side of his heritage, except for his tail which is a bit too feathery to belong to a purebred Labrador, went to a friend and then co-worker of mine, and has led something of a storied existence in the intervening years since his inauspicious beginnings. He has crisscrossed the United States several times on epic road trips of weeks-long duration, dined next to celebrities at outdoor eateries in Aspen, camped in the Wyoming wilderness, and only escaped being bitten by a monster rattlesnake because his faithful human shot it dead before it could strike him. He has one of those practically perfect dog lives – he gets to go just about everywhere his human goes, and because of all his exposure to varied settings, he is about as calm and centered an animal as you are apt to find anywhere. He may have been a homeless waif in his youth, but any breeder would be proud of his temperament.
The female puppy has led a less glamorous existence, and not been as widely traveled, but has had every bit as happy of a life as her brother. She was adopted by my best friend, her husband, and son, and although she’s never lunched on a patio in Aspen or been nearly struck by a rattlesnake, she has been greatly loved and cherished by her family and adored by all who came into contact with her, for her sweet and gentle nature and charming personality. I delivered her into my friend’s care nine and a half years ago as a scrawny, ill-fed, puppy with a dry, patchy coat flaked with dandruff. With excellent care, she grew into a beautiful adult dog whose russet red coat (any colorist would be proud to take credit for it) gleams with health. Or, at least, it did.
On Monday morning, I was sitting at my desk when I got a call from my best friend, J. Now, J never calls me during work hours, so I knew that either something really good or really bad had happened. In the few seconds it took for my eyes to register her name on my iPhone screen, my mind first went to J’s son, who is in the military and has been recently stationed overseas in the Middle East. I knew he was due back stateside any time, but you know – things happen. Planes crash. Life is uncertain, often scary, is tragic as often as it is triumphant. Fortunately, my fears about J’s son were unfounded. He is safe and sound back at his stateside post, thank God.
Unfortunately, the news WAS bad. It seems that sweet H, the beautiful dog who grew from the scrawny, waifish puppy I found by the side of the road going on ten years ago, had woken J in the night in obvious distress. She could not rise, was struggling to breathe, her gums were gray. J woke her husband, and they took H to the emergency vet, where it was discovered that her abdomen was full of blood and that she probably would not live through the emergency surgery to locate and correct the cause of the bleeding. It could be a tumor that had grown undetected and suddenly ruptured, it could be something else. The vet didn’t know, wouldn’t know until or unless surgery was performed. And so, with a very uncertain outcome and a risky surgery as the only other option, the difficult decision was made to spare her more possible pain, and let her go instead, which they did in the wee early morning hours of Monday. H was wrapped in a blanket that smelled of home and her two favorite humans were by her side, gently stroking her, and whispering words of love and comfort. If only we could all pass from this life to the next in such peace, surrounded by such love. I hope, when it is my time to pass, I am as fortunate.
In the past two days, I have often stopped whatever it was I was doing, having been brought up short by thoughts of H, feelings of sadness over her abrupt and unexpected passing, and concern for my friends. And although it has been years since the beautiful, always smiling dog had been that scrawny, waifish pup, it was the pup, and not the dog she grew into, who occupied most of my thoughts. She was so frightened in those first days after her rescue, so unsure; she clung by turns to me and to her littermate like the proverbial life rafts. Her worried, earnest brown eyes tracked my every movement, and when I spoke to her in a gentle voice her plumy tail would wag with joy. She was almost desperate for attention and reassurance, which I tried to give her plenty of. As I stroked her small, warm head, I promised her that I would find her a wonderful home, with people who would love and care for her the way she deserved, the way she hadn’t been up until she and her brother happened to run in front of my car that fateful morning. She would look up at me, rapt, seeming to understand, and to trust in what I told her. I am so grateful to have been able to make good on that promise, and to know that she had the best possible home with the best possible family. I am also grateful that because she went to close friends of mine, I was able to watch her grow up, have the opportunity to know the wonderful adult she grew into, and know for sure that I kept the covenant I made with her all those years ago. She lived a life that any dog would be lucky to have lived, and as rough a start as she got in life, as precarious as her beginnings, she left it knowing how much she was loved, which is, of course, the most important thing of all.
Goodbye, sweet H. I feel lucky to have been the one to have helped change the trajectory of your life all those years ago, and to have known and loved you in all the years since. I will miss your golden smiles, but you will live forever in my memory both as the tiny puppy you once were and the beautiful dog you grew into. Rest in peace, sweet girl.
AFTERWORD: As I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but think that in some ways it was almost wrong to be writing it. After all, in the last week, we’ve lost a beloved comedian/actor to suicide, an American journalist has been murdered by Islamic militants, and one of the bloggers whose blog I read daily has lost her mother. There are a lot of sad and terrible things happening in the world right now, and in the face of them, the death of a dog may be considered by some to be fairly insignificant. However, while my intention is not to argue with people who might feel that way, I also know that for me and all the other people who find such comfort and solace in the gentle, loving presence of their animal companions, the passing of one as loved as this dog was is far from insignificant. She was loved by many, and her loss will leave a void, at least for awhile, even as treasured memories of her bring joy and smiles. In this way, loss is universal. My heart aches for all who are mourning the loss of loved ones, whether public figures or those known only to a small circle of family and friends, but a small corner of it also aches for the loss of a dog not even my own, and I make no apologies for that.