The Year of the Dog: A Love Letter

According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2018 is the Year of the Dog. Of course, 2018 is also an arbitrary number assigned to this slice of time thanks to an intricate series of military victories and astronomers surviving skeptical regimes many thousands of years in the past.

But, in the system we’ve been given, it is 2018 and it is the Year of the Dog. Three days ago marked the one year anniversary of Hank and I being an inseparable team. My life is now largely dictated by the needs and desires of a curious, wholly trusting, sinless being who is more afraid of a plastic tarp flapping in the wind than death itself. He will arise from the depths of dreamworld if he hears a crinkling plastic bag that may contain food, but will stay happily asleep while I fold his ears and flop his drooping gums. He will venture untold miles away while we are hiking and mountain biking in the freedom of the woods, but he won’t leave my side if I’m sad or carrying something to eat. He has autonomy and antics, personality and stubbornness, and an overwhelming desire to please. Hank has transformed my life and touched the lives of those who meet him casually on the street or electronically through photos or words about him.

Dogs find the dark corners of our hearts and shine light there, they bring out our greatest kindness and test our patience with pure intent. They offer solace to the hurting and company to the lonely. They provide an external mirror for our own internal dialogue, and a reason to stroll outside when our laziness might prefer to stay catatonic on the couch.

What easier way to appreciate the wind than to see a dog’s face drooping as it sticks its head out the window or a bearded pup turned pointy and hilarious as the breeze ruffles its regal facial decorations? How much better is a quiet walk in the woods or a raucous splash into the river when shared with furry friends?

Traveling with Hank has taught me so much about myself, about dogs, about what we seek in a companion—loyalty without betrayal or ulterior motives, the ability to laugh and cry freely, a warm body to hold through the night—and it has taught me even more about other people. It is extraordinary how many people soften at the sight of a dog, how many days are brightened by Hank’s silly face and wagging tail, how many shy faces are made social under the auspice of petting my dog. I have quite literally made friends because of Hank’s shameless ability to traipse into a neighboring campsite, his hysterical desire to pull up a chair beside me as I drink my coffee in the crisp morning air, his taste for Guinness and picnic leftovers.

There is something about “dog people”—they are not so worried about the appearance of order or arriving in a perfectly lint rolled, fur-free outfit.  They recognize the importance of having joyous, external reflections of what is already written on their hearts. They value spending their time caring for and exploring with the animal known as Man’s Best Friend. They’ll gladly take responsibility for a canine’s actions and wellbeing, and they’ll share the joy of their dog with anyone who needs it.

And there is something about dogs that imprints on us as surely as they leave muddy pawprints on a clean car interior. You become accustomed to the pitter patter of their feet, the timbre of their bark, the squeak of their yawn—each one as unique as a human’s—until you almost take it for granted, just as we do with our friends and family members and coffee shop baristas and the people we wave to as we drive in and out of our neighborhoods. It all fits together like a puzzle, and we forget to even notice the squiggly seams or how important that one piece near the edge is, until one day it’s no longer there.

We gradually fade from sharp-toothed puppy to hyperactive youngin’ to sleeping eighteen hours a day, and as is the nature of existing, we only really notice our most current state of being. A senior dog fades into the background and then occasionally surprises us with a half snarl or a flash of the spunk that used to wear us down through sheer quantity of energy. An old friend falls through the cracks as we see enough glimpses of them looking happy on the internet that we forget to check in and actually talk. The best moments of our life slowly fade into the shadows until we neither remember nor forget them; they are simply there until a tragedy brings them into high relief and we remember them wistfully.

And while Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of Hank and I finding each other in a world racked with improbability, it was also occasion for one of those tragedies that brings history rushing back over you in a dizzying frenzy. Bella, the dog I grew up with fell ill over the weekend, and my confidence in her stubborn tenacity proved to finally be insufficient. By Tuesday morning, surgeons and veterinarians all across Fort Worth had decided that there was no helping her in any way that could avoid catastrophic consequences down the line. Waves of time washed over us, eroding what was left. On Friday, she was chasing the big dogs around in the front yard, with her endearing, curmudgeonly attitude and half-faced snarl and secret appreciation for their presence. Like the timeless schtick of a senior citizen who lovingly hates on everyone around them, she would growl or bark at their loud and clumsy ways, only to sleep tic-tac-toe, three-in-a-row once the day wound down and everyone was cozying up on the floor in front of the fireplace. She’d always been the tiny, lionhearted half-schnauzer who scared the big dogs and shrugged off being torn up in the mouth of a German Shepherd. She’d always outsprinted the car as it pulled into the driveway, her beard blowing in the breeze her speed created, her squinting determination and eagerness to see us visible through her salt and pepper eyebrows.

It is impossible to do Bella justice in words, just as it is any dog or human. We are all convinced that our furry friends are the best ones in the world, just as we come to believe that we either live in paradise or would be happier anywhere other than where we are. We all have stories, all of them true, all of them different. I could talk about the way Bella became the first full recipient of my unbridled love for animals, because there was a little more to squeeze than my pet turtles and frogs. I could write about being amazed by her little legs kicking their way up McAdams Peak in Palo Pinto County, Texas while I was unknowingly becoming the person I am today. The chert rock road that yielded to terraced limestone and trodden grassy singletrack all crunched underfoot as she tenaciously led the way and taught me what it meant to be unafraid even as reality might suggest we proceed timidly. I could tell you about the way being remembered by Bella when I came home from college for the holidays was the ultimate reassurance that I still existed and that there was still some order in the world, in spite of my doubts. There was an endearing alchemy at play with her moods—the willingness to perch in your lap while you read a book and the sassy indifference when her intentions didn’t involve you—and there was a slow and daunting descent into old age, until it was hard to remember how many fewer grey hairs there once were.

And there was a time, a couple of years ago, when she and I went on a road trip from Colorado back to Texas, crammed into my old 911 in a dream-come-true scenario of man, machine, and man’s best friend. We summited Independence Pass and frolicked around in the twenty degree snow storm and she sprinted the Great Sand Dunes with the vigor of a puppy and she sat patiently while I cooled her with ice packs and damp paper towels as we blitzed across the Texas panhandle in the ninety five degree heat of summertime. I had a moment somewhere outside of Alamosa, Colorado where I looked over at Bella and knew this would all one day be gone. I saw her sitting on her little sheepskin dog cushion, looking out the front window with anticipation and enjoyment of the journey. A lifetime of memories flashed through my eyes, and I felt sorry for any antics I put her through when I was a young child and even sorrier for any time I’d ever had to discipline her. I was broken that my kids would never get to meet her and I was so glad that I survived my bike wreck and finally got to take her on a trip with just me, to let her just once be the adventure dog I always knew she could be, National Parks and bites of Dairy Queen and cheap motel beds and all. Tears streamed down my face as I blared down the damp highway and let Bella sit in my lap and drive. I wanted to wring every moment of my life out this much, and I knew I couldn’t. And I knew she wouldn’t always be there to help me.

She shrugged off the years so well for so long that I was able to follow suit. While peers were married homeowners, I was running around sand dunes with a thirteen-year-old Schnoodle, giggling like a thirteen-year-old and wishing only that I could share this moment with everyone I ever have loved and everyone I ever will.