Last year, my grandma died, my dad died, my car died, and my dog died. Out of all of these, the one I had the most trouble mourning was the dog. This is sort of surprising, because I never used to be a dog person. But then we had kids. And then one of our kids wanted a dog. And then everybody wanted a dog. My wife and I were having coffee at Barnes and Noble one night when it hit me. I said to her, “We’re getting a dog, aren’t we?” She just smiled.
And the very next week it happened. April the dog adopted our family.
April was a chow mix of some sort. A black-tongued tumbleweed, very strong, ridiculously hairy, and fiercely protective of those she loved. Anyone who came to the door was subjected to a stern security check. But once it became clear they belonged, they were added to her pack.
My father in particular. He never liked dogs, but April took this as a challenge. From their first meeting, she let him know that he was the family’s true Alpha Male and proceeded to lie on her back in front of him, wriggling for a belly rub. What could he do? This upright man of the church and the classroom. Two hours of April’s loving devotion, and he became, if not a dog-lover, at least an April lover.
April was our family ambassador to our diverse neighborhood. The kids all knew her by name. People three or four blocks down would call out as we walked her. Dogs sometimes get a bad rap in the city, but they can also help build community.
As the years went by, April transitioned from spunky puppy to mature adult. She held court under our dining room table, allowing us to scratch her behind the ears and slip her pizza crusts. As the kids left home, she became a steady companion – always there for a walk and talk at the end of a hard day. A best friend.
In her final year, April loved to lie at the screen door, with her nose on her paws. Now almost one hundred years old in dog years, she couldn’t see any more, but she could still sniff the night air. We would sleep with the door to the yard open – April on the threshold. Not so much a guard dog now as a trip hazard for any would-be home invaders. And then in the last weeks, we would carry her down the back steps to the yard twice a day. She was always dignified, even in those senior moments.
After April died, I couldn’t imagine getting another dog. It was just another grief in a long year. But two weeks ago, my son came home from college with a surprise - a new puppy. A black lab mix. And all of a sudden, it’s started again. The puppy love.
This morning, I was lying quietly in bed languidly thinking about getting up. In the distance, I heard the sound of toenails scrabbling on hardwood floor. Then silence. Followed by WHAM, a wriggling mass of fur landing on my chest, and a big pink tongue licking my face. I started to laugh. And I laughed and laughed.
I’ve spent the first fifty years of my life trying to become human. The best gifts I have been given in that quest have been children, and dogs.