Annie was everything I didn’t want in a dog, yet everything I needed. But my story doesn’t start with Annie. It starts with Chocolate, a lab shepherd, who also happened to be the best dog ever. I found him from a flyer pinned to a bulletin board at the market with the word “Puppies!” in bold across the top. There was a picture of a dangerously adorable pile of puppies I could not resist.
One phone call later I adopted the brown one with massive paws. My two year old named him Chocolate. I had no business adopting a puppy for I felt as if I was barely surviving raising my daughters and working full time. Although Chocolate was always fed, he often fell to the bottom of my never-ending list when it came to anything else.
Over time it became obvious why his paws were so huge for he grew to over a hundred pounds. He was incredibly gentle and carried himself with the calm of an old soul. In the quiet of the night, I’d sit beside him. I found tranquility in the steady, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. He had no judgment about my shortcomings, the piles of dishes in the sink, the dust gathering in corners of the room and the countless other things that kept me from being a perfect wife and mother.
After thirteen years, his back legs betrayed him and weakened to the point they could not support him. After trying all we could, it became clear his legs would never regain their strength. It was excruciating to see him struggle to move. Because I loved him I knew I had to let him go. I made and canceled the dreaded appointment several times with our veterinarian. Selfishly I wanted more time. Finally I made an appointment I could not cancel.
In his finals days we napped in sunny spots on the deck. He was given cheese and morsels of chicken without care for spoiling his appetite. My daughter dragged her bedroom mattress down the hall so she could sleep next to him. I put my head on his chest and with each breath let the tears fall.
At the vet’s office I sat on the floor cradling his head in my lap. While looking into his loving eyes one last time, I felt he knew what was happening. He gave me both permission and absolution. With the last injection that stopped his heart, it appeared he was merely going to sleep. Leaving him was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I wanted to scream, “I changed my mind. Give him back to me!” My sobs overtook my ability to breathe.
He was the most unconditionally loving being I have had the honor of knowing. I vowed to never love another dog, partially out of loyalty, but mostly to protect my heart.
And yet two years later after what was supposed to be a “look and see” visit at our local pet shelter, I found myself driving home with a new wire crate rattling around in the back of my car carrying the frightened dog I just adopted.
At the shelter there were happy dogs wagging their tails and eager to please. But it was the quiet dog that drew me in. She was everything I didn’t want for I was snobbish about dogs. I believed big, burly dogs were real dogs to protect you and take hiking and camping. Small dogs were yippy and annoying especially when dressed in tiny sweaters or carried in purses like toys. I loved brown dogs with thick long fur to sink my fingers into. This subdued, possibly depressed, twenty four pound dog was compact with short black and white fur.
She had been found wandering the streets of Oakland, California. Once rescued, she made the long trek to Washington. She was a survivor, which was something I was trying to do. She needed a home and although I didn’t know it, I desperately needed her. The shelter called her Eva. But to me she was Annie.
At first Annie was timid and scared. I thought possibly I had adopted the only non-barking dog in the world. But over time she began to wag her tail when she’d see me. She found her bark and used it at the window to warn those who dared walk on the road in front of our house, that this was her home now.
Annie is not Chocolate. He dutifully followed me throughout the yard as I pulled weeds. He’d plop himself down only to get up and move whenever I moved. Annie is not interested in watching me pull weeds. She loves to run and when she runs she looks like an extraordinary mix of wild rabbit and graceful deer. She leaps with legs extended like Superman flying off to save the world.
Although Chocolate found no enjoyment in the water, he would timidly follow me into lakes or the ocean because he wanted to be near me. He was relieved each time we returned safely to dry land. Watching Annie at the beach however, is the closest I have come to witness pure joy in motion. She bounds unafraid into waves and careens recklessly through pools created at low tide.
Annie’s best gift is her snuggles. She sidles up close letting her dense warmth radiate between us. Although she might appear to be in a deep sleep, she never misses out on noises which may lead to food. Her loyalty shifts depending on where morsels of goodness might come from. I don’t take it personally for this instinct helped her survive. I know she will come back to me eventually where she will curl up and let me stroke her silky soft ears.
I think hearts are like houses with many rooms. They are miraculous in making space for new love while still cradling heartbreaking loss. A heart, if given the chance, can hold a sun filled room brimming with hope alongside shadowed rooms with curtains drawn in mourning. At first I found it hard to love Annie and feared I was being disloyal to Chocolate. I’ve since learned loving her is a way of continuing to love him.
I know Annie will not be with me forever. When she is gone I will weep and mourn and find it hard to breathe. And then in time there will be room in my heart for another. And in loving that dog my love for Annie and Chocolate will continue. For such is the tender magic of love, loss and puppy dogs.
Photos by Teresa Bain, Alexandria Bain and Rolf Canham