My old dog is stretched out on the tile floor next to the screen door. It’s too dark to see anything outside, but we can hear the soothing sounds of the Pacific Ocean. We have just a few months in this new place and I always dreamed that when it was his time we’d be near the coast. I sure wish it wasn’t his time, but here we are as sure as the tide rises each evening.
His fluffy honey brown fur is sunken in around his bones and his ribs are visible. I can see the contour of his back hips now. He’s making his way back to the earth, I know. The full circle. He grew so big and robust in this life, with his broad white chest and muscular shoulders and hips, his expressive black face and big ears, always with that contagious smile on his face that strangers never ceased to comment on. “That’s the happiest dog I’ve ever seen.” “What a special creature you’ve got there.” “Man he’s a good dog!” And the hoards of children who, after only meeting him for a few moments, would have to be peeled away by their parents as they swooned “we love you, Chico!” until we were out of sight.
I had to wait a week between finding him at the adoption center and picking him up. He was a little roly-poly who still smelled of puppy breath, but as I brought him home I feared I had made a huge mistake. What was I thinking? He seemed so sad and nervous. He was one of three left from a litter of eleven. The other two were rambunctiously playing together. He was off in the back, observing, and when I kneeled down he walked over to me cautiously and curiously. When I pet his soft head, which was far too big for his body, I knew he was the one. His given name at the time was Baxter, which didn’t fit him at all.
Now there I was in my kitchen, wondering what to do with this timid little misnamed pup. So I sat down cross legged on the floor. He gingerly came over and curled up in my lap. He fell asleep quickly and I stayed there until he woke up. When he did, he had a giant smile on his face and took to running around our entire little apartment with joy. Well alright, then, I thought. It was good. We were family.
A lot of my law school classmates at the time had also adopted dogs. (Sidenote: there may be a correlation between law school and desperately needing affection and unconditional love…) At any rate, everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. They crate trained and behavior trained and calculated the proper nutritional diet. I had no idea what to do. Growing up, our dogs were named “he dog” and “she dog” until my childhood dog ever so creatively named “Buddy” came along, but still they had to be outside. They got food and a water bucket under the spout. We only went to the vet when they got hit with porcupine quills to the face. Now there are boutiques and fancy bakeries devoted entirely to dog treats.
I guess my dog “parenting” style vacillated a bit between the two worlds. We lived in small cities together, but we loved to be out in the woods. He had to learn not to drag me through town on a leash and how to be civil when passing another dog on the sidewalk. Other days, he was running circles around my friends and I as we traversed mountain passes. And maybe one time I did fall for buying him a ridiculously overpriced treat.
But a part of me just didn’t want to fully tame that wild spirit of his. So I didn’t. He may have gotten in trouble once with the dog police, but I can neither confirm nor deny any facts at this time.
The first time I took him to the lake he was scared to go under water. I found an embankment that gently sloped inward. He trusted me so I coaxed him in little by little until he was all the way in. Once he got his bearings, he broke open that big old grin of his and ended up loving all things water forever. One of our neighbors called him “the fish” because he’d jump into any kind of water he could find – including said neighbor’s small landscaping pond.
I turned my back at the dog park once and heard a crowd shouting “OHHHH!!!!” and I just knew it had to be my dog. I turned around and at first I couldn’t see what they were looking at – it just looked like a giant mud pit. Then I realized it was moving. Sure enough, he had laid way down in it and stuck his head under so when he came up for air he looked like a swamp creature. He had just two tiny slits where his eyes opened. I couldn’t even be mad, I just laughed with the rest of the crowd and shook my head.
It wasn’t long before Chico and I became a package deal. My friends gladly invited him over when they had gatherings. He rode with me everywhere and it got to the point where if he wasn’t with me, people would ask where he was with a sense of disappointment that it was “just me.” It made my heart sing. One night we were invited to Easter dinner. Our friends had really gone all out with food and wine and place settings. As soon as we sat down to eat and raised our glasses for a toast, Chico promptly mounted their golden retriever of about the same age and began a rather loud and clumsy celebration of his own.
He always seemed to be packing about ten tons of personality into that 80 pound frame.
Although I didn’t have all the modern tricks and training, I started to really tune into him. I realized he was actually incredibly sensitive and smart. One time a friend and I came home from dinner when he was just a puppy and my place stunk to high heaven. I couldn’t find the loot anywhere. I searched and searched. My place was pretty small and clean at the time so I couldn’t figure out what it could be. Finally, I realized that he did have an accident but he had found strips of paper from the trash to cover it up with.
He never wanted to disappoint me, and he really never did.
I have so many stories about him I think I could fill a book. It would be my story, too, because so many of my life decisions were based on him – from the car I drove (I got a truck so he could be in the bed in the back. He didn’t like that so I figured he could be in the backseat. He didn’t like that so he ended up riding shotgun, and spent most of the time as far in my lap as he could be as long as I could still move the steering wheel…) to the places I lived to where I would choose to camp or vacation. If he couldn’t come, we probably weren’t going.
Chico’s story is also the story of my healing. Before him, I was processing trauma for the first time and had textbook symptoms of PTSD, which showed up in full force at night. I’d have to check every door lock multiple times, make sure every window blind was closed so tight that nobody could see in through even the tiniest sliver. I’d check closets and under the bed for my murderer and always, always, kept a light turned on. Even still, I would lay awake endlessly and when I did finally fall asleep, I was haunted by nightmares that made me beg for the light of morning.
Chico changed all that, little by little. I started to feel safe. Slowly, the lights started going off, the blinds started cracking open. Within a short time together and ever since then, I can’t even imagine sleeping without the lights off and the windows open, letting the fresh air in.
I taught him to swim and he taught me to sleep. I taught him to sit and he taught me to walk every chance I get. It seems to be no accident that he has slowly lost his mobility over time. I think he’s been training me for when I have to go on without him. First, we couldn’t backpack together anymore, then we couldn’t go on long walks, then even the neighborhood block was too much.
Now I hold him up to pee and even point his aim for him so he doesn’t miss and get it on himself. We carry him up and down the stairs. There’s not a thing I wouldn’t do for him and all I feel when I’m doing it is pure love and gratitude that I get to be the one to do this with him in this lifetime. And, of course, sadness to see my strong and joyful dog struggling so much.
In all of this, he’s also shown me that the greatest relationships are the ones that bring out the best in us. Like the time I cranked up the radio and sang to him on the 4th of July because he was scared of the fireworks. Or how he’d do his “bucking bronco” moves in the backyard and get me to chase him around over and over again so playfully. He brought out my desire for connection and adventure and showed me how easily we can just make both happen.
It’s really hard to be in the in between now, lingering here wondering how it’s going to go and when. But he teaches me again. This time it’s presence. To be here in the moment with him, right where we are. Cuddled up in this little place, listening to his breath and the waves. I’d give anything for one more time to take him to the beach and watch him dash across the sand so fast every head turns to see him jump out into the waves, then lay all the way down so he can feel his whole body and his face in the saltwater. And then I remember that one day I’ll be saying I’d give anything to just have him lying by my feet one more time.
Here he is, right now, so I’ve got to get my cuddle on. When he wakes up and realizes I’m crying he’ll stick his nose right into my eye and lift my head up. He might put his paw on my shoulder. I love when he does that. Inevitably, he’ll slyly turn until his belly is up and his neck is stretched out, all ready for the rub down. And I’ll gladly give it.
It feels good to write about him. To honor him. To begin to somehow process the depths of this special relationship and my sorrow for the inevitable. I guess what it comes down to is that he always gets so anxious when I have to go anywhere without him. Now I know exactly how he feels.