|Photo by Skyler King on Unsplash|
Even now, after all is said and done, after thirteen years together, after he is gone, I find it hard to explain Toby and me.
December 10, 2005. Princeton, New Jersey: The first time ever I saw his face.
There was snow on the ground. The air was frigid and dense with the hope of finding “the one,” and at the same time like a vacuum of held breath. Above the chaos, a leaden sky sagged, gray and heavy with inarticulate hope.
“Is that Toby?” I asked a woman walking by. “It is,” she said. He was as handsome as he was in his pictures online; I leaned down, breathless, and he, unexpectedly, jumped into my arms, landing on my chest. Our hearts collided, seemed to stop for a moment and continued to beat in synchrony; his next exhaled breath matched mine exactly. The next breath, drawn in surprise, also in synch.
We were Toby’s fourth home in less than two years. I spoke to his original owner once, just briefly. He explained that Toby had behavioral problems, which had prompted him to give Toby up for adoption. Their vet he added had “suggested neutering Toby would fix the problem, but I couldn’t do that—I just couldn’t do that to him,” he said. So, he gave him up for adoption. I have held that first owner in contempt from the moment those words fell from his lips.
Toby accepted me as I was. My whole life, I’ve struggled with not being enough: I was never smart enough, or butch enough, or good-looking enough. For Toby, I was not only enough—I was everything. Perhaps that is what makes dogs so special to us; we are always enough and everything.
Once in the park, a stranger admired Toby’s good looks, “Tell me,” he said, “Is he a good dog?”
“He,” I responded, “Is the best dog he knows how to be.”
The stranger thought for a moment, nodded his head, and responded, “I like that. I really like that.”
March 20, 2018. Mathew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital: The last time ever I saw his face.
Another winter day. The sky hung low, white with anger. From the flattened arc of the heavens, snow tumbled down, like dashed hope. Accumulating on the ground in piles and drifts, it lay there like an old mattress, too lumpy and itchy to offer comfort to the weary.
Toby licked my nose, then settled against me.
“He’s gone,” the vet said, moving the stethoscope from his chest.
I looked down at Toby cradled in my arms, tight against me, his chest rising and falling in synch with mine. “Gone? But he’s still—”
“I thought that at first, too,” she said,” But, it’s your breathing that makes it look like he is…”
I nodded. I kissed the top of his head one last time, and gently surrendered him to her.
And now, now, I keep looking around for him, even as I stare at the stack of vet bills on my desk amounting to many thousands of dollars, and realize, I would have generated many thousands more if it would have bought me more time with him.
I seek refuge in the knowledge that I did my best for him, that it was his time to leave, that he was ready. I lean into my trust that he would not have left me if he wasn’t sure I was ready to let him go.