Before I met you, I wasn't much of a dog person. Growing up, I would shy away when a puppy tried to greet me with a jump in the air or a wet kiss.
I remember the day we first spotted you. While we were just browsing through Seahorse on a slow fall day, you were tripping down the stairs with your miniature brothers and sisters. I also remember the shock when your Mommy called me at work and said that somehow, your rare beauty -- that melancholy look of the Beagle combined with the soft white tint of the Samoyed -- was too much to turn away from, and she was convinced to bring you home. With Mom's allergies and after a decade without pets, it was as close of a miracle as we ever had in our house.
At first I didn't know quite what to make of you, as you tried to bite the socks off my feet as I dressed for my senior year of high school, sometimes getting a piece of my heel in the process. We felt sad for you back then; you always seemed to have some health issue, and your aggressiveness and fear indicated a tough experience before we got you. You were so scared of thunder and fireworks. Mom and I often said we wished you could talk so we could learn what was bothering you.
But you also showed a sweet side, the real you, trying to curl up underneath my legs while I lay on the couch even though we both knew we didn't fit. You were sneaky, too. When someone left the sofa to use the bathroom or get a snack, they'd find you in that seat, yawning nervously, when they returned. If I ever went upstairs for a snack, you would run to meet me downstairs, even if you'd been in the furthest room in the house.
Any time I began putting my shoes on, you would turn your head sideways inquisitively, then it would hit you. You would dance around, give that bird-like squeal you called a bark, then give me your left paw, then your right paw, twice, three times. I could never say no. You would drag me out the door as if I were the one with the collar, but by the time we got back you would be hobbling to your water dish and then keel over next to the air conditioning vent. Those walks were our special time together. They allowed me to step back and reflect on life, and reminded me of what was really important.
I scared you every year with those Halloween masks; you could never figure out it was me. You could never wait until Christmas Eve to open your presents; they smelled too good. And the only food better than turkey were the jelly beans from the bunny candy dish you always knocked over.
As time went on, you had a very important job: keeping Mom and Dad company as we all grew up and were home less and less. Every weekend I would come home, you were right there at the top of the stairs in front of the door, your bushy raccoon tail spinning like a propeller and you singing, "Welcome back!" I always tried to fit in that walk. And before I left for the weekend, you always had to give me the guilt trip, gazing at me with those devastated Beagle eyes.
It was heartbreaking to see you get so sick and sad. Mommy cared a lot about you to take care of you for so long. You still had the same vigor for those walks, even on the last day I saw you before the day you went away. I know you were in a lot of pain, but I knew you wanted that time with me, and you knew I wanted it too. That last six weeks we had with you, after the first scare, is a blessing I thank God for. During that time, I cherished every minute we had together. Thanks for hanging in there a little while longer. You truly looked at peace on that last day.
Lita, you've touched me with your unconditional love. I never really understood why people made such a big deal about pets until we met. Now, I stop and say hello to every dog I see on the street, because I see a little bit of you. You were truly a part of our family, and we will miss you. At the least, I finally wish you a pain-free rest. At most, I hope we can all be back together some day. I'll listen for your beautiful welcome song.
Paws, wet kisses and jelly beans,
It's a year later, and I still miss you, even though I know you wouldn't want me to be sad. Every sunny spring, summer, or fall day, every holiday, reminds me of the days when you were part of it. Thanks for leading our new little friend, Sparky, into our lives. I see a lot of him in you, especially that sad face every time I leave. I know your spirit is watching over him, and us. I hope, wherever you are, you are at peace.
When you bring a pet into your life, you begin a journey -- a journey that will bring you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet also test your strength and courage.
If you allow, the journey will teach you many things, about life, about yourself, and most of all, about love. You will come away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.
Along the way, you will learn much about savoring life's simple pleasures -- jumping in leaves, snoozing in the sun, the joy of puddles, and even the satisfaction of a good scratch behind the ears.
If you spend much time outside, you will be taught how to truly experience every element, for no rock, leaf or log will go unexamined, no rustling bush will be overlooked, and even the very air will be inhaled, pondered, and noted as being full of valuable information. Your pace may be slower -- except when heading home to the food dish -- but you will become a better naturalist, having been taught by an expert in the field.
Too many times we hike on automatic pilot, our goal being to complete the trail rather than enjoy the journey. We miss the details -- the colorful mushrooms on the rotting log, the honeycomb in the old maple snag, the hawk feather caught on a twig. Once we walk as a dog does, we discover a whole new world. We stop; we browse the landscape; we kick over leaves, peek in tree holes, look up, down, all around. And we learn what any dog knows: that nature has created a marvelously complex world that is full of surprises, that each cycle of the seasons brings ever-changing wonders, each day an essence all its own.
Even from indoors you will find yourself more attuned to the world around you. You will find yourself watching summer insects collecting on a screen (How bizarre they are! How many kinds there are!), or noting the flicker and flash of fireflies through the dark. You will stop to observe the swirling dance of windblown leaves, or sniff the air after a rain. It does not matter that there is no objective in this; the point is in the doing, in not letting life's most important details slip by.
You will find yourself doing silly things that your pet-less friends might not understand: spending thirty minutes in the grocery aisle looking for the cat food brand your feline must have, buying dog birthday treats, or driving around the block an extra time because your pet enjoys the ride. You will roll in the snow, wrestle with chewie toys, bounce little rubber balls till your eyes cross, and even run around the house trailing your bathrobe tie -- with a cat in hot pursuit -- all in the name of love.
Your house will become muddier and hairier. You will wear less dark clothing and buy more lint rollers. You may find dog biscuits in your pocket or purse, and feel the need to explain that an old plastic shopping bag adorns your living room rug because your cat loves the crinkly sound.
You will learn the true measure of love -- the steadfast, undying kind that says, "It doesn't matter where we are or what we do, or how life treats us as long as we are together." Respect this always. It is the most precious gift any living soul can give another. You will not find it often among the human race.
And you will learn humility. The look in my dog's eyes often made me feel ashamed. Such joy and love at my presence. She saw not some flawed human who could be cross and stubborn, moody or rude, but only her wonderful companion. Or maybe she saw those things and dismissed them as mere human foibles, not worth considering, and so chose to love me anyway.
If you pay attention and learn well, when the journey is done, you will not be just a better person, but the person your pet always knew you to be -- the one they were proud to call beloved friend.
I must caution you that this journey is not without pain. Like all paths of true love, the pain is part of loving. For as surely as the sun sets, one day your dear animal companion will follow a path you cannot yet go down. And you will have to find the strength and love to let them go. A pet's time on earth is far too short -- especially for those that love them. We borrow them, really, just for awhile, and during those brief years they are generous enough to give us all of their love -- every inch of their spirit and heart, until one day there is nothing left.
The cat that only yesterday was a kitten is all too soon old and frail and sleeping in the sun. The young pup of boundless energy wakes up stiff and lame, the muzzle now gray. Deep down we somehow always knew this journey would end. We knew that if we gave our hearts they would be broken. But give them we must for it is all they ask in return. When the time comes, and the road curves ahead to a place we cannot see, we give one final gift and let them run on ahead -- young and whole once more.
"Godspeed, good friend," we say, until our journey comes full circle and our paths cross again.