The story starts here: Christmas 2007. Mark and I had moved in together a few months earlier, and were celebrating our first holiday season in our new apartment. We were fairly broke: I was in law school, and Mark worked for a nonprofit. We bought the smallest Christmas tree available and then headed to Target to buy decorations. We bought a few boxes of ball ornaments and tinsel, and had just enough money left to buy one “special” ornament each. Mark picked out a psychedelic lizard—silver and blue and green. I picked out a Black Lab ornament. We were talking about adopting a dog, and buying the ornament was a special sort of wish—by next year, we’ll have a black lab of our own.
That wish came true a few months later. We had spent a few weeks trying to adopt from rescue organizations, but kept running into roadblocks. Despite our extensive experience with dogs, rescue agencies were hesitant to adopt to a young, unmarried couple living in a rental apartment. So we turned to Craigslist, and quickly found a candidate: an eighteen-month-old Lab mix named Eli. He was living with a family in suburban Maryland, but one of their sons had developed a dog allergy and Eli just couldn’t stay.
I picked him up on the first day of spring break, 2008. He didn’t want to get in the car: his crate was rattling in the back seat, and the noise made him nervous. His paws had been licked raw—apparently Eli was the one with allergies, not the son. Eventually I lured him into the car with enough treats, and we drove home together. We set up his crate downstairs, and spent the evening eying each other, unsure of what to expect.
Around eleven p.m., Mark and I started to get ready for bed. We crated Eli and went upstairs. Eli quickly let us know that he was having none of that—he howled and cried and positively demanded to be let upstairs. I thought we would let him “cry it out,” and that he would settle down eventually. You know how this story ends—he didn’t settle, we let him upstairs, and he slept in our bed for the next six years.
If you have ever loved a dog, you know a lot about those next six years. You know all about the miles and miles we walked, hiked, and ran together. You know about the vet trips. You know about the time I accidentally stepped on his paw and he pretended that his foot was broken. You know that Eli liked to make snow angels. You know that he preferred to poop in high grass, if possible. You know about the rainy August day that Eli was in our wedding. He put on a bow tie and marched proudly down the aisle with his owners. You know about the camping trips, the hours spent in lazy enjoyment of the outdoors, and each other. And if you’ve ever owned a Lab, you know that Eli was a lifeguard: his passion for swimming rivaled that of Michael Phelps.
You know about Eli’s quirks, too. You know never to grab Eli by the collar, because he hated it. You know that he will run through open doors if given the chance. You know that he would seize any opportunity to counter-surf. And you know, particularly as he aged, that Eli personified the old saying, “let sleeping dogs lie.” I could tell you all about those six years, about the moments and images of love that are seared into my brain. But you already know.
The Internet, with its diverse communities and subcultures, has created myths and standards that we all feel that we must live up to. For runners, the Internet suggests that every race must be a personal best, a negative split, and that you should finish without a hair out of place. For creative types, the Internet suggests that works of art should burst fully formed from the mind, without years of work or revision. For working mothers, the Internet suggests that you really can have it all (and stay sane). Every pitcher should be able to pitch a perfect game. Every lawyer should win every case. The list goes on. Life can be without flaw, without heartache, and without tragedy.
One myth that the Internet has created about dog-ownership is the myth of the “last good day.” The story suggests that, as your companion ages, and the time comes to consider euthanasia, you will be able to stage one last perfect day with your best friend. You can do your favorite things, feed him his favorite dish, and cherish each other one last time. Then, when you’re ready, and never sooner, you can make the final trip to the vet’s office and slowly, gently unwind the cord that ties you together.
I know the myth of the “last good day” sounds unrealistic, but I cherished it in the moments I saw Eli’s mortality peeking around the edges of his existence. Moments when I noticed how grey his hair was getting, or how lumpy his chest was, I would always take solace in the fact that it was not yet his time. His time wouldn’t come until after I was ready. He wouldn’t leave me until I was ready to let him go.
I did not get one “last good day” with Eli. I did not get to drive him out to the park, hike to the Overlook, and let him take one last dip in the water. I didn’t get to feed him bacon and duck-treats. I didn’t get to lay on the deck with him, soaking in the sunshine. I didn’t get to show him the depth of my gratitude for the years of companionship and devotion he gave me. I didn’t get to thank him for the way he was the glue that bonded my husband and me into a family.
Eli always ran away. He was a runner. I knew that, and worked hard for years to keep him safe. He was always leashed. Doors were always shut. Mine was a life of constant vigilance. And then, one day, in one moment, it all changed. I opened the door to go out to the car. I knew Eli was agitating to get out—we were in the process of moving, so he was in a new place and he was nervous. He pushed past me in the second I opened the door. I reached out and grabbed his collar. I caught him. I tried to pull him back into the house. I remember thinking, “He hates being pulled by the collar, but if I get bitten, it will be worth it because he will be safe.” Eli turned, backed out of his collar, and bolted. I stood there in stunned silence as he dashed into the street, directly into the path of an oncoming car. I was still holding his collar.
He managed to run a few steps after being hit. I heard him bark twice. I thought that it would be alright—we’d go to the vet, he’d wear a crazy dog cast, but we’d be okay. I ran to him as fast as I could. As soon as I got to him, I realized he was slipping away. There was no panic or confusion in his eyes. Just slow deep breaths. I did not get to give him the “last good day” that he deserved. I was able to hold him, one hand on his ear, the other on his paw, as he took his last breaths and slipped into the dark. I hope that is enough. Right now, it doesn’t feel like it.
In December 2013, in his enthusiasm for breakfast, Eli tripped me down a flight of stairs. I crashed to the ground, breaking two of the smallest bones in my foot. The breaks were tiny: my foot healed within two months. My bones are now strong—I’ve run two marathons and an Ironman since then. But every once in a while, when I’m barefoot, I’ll turn in a new direction too quickly and feel the weakness in those bones. A small twinge where there was a break that has now healed.
I like to imagine that my shattered heart will someday feel the same as those tiny, now-healed bones. That someday, I’ll turn a little too quickly, and see a handsome Black Lab who reminds me of my boy. I hope that when that day comes, I’ll feel a twinge of gratitude for what he gave me, not sadness for what I have lost.