There is a lot of pluses that come with having a furry, 4-legged family member (what some people would refer to as a “pet”) – well, dogs anyway, I can’t really speak to cats (dog owners vs. cat owners is a whole different train of thought for some other time, if ever). With a dog in the family you get someone who’s always happy to see you. Who’s always up for any adventure and gets excited to run 10 yards and track down a tennis ball a hundred times. Who always listens to your problems and is happy to let you rub their (ear, head, back, belly) to relieve your stress. And all the other benefits Billy Currington so eloquently expresses in this song:
But it is not all fun and games. Often times, it is a lot of work. Getting up at the crack of dawn to feed them breakfast and let them out for a pee when it is freezing cold and you’d really rather stay nestled under the covers of your bed; taking them for a walk when you’d really rather lie back on the couch and continue to binge watch Stranger Things; picking up poops in the back yard when you’d really rather go to the dentist for a root canal.
And having a puppy is even more work! House training; putting your shoes away so they don’t get mistaken for a chewy toy; keeping an eye on him to make sure nothing else gets mistaken for a chewy toy; getting up in the middle of the night to let him out for a pee. Having a puppy in the family is only a bit less work than having a human baby (or at least that is what my wife Liz tells me)!
But in my experience, the worst thing about having a dog in the family is that they don’t outlive us. They come into our lives and become an integral part of our families. And then, usually between 8 and 12 years later, it’s time for them to cross over the rainbow bridge. And there’s no other way to put it – that just sucks!!
Because their time with us is relatively short, our furry family members’ lives are bound to specific periods of our own longer life journey. When my wife Liz and I first met, she had a 5-year old Golden Retriever named Kira that she had with her in college. Kira and I quickly became best buddies. She was the flower girl in our wedding and marks the beginning of our family. She crossed over the rainbow bridge in 1995 at the age of 10 as I was half way through business school.
Jessie was another Golden that we rescued a few months after we said goodbye to Kira. She marked the next stage of our family, helping us welcome three human babies to the clan. She came to London with us – enduring 6 long months in quarantine – and had many good days running through Hyde Park. When we moved back from London, she helped us settle into our new home in New York and walked with us to the bus stop as we sent each of our two-legged kids off to kindergarten. She crossed over the rainbow bridge in 2005 at the age of 11.
Just before Jessie’s time to leave us, we rescued a Chocolate Lab from Louisiana. At least we think Walter was a lab – he was big enough that he may have been part horse. He became a bit of a celebrity in our town and as Liz would walk him, people would often yell out to her from their cars “Is that a dog or a horse?” He was like a real-life Clifford. Unfortunately, Walter’s time with us was relatively short. In early 2009, he developed a limp that was caused by cancer in his right front leg and although we tried very hard to save him, he eventually crossed over the rainbow bridge to meet Kira and Jessie in the summer of that year, which also marked the end of our time living in New York.
A couple years before we moved from New York, a Black Lab named Licorice joined the family – we rescued her from Tennessee. She marked our move West and has been with us now for over 10 years. Now close to 11 years old, she’s slowing down some, but she can still be pretty feisty when she wants to be – especially when she is trying to “herd” our Yellow Lab Angus, who joined the family in 2010, or when she is mixing it up with Igor, a Pit Bull-Malinois mix who joined the family as a foster fail a little more than 2 years ago.
I know our time with Licorice is now growing short, and, because I have become a sentimental old fool as Liz and I celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and are 7 months from becoming empty nesters, I’ll often tear up just thinking about the fact that some day in the not too distant future, my little black baby will be crossing over to join Kira, Jessie, and Walter. And it won’t be any easier, even as Liz continues to expand our 4-legged family as the 2-legged children go off to the next stage of their lives (the newest addition being Hank – a 12-week old Chocolate Newfoundland that will likely surpass Walter as the biggest 4-legged Saunders ever).
I was reminded of all this again this morning, when I received a note from my friend Bruce – I wrote about him here – that their male black lab Jersey, who joined their family around the same time that Licky joined ours (they played together often in our last few years in New York) made his journey over the rainbow bridge last night. I was saddened for Bruce and his wife Coco, because having said goodbye three times myself, I know how hard those final hours and the couple days afterwards are.
Why the hell do we do it to ourselves? Is it all worth it – the early mornings, the walks, the late nights, the poops? The saying goodbye as their tail wags one more time, your heart literally breaking to pieces and the tears uncontrollably streaming down your face?
In a word, the answer is YES. All the unconditional love they give. All the joy and happiness. All the great memories of the times and moments spent together and the life changes they were there to share with us and sometimes helped us through.
It doesn’t make the saying goodbye part any easier – God it sucks!! – but it is so much worth it that, as I’m sure any dog lover will tell you, after a little bit of grieving time we go right back out a find another four-legged rascal to join the family and start the process all over again.
Rest in Peace – Kira, Jessie, Walter, Elz, Toughy, Jersey, Parker, Gina, Regus, Sasha, Buddy, Shotzy, Buffy, Sandy. We’ll see you on the other side!!