It started like a lot of Saturdays.
The dogs were ready to wake up. We weren’t. They won.
I let my husband sleep and watched them make their lap around the backyard, noses to the ground as they sniffed out the morning’s news. Chester didn’t wander far. He never does when he knows food is near. Toby was the more contented explorer, meandering into the far corners under the pines and eventually needing to be herded in because he’d long since lost his ability to hear me call his name.
He was six months shy of 16, and the hearing loss was the least of his problems in old age. He (and we) had been to hell and back during the past three years with various explained and unexplained ailments, including cancer. But he was good that December morning – and had been in the weeks that preceded it – so I didn’t think much when he seemed a little extra wobbly on the kitchen hardwood as he waited for his breakfast.
Bellies full, they settled in for snuggles on the couch, Toby contentedly to my left, Chester reluctantly to my right after losing yet another lap battle with my computer. Toby jumped down about an hour later. He was still unsteady, but after so many scares with him I’d finally started to learn not to panic.
I let him outside to walk around thinking maybe his arthritic hips were just a bit stiff. His wobble worsened as he slowly circled a scraggly old maple in the middle of the yard. His head took on an odd tilt to the left. His body did the same.
And then he fell.
I’d lived in Charlotte less than two months when I brought Toby home. It seems like no time at all now, but two months felt like two years back then. I was a new grad in a new city with a new apartment and a new job, but had yet to make new friends. I wasn’t homesick, exactly, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t awfully lonely.
Get a dog, my mom suggested. A Brittany like our girl at home.
And so I did. I found a litter a short drive north of Charlotte in Thomasville and went to visit on a Sunday afternoon in mid-July. The puppies were just over a month old. I’d no sooner sat down in the grass when a 5-pound orange and white fluff crawled into my lap. He’s had my heart ever since.
I’ve never not had dogs. In nearly 40 years, those first few weeks in Charlotte were – save for college – the longest I’d ever lived without at least one wet nose at home.
But, much like your first love, there’s something unforgettably special about your first grown-up dog.
Toby was the shadow by my side for every high and low of early adult life. His stub wiggled happily when I accepted the job that – though neither of us knew it at the time – would set me on the path to the next 15 years of my career. His body shook alongside mine after a crash that totaled my car, but left both of us unscathed. He was there for new apartments. Promotions. Mountain getaways with friends. Family hardships. Tough goodbyes. Breakups. Makeups. (Then breakups again.)
And yes, he helped me finally make new friends. When he was a puppy we’d hurry down to my apartment’s dog park as soon as I’d get home from work and stay until the sun had long since faded from the late-summer sky. It was there I met half a dozen 20-somethings, several also recent transplants. Our dogs became fast friends and so did we.
I’m honestly not sure if I’d still live in Charlotte if it weren’t for those nights.
Eventually, along came Bill – and with Bill, Chester – and we became a family. Toby always liked men – our dads’ leather recliners were among his favorite places to nap – but Bill was his best good friend.
There wasn’t anything in life that got Toby more excited than when Bill would emerge from the hall closet with his bright red Chuckit! launcher. He’d chase tennis balls as far and as fast as Bill could throw them, over and over and over again until we’d force him to take a break. We endured a lot of heartache in Toby’s last few years, but I think the day we realized we were done fetching Chuckit! from the closet was among the saddest of them all.
I struggled to keep it together as Bill drove the 3 miles to the emergency vet. We’d called on the way to describe Toby’s stroke-like symptoms, and the team rushed him back when we arrived. The waiting room was mercifully quiet for a Saturday. I didn’t care much about strangers seeing my tears, but what I couldn’t quite bear was their sympathy. In that moment, even one sad glance would’ve been my complete unraveling.
After a few minutes, the doctor brought him back to us with good news. It wasn’t a stroke, but instead old dog vestibular disease. It’s a condition that looks and sounds sufficiently scary, but effectively amounts to vertigo and usually resolves with time.
We were relieved, if not still a touch skeptical. Bill was due to get on a plane for work that afternoon and wouldn’t be back until late Sunday night. He asked if he should stay as we sat next to Toby on the exam room’s cold tile floor. The vet shook his head.
“It’s highly unlikely this is fatal,” he said.
Bill asked again on the drive home. No, we agreed. He should go. We’d been down this road with Toby at least four times before. A cancer scare. Unexplained internal bleeding. Pneumonia. A cancer diagnosis. Each time he rallied, returning to our happy, sweet old dog in a matter of days. This would be no different.
We said goodbye as planned and the dogs and I went back to our positions on the couch, Toby curled in a ball at one end and Chester and I at the other. We spent the damp, drizzly December afternoon that way: me catching up on work, Chester tucked under a blanket and Toby looking up every so often to make sure I was still there and wobble into a different position.
As evening came, I realized something really wasn’t right. By dinnertime, he seemed awfully out of it. I lay next to him and pulled him onto my chest, burying my nose in the silky orange patch of fur just behind his ear. By bedtime, he wouldn’t stand. I made up a mattress on the living room floor and tucked him in between me and his favorite stuffed animal, an oversized, one-eared brown bear. By midnight, I knew he wouldn’t make it to morning. I called Bill, and we sat together through FaceTime, Toby between us, until he took his last breath at 2:30 in the morning. Bill caught the first flight home.
That was a year ago today.
I knew how hard it would be to say goodbye, but I’m sometimes surprised by how much I still miss Toby 365 days later.
As I said, there’s something unforgettably special about your first grown-up dog.
Humorist Robert Benchley once quipped that a dog teaches us fidelity, perseverance and to turn around three times before lying down.
Toby taught me all of those things. But I’ll also leave you with three more.
Relish the chance to explore what’s around you
Toby couldn’t be rushed when nose-to-ground. (Nor can Chester.) It’s a good lesson in curiosity.
Linger a bit longer. Take the spontaneous detour. Don’t worry so much about sticking to the plan. You never know what delights could be right around the corner if you’d just create the space to let them in.
Do what brings you joy
Even – or maybe especially – when it isn’t easy.
Toby once knocked out a front tooth diving after a ball on a rogue bounce during Chuckit! If he could’ve talked as he sat there awkwardly licking his snaggletooth, I suspect he would’ve said it was worth it.
Doing something that makes you truly happy usually is.
Love with your whole heart
Man, did the way that dog stuck to my side make me feel special. His sweet soul didn’t see my shortcomings and couldn’t care less about my strengths. I couldn’t disappoint him and he couldn’t be impressed. I was part of his pack, and that was all he needed to know to love me with everything he had every day.
What if we could all offer just a little bit more of that kind of unconditional love?