Many years ago when we lived in the Bay Area, we were invited to a party hosted by someone I didn’t know. The man who greeted us at the door stood next to a large friendly dog and immediately introduced us to his canine friend.

“You know that one dog who is more special than any other?” he had asked rather rhetorically. “Well, this is that dog.”

I remember nodding politely as if I understood what he meant. But the truth was, I really didn’t. We had two Westie terriers we dearly loved, and I’d never thought of such a bond with one dog over all others.

Our dog Duffy was quite the handful, a character who seemed to delight in getting into as much mischief as he possibly could. Champagne was his alter ego, an easy-going soul we had adopted as an older dog from a breeder in Oregon. She came with her most appropriate name, and we imagined her in human form as someone who loved sitting on the sofa, eating bonbons and wearing pearls.

Duffy and Champagne in their favorite spot in our backyard. Danville, California. 1996.

Duffy and Champagne saw our two children through their childhoods, memories etched forever in our hearts and in the pages of family photo albums and videos. By the time we had said good-bye to Duffy and then two years later to Champagne, Andrew was in high school and Emily was in college. We had no plans to add another dog into the fold.

And then one day Herb and I were at our local tire shop and spotted a Westie in the car next to ours. Without uttering a sound, we gave each other one of those looks that speaks volumes. As soon as we returned home, Herb called Champagne’s breeder and inquired whether he had any Westies – puppies or older dogs – that he was putting up for adoption. It turned out that he was retiring and had just welcomed a final litter of two males.

“One of them is spoken for,” he told Herb. “I was planning to keep the other for myself, but if you want him, he’s yours.”

I think it took about two seconds for us to say, “Yes!” and shift into puppy preparation mode. We bought a child gate to block off the staircase, stocked the pantry with recommended food and picked out a new dog bed and a few small toys. Andrew had been reading one of my favorite books – The Great Gatsby – in his high school English class, and it resonated as the perfect name for our new family member.

To say that meeting Gatsby was love at first sight is an understatement of the greatest proportions. We bonded with this sweet little creature instantly, and he took to us as if he knew we were meant to be. The biggest joy – and surprise – was that Gatsby loved to fetch. I think Emily and Andrew had always felt a little cheated that neither of our dogs would play that game. Duffy would run to fetch a toy or ball, but would keep it for his own, refusing to bring it back. Our laid-back Champagne had no interest in running after anything. But here was Gatsby, returning his fleece toy the first time Emily threw it. Our young adult daughter beamed like a little girl opening a Christmas present.

Three-month-old Gatsby and his rat toy. 2006.

We brought Gatsby to a dog training class held at a park for a few Saturday afternoons. He was easy to teach and seemed to delight in pleasing us and being rewarded with tasty treats. I was always touched by how friendly he was to everyone, even to other dogs who weren’t always so friendly in return. When neighbors would comment on his wonderful temperament, I’d gratefully thank them, but I never felt I could take much credit for it. That was just who Gatsby was.

Sometimes it seemed as if Gatsby had an otherworldly sixth sense about him. Like most dogs, he resided in the moment-to-moment present, and his spirit overflowed with never-ending unconditional love. But he also offered a powerful dose of comfort for all of us, showing up at our side at just the right time, as if to tell us that whatever was bothering us would be all right.

Our empty nest stage of parenthood became a little less empty with Gatsby around. He was Herb’s constant companion in his home office, content and happy. And we couldn’t have asked for a better greeter at the door. When one or both of the kids would come home for a visit, Gatsby would transform himself into a wiggly puppy, wagging his tail with such vigor that it would look like a propeller ready to lift him off the ground!

Joining in on the fun at our family game of Cranium. Christmas 2011.

When Gatsby was about six, he developed diabetes, needing twice-daily insulin injections. We managed his disease quite well, but it was always a concern whenever we traveled and needed to board him. The kennel affiliated with San Diego’s Helen Woodward Animal Center was an absolute godsend. Not only is their care top-notch and unimaginably kind, but they will coordinate insulin injections and other medical needs with the animal hospital next door. They’ve called us several times when Gatsby has needed medical treatment, even reaching us while we were having dinner in our ship’s dining room in Antarctica!

Gatsby’s diabetes lead to cataracts in both eyes, dimming his vision and crushing his spirit. When he completely lost his sight, we agreed to try cataracts surgery, hoping to buy him a little more quality time in his senior years. The post-surgery care involves weeks of diligent treatment and follow-up, but in classic Gatsby fashion, our little boy powered through. I was overwhelmed with tears and gratitude at the thought of him recognizing our faces again.

The past few months had become a rough road for Gatsby. He was thirteen years old and showing visible signs of aging. His body was starting to let him down, his veterinarian visits were becoming more frequent and worst of all, he was beginning to lose some of his once-sharp cognitive functions. Several weeks ago, he developed an infection that wasn’t completely responding to medication, and we knew our journey with this extraordinary animal was coming to an end.

Our daughter flew in for the weekend, and our son and his husband arrived with their dog Yamu the next day, a pre-planned visit to drop Yamu off while they headed out of the country. It was Mother’s Day, and all I could think was how it was just like Gatsby to bring us all together. An unexpected reunion for a chance at last good-byes.

Gatsby and his pal Yamu. Summer 2018.

Herb and I anguished over when to let Gatsby go. You don’t think about the end of a dog’s short lifespan when you bring a puppy or new pet into your life. But it is always there, looming in some far-off place, an expiration date that comes with tremendous pain and responsibility. You want to hold on as long as possible, but not wait until the dog is greatly suffering. And as much as we wanted to keep him forever, a few days ago we knew it was time to let our beloved Gatsby go, a ball of love bursting through the Universe, as our daughter so eloquently said.

As I was caring for Gatsby these final days, I remembered the man with the dog from that long-ago party. If I met him today, I would unequivocally say that yes, I understood what it is like to have that one special dog. I would tell him how much I’ve loved and learned from Gatsby these past thirteen years. And I would tell him how saying goodbye to Gatsby has been one of the most heartbreaking experiences I’ve ever known.

Oh, how I wanted just one more day with him. But I knew after that I would want one more and then another. As grief wrapped itself around us and tears blurred our eyes, Herb kept saying that letting him go is our final act of love.

A dog’s love is an extraordinary gift. You welcome a new life into your home, brimming with lofty expectations that you will get along well, become great friends, fall in love. Like love of the human kind, it’s a relationship that you hope will grow and thrive and make you a better person for having known each other.

And if you’re really lucky, you will find yourself with a perfect match.

A happy guy on the beach. La Jolla, California. 2009.

24 Comments

    • Tears were streaming upon reading this beautiful, heartfelt tribute. We had three Westies over the past 40 years, and loved them all so very much. We lost our Kersie in January of this year and we are still heartbroken over this devastating loss. We are older now and still want another Westie, but it would have to be an adult Westie. I have tired to get a foster or rescue to no avail, and every time I see or hear about a Westie, I remain heartbroken.

      • Rita, It’s wonderful to hear from a fellow Westie lover! Thank you so much for the kind words and for sharing your story. I completely understand how you feel all these months later. I wish you all the best in your search for a new family member. It may take a while, but I’m betting that time will melt away the minute you find each other. 🙂

  • Thank you for your love story. It reverberates through my mind in a wise man’s voice. ‘Herb kept saying that letting him go is our final act of love’. I am sure it is a compassionate decision. Suffering is not worthy at all at the later part of life. I have been telling the same to myself. We have beautiful days yesterday and today. Enjoy blue sky. myron

    • Myron, I’m incredibly moved by your touching words. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. Wishing you beautiful days and blue sky as well.

  • Mary,
    This really tugged at the Heartstrings. Gatsby sounds as though he had Oodles of character. We can hope he’s in a better place and R.I.P. Great name by the way!

    • Jason, I’m so glad to know this little tribute to our beloved Gatsby resonated with you. It was truly an honor to have had him in our lives. I always loved his name, and it suited him perfectly 🙂

    • I appreciate your kind words, Jeff. Many thanks to you and your family. I haven’t read “Dog Heaven,” but it sounds like a wonderful recommendation. Thank you!

  • Oh, Mary, this is just a lovely tribute that wraps up that incredible bond between humans and their pets. There indeed are some dogs more special than others and I’m so happy one of them found you and your family. I remember Herb telling me Gatsby would still find the ball despite his poor vision and drop it at Herb’s feet. I always thought that was the sweetest gesture. Thinking of you both as your hearts heal.

    • Linda, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and a story about Gatsby. Our little guy really loved to fetch! I love the idea you describe that a dog finds us. He was a real treasure, and it always felt like he was meant to be part of our family.

  • Before I started to read your story, knowing what lay ahead, I told myself I wasn’t going to shed any tears over another sad letting go story as I’ve done that too many times.

    And, I didn’t.

    Until the final photo.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Dave, That photo has always been one of my favorites. I love how it captures Gatsby’s exuberant, joyful spirit. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts.

  • Mary, Such a beautiful story of your dear Gatsby. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your entire family clearly loved him. Loved the photos!

  • Oh, thank you so much, Mary. I appreciate your lovely thoughts here, and I’m happy to know you enjoyed the photos. My albums and online library are brimming with Gatsby pictures, and even with my heavy heart of the past few days, it was a great journey going through them.

  • Hi Mary,
    What a beautiful tribute to dear Gatsby, to the love he brought to you and to the love you, Herb, Emily and Andrew gave him. Growing up, our dogs were outside and they were fun and their barking let us know a stranger was approaching. But the human-dog bond was never all that strong. As a result, I’ve always been a bit mystified by people who invest indentures for their cats and similar costly procedures. No more. Your post — and Gatsby — have made it perfectly clear. Thank you. Sending all of you much love.

    • Hello my dear friend, and thank you for such eloquent words. You have perfectly captured how we all view the world through the prism of our own experiences. Gatsby would be delighted to know he opened a little window of understanding 🙂 Much love to you and Steve!

  • Mary,
    I really enjoyed reading this. You are such a good writer! I learned a lot about Gatsby and what a great dog he must have been. You and Herb have many fond memories to comfort you and that’s a wonderful thing😊
    Chris

  • Thank you for your sweet thoughts, Chris. I’m really happy to know you enjoyed my little tribute to Gatsby. You are so right about the joy of fond memories. They are a real treasure!

  • Thank you for sharing his beautiful story. I was a part of Gatsby’s cataract surgery and I remember what a wonderful patient he was and how lovingly and diligently you cared for him in the weeks after surgery. It was always a pleasure to see his name on our schedule for the day. He was a special patient to me too, one that will stick with me. I hope that in your grief, you can find solace in knowing he made an impact far beyond his family.

    • Kate, I am deeply moved by what you’ve shared here. Many heartfelt thanks for letting me know. Herb and I were extremely grateful for the extraordinary care and kindness Gatsby received during and after his surgery. It makes me smile to know that his incredible spirit had an impact even in the most challenging of times.

  • What a beautiful little boy Gatsby was and how loved!! I am sitting here in my office with non-stop tears as I reflect on what you have shared. While not a Westie, I lost my little boy, Toby, in April and he was a Cairn Terrier…so a very close cousin to the Westie. So much of the way you described your feelings about Gatsby made me think of my Toby. I rescued him when he was 3 1/2 and only had him with me for 5 years before he lost his second battle with cancer. We beat it the first time, but the second was just too much for him. I loved him like no other being in my life. I was 42 when he found me – at probably the lowest point of my life – and he rescued me. He was so gentle, so sweet and so incredibly smart. He never failed to make me smile or laugh many times in a single day. I have been wrestling so much with letting him go – I question everything…do I do enough? Did I try hard enough? What more could I have done? He was that one for me. Just nothing short of an angel. I miss him every moment of every day. Thank you for sharing – I appreciate your story about Gatsby so very much. I hope that he and my Toby are having a good romp together. I can’t wait to see him again…on that last day I promised that I would find him again just as he found me. Thank you so much.

    • Shawn, What a heartfelt story. Thank you so much for sharing it here. I’m honored to know that my little tribute to Gatsby resonated so deeply. We went through the same questions you describe when making that painfully difficult decision to say goodbye. Even though we knew it was the right thing to do, those second-guessing voices kept playing in our heads. Toby was a lucky little guy to have found you, and I love your thought of rescuing each other. All the best as you move forward and onward.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.