The sun rose this morning, but my world is changed. It is emptier, less colorful, lacking some of the texture that gives life meaning.
Last night I took my final walk with my best girl, Winnie, Destroyer of Socks, Thief of Hearts, Certified Pizza Bandit – the first and the last of her name. I laid on the ground with her as her heart took its last beats and my heartbeat grew forever fainter too. There is loss, and there is the loss of your dog.
You see, each of us lives several lives simultaneously. Some of our lives are large, our selves projected out onto the world. These lives are impactful, boastful, proud. The lives we live in boardrooms and on LinkedIn, when negotiating an A-round of funding or selling the future growth of our businesses. These lives are real – I do not deny that – but they are projections, sometimes aspirational and on occasion desperate.
We have our community-sized lives, where we drop some of our pretenses and allow our friends and neighbors, our families, to get to know us on a more intimate level. Here, we create truer bonds, we co-create human spaces: families, neighborhoods, book clubs, religious groups. Although most Americans focus too much on our Big Lives, it’s here at the community level that we gain most of our sense of meaning and fulfillment.
And then! Then we have our dog-sized lives. These lives are our boots-on-the-ground granular lives. The first thing I do when I get up and the last thing I do before I go to bed is take out the dogs. (I’m going to have to get used to using the singular “dog” again….) There’s nothing like anchoring your day in the real than picking up dog shit and having your dog nuzzle you in the knees as you walk back to the door. Thank you so much for taking care of me. Every day. In the bitter cold, in the pouring rain, when it’s already 73 degrees at 6 am.
Our dog-sized lives are the worlds of our routine. I don’t mean “routine” in the now-derogatory way of, “this is minor and boring.” Routines are the things that keep us alive and sane and happy. And dogs are exceptionally good at keeping us on routine.
Our dogs get us at our most honest and unvarnished – and they love us anyway.
There’s nothing I could write here that will do justice to the magnificent beast that Winnie was. I am certain that, but for Winnie, I would not be alive today. I owe her everything. She saw me through divorce, dating, remarriage, illness, should-have-been death, organ transplant, second-trimester miscarriage, and – perhaps most astonishing of all – happiness.
So instead of attempting and failing to express how much she meant to me (and to Audra), a few stories in her honor.
Shortly after my ex-wife and I got married, we bought a house with a yard, as good yuppie lawyers do. We had a miniature schnauzer named Percy and, feeling yard-rich, we decided to get another dog. I have pretty severe allergies, so I need to have hypo-allergenic dogs – which means, basically, terriers or poodle/poodle-mixes. I grew up with Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers and love those dogs, but my family, a few generations back, had Airedale Terriers, the King of the Terriers.
Somehow, I convinced Maggie to get an Airedale. We have a yard! She’ll get plenty of exercise! We already have a terrier, how much crazier could it be?
We picked Winnie up from the breeder in Virginia and drove home to Pittsburgh. That very first night, this 11-week-old puppy stole a piece of pizza from my plate. It was remarkable, this up-to-that-point frightened little puppy saw the pizza and decided that’s mine. Pizza was her original sin, her first love. I regret not letting her have it one more time. I regret not letting her have it all the time.
Reader, let me tell you: a schnauzer and an Airedale are both terriers, but they are not equivalent. Percy was feisty, but Winnie was, as the kids say, a little extra. Percy bit into a lightbulb when he was a puppy and ran away scared. Winnie chewed a battery and survived. On Percy’s birthday, we got him a giraffe as a present. Winnie didn’t get the memo.
After my divorce, I moved into a rowhouse in Lawrenceville with Winnie and my youngest brother, Neill. Although I didn’t yet know it, I was seriously ill and beginning to feel the effects of it. Winnie always knew when something was wrong, well before this idiot glommed on. I would regularly return home from my Biglaw job, utterly exhausted, barely able to summon the energy to take her on a walk. This is how she repaid me.
And Neill? Winnie had an…interesting relationship with him!
One of the things you wouldn’t know about getting an organ transplant, unless you’ve received one or know someone who has, is how it goes from getting placed on the list, to a seemingly interminable wait, to get to the hospital within two hours, we have a potential match!
I got the call, as I was forming an LLC for a customer, sitting in my living room.
As I tried to contact Audra, who was on campus teaching, and my parents, who were going to give me a ride to the hospital, my hands were trembling so hard I could barely hold my phone. Winnie hopped on the couch and laid her head in my lap – and I calmed down.
I packed a bag for the hospital and knelt down to give Winnie a hug. I promised her I’d see her soon, and I meant it. It was a promise I couldn’t make to Audra (a physician, who knew I couldn’t really make that promise) or my parents (who couldn’t entertain the thought that I wouldn’t make it). But I made it to Winnie and dammit, I kept my promise.
I was discharged from the hospital with strict instructions to walk every day. Longer and longer walks. What they don’t acknowledge with these instructions is that you can’t really walk after a transplant. I mean, you can, hunched over so you don’t erupt in unimaginable pain as you’re pulling at the Mercedes logo of staples starting at the top of your rib cage and extending down just above your belly button, then splitting towards your hips. (I will spare you the photo of my bruised body with the staples – although it would make a badass album or book cover.)
Anyway, I not only had to walk every day, but I had to re-learn how to walk. Winnie and I would go on walks through the halls of the apartment building where we lived at the time. She patiently walked at my side and would nudge my hand with her nose when I needed encouragement. We walked first thing in the morning, then we’d go home, I’d feed her, take my medicine, and she’d curl up next to me on the couch as I waited for the pain to subside enough to read or do some work.
It's here, in the dog-sized life where the hard work is, where sacrifices and gains are made, the place where the foundations for happiness are laid. One walk at a time. The fact that I had to take care of Winnie, that she was depending on me each and every day, got me through that time. (I don't mean to say either that Audra didn't help with Winnie – she certainly did – or that Audra didn't help me through this too: she most definitely did.)
The constant companionship of a dog becomes invisible to you, until she isn't there. Until you notice that the dog didn't bark when the UPS guy came to the door. Until you realize that you're eating pizza and she's not devising an Oceans 11-style heist to get a piece. Winnie became so engrained in my every day that her presence became everyday.
It's going to be hard to not feel that absence – and I'm not sure I want the wound to heal. For as long as I feel it, I know I remember just how much she meant to me.
I could tell stories for days, but it wouldn’t make me feel any better. I am grateful for the time I had with her, but damn it, she was only nine. I thought we’d have more time with her.
No matter how cold it is, take the walk. If it’s raining, splash around. You never know when it’ll be your last walk – and you cannot fathom how desperately you will want just one more.
Farewell, my sweetest girl. My atmosphere is lacking oxygen this morning. Thank you for choosing me to take care of; I’m sorry I wasn’t able to save you this time. I love you so, so very much.