How is life at Rainbow Bridge? You’ve had your new body for almost six weeks now. You are running with a tennis ball in your mouth and frolicking with Bear and your buddies who went before you. The sun is shining, bathing the verdant hills and meadows with a glowing light. God gave you a tremendous gift. Whatever it was that was bothering you, whatever it was that felled you like a gunshot—whether it was a massive heart attack or a blood clot—you are free of it now. Whatever caused you to leave this earth—suddenly and shockingly on a walk in our subdivision on Aug. 29, just two minutes from our house—has been healed. You are strong, vibrant and content, and you are waiting for me.
Perhaps you even look the way you did when I first saw you on Aug. 25, 2010. Do you remember that? Each of us had a fascinating story to tell.
It just occurred to me that I never told you mine. I started to look for another dog about five or six months after Bear went to Rainbow Bridge. At one point, a friend hooked me up with one of her friends who had a black lab for sale—a unique dog named Sadie who would even ring a bell when she had to go to the bathroom. But on the day I was to pick her up, the woman called me and said she had given the dog to someone else. After we got over the heartache and shock, I started looking for dogs on the Houston SPCA website. On Aug. 18, I saw two black labs listed, Atlas and Jennings, but when I called the next day, both were gone. I knew then that I couldn’t mess around if I saw one I wanted. And on Aug. 25, I saw you had just been listed that day. I called and was told you were still available. I rushed to the SPCA after work.
Your story, according to the SPCA, was that your family was moving to Canada and couldn’t take you. Huh? OK, if it was an issue with immigration, I would have paid somebody to construct a secret compartment in my car! You were listed as “Tommy,” a black Labrador retriever mix, 65 pounds, house-trained, with a “short, smooth coat, brown eyes, droopy ears, long tail.” They took me back into the kennel to your chain-link fence stall. They said we could escape the cacophony of 50 barking dogs and go to a private area outside to get acquainted. And so we did.
The sun was dipping behind the trees, casting long shadows on the fenced-in area. I sat on the bench and called you over. You were initially more interested in frantically exploring the confines of the meet-and-greet area. But then you ran over and put both paws up on my thighs and licked my face. I cradled your head and could feel your beautiful, silky ears, and as I gazed into your clear brown eyes, I could sense you telling me, Take me home. I will love you with all my heart.
Was there really a decision to make? My overpowering thought was, “Why would anybody leave this sweet boy behind?” I couldn’t take you home that day—that was enough to break my heart—because they had to neuter you the next day. I gave them $115—I would have given them $10,115, knowing what I know today—and looked forward to seeing you again on Aug. 27. Oh, and one more thing: They told me that if I changed your name, it might be a good idea to make it something that sounded like Tommy.
“Hmm,” I told them. “Tommy seems to fit him. I’ll just keep it.”
When I picked you up that day, you were so excited that you emptied about a half-gallon of urine on the floor of the SPCA, right near the front desk. But you didn’t seem confused on the car ride home. You sat with your shoulder against the rear left door, calmly looking out the window as the concrete jungle of Houston passed by.
When we reached home, you hadn’t seen 10 feet of the house before you lifted your right leg and sprayed another quart of urine on the dry wall. What on earth? Where did you get that from? I figured you couldn’t possibly have anything left in your bladder, so I gave you a tour of the house. In my bedroom, you anointed my comforter with another round of urine. And you were, uh, fairly wild. You jumped up on the kitchen counter with both paws. House-trained, my butt!
That weekend, Austin came over, and that was the beginning of our love affair together. On Sunday morning, we did a photo shoot in the living room that produced two photos I will cherish the rest of my life. One of them shows you licking my face—I used that as my Facebook profile shot for most of the rest of your life (and then replaced it with a shot of you under a rainbow). The other shot shows you in a rare—at least at that time—gentle, still moment, your nose nestled against Austin’s cheek.
You had unbridled, outright rampant energy, and our fenced-in backyard suited your stage in life. The yard wasn’t big, so I challenged you by throwing a racquetball in such a way that it caromed off the back brick wall and then wildly off the side wall. Your anticipatory skills were off the charts. I could see the disappointment in your eyes when I called an end to each session.
While I loved playing with you, you also had to develop discipline. You had no idea how to even do the basic things like sit and lie down. I enrolled you in a six-class basic obedience course at the SPCA. In the beginning, you might have been the most unfocused dog in the class. But by the end, you might have been the best. It would be a recurring theme in your life: You were a pleaser. All you needed was love and guidance. You actually wanted to be trained. By the first Christmas, you were posing perfectly in front of the tree—proud of yourself, it appeared, as you deserved to be.
Our life in Texas was good, but it didn’t last long. In March 2011, I could feel God calling me back to Florida, and then everything lined up: My boss allowed me to move and telecommute, and the house sold in late August.
I wonder what was going through your mind as you saw the moving boxes exponentially piling up in the house. Is he leaving me like my first parents did? You even ended up briefly in the kennel at my vet’s office while I closed on the house on Sept. 26, which probably didn’t help your anxiety level.
But I picked you up, you hopped into the front seat on your bed and rode shotgun for 12 hours to our first stop in Defuniak Springs, FL. And then the final seven hours the next day to Southwest Florida. I can’t imagine a sweeter trip with a sweeter companion. You were relaxed, but engaged. Loving, but not overbearing.
I did have one minor concern. You hadn’t pooped since we Texas. It started to become a major concern when you wouldn’t poop in the backyard of our rental house in Florida. Not that night. Or even the next morning. Then, literally a minute before my friend arrived with a housewarming bottle of wine, you deposited a massive load near the entrance to the bedroom, then another load right next to the front door. I ushered my friend into the house while you cowered in the corner in shame, thinking I was going to discipline you or do something. I comforted you, telling you it was OK. I think I felt worse than you did.
Those first few weeks were not easy for you. You had a rumbling stomach—sometimes it sounded demonic—and were throwing up. The vet took some radiology profiles and bloodwork, and found nothing abnormal. She gave us a tip that was gold: Feed you before your walk, not after. She also adjusted your food to a different formula—and I added a tablespoon of yogurt at each breakfast, which you devoured first—and you returned to normal.
In March 2012, I bought a home less than a mile away and we settled into a beautiful life. It was a life steeped in routine—but routine that you seemed to love, because it had enough excitement and adventure in it, and enough shared love. You were, in many ways, the canine embodiment of me.
In the morning, after my alarm would go off, you would greet me by jumping up into bed with me. I learned that I never had to set a second alarm. You were my second alarm. How could I not be excited to face a new day when you were so boldly proclaiming your let’s-get-it-going mantra?
We’d make our way to the kitchen, and just inside the entryway, you would turn three clockwise circles on your way to your food dish. Always three circles. Always clockwise. While you were doing that, the slobber was flying from your mouth, staining the wall next to your food mat. (It’s still there. Your badge of honor.) You would sit perfectly as I filled your dish. And then you would lock in on my face and wait for my OK command. I would alter the length each time to keep you honest. And you always were.
You did have some idiosyncrasies that manifested themselves on walks. You despised noisy trucks, yippy dogs that lunged and barked at you, and turtles (whether they were moving or not). It took a few years of patient training, but you became the neighborhood’s best-behaved dog.
In your last year or so, I noticed something different: Sometimes we didn't even encounter anything like that, but you would keep looking up at me as we walked—your right shoulder dead even with my left hip, always in a perfect symphony with my walking, your gorgeous brown eyes begging for a reward. And I would shake my head and say, “What? Nothing happened. Nice try, Tommy.” And I don’t know why I did this, but in the final few months of your life—obviously not knowing they would be the final months—I gave in to the radiance of your eyes and your inimitable charm. And so I would stop, you would sit perfectly and I would reward you. God, I can say now that I am so glad I did.
Once a week, we’d head to the dog park and let loose. All the dogs would crowd the gate as you entered, but you had your routine, and they were just in the way. You’d explore a good chunk of the park, lifting your leg on a half-dozen posts, tree trunks and sections of chain-link fence, then poop. I’d usually bring my tennis ball launcher and give you a good workout. Sometimes you were locked in. Other times not so much—you’d fetch, but then drop it without returning it to me. Then you’d wander over to the area where the dog owners were socializing, and you’d accept all the love they gave you.
Sure, you had your buddies: Tiger, Charlie, Sasha. Sometimes the park had a dozen of them at one time, and you participated in the chaos. But you were always a people dog. Not a dog dog. You craved attention from human beings. You gave so much love and affection and treasured the same in return. And especially from me.
I could see in your eyes many times that I was your best friend, and the only one you truly wanted. Do you have any idea how that made me feel? I hope I expressed that to you.
Many times I would get down on your pillow with you in the living room, put my nose up against your snout, caress your impossibly silky black ears and gaze into your beautifully clear ebony eyes from only an inch away. I used to wonder why you seemed to really like that. And then I read an article that described the science behind it: that eye-to-eye connection gave both of us a pleasant shot of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. The mechanism behind the connection is the same as what mothers feel for their babies. Scientific studies have shown we love our dogs like we love people.
Of course, loving a dog as much as I loved you, I had to come up with a nickname. In the age of hip-hop, T-Dog came easily. In 2016, that morphed into T-WolfDog. It stemmed from a confluence of factors. You had always had a very distinctive bark—almost a wolf-like howl. You also had a sleek, satiny strip of fur down your spine. A few people at the dog park speculated that you had some Rhodesian Ridgeback in you, but your strip didn’t go in the opposite direction and you didn’t have that temperament: strong-willed, mischievous, reserved toward strangers. I made a trip to the Shy Wolf Sanctuary in July 2016 and came back convinced you were part-wolf. So I added that to your nickname and voila! You were T-WolfDog. That was even better, don’t you think?
Even at 11—77 in human years—you still fit your hip-hop name. You exuded cool. And you still had energy. I told many people that you had almost as much energy as you did when I first found you. You still loved playing tug-of-war with your rope, still made it hard for me to loosen it from your jaw’s vice grip, still raced to the end of the lanai, brought it back and then did a few wild victory laps.
I saw no change in you in your final days. Same energy. Same appetite. Same poops. I thought we had so much more time together. That’s part of the pain I’m feeling. I had no time to say goodbye to my best friend.
I'm still taking my twice-a-day walks. I need the exercise. But I'm not seeing the same beauty. It was beauty that you showed me through your exuberance, your curiosity, your undeniable love for life. I have to try really hard to find a “sliver of beauty.” When you were at my side, that was my “sliver of beauty.” The world seemed to come alive. Birds seemed to sing with greater joy and intensity. The palm trees seemed to sway more majestically. You showed me the hopeful beauty in each new morning, and the relaxed tranquility at the end of each day.
But the legacy you left brings me so much joy. Everybody loved you. I still have every “report card” from your visits to the pet resort. They didn’t give you an actual grade, but you were a straight-A student and the teacher’s pet. On the first one, the kennel manager wrote, “Tommy is one of a kind. He is so sweet and lovable. He loves being outside with his friends. He is very playful. We love him and can’t wait to see him again!”
Were they just exaggerating to retain my business? I don’t think so. I could tell by the way they gushed about you while I waited for the assistant to bring you to me. That wasn’t insincere.
It seemed like you were a hit in the neighborhood, but I had no idea just how much until after you ascended to Rainbow Bridge. On my morning walk a few days later, I was stopped two times by women who had never even spoken to me. One said you were the best-behaved dog she had ever seen. The other said you were the best walker she had ever seen. Since then, I have lost track of the times my fellow residents have asked about you. I am seeing how you impacted people in ways I never knew.
I can still feel you in the house. When I come out of the bedroom, I sense that you’re waiting for me outside the door. When I’m in the office, I sense that you’re lying by the bookcase. Every night before bed, I turn off the TV, stop by your pillow and kneel down—just like I used to. But instead of petting your head, I touch your collar and tags and say, “I love you, Tommy. I miss you.” But you know that, right?
There are times when I fully expect to see you even though I know you’re gone. We had a powerful connection that went beyond anything mere words could describe. We still have it. My friend told me that your spirit will remain here until you know that I’m OK. I told her that in that case, you might be here awhile. She said, “As long as it takes, my friend.”
I invested everything I had in our relationship, never trying to minimize any of my emotions or give you any less than you deserved. I knew this made me vulnerable. I knew the day would come when you would leave this earth and the weight would crush me.
But I believe strongly in the words of dog trainer and author Suzanne Clothier:
“There is a cycle of love and death that shapes the lives of those who choose to travel in the company of animals. It is a cycle unlike any other. To those who have never lived through its turnings and walked its rocky path, our willingness to give our hearts with full knowledge that they will be broken seems incomprehensible. Only we know how small a price we pay for what we receive; our grief, no matter how powerful it may be, is an insufficient measure of the joy we have been given.”
That is so profoundly beautiful, isn’t it, Tommy? I know I don’t even have to tell you this, but I completely gave my heart to you. I would have done anything for you, my precious companion. Anything. And I know you would have done the same for me. I don’t ever wonder why a year passed in between Bear’s ascension to Rainbow Bridge and my adoption of you. God wanted me to be patient. You were His perfect gift to me.
Through my tears, I am gazing at a photo of you. You are looking directly into my camera lens, so comfortable in your own skin, so strikingly handsome in the sun’s late-afternoon tones. The photo was taken where many of your best photos were taken: at the dog park. You were always a willing subject and struck so many incredibly glorious poses, even though you probably had already scoped out another tree trunk to mark. It was an indelible part of your inimitable personality. So sweet. So trainable. So alert, alive and in the moment. I have never owned or even known a dog that had the fruit of the spirit like you did: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The photo is accompanied by some words that were sent to me by a member of “The Loss of a Dog” Facebook page. But the words aren’t his. They’re yours:
“We may not be together in the way we used to be. We are still connected by a leash no eye can see. So when you need to find me, we are never far apart. Just look beyond the horizon and listen with your heart.”
Where you are now, there is no leash to restrain you, no fence to contain you. Run free, my precious friend. Run free! I’ll see you at Rainbow Bridge.