Whenever someone who hasn’t met you asks me to tell them a story about what you were like, I tell the story of the day we met. It was a hot, sticky, Long Island day in mid-July, the summer before my junior year of college, and I was about to embark on my greatest adult adventure to date: moving off-campus into an apartment with two of my best friends. Quick walks to class from my dorm to the main campus would now be replaced by arranging my own transportation. No more popping into the campus café for my customary tuna sandwich on the way home from class; now I had to walk across the street to the local Super-Target for my groceries. Increased independence meant increased mobility, and getting a guide dog seemed, to me, the blind equivalent of receiving a driver’s license. Not to mention, being a young woman with a disability, I saw a certain appeal in having the security of a big scary dog. As it turned out, our nearest neighbors were a group of boys whose major threat seemed to be smoking marijuana, playing beer-pong, and reciting drunken, impromptu poetry to us as we passed in the hall, and you were more afraid of them than they were of you, but that’s another story.
As soon as I completed summer classes, I boarded a plane to Smithtown, New York to spend four weeks at the Guide Dog Foundation, learning how to navigate the world with a furry, four-legged pair of eyes. After two days of introductory instruction on guide dog handling and dormitory rules, which included, among other things, no dogs on the bed, we were called into the lounge to receive our dogs’ names before returning to our rooms to wait for trainers to bring them to us so we could spend a few minutes bonding before our first walk. I remember very little about the wait time, other than wiping my sweaty palms on the white shorts that I really wished I hadn’t packed for the trip once I learned you were a black Lab. Eventually, a knock sounded at the door, a trainer entered, placed a leather leash in my hand, and backed out.
“So, what now?” I thought as I ran tentative fingers along your silky ears—ears that would soon listen to and put up with more than any human I’d ever known. For the first, but not the last time, you seemed to read my mind. Sensing my hesitation, you cocked your ears, put your head on one side and regarded me with mild curiosity. Then, without invitation, you leapt onto the bed, settled down in the center, rested your head on your front paws, and thumped your tail once as if to say, “Okay, I’m waiting. I’ve got a job to do here.” There was that rule about dogs on the bed, but apparently it didn’t apply to you. Rules were for anyone who didn’t know their way around the world; you did, and you wasted no time letting me know that.
At only 19 months old, you possessed the poise and wisdom of one who had seen, done, and learned much; you sized me up and decided you were smarter than I was, and you took it upon yourself to show me that whatever we did, wherever we went, we did it your way or not at all. Over the next four weeks of training, we butted heads a lot. One afternoon, we took 45 minutes to complete a route that should have only taken us 15, and probably would have if I’d listened to you and turned right at that corner instead of crossing the street. If you could talk, you’d insist that we didn’t actually get lost in the middle of Flushing; I got lost. You just went along with my stupidity to silently teach me a lesson. You did that a lot, and eventually, after countless wrong turns, a few floods of tears, and several scraped knees, I began to listen to your words of wisdom, spoken in the quiet, self-assured way you carried yourself in every situation. When I wanted to turn left and you knew we needed to turn right, you’d stand perfectly still and swish your tail against my thigh. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” you seemed to say.
We took a lot of walks during the years we spent together, traversing everything from college campuses to crowded airports. In your spare time, you chased lizards, rifled trash cans, discovered how to pry the lid off a container of dog treats, and insisted that however much room you had to yourself, the best place to sleep was on my feet. You loved wishbone chew toys, having your ears scratched, and licking babies’ fingers; you feared absolutely nothing—the single exception being inflatable snowmen, for reasons that none of us have ever satisfactorily understood. You graduated college with me, yawned your way through my Master’s degree, and when I embarked on my first semester of teaching, you were everyone’s favorite student. You even saw me through the first two years of earning a PhD before you decided you’d had more than enough school than any dog should have to endure.
It seemed fitting that the last journey we took together was the plane ride back to New York, to the very same spot where we first met. As the moment of separation approached, I wished, not for the first time, that God had seen fit to give dogs the capacity for speech. How was I going to explain to you that when I kissed your nose and said goodbye, it would be for the last time? I was returning to the Foundation to train with a second dog, and while I knew rationally that I would come to love your successor as much as I loved you, handing your leash off to my uncle, who’d generously offered you a retirement home with his family, felt like detaching a piece of my heart. When my uncle walked back out to the car to take you to his home—your new home—would you wonder where I was?
Even as, hours later, my lap and heart made room for a new friend, I wondered about you. Were you looking for me? Would you be happy? I stopped worrying when my uncle called to tell me that the first thing you did when you arrived at your new home was jump on the couch and knock over the Emmy Award statuette my uncle had received for his graphics work for NBC during the 1992 Olympic Games. I was mortified; you shrugged it off with one dismissive tail-wag. The fact that they kept you after that is a true testament to how easily people fell in love with you. I’d spend the next six years receiving regular bulletins from my family about your adventures in retirement, which consisted primarily of indulging in the forbidden fruits of a working dog: sleeping on furniture, feasting on table scraps, and being generally lazy. True to your nature, however, you continued to live a life of service to others, devoting yourself to the business of loving your family with the dedication of one who takes pride in having a job to do, even if that job was as simple as being there with a wet tongue and a wagging tail at the end of a long day. You approached life with a Zen-like calm that I always envied and never mastered. You left indelible pawprints on the world and the hearts of everyone whose hand you licked.
When, several weeks ago, it came time for you to leave us, you made your exit as you did all things—in your way, on your terms. Under no circumstances would you forgo your last bowl of kibble; the journey across the Rainbow Bridge was long, after all, and you needed sustenance. I laughed when I learned that, on arriving at the vet for the last time, you wouldn’t settle until you’d shoved your head into a box of blankets for one last, great sniff, and finally, when you were ready, you lay down. I wasn’t surprised to be told that the last look in your philosophical brown eyes was one of all-knowing peace: “I was given a job, I did what I came here to do, and now it’s time for me to leave.”
Some religious doctrine tells us that dogs have no afterlife because they have no souls, but a dog is the absolute embodiment of unconditional love, and what is the soul if not a reflection of God’s love? You were formed for a purpose by the Creator of all things, and I can do no less than believe that when your soul crossed that rainbow bridge, the Creator was there to greet you with a much-deserved pat for a job well done. May you have endless space to run, your wishbones have eternal flavor, your ears be always scratched, and your tail wag eternally.