This morning we woke up in a house without a dog. Saying goodbye to Lieutenant Dan yesterday—because we knew it was time for him, though too soon for us-- broke the household clock and the meaning of bedtime and morning. A dog brackets one’s sleep, defining each day between walks, meals, and joyful homecomings. Since we came home from the vet’s yesterday, since the sullen march, heads down, with an empty collar through the waiting room filled with pets, it’s not only the house that’s empty. The time is empty, and this, a troubled time, wants a good and steady dog in it.
He came to us from Pickens County, South Carolina, through a kill shelter where he was dropped off to die. On walks with our beautiful yellow Labrador who always drew passers-by to him, people asked us “how could anyone give up a dog like him?” My best guess is they had to. Not that they treated him well—he didn’t know what the dog bed was when he came, and his elbows were calloused from sleeping on gravel, or concrete, or bare ground for however many years he’d lived before us.
A tireless rescuer nursed him through heartworm, and he came to us emaciated from the treatment, and ready to return the favor and take care of us. Within days, he stuck himself to us and wouldn’t stray more than six feet from our sides. He followed us to the bathroom, to the coffee maker, everywhere— like he had read the rescue group’s rules about keeping country dogs leashed, and believed the precaution was meant to stop the humans escaping.
He didn’t read the rules. He was, to say in loving reverence, not a clever dog. As I would say when he lost track of a biscuit or a tennis ball, he was far more good than clever. But his goodness radiated, and I soon had him approved as an emotional support dog.
I took him to a retirement home each week, to the memory unit. He was the perfect height to be petted from a wheelchair. He was so friendly and brave he did not mind walking between chairs and legs and being positioned next to someone; so tolerant and eager for human contact that he sighed approvingly when a stiff hand gripped his head with involuntary roughness.
Everywhere we went, he earned fans. My students loved him dearly. On a nice day I’d bring him to campus and announce his presence on our class Facebook page; they’d flock from libraries and dorms to see him. Note to parents of college students: they miss the dog more than they miss you. It’s not personal. They quickly replace you as confidant and authority; but nothing replaces the dog.
Dan taught me that it’s surprisingly easy to make someone happy with a good soul by your side. Or maybe I’m surprised it’s easy to make people happy because, absent a dog like Dan, I wouldn’t necessarily try. Especially when he came to us.
Our Dan came to us in a terrible time that was quite unlike this one. My 2015 was what I believed (and earnestly hoped) would be the toughest year of my life. The world around me seemed calm enough, ordinary in the safety of Upper Northwest DC. Unlike now, when one can briefly escape the world by shutting the laptop and putting down the phone, my own problems hung over everything. They bled into my solitary running, my showers, my bed—any space I didn’t fill with intense, almost desperate work. Now it’s the world that seems ominous, and home is a place of comfort.
In that, a differently-painful time, Dan stepped humbly in, anchored himself by my side, and stayed. When we came through to the other side, I knew I had him to thank.
One year out from my terrible year, he’s gone. I wish this was a story like Puff the Magic Dragon appearing when little Jackie needed him most, helping him grow up, and then moving on. But the thing they don’t tell you when you listen to the Puff LP on your Peanuts record player as a kid is this: grownups don’t stop needing our dragons, even when—especially when—we’ve filled our lives with what are supposed to be the bigger things.
Back when my own private struggles were front and center, I’d have been unashamed to admit that losing Dan—if I could bear to think of it—would knock me flat. It’s okay in my circles to call him a family member (though we never adopted the terms dog mom, dad, sister), and welcome reverent friends’ condolences.
As I planned our goodbye, though, I felt that even this loss should be demoted to just “our things,” that private grief has become a luxury no decent person can afford. It feels like private grief ought to be secondary to the real things – ICE raids; threats to food aid for seniors; to unions; to our court system; to the right to pee in peace (something my dog retained to his last day, but my beloved country apparently cannot afford to grant our fellow human beings).
How could Lieutenant Dan possibly figure into the big things- the threat of war, of dying of preventable diseases, of medical bankruptcy? I’m a lawyer and civil rights advocate turned professor, married to a lawyer and civil rights advocate. We know how to help people. Surely, there are bigger issues than the empty space where Dan’s bed was until yesterday.
The thing is, none of this got easier just because I became a grownup. Even though my body has aged and my responsibilities have grown, a none-too-clever Labrador retained the power to heal my heart when I needed him most, and then to break it. None of this got easier when the world grew more foreboding, when my fellow Americans broke my heart and seemed to mock me for presuming, as a woman, to be everything my dog saw in me.
On the contrary, the world needs a good and steady dog more than ever, and so do I.
FYI if there’s been a Dan in your life: All Dogs of Pickens Transport welcomes your donations.