saying goodbye to a best friend
in October 2008, i was the speaker at the University of Memphis Christian Student Center’s fall retreat at Camp Takodah in Arkansas. the camp had several “camp dogs”, including a black lab that was very friendly to everybody.
“what’s the black one’s name?” we asked.
“we don’t have a black one.”
“uh.. yeah you do.”
“well, don’t feed it. we got too many dogs around here as it is.”
the camp was in a good place for people wanting to get rid of a dog to just drop them off, knowing someone would eventually take care of them. this friendly black dog didn’t have a collar or tags, just a $5 Hertz flea collar. she was friendly and never jumped up, was never intimidating, and seemed to be very hungry. all i had to offer her were Teddy Grahams, and she seemed to enjoy them.
i had wanted a dog for a long time now. i had thought about the kind of dog i wanted. i wanted a dog with this kind of temperament. she seemed young, but not a puppy. i had decided i definitely didn’t want a puppy — all the teething and pooping everywhere and all that. nope just give me a dog young enough i can train it, but old enough that we’re past all the messy stuff. this dog fit the bill.
if the camp didn’t want her, i did.
i put her in my car to bring her home. i stopped at Dollar General on the way to get her a dish and a toy or two. and something about her temperament suggested the perfect name for her: Larry.
Larry is the name of Geena Davis’s character in the movie Fletch. it’s one of her first roles, and a minor one. but she plays every beat perfect, holding her own on the screen with then comedy star Chevy Chase. her character is a research assistant for Irwin Fletcher, played by Chase. she’s loyal, dependable, funny, feminine, spunky, and beautiful in a bit of a tomboyish way. yep, “Larry” was perfect.
this is the earliest picture i have of Larry, just a few days after bringing her home.
i lived in a rental house on a horse farm at the time. it was great for letting her run around and explore and go on little adventures. sometimes she’s wander onto Canada Road and sometimes she’d wander into someone’s neighborhood. but most of the time, she’d just explore the woods behind the house.
shortly after bringing her home, i fed her some leftovers and she didn’t seem much interested in it. i think it had some chili or onion rings or something, plenty of stuff of a dog should never eat, but she didn’t eat much or any of it. in fact, she didn’t eat much of anything for about a week. i got scared i’d done something wrong. she had been voraciously hungry at the camp like she hadn’t been fed in days. now she wouldn’t eat at all. i started doing my research. i picked some better food, some treats, some toys, and after a week or so, she was eating normally.
in those early days, i realized she was partially house-trained. she was scared to go in the house at first, but after i let her, she never went to the bathroom in the house. she seemed to know a command or two, but wasn’t very good with them. she was super friendly. she never wondered far off. she seemed to have a great nose, probably would have made a great hunting dog. why would someone get rid of this dog?
then her teats started swelling. this dog was pregnant.
i got this dog because i didn’t want a puppy. now i was about to get a mess of them. again, i did my research. that week she didn’t eat was actually a dog’s version of “morning sickness”, and helped me realize how far along she was. she had been 1-2 weeks pregnant already when i brought her home. her belly never got very big, so i was curious to see what would happen. my plan was to give the puppies away, although i might surprise mom with one for her birthday or Christmas, since they would be born around that time.
as the time drew close, i was driving home one night and noticed the full moon. probably tonight, i thought.
i awoke at 12:30am from a dream. i could smell blood. i opened my bedroom door and could see drips of blood from where Larry had come to my door whining, probably what instigated my dream.
i followed the trail to the laundry room, where i’d used an old sleeping bag as a whelping nest. Larry looked at me like, “okay, i’m not sure what just happened, but something fell out of me, you gotta see this.” she was very concerned and surprised by the whole ordeal.
i peeled back the corner of the sleeping bag and found a little black wrinkly potato, eyes squeezed shut. Larry looked at it and back to me. “what should we do with it?” Larry was very concerned about it.
i waited for more puppies. and waited, and waited. i called the emergency animal clinic.
“it’s very unlikely she’s only had one puppy. labs typically have 10-12, even a first litter is 4-6. she may have one stuck and unable to come out. we won’t know until we do an x-ray…” emergency clinic visit, x-ray, c-sections… the costs added up. i’d only had this dog for a month. i wasn’t even saying things like “i love you” to it or anything. if she ran away, i’d have been like, “well, that stinks.” she was just some dog i found.
“i’ll wait it out. thanks.”
no other puppies came. there was only one.
no puppies to give away. i had to keep this one at least until she was weaned. i watched Larry do what she instinctively knew how to do. i watched that little potato grow into a skunky-breathed slightly bigger potato. i fell in love with both of them, and as for the pup, decided i’d just keep her (sorry, mom).
i named Larry’s baby Mathilda, after Natalie Portman’s character in Leon: The Professional.
Mathilda has largely lived up to her name, too. she’s full of energy and childish fun. she can seem threatening, especially when barking from behind the fence. but really she’s an obedient, frightened little girl that wants to be with someone who loves her and will protect her and take care of her.
Larry was a good momma.
even in her last days, she would come alongside Mathilda and lick her ears clean. despite always being together, the two of them didn’t often acknowledge the other’s presence. but once a day or so, Larry would give a little ear-cleaning to her baby. Mathilda would look at me and melt into being a puppy again. and Larry would look to me for her praise, “good momma.”
i have many memories of Larry that i won’t write about — the way she would stare into you, that she was afraid of water despite having webbed feet, how she’d gladly welcome every guest that came into our home even when i wasn’t there, the times she’d run off for hours at a time on the farm, etc.
and clearly, i’m processing my loss, dealing with the grief of losing a furry little buddy.
but i’m posting this publicly for more than that. more than writing about Larry, i wanted to right about our memories.
there’s a lot of talk in Scripture about eternal life. and no doubt there will be a New Creation, and those who want to be there will enjoy something like the creation we have now, only without the decay, without the darkness, without the tears. i believe there will be animals or something comparable in the New Creation, perhaps even our former pets. as an armchair theologian i can’t say with certainty, but as a guy missing his pal, it’s a nice thought.
my friend Jordan from edit.party sent me this quote that helped her through the loss of one of her pets:
“We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle; easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.”
again, as a theologian, i might take a protractor to it and debate some finer points. but as a human being, i appreciate the sentiment. at least in this creation, memories outlive all else.
yes memories are malleable and unreliable, which is all fine and well in a court of law. but for people made of love, memories let us continue to feel joy after a joy-creating moment has passed. memories let us laugh at a joke a second time, a third. memories let us relive cherished moments with cherished people, or cherished pets.
i think this is why i love filmmaking so much. creating memories for whoever might take time to watch. memories they can enjoy or digest over and over. memories they might find more pleasant than some of their own. memories that might help them understand a fellow traveler.
my friend Markus just directed a great short film called Sola, where a young woman living in a post-apocalyptic isolation has only her memories to keep her company. as we discussed his film, i was reminded of the fact that, because of the time it takes for our brain to register the data from the optic nerve, everything we “see” is actually in the past, albeit microseconds. every thought we have, our self talk, our emotions, these are all memories in our brain — some brief, some etching. but even the things we see and hear are really nothing more than memories from their creation.
in a way, all of creation is a memory, the thought of God who wondered, “what if I could have more Love?” it wasn’t a mechanical or astronomical event that began the universe. it was that thought, “let there be Light.” creation and perhaps each of us happen as thoughts of God. the fleeting part of creation will one day burn away and a New Creation will replace it. but the only thing eternal, the only thing that will never be destroyed is us, people, human souls, each other. the people we love, the stranger on the street.
one of my favorite things ever written is C. S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory”. it’s a 45-minute sermon about what “glory” means, and it’s worth reading in one sitting. but let me spoil the end of it for you:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
Larry got very sick about 5 months ago, and i thought that was the end.
i did a lot of my mourning then. many friend left kind words on facebook or sent messages on Instagram. a few called or came by to see her, which we both appreciated very much.
after a visit to the vet, turns out it was just whip worm. we got her dewormed and had a good 5 months together, and we enjoyed every day of it. she got a spring in her step again, regained some weight, and had a little brightness in her eyes i hadn’t seen in a while. it was very nice.
but i also knew she wouldn’t last forever. and the real end would come sooner than later. so i tried to cherish every moment i could.
Larry was not typically very affectionate. but lately, she would come close to me and stare at me in her weird way. she didn’t need to go outside, she didn’t seem to be begging for food. she just wanted some loving.
she may have already been in a little pain even back then. the tumor on her leg wasn’t more than a bump, and she had lots of bumps here and there. labs are prone to lipomas and cancers. i had already told the vet that if her sickness turned out to be some kind of cancer, we wouldn’t do chemo or anything. i love her very much, but she’s just a dog.
the tumor grew very quickly. in just a few months, it was bigger than a baseball. what i thought (hoped) was a lipoma was now hard and heavy. it was clearly something bad, and at her age wasn’t something we could likely fix.
she wasn’t in serious pain with this tumor until this weekend, and she went down fast. unable to stand on her own suddenly, trembling, whining, clearly in a lot of pain. the tumor began bleeding. it grew visibly overnight. it was aggressive.
and Larry, she was hurting.
the vet confirmed my fears. after sharing some Teddy Grahams and a Hershey’s Kiss, we said goodbye.
she went peacefully, her face in my hands. i know she was deaf, but i like to think seeing my lips, feeling my breath on her face, she knew i was telling her, “good girl, i love you.” our eyes stayed locked to each other until she breathed her last.
we buried Larry on our family farm with our other family dogs — Zero, Tucker, Scout, and Zuzu.
Mom and Dad met me there and helped prepare and finish the grave. Mom gathered some freshly blooming daffodils. Dad found a good flat rock for a headstone and let me use his file to carve her name and the date. Mom found an old bottle and used it for a vase. i found some white rocks to put at the top of the grave, so i could always find it, even after the etching is worn away.
i sent that photo to my friend Shane, a good friend of Larry’s her whole life. he replied, “that grave holds so many happy memories of you.” and it holds the one who gave me so many happy memories, too.
yes, i am sad. but i got a lot of my sadness out of the way 5 months ago. since then, every day has been a gift. yesterday and today, more than any other emotion, i’ve been overwhelmed with gratitude. i’ve been thankful.
i’m thankful to God for bringing Larry to me. i’m thankful for the extra time. i’m thankful she wasn’t miserable for very long. i’m thankful i had some time to spend with her alone that morning, and i’m thankful she went very peacefully in my arms. i’m thankful the last thing she saw was me loving on her. i’m thankful mom and dad helped me say goodbye and provided a place where we can come visit. and i’m thankful Larry gave me Mathilda. i think i have Larry a great life, and she definitely gave me a great life.
so i miss her, and it’s hard, but i know she’s not in pain, and i have so much to be thankful for.
Mathilda is adjusting to not having her buddy around. i’m adjusting to a new relationship with Mathilda, now that it’s just the two of us. in a few days, this will feel more normal. the awkwardness or uncertainty or fear or sadness… that will all go away.
but one thing that will never go away is our memory of Larry. i spent this morning just going through pictures and videos. her collar hangs on the door near where she used to sleep. i can’t bring myself to take up her dog dish just yet. lots of memories, monuments to the love we share.
there’s a lot of things i wished i’d done better as a dog dad. but one thing i’m glad i did was treasure as many moments as possible in these last few months. and i want to take this sentiment into all of my relationships. with Mathilda, with Mom and Dad, my brother and his family, my friends, strangers, anyone i have the good pleasure to meet. i’ve always loved people, but i haven’t always been good at showing it. i want to love people more openly and create memories together every chance we get.
Larry would like that. she was always a friend to everybody.