He came into our home from C.A.R.E. and marveled at the bowl of puppy chow. I don’t think he ever imagined so much dog chow and, amazingly, no one had eaten it yet! He plopped his plump little body down, and I’m pretty sure he was humming to himself as he freely enjoyed some.
For a short while, he was small enough for the cats to chase him, and he would invariably hide under a certain piece of furniture. But over the next year he grew so fast that we were convinced it actually must have been painful for him. You could almost see his bones lengthening. Each day brought us a slightly bigger dog.
He became the “Big Fella” and he learned that name as he had learned his given names of Sam, Sammy, and Sammy Dog.
He was an extraordinarily gentle dog — for someone to rob our house all they would have needed was a cookie or a piece of cheese to make friends with Sam. But first they would have to get past his size and his bark, which was even bigger than he was. Sammy had a family, he knew that and, despite that I’m somewhat convinced that he lived his life as a reincarnated 4-year-old boy, he knew that being among the biggest meant that he had to protect everyone else.
Whenever I’d leave for a trip, I’d pet his soft head, give him a kiss and say the word, “Protect.” He would look up at me with such seriousness; I knew that he knew what he was supposed to do.
That proved to be something of a challenge for him when we brought home an 8-ounce kitten that had been abandoned in a bush near where my Mom lived in Minnesota. I think it freaked him out a little to have to protect something so tiny. He probably just worried about how to avoid stepping on her. The kitten, however, had no such fears. She would often rub her little body up against Sam’s 105-pound body.
Sammy had a rough start in life but he made the best of everything; he could actually smile. While he still could, he loved running through the gully in front of our home in Ruskin after a heavy rain. The big dog but small polar bear would instantly be covered in mud. He loved snow and would shovel it with his face. In the times we lived in colder climes, he could not understand why the other dogs would rush back in to the warmth of the house.
As he grew older, problems that began in puppyhood began to dictate the things he could and could not do, but he seemed okay with it. He loved his memory foam bed and always had to have a pillow for his soft, furry head. But mostly, he liked it when his entire family was around, preferably all gathered in the same room. On those occasions, he would let out a big sigh and close his eyes to sleep peacefully. In my prayers, I would thank God for entrusting us to have Sammy and all of our quadrupeds.
When I would return from trips, all of the dogs (and even the cats in their own aloof way) would be excited when I walked in the door. But Sammy was always especially so — he would squeal and let out little cries and when I’d kneel down to face level, he’d smother my face in kisses. As his legs grew weaker, sometimes he’d get so excited that he would fall over.
The last time I came home, this past Wednesday, he sang for a very long time. But he could no longer get up, although he did try. He expressed such joy. I think he knew his life was approaching its end, and now his whole family was together again. Sammy was happy.
But later that night, the singing turned into cries. His dog brother, Casey, while friends with Sam but never seemed all that close, suddenly became his source of comfort. Casey spent a great deal of time lying next to Sam.
A few months ago, we moved him to our apartment in the New York City area so he could bask in the cool weather and see some snow. Even though walking was difficult for him, he helped to shovel some with his face. And while he seemed to enjoy it, the joy he always held was ebbing away.
On Friday, the joy was gone entirely. We called Lap of Love, an organization of veterinarians founded in Tampa that is now nationwide. Although Dr. Shannon Skevakis was booked up for the day, she made a late evening appointment with us. And despite that it was late, she didn’t rush us; she gave us all the time we wanted and listened to all that we had to say. While Michelle and I patted his soft head and spoke words of love and thanks to him, Sammy’s pain ended and ours intensified.
Dr. Shannon carried in a stretcher, wrapped him in a soft blanket that Sammy would have loved, hugged us both and then left with the friend who provided unconditional love for nearly 13 years.
Over those years, I learned so much from Sammy. Sure, he could be crabby and demanding, but mostly he was patient of our faults and loyal and loving despite them.
But, right now, the hole he left behind is so enormous that I feel as though aging is merely a lesson in loss. In fact, if God were to ask me right now to use one word to describe life, I would have to be honest in simply saying, “Loss.”
I’m sure that will change and at some point my memories of Sammy will warm and heal my broken heart. Because in the end, 13 years with him were so much better than if I’d not had them at all.
And, perhaps, that’s what life really is: it’s not loss but rather the gain of collecting so much love, experience and even lessons (something Sammy provided in abundance). Perhaps, in the end, I’ll be able to tell God that life is “Abundance,” or better yet, “Love.” And with that, I’d like to think that Sammy would smile.