We almost never made the drive. We had learned through a friend, of a litter of chocolate lab pups that would soon be available, on a farm way out past the western suburbs. I kept saying no, we are not going. This was May, almost 15 years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of commitment.
Plus, deep down, I probably knew that once I saw the puppies, there would be no saying no. My wife-to-be wore me down. We went.
Rainy, the dog of our lives, won.
When she was a puppy, people said, “What a nice puppy.” When she was 5, people said “What a nice puppy.” When she was 10, people said, “What a nice puppy.”
No, we’d say. She just acts like one. Rainy — named after the lake my wife grew up on — might not exactly have been trained with Westminster Dog Show-level effectiveness. She was small and slight by Lab standards — rarely more than 40 pounds — a mix of Lab and, we suspect, Brittany Spaniel. And we allowed her into all aspects of our lives, all parts of our home.
Those were the only rules we abided by.
She did not always play well with other dogs. She always played well with people. You have two choices with many dogs: Keep them at arm’s length, or bring them in close. We were the bring-them-in-close people.
Dog-friendly friends were amazed. She would climb up on the couch next to them, sit and seem to speak. It wasn’t a whimper or a whine. It was like her own language. Like she was pleading with them, wanted to reach them, tell them something.
It was her personality. Whenever either of us showered, the ritual remained the same. If you left the wet towel in a place she could reach it with her mouth, she would jump up, take it, then try to sneak off with it like a thief. In the next room, she would then spread it out with her mouth, then writhe around on her back with delight. Never failed to bring a smile to our faces. Small pleasures with Rainy. Always.
But the real bond between man and dog often is forged by near-misses, and our first was when Rainy was still an actual pup and she got into some vitamins that contained ginseng. We took her late that night to an animal hospital in St Paul to be checked. Worried about her heart rate, the doctors wanted to keep her overnight for observation. They had told us they would only call if there was an emergency.
About 2 in the morning, the phone rang. We both honestly thought the worst, that it was going to end before it had really begun. Doctors said they could not get her to heart to slow down from the moment we left, and they theorized that maybe the only thing that would work was for us to come back and take her home, and hope to calm her that way.
We rushed back to the hospital, my wife sat with her in the back seat, and she calmed almost immediately. The three of us spend that night sleeping together on one crowded couch. She was content.
From that moment, she knew we were going to protect her, and we knew, she was our dog — to run with, walk with, laugh with, play with, celebrate a new home with — “Look, Rainy, finally you get a fence with a big backyard!” and grieve with. She was there to hold on to when my wife lost her brother and her mother, and we both lost our fathers. The cliches come true then: Dogs don’t care what you are wearing or what you look like or where you live. They remain true.
Rainy remained true when we brought our daughter home for the first time. We had heard all the warnings: Dogs get used to being in charge of empty-nest homes. And Rainy had been the queen in our homes for 10 years by then. She could no longer be the queen. But we knew what the experts didn’t.
From the first lick, she surprised us not a bit with how gentle she always was with our daughter, who when she first learned to speak called her “Ray-Ray.”
As the household became more about our daughter, Rainy’s search for occasional re-assurance remained the same. During the day or evening, if I was curled up on the couch, it would be for her to find her spot on the crook of my leg.
Late at night, even though the bed was sometimes more crowded, she would still sometimes jum up, and her favorite spot was…well, it was to move and scoot, slowly but surely to wherever she could find contact, a human leg, arm, hip, then that deep comfortable sigh. Over the years, we found the contact as comforting as she did.
There was no contact last night.
The day we took Rainy home the first time, it was raining. The day we returned her home from the vet who had found a fast-moving cancer, it was raining. Two bad days at home were followed by two days in which she seemed to remember who she had been: Energetic, alert and playful, and once again, talking to us.
No doubt we are being sentimental, but we choose to believe that gift was her last attempt to say goodbye to us. What followed was a quick descent to that place where pet owners recognize that the dog you love is no longer there.
Many years ago, my brother-in-law, Ron, was in town with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, and the plan was to go see a movie. Somebody mentioned “Marley and Me” and I said I would go, but I warned them: I was going to leave the movie early. Everyone knew how it had to inevitably end and I was not going to be able to handle watching it. I didn’t want to watch it.
So sure enough, with 15 minutes to go in the film, which was close to where it had to go, I whispered, “I’ll meet you guys in the lobby.” There, I put on a pair of sunglasses, not from the glare but to hide the mist in my eyes, and ran into Lou Nanne. He happened to be on his way in to see another film. He wanted to know why I was wearing sunglasses. I felt like a fool telling him. He understood.
When it’s your own dog, though, you can’t walk out early.
At least, we couldn’t. We had to be there for that final scene, so that the faces she sees — in close, like she always wanted it — are those she knows best: Me, my wife, and the vet who cared for her so beautifully for so long. We owed her that. We left with a frayed collar and, yes, sunglasses protecting our eyes.
We have a kind neighbor named Joel, who lost his own pooch not long ago. “They just get into your heart,’’ he says.
And that’s the thing.
They can nestle in there so completely that when they are gone, the pain can seem indescribably heavy, almost too much to bear. So in this sad time, as I sit in a home that has gone far too still, rain tapping on the window, I try desperately to cling to this: If my wife had not convinced me to make that drive west almost 15 years ago, just imagine all the small pleasures we would have missed out on.