I loved watching Lassie re-runs as a kid. I dreamed about having a beautiful, noble dog like Lassie. I have always been a dog person, always craved feeling tufts of fur between my fingers, wet noses pressed into my palm. Few things can cheer me more than soft brown eyes and a frenzied tail.
I am jealous when I hear about my husband’s experience being raised among collies from infancy. Growing up, my family didn’t get a dog until I was nine. Not a bad age to get a dog, but it meant that she would be the only dog our family would have, since my dad was adamant: just one. I loved her, but she was not Lassie. She was the anti-Lassie. Prone to fear biting and that most charming of cocker spaniel traits, defecating when nervous. But most of all, she was my mom’s dog, thoroughly devoted to one person and one person only.
Yet I loved dogs, and I loved her. I trained her and showed her during junior high school and it became clear when her limits were reached. At which point I begged my dad for another dog, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. After learning about all 250+ dog breeds, I had determined that was the one for me, and something about training and showing a dog made me come alive, even though it did nothing for Taffi but make her miserable.
That’s when I found Alfie. Or you could say Alfie found me. It’s a story like the best love stories, full of close calls, intuition, and pinch-me, too-good-to-be-true coincidences. That story cannot be done justice in a few sentences.
Suffice it to say, Alfie turned out to be my Lassie. He had a depth to him, the gravitas of an old soul. He sought connections with people in a way that inspired me. But what was most humbling was that he chose me as a companion. Because it was clear that I didn’t just go buy a dog. He was meant to be with me.
Alfie saw me through the rocky years of high school and college. When I was most unsure of who I was or who my friends were, Alfie was constant. His friendship was a blessing given to me before I could ever earn it, and it was it was offered to me anew each day. His devotion continued past college and into a new marriage and, finally, new motherhood.
The timing of his passing was no accident. It was exactly when he meant to go.
I got another dog, Butter, several years after I got Alfie. A couple months before I became pregnant with my son, Butter was diagnosed with a heart murmur. Her heart failure rapidly progressed, until I had to put her down two months to the day before I gave birth to my son. In her final months, I was incredibly emotionally fraught. I hadn’t seen it coming–her previous heart checks were totally clear and she was the younger of my two dogs. I constantly monitored her medications and her food and water intake, even taking her to work with me so that I could give her medications and give her the frequent potty breaks she needed on diuretics.
There were many sleepless nights spent listening to Butter’s labored breathing in the corner of our bedroom, wondering how I would know it was time to say goodbye and whether she or I would be the one deciding when it was time. As my due date neared, I also wondered how I could tell whether I was making a decision for her sake or for mine, because I couldn’t imagine how I would manage my emotions and attention, split between my dying dog and my first born baby.
After Butter passed and my son was born and some unexpected challenges were thrown at me almost immediately, my silent, aching prayer was this: Please don’t let Alfie die. I saw him deteriorating–his low energy, his stiff gait, his deep brown eyes turning blue–but I did not have it in me to handle his death. I knew throughout my time with Alfie that whenever he passed, it would be momentous in my life, because he saw me through my pivotal growing-up years. Alfie was my longest companion, the one I carried with me from high school to motherhood. So much of my becoming self was wrapped up in him. I didn’t want the power, the significance of our parting to be diluted by the concurrent life changes stealing my energy and attention.
As with Butter, I was ashamed of myself for weighing and end-of-life decision in light of the other major events of my life. I have such respect for my dogs and the love and devotion they have given me, the lessons they have taught me, that I wanted to give them every effort I had as they reached the end of their lives. But I was selfish with Alfie. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him yet. I once again needed his steadfast companionship as I doubted myself and faced the uncertainty of the future. And he knew that.
Before my son’s first birthday, I thought I would shed quiet tears as he turned one, lamenting that his babyhood was over and it had gone by so fast. When the actual day came, I was surprised by the buoyancy I felt. For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful. I felt accomplished. I could see better days ahead.
Two days later, Alfie died.
It was a beautiful, tragic parting. His breathing woke me up early and he made it clear, This is it. I wrapped him in my arms and held him in the morning sunshine. His favorite people showed up to pay respects and say goodbye. And then, after a final car ride, our favorite veterinarian provided him relief and released his spirit.
I am sad that my son will never remember his first dog. After Alfie passed, I was also sad that it wasn’t a good time to add a dog to our family, now that I had a little person who was keeping me plenty busy, thankyouverymuch. I was nowhere near ready to think about puppy proofing and house training or even picking out a new puppy. Especially picking out a new puppy. The stories of how I got Alfie and Butter each had their own magic. In both cases, there wasn’t even a choice–they were meant for me. To go and just pick out a puppy seemed wrong.
When I spent my last hours with Alfie, reflecting on his life and my hope that his spirit would have joy and peace, I thought about the book A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron. It’s a novel in which a dog narrates the stories of his many lives, as he becomes reincarnated as a new dog each time he dies. Although it was a beautiful book and there is no way of knowing what really happens to an animal’s spirit after it dies, I believed reincarnation was no more than myth.
As I thought about that book and began to realize that this was the end of the road for Alfie, my silent, aching prayer, Please don’t let Alfie die, turned into a prayer for whatever was in store for his spirit next. I regretted that he would never get to see my son walking and follow him around in the yard. My son would never be able to throw a ball for Alfie. And so I said to God, If there’s another life for Alfie after this, give him a family with a boy to love and protect.
After I picked up Alfie’s ashes from the vet, I drove to the place where I first met Alfie, the home of the breeder who so generously let me have him, who has become family because of the love of dogs. It was there, while my son played with kitchen bowls and a whisk on the floor next to Alfie’s sister, that I heard the words that started the next chapter of our lives.
“I have a dog for you.”
There is so much more to that story, but all you really need to know now is that his name is Ben. We brought him home when he was seven months old. There were signs that he is meant for us, and every day they are proving to be right.
When I got done being flabbergasted at the idea that there was a dog at the ready for us, I thought about my final moments with Alfie and my dream for his spirit. I heard a quiet inner voice suggest that family with a little boy I had envisioned was us, and maybe we are supposed to be that family for this dog.
Because Alfie’s purpose was me, and he dutifully soothed and inspired those fragile and fearful parts of myself that I wasn’t sure what to do with, until I had gotten through the roughest parts of growing up. There is no other family for Alfie, because he lived long and full and completely. But there is another dog, with another purpose, in need of the right people.
Ben is the perfect companion for the sweet and silly little boy that we have. I have given up trying to prevent my son from kissing his dog on the mouth. “Gentle! Gentle!” I admonish as he wraps his arms tightly around his dog’s neck and Ben licks his ear. Ben comes running to his side whenever he falls and cries out for comfort. They play tug-of-war and Ben growls softly until our boy bends down and gives a conciliatory kiss, and then Ben’s pink tongue shoots out and his ears sink down on the sides of his head and the two boys ask each other, We’re still friends, right?
Ben’s not quite a dignified Lassie yet. He’s almost a year old and still a little frenetic with puppy energy. But our boy and our dog will grow up together, and each of them will teach me new lessons as they do. And each morning the sunlight will pour through my window and the spirits of past dogs will remind me that everything is for a time, and you can’t rush it or slow it down, so the best thing to do is just be present and pay attention.