(I submitted this essay to the NPR series This I Believe several years ago, after our dog Brownie died. Anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows how difficult it can be)
I open the front door and step onto the tiled hallway floor. I grasp the brass doorknob of the coat closet, turn the handle, then reach in and shuffle the hooks on the coat rack. Before draping my jacket over the wire, I hear a flurry of rapid clicking sounds on the porcelain. By the time I hang my jacket, he’s lunging at my waist, panting heavily, gaping jowls and eyes afire.
While he was alive, I never thought of Brownie as being my best friend. He was the one, more than anyone else, who anticipated my arrival home. Sometimes, instead of accosting me at the coat closet, he’d rush into the den, and I’d hear his big paws thumping the carpet, in joyful harmony with the sound of his favorite squeaky toy. Happy because I’d finally returned.
Brownie and I both loved to run, and he treated every evening jog like an exotic vacation. There were all sorts of smells to be investigated, squirrels to be corralled, fenced-in dogs to strut in front of, shrubs and street signs to be marked. As we approached home, I always felt refreshed, but also relieved that my exercise was over. I’m not sure how Brownie felt. But I have a feeling he’d delay even his evening meal to do it all over again.
One often hears the expression “unconditional love.” I believe that phrase was coined over a dog. Yes, children too offer love without condition. But eventually they mature, lose their innocence, and often grow distant. One time my temper got the best of me after Brownie became, shall we say, “casual” with the carpet. He patiently tolerated my yelling until I made the mistake of grabbing his neck fur. Then, only in defense, he let me have it (I still bear the scarlet letter, on my right palm). But only seconds later, he was nudging up to me, pleading for my love and forgiveness.
Brownie was an Australian Shepherd, or “Aussie.” This breed is very family-oriented and protective. Brownie was happiest when the whole family was together. He expressed his contentment by laying at the nucleus of our little circle in the den and licking the carpet. “Brownie, stop licking the carpet!” my wife would scold. It didn’t bother me. Perhaps this was his way of licking all of us at the same time.
We didn’t know Brownie had cancer until it was far advanced. One evening I led him out the front door on his leash. But this time he didn’t prance in front of me. The leash suddenly became taut. I turned around, and saw Brownie sitting like a lump on the front walk. Something was wrong. “I’m leaving Brownie inside tonight,” I yelled inside to Lynn. “I don’t think he feels good.” As I walked down the driveway, Brownie gazed after me through the glass, his fluffy ears upright as if to say “Why aren’t you taking me with you?” I walked slowly until I was outside his range of vision. Only then did I start to run. When I returned home, he was waiting for me by the driveway. While I stretched my legs on the grass, he ambled over to me, his head lowered. The vet later said that the moisture under his eyes was probably caused by a fever. But I don’t know.
So now I’ll be running alone. I knew this day would come. But, as when a close family member dies, I never expected it to hurt so much. My partner, my compatriot – my best friend – is gone.
I believe that, even though I didn’t know it when he was alive, Brownie knew he was my best friend. That thin little pink line on my right palm reminds me. Strangely, the scar doesn’t elicit a bad memory. The brief anger I felt toward my friend – a very human moment of weakness – was obliterated by what transpired immediately afterwards. Something far more powerful: Brownie’s unconditional love and forgiveness.