She was a silly, stocky, beautiful black lab. So smart. So funny. Six years old. Utterly charming. And blind.
My husband and I had decided to adopt our first dog, and after much online and in-person searching, we came upon her picture and her story. Long overlooked, in need of a home, without ever actually meeting her, we fell totally in love. We bought beds, bowls and toys, and picked her up in Connecticut. We brought her home, introduced her to Gloucester, and took her down to the beach to smell the ocean. We did our best to win her over, spoiled her with her favorite frozen treat (green beans), and assured her she would never be alone again.
We welcomed her into our family, forever, and began planning what all our new lives would be.
She died a few hours later.
It was nobody's fault. A medical emergency. Just one of those agonizingly horrible things that reinforces the universal truth that life is never, ever, fair - even when you’ve followed the rules and tried to do everything right.
And understanding that didn’t even begin to ease the anguish.
As I sat alone on the bench outside the emergency veterinary hospital, my husband still inside taking care of the hideous details of loss, an old man approached me gently, with tears in his eyes and a small terra-cotta pot of red geraniums in his hands. He had just lost his cat, he told me. He understood the awful. Might I please take these flowers? He said he had a pot of flowers too, and was going to plant them as a tribute to his very dear friend. Maybe I could do the same and we could find a way to keep something beautiful alive in their names?
I took the flowers. The man hugged me tight. And then walked away slowly, back to his empty car. My husband collected me and my geraniums, and we helped each other find our feet.
It was right after his birthday.
On the ride home, I asked a friend to please contact all the people we were supposed to celebrate with at the upcoming party I had planned. Our new dog just died, I told her. We just can't. That night, instead of reveling, we just sat, and held each other, and cried.
We grieved deeply for weeks. Still do, sometimes - though the edges of that particular wound are gentler now. Turns out, once you give you heart to a dog, even if you've only had what feels like seconds to adore them, it can still feel as if you've known them all your life. And it can hurt so much you'll think you're dying. So much, you think you'll never be able to do the whole thing again. You feel so broken. It just hurts...so...bad.
But, here's the thing (and thank you for sticking with me through this not-so-fun-to-read part of the story). Without the darkness, there simply can't be any light. And the light I speak of, that gigantic wildly wonderful and everlasting love, is what dogs are really all about. That light is their gift to us, one they give completely unconditionally. It is the purest form of goodness that can possibly exist.
The light is why we fell in love with Angie. The light in her beautiful eyes, even though they couldn't see. The joy in her goofy smile. Her optimism. The knowing that we’d promised her forever. The way being with her made us feel.
Even in the gruesome sadness that eventually arrived, sooner than any of us expected, it’s the light that came from loving her that I hold tightly to today. That light, I think, is absolutely worth some time, however long it lingers, however awful it may feel while you're alone and sinking in it, spent sitting with the darkness.
Cause from that light, from Angie's light, came Donovan.
My life with D began as a comment I'd quietly tossed away one day not long after Angie’s death. To a friend, trying to explain how fractured I still felt. He’d asked about bringing another dog into our lives, and I immediately said no. The only way I'd ever adopt again, I told him, was if there was a very special dog somewhere. One who was down on his luck, being overlooked, and really needed the second chance he wasn’t getting. A dog no one wanted, who needed just me. If that dog existed, I said (and really, sadly, that dog ALWAYS exists somewhere) then maybe, just maybe, I would think about it.
It was the only way my heart could take it.
After all, I'd picked the dog the first time. I was, and still am, so grateful that I did. I’m grateful to have known and loved sweet Angie. And now, with the benefit of spending these years since with the dogs that followed, I am grateful for this journey with dogs that all began with her.
But back then, I just felt lost.
Not again, I told myself. It’s way too soon. If it's ever going to happen, years from now I figured, the dog this time was going to have to pick me.
A week or so later, an email from that friend arrived. And in it a picture of a 10 year old dog in rescue, with deep wise eyes, worn-down teeth, and a wildly crooked but absolutely beaming smile. His name was Donovan. It might be too soon, my friend said, but you told me what you were looking for. This guy needs you.
My friend was wrong. It was me who needed Donovan. He was magical. Mystical. Soulful. A dog with, as a dear friend told me once, ‘an incredible sense of the other’. He understood people, and loss, and sorrow in way that was profoundly moving. But he also lived his life, every moment, in the moment, with unadulterated joy. He was, and will always be, my heart dog.
Three years later, in November, heartbreak.
But that magic light, remember?
Again, there was an email with a picture. This time, of an orphan in rescue wearing a bandana and smiling for the camera. It was a young dog named Cosette.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I struggled to write this preface. For a million and six reasons. But mostly because I was scared. These were just my little takes on being alive in the world with a dog. Why would anybody want to read them? I was overwhelmed with how good I wanted it to be, and how scared that what I'd write, even polished up, just wouldn't be. That I wouldn’t do the subjects of the stories justice - especially when the subject was my dog.
After all, before Donovan started leading me to people who had stories in the park (and giving me the courage to tell them), before he started offering me lessons only he could ever teach, I never imagined myself a 'real' writer. I still struggle with that thought. And honestly, the idea that these stories should or could be made into a book always sounded crazy (here's where I mention how grateful I am for sweet friends who kindly insisted I consider this).
But, to honor my dog, I started writing anyway.
First in the occasional Facebook post. Eventually sharing the words on a blog I figured no one but my dearest friends might read. That, in and of itself, was terrifying.
But I did it, because I didn’t want what I was learning just to stay with me. After Donovan died, I wanted him (and all the things he taught me) to live on through my words.
And too, the stories felt so powerful, I thought others might relate to them as well. And that maybe, by relating, they might feel a little of that magic light I mentioned. The warm, kind, compassionate good stuff that offers solace when things ache. The kind that shows us out of sadness. I hoped my stories might make someone feel a little less alone.
And if they could do that, in even the tiniest way, then that felt worth the fear of letting them out into the world.
Anxious Brain And The Book That I Wrote Anyway
Okay, so the book.
I was ready to start.
But then, I had a crisis of sorts. On one of those days that still sometimes come, as I started pulling these pieces together and trying to figure out how to make them dance, I came upon a picture of Donovan that, for whatever reason, I still can't look at without crying (damn you, melancholy). And suddenly there was the darkness once again.
I decided to take a drive and clear my head.
As the trees passed by me on the highway, Coltrane on the radio, night beginning to fall, I tried to make sense of things. Angie was gone, and now Donovan, was too. And it was Donovan who'd brought me to this place. He was the one that led me to (and opened up) this door. Then, when I faltered, with a wagging tail he insistently led me through. How could I do this without him? There would never be another walk, another romp on the beach, another night of him curling up beside me as we fell to sleep.
He’d been beside me through everything I’d penned. What if, without him, I could no longer write?
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but once an anxious brain takes you down the ‘you’re not good enough’ rat/rabbit/mole hole, the hits just keep on coming. Anxious brain is unrelenting, and often pretty mean.
Who was I, just barely a blogger, to think that I could do this? You didn’t pass your AP English test in high school, I reminded myself. Real writers totally did that. You also can’t diagram a sentence to save your life and sometimes you have to google when you’re looking for a synonym - ‘real’ writers totally don’t need that crutch and they’d probably mock you if you told them you were doing it.
And then the real kicker from the gray matter (now that it was warmed up and spewing fire). You’re supposed to eloquently explain what all these stories mean - I chided myself. That’s the point of a preface. And that’s not gonna happen, anxious brain reminded me
You struggle to write good grocery lists.
Just then, a box truck came up from behind, slipped into the lane to my left, then settled in again, tucked directly in front of my car. As we drove, I began to laugh - my breath once again taken away in the familiar, ironic, comic way my curly brown dog had always used when instructing me. Especially when he felt like maybe I wasn't 'getting it'.
The mud-flaps on the truck, in big white letters, read DONOVAN EQUIP. CO, INC. It’s a real company, as it turns out. But the only thing that mattered was the sign he’d left, for me.
Cause there it was. His light.
As you’ll see later - this was not the first time he’d used this tactic. The tears were now of joy.
My boy. My heart. My teacher.
Write, he was telling me. I'm not gone. I'm right beside you, still. Write.
So here it is. The book. A collection of small tales that I wrote mostly based around my life with Donovan and the lessons he taught me during our walks in the park. The chronology is a little unusual, the stories maybe standing on their own as individuals more comfortably than lining up in solidarity as teammates in traditional 'book' fashion. There are a few in the collection that don’t quite fit that mold, but do, I think, still fit that spirit.
And the first one, I will warn you, is pretty heavy.
But it’s the one that started the blog, so I’m asking it to step up and start the show this time as well. Others are much lighter, I promise. There are tales of first swims, and angels named ‘Angel’. Of crow rescues and Possums. Of a list from my mother and of the importance of sticks.
And I hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as I loved writing.
I still struggle to think that this is worthy. That I, as the author, am worthy too. But maybe don't we all sometimes worry that we won’t be good enough? I think we’re all in this together.
And in terms of what it 'means', well...it really just comes down to this.
Love a dog.
Love the dog that speaks to your heart. I have a soft spot for senior dogs with crooked smiles, blind black labs, and wildly opinionated divas who love high-end cheese - but you do whatever works for you.
Fearlessly. With your whole heart and soul. Without any conditions. Just. Go. Love. A. Dog.
And let them love you back.
It will hurt when they have to go. And there’s no way around the awful. When it happens, you’ll have to find a way to go through. But you’ll lean on your friends, and one day at a time, you’ll plant your geraniums, and cry yourself to sleep, and realize you are stronger than you ever imagined you could be - and you’ll find your way.
Love a dog. And don’t let fear of the inevitable leaving stop you from letting them teach you how to live right now.
To all my dear friends who’ve been along for this ride from the very beginning, from Angie, Donovan, Cosette, and from me…thank you from the bottom of my heart.