Our family dog, John, is winding down and approaching the end of her life. She’s an unthinkably sweet, loyal yellow lab who has been a member of the family for nearly fourteen years. While she’ll always be the “family dog” in my mind, she’s been under my mom’s care since my parents split up about ten years ago and my sisters and I have all embarked on our own lives.
I remember getting John, although, although back then, we called her Rory, short for Arora. She’s a girl, yet has been called “John” for probably all but two of her years, after I decided that’s what she was to me and it stuck. We all started calling her John, or Johnathan when she’d get into some large pile of food and drag it to her “den”-a fort formed between the arms of the couches-and gobble it up. Trays of homemade granola bars, a family-size bag of blue corn tortilla chips, wrapped sandwiches from our lunch bags carelessly stored near the front door to grab on the way out: John is a natural-born scavenger and always a stealthy acquirer of human food. The more bites into a feast she would get, the faster her tail would wag, as if each morsel gave her windup toy tail a quarter turn.
John has always lived for pure joy and found love and delight in everything. She has such a command over true happiness that we’ve all always found her presence to be truly enriching. She loves the woods, retrieving sticks and swimming in the water, going for epic walks in Amethyst Brook Nature Area, and playing on the floor.
John has been a lap dog and a snuggler since the day my mom and sister brought her home. Of course, then, she was under twenty pounds, at least seven of which must have been loose and floppy fur and big feet to grow into. Now, at nearly sixty pounds, she still comes rushing over when one of us sits on the floor and forms a lap: she wants in, though, it’s more like on and over our whole bodies now.
When John was a puppy, I was a junior in high school, obsessed with running fast, getting good grades, and securing a prestigious college admissions spot. I remember nights in the study room, my parents heading up to bed while I sat in front of the computer screen, working on one of many assignments. Johnny, still Rory at the time, was a tiny puppy. She’d come ambling into the study to sniff and explore any crumbs I had dropped below me. As if a pull-toy dragged by a string from her nose, she’d wag and wiggle her way around the whole room directed by just her nose and imagination. Eventually, she’d paw at my shins, pushing my wheeled office chair back from the screen. Up, up! Moments later, she would be cradled in my arms, belly up, as I stroked her ears and gave up on work for the night. Like a baby, she would close her eyes and begin gently snoring, folding completely into my arms, her own muscles fast asleep.
Johnny and I bonded quickly. She liked my energy, my kid-like tendency toward play, my engagement with her on the floor or with toys, or running around the house as her mouse in a game of chase. She immediately earned and filled the perfect spot in our family and soon, it was nearly impossible to remember how it was we got along before her.
Nearly fourteen years later, John has seen and been part of many adventures, changes, heartaches, fights, milestones, and memories. Her companionship has help weather deep pain and sadness, loneliness and hurt. She’s been there in every ordinary day too, reminding us about the simplest gifts of daily life: the rising in the morning of your loved ones, the deliciousness of breakfast and the excitement of eating, the desire to play and explore outdoors. Her love for each of us never seems to tire or fade. She’s just as excited to see you after months of absence as she is when you return from the bathroom after showering; it’s always an enthusiastic reunion and a reminder that you’re special and not taken for granted. She reminds me, at least, that life is enjoyable, even in the mundane, and that happiness is found everywhere that family is.
As John’s health continues to rapidly decline, I know that day when the most painful goodbye to be spoken is coming. I tell myself I’m ready because I know it is her time and death is part of her mortal life, but it’s also painfully difficult to imagine her no longer being with us. She’s been a mainstay, a reliable constant in our ever-changing lives for nearly half of my life. When I think about Johnny dying, it calls to mind the many times my mom would bring her down on adventure-filled weekends to visit me in New York City.
I’d always beg my mom to stay longer and our goodbyes were always tearful; I clutched on to my mom’s tiny frame in an embrace I never wanted to end. As mom packed her last few things in the car and commanded Johnny to jump up into the back, I’d squeeze John’s neck and say, “take care of mama for me.” Through blurred eyes, I’d watch as my mom would drive completely out of sight, engulfed by the cars of outbound traffic, the whole time watching Johnny’s fixed gaze of my diminishing waving silhouette, her eyes saying, Come home with us. Why have you left, my friend? and mine saying Don’t go, Johnny. We will play this same silent dialogue as she leaves this world, my eyes begging her not to go. I will swallow the basketball-sized lump consuming my throat and feign a brave face that tells her it’s okay to let go and that she’s far surpassed her job here. This time, my eyes will need to reassure her that I will take care of mom for her, and relieve her of her biggest responsibility and honor in this world. I don’t know the extent to which she can read my mind, decipher my words, and understand my heart, but if I have one wish for John, it’s that I hope she knows she’s been the stable rock in our tumultuous lives, the ever-burning beacon of love, and the very friend each one of us has desperately needed each and every day she’s been here with us. While I adore Comet and am confident I’ll love other dogs in my life as well, Johnny will always occupy this very precious place in my heart, one that is entirely irreplaceable and one I will forever honor. For however many days we have left that are blessed with her presence, I hope they are filled with peace and her acceptance of all the gratitude we have for her.
John, I will never be ready to let you go. I can’t imagine how to say goodbye to you, but please, please know for as much as I will surely fall short, you’ve been far more than anything we ever dreamed you’d be. Please continue to watch over me as I grow up and I promise to keep your spirit alive, for I cannot help but conjure up the sweet image of your face whenever I hear the word “family.”