Over the last few months, several of my friends have dealt with the loss of a beloved pet. It put me in mind of a something I wrote years ago after we lost our first dog, a black lab named Gracie. I thought I'd share this post again in support of them and in memory of Gracie, who I think of often. This reflection and others are available in The Best of Aloha Kugs: Volume I which you can find right HERE.
Everyone loves their dog. At least everyone is supposed to. I loved Gracie from the moment she tackled me in my apartment in New York in the mid-90's. She tackled me, as if to say: “I know you, and you’re mine!” and then sped off as if to say, “So, what else ya got?” She was one of a kind.
That first weekend that the wife brought Grace up to stay with me in NY, I got very sick with Gastroenteritis. I had a high fever and hallucinated a few times. I remember the dog, even having just met me, laying next to my side of the bed, doting on me as though she had known me forever.
She was always a handful, usually for the best. She snuck more cookies, pies, turkey butts, silver polish, pretzels, cakes, ice cream, steak, venison, chicken, cottage cheese, chili, buffalo wing bones, buffalo burgers, French fries, soap, and bread than any dog I’ve ever known. She could release herself from any enclosure, could hide evidence of her crimes, and in general, keep everyone on their toes. She was a menace to other dogs, unless she decided she liked them, and even then, it sometimes took some prodding. She was an only dog, to be certain, but she liked “Peaches,” and “Montana,” and especially “Mikey.”
Grace’s biggest impact on me was not only the manner in which she inspired me to open my heart to her, but in the way she, in her own way led me back to being a person of faith. I was in a pretty dark, but searching period spiritually, and I honestly feel that God chose to work through this 45 pound ball of energy to bring me back around.
I was working at Camp Ramaqoius during the summer of 1998, teaching rock climbing. It was a relatively soft job, but one day, I got a call to come to the office of the camp, as this was before I, or most people had a cell phone. I had a message to call the wife, though she was not the wife then, and she said it was an emergency. I called, and in tears, she told me that Gracie had been involved in a fracas with Harry, the annoying little dog next door, and that she’d bitten him, and his owners were being dicks about it-even though he came on her property. She was upset, and said that she was thinking of putting Grace down. I told her to wait until I got there and left work.
When I got to my car, I found that I was parked in. There was no room at all to get out without serious risk of damaging the other cars.
I was blessed in this time to be driving a 1995 Mercury Tracer, later to be called “Bullseye.“
So what did I do? I won’t say that I prayed as much as I opened a negotiation with the Almighty. I said, alright God-you want me? Here’s my price-get me there and help me fix this, and you’ve got me. Seemed a small price to pay, I thought.
Somehow, I managed to get my car through without damage. To this day, I’m not sure how it happened. Honestly, I have no memory of how I made it out of the parking lot but the nest thing I knew, I was on the road, speeding shamelessly to home, hoping that the future wife, “the girl” in this narrative, would respect my request. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure. Grace was her dog, technically. We weren’t married yet, so I had no real claim to her, though I like to think we were acting as a family, with the wedding less than a year away. My whole drive there, I didn’t put the radio on, which is rare for me. I held a whole dialog with God about not wanting to let this Dog go-that I wasn’t willing to do so, and that if need be, she was coming to live with me in New York whether “the girl” liked it or not. The trip remains a blur to me, and having never driven from Camp to the Girls’ before, I’m still not certain how I managed to figure out how to get there. I spent that drive spelling out my terms to God, and all it was going to cost to get me back, with a full heart, was for lack of a better term, saving this Dog. For whatever reason, I felt called to tie my spiritual life to Gracie’s.
Now, I like to think of myself as a strong man. I’m not sure anyone else does, but I like to think that I have strength, and especially when it is needed, I show it. The moments when I take charge are probably not as frequent, mostly because we work together on most things and build consensus. I remember going into the house, and finding her and Grace on the bed. She had been crying, and in essence, said that she’d said goodbye to Grace.
My specific words at that time I don’t recall, but I know they included that I was not going to allow Gracie to be put down, and that if I had to take her to NY to do so, I would, even if it was against her will. I said that we needed to do better by her as dog-parents, and if there was a failure here, it was ours, not hers. That we had to learn and we had to adjust, and that our family did not simply throw away a life because things got difficult. I said a lot of stuff, and in the end, we agreed to get some help training her, and to work on ourselves as caregivers to Grace. I think it was one of the first real “household decisions” that we made, as we were still only engaged, but I like to think that it helped me realize the importance of taking care of Grace as a mirror to what it means to care for a family. I’d like to think that that’s why God put this nutty dog in my path. But, whatever the reason, I’d made a deal with God and I was back.
It was that simple for me, honestly. The love of a Dog brought me back to God. The story of how I got back with Jesus is even sillier, but it has little to do with Grace.
Throughout the remainder of her life, she brought us incredible joy and humor. I can’t say that the training we did really stuck with her, but we never really had a major incident again, as we learned how to adjust to her, which I think is honestly a lesson about family. You can’t change them, but you can change how to live and deal with them. Grace was there through all of our surgeries and slept curled up in the crux of my knees on more nights then I can remember. We spoiled the daylights out of her, and in essence, she reaped the benefit of our long standing efforts to conceive. She was the first baby in the family. But then, she saw us through all that-every shot, every test, every drug, every disappointment, every hard decision, Grace was there. Sometimes she dozed off, but she never failed to be present.
I remember the summer we got married, I was off from work while she had to work all summer. There may not ever have been more fun had by one man and a dog than we had that summer. Geez-we had our own soundtrack. We’d work out in the morning, have lunch on the deck, listen to the radio in the afternoon, and then, just when it seemed the right time: play “Jump in the line” by Belafonte at happy hour and chill out in the hammock with the parrot head mug until “the girl” got home.
I remember one weekend when I worked at the school in New York, she was with me, and the kids were doing nightly check-in. There was a Korean boy, who was afraid of dogs and when he saw I was holding her leash, decided to make faces at her. Grace looked at me sideways, as if to say, “Mind if I bark at him?” to which I nodded. She let out one loud “ARF” and the boy took off. That one still makes me laugh.
I remember that Grace learned how to wink one eye. She honestly would do it at the most appropriate times, and it would be funny as hell.
I remember one day in North Jersey, she and I were walking outside the house when we were set upon by wasps. We ran, both of us getting stung. I ran into the bathroom, as I had one in my shirt and more following us, and once I hit the door, she turned around, setup on guard-dog duty and held them at bay.
I will always remember how she’d dive into snow banks. I think I will do that too from now on. Seems like a good policy.
I remember reading my graduate papers to her. Her input was invaluable.
I remember Sundays, when the wife would be working all day at the parish, I would be in the den, I’d turn on football and she’d curl up on the green Mona blanket, and we wouldn’t leave that room for hours…and I’d just absently pat her head
I remember how she knew that Great-Grandma Jensen was not someone to jump on…though she jumped on most everyone. I remember too, how when I got home from my back surgery, she just knew she had to be gentle with me. With the wife in Germany, she was my most consistent and welcome companion, and laid with me for hours. She knew to go easy.
I remember waking up with her on 9-11. We were the only two who seemed to have slept through the whole thing, but I remember getting a call from the wife at like 11am, and turning on the TV and holding on to Grace as I got the whole story at once. In all honesty, I just remembered that now. Today. Wow.
I remember how she ate Annie’s cookies and hid the evidence.
I remember playing ball with her in Beverly and how she loved that fence. It was probably the only time we had her that she was really un-tethered. I can still see her romping around that space, chasing the ball, or a bug, or her shadow, or rolling around in something icky. We had a lot of fun on Sundays there, too. Same Mona blanket-just a different couch.
I remember how once my wife got pregnant, Grace had to sleep near her. She did that both times.
I remember how, coming home late from the Dublin Pub, after work, sometimes at 2am, she’d meet me at the top of the steps, smell me, make a face, but go to bed satisfied that I was home. I just smelled bad.
I remember time in the living room in North Jersey listening to the radio, or just music, laying on the floor leaning my head on her for hours. Sometimes in front of the fire, which she always liked.
I will always remember the moments when the twins were sweet to her-petting her and hugging her. Talking to them about her death will be difficult, but necessary. I hope they will learn to understand.
Letting her go this afternoon was hard for me. I held her the whole time, and though it was difficult, I had to be there. To be honest, I saw that moment 9 years ago in my mind when I was racing to the girl’s house to try and save her. I have always known how her life would end, though I didn’t know when. It went pretty much exactly as I knew it would. I’m glad that we had those 9 years though. We packed a lot of love and a lot of life, growth and change into those years.
I knew I had to be with her at the end, because I honestly feel in my heart that she would have done the same for me. If I had asked her to, she’d have stayed with me that long, and longer. She would have waited up for me, as she often did. I held her all the way through, and I told her that I love her and that I always will. I told her that she was a good dog. I thanked her for being my and our dog. I told her that everyone loves her. I told her I will miss her, and I asked God, that even though I do not know what is out there beyond life, if there is a place for her, that she find her way there, as she has more than done her part to make this world better. I told her that she made me a much better person, and that she brought me back to God. I said that a day would not go by that I do not think of her, and I honestly feel that is true. She restored my faith and opened my heart to a world of endless love and wonder, and in all honesty, there are not that many human beings in my life that can top that for impact.
Perhaps that’s unusual. Take it up with God then-I’m at peace with it.
I’d like to think that she had a good life with us. The last few years her health was not as good, and with the birth or the twins and Allie, our attention to her diminished. I feel badly about that, except for the fact that I’d like to think that in some way, caring for her taught us how to care for them. She got to enjoy them and they her, and while the twins are not yet 3, they will remember her. I will see to that.
The house already seems emptier without her. There’s no one to pick up the food that the boy dropped on the Oriental rug. I guess I’m going to have to be more diligent about that. I keep thinking that I’m going to hear her adjust herself on Daddy’s chair and I’ll hear the clinking. I think the first night I spend in this house or the next by myself will be difficult, as even when the wife and the kids were away, Grace and I were usually home together. I’m not looking forward to that.
She was one of a kind. I don’t know that I’ll ever want another dog, or to be honest, any pet.
I had my dog, and she was spectacular. I will miss her, and I hope that we did right by her.
Addendum from 2018: As I revisit this over ten years since she died, I do still miss her. That said, there was a moment a few years ago where I really felt her presence. The children and the wife really wanted a dog and I’d been resistant. “I’d had my dog,” I said. "It wouldn’t be fair to another dog to try to have her fill the space that Gracie left," I said.
Someone posted something on Facebook a few years back that was written from the perspective of the dog who had passed and it said, essentially, “instead of missing me, please take that love and share it one of my brothers or sisters who need a home.”
And of course, that made me lose it too. And we have Maggie now (pictured above), who is laying on my foot again as I edit all this. It seems to be her happy place, right on top of my foot.
Just like Gracie.