Ten years, that’s the deal. The lucky get more time, far too many get less. But we all must inevitably face the end. That end — the only end — is heartbreak. When Dutch died I held James and we cried. I wasted no breath on neat and impotent words. James howled an ancient pain.
Some admonish, “While epidemics rage, wars destroy and poverty runs rampant, your sorrow is for a dog?” Some miss the point.
The point is this — each and every one of us is alone. Profoundly, inexorably and inescapably alone. We have family and friends with whom we share parts of our journey and parts of who we are, but it is impossible to ever truly understand the experience of being anyone else. We are each stuck inside ourselves with no one but ourselves. Scary, I know.
There we are, stumbling through the darkness, finding our way when we see a wagging tail and we’re made a simple but profound offer. “I’ll come with you!” says a dog. A dog has no journey of their own, no thoughts of past or future, so they give themselves fully to us in a way no person ever could.
James accepted Dutch’s uncompromising offer and for 10 years Dutch followed James from Boston to Washington, D.C., to New Jersey and finally to Chicago. Cities and circumstance changed but Dutch never did. No matter what and no matter where, James would come home and find Dutch wagging his tail furiously with a bone hanging out of the side of his mouth like a cigar. To be greeted at the door by a dog like Dutch is to know, if only for a moment, what it feels to be completely accepted and unequivocally loved. And oh what a feeling that is.
In Washington, D.C. James was a police officer in the narcotics division. He became all too familiar with poverty, addiction, crime and violence. You can never let go of all the things that weigh on you, but you can always count on a dog to help carry that weight. I remember one night when James came home after responding to a particularly harrowing shooting. James didn’t say much and Dutch didn’t need him to. With a deep sigh James settled into the couch, Dutch jumped into his lap, and the two held each other in silent comfort.
That’s what we do — we hold them close. We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us.
Like our own story, a dog’s story ends. Just much, much too soon. We know that, yet we repeatedly subject ourselves to this wrenching pain. Why? I suspect there’s no shared answer, but there is a shared lesson. We must measure life not in loss but in experience. Through our relationship with dogs we experience not just man’s best friend. We also experience man’s best quality — unconditional, selfless love.
When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.
As I’ve said before, a dog can’t change the world but they can change your world. And if each of us can pass along even a fraction of the unmitigated, world changing love we receive from our dogs? Maybe we can see about that whole changing the world thing.
Today we cry and howl. Tomorrow we wake up and change the world the same way Dutch did — one small act of selfless love at a time.
If you know someone who’s lost a precious pet, be sure to “Share” this story with them.