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 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.
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!
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.
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.