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The Greatest Dane

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“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” -Josh Billings

It was a chilly winter afternoon almost four years ago when we brought him home. He already had a name. Bo. Short for Bocephus, Hank Williams Jr.’s nickname. I promptly changed it to Beau, which means “handsome” in French. Fitting, because he was the most handsome dog I’d ever seen.

We already had one Great Dane, Buddy. We’ve had Buddy since he was four months old and he’s been with us through everything, including grad school, law school, marriage, a three-year sojourn in New Hampshire, and four months in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. He’s been to no fewer than a dozen states plus the District of Columbia, and we even have a picture of him on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

But when we settled back down in Texas—and moved into a Texas-sized house—we decided we were ready for another dog. At 130 pounds, Buddy is on the small side for a Great Dane (I jokingly refer to him as a “miniature” of the breed), and my husband, Michael, desperately wanted a Dane with “classic” features.

We started working with the local Great Dane rescue, and while the dogs they had available for adoption were incredibly sweet, none of them seemed to be a good fit. Michael had a picture in his mind of the dog that he wanted and he wasn’t going to settle for anything less. Then, one Sunday, we found an ad in the newspaper for a one-year-old black Great Dane. His owner was a middle-aged woman whose elderly mother and her Chihuahua had recently moved in with her, and the dogs weren’t getting along. We decided to go and see him.

We knocked on the door and were met with the sound of crazed barking. A man opened the door and one of the largest dogs I’d ever seen came bounding into the front yard, a clumsy jumble of long, spindly legs and the paws of a lion. He had the excitement and energy of a tiny puppy and was completely unaware of his size. He sniffed and licked and jumped on us, and I swear, it was as if he knew that we were meant to be his owners and he’d just been waiting for us to come for him.

We went inside and spoke with his owner for a while as this massive beast dashed around us frenetically. His crate was the size of an ATM vestibule and I shuddered to think how much kibble he must put away on a daily basis. He was crazy and rambunctious and I just couldn’t see him fitting in at our quiet, orderly household where Buddy’s idea of excitement was half-heartedly barking at the mailman.

When we got back in the car, I turned to Michael and said, “We can NOT get that dog!”

…just as he was saying, “I love that dog!”

I could tell by the look on his face that he had fallen head-over-heels in love. Beau was exactly the dog he’d been dreaming of. We went home, talked it over, and then went back to get him and brought him home that evening. And our lives were never the same.

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My love for Beau didn’t come as easily as it did for Michael. I work from home, and we set up his crate in my office. I had grown so accustomed to my routine with Buddy, who would sleep until 10 or 11 every morning and was generally quiet as a mouse. Beau, on the other hand, was wild and seemed to have limitless reserves of energy, not to mention a bark that could be heard the next town over. That, combined with the fact that he and Buddy weren’t exactly fast friends and got into many a squabble, meant I had to keep him with me in my office a lot of the time in those first few weeks. I would sit at my desk and look over at him, and he would look back at me with the sweetest eyes and a look that said he just wanted to love and be loved. And over time, he worked his way into my heart forever.

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Beau was reckless in his enthusiasm for life, which is perhaps just a nice way of saying he was dumb. True, Great Danes are not known for their intellect. But what they lack in common sense they make up for tenfold in the love they give. When we learned this past summer that Beau had an enlarged heart (a congenital condition called dilated cardiomyopathy), the diagnosis struck me as terribly bittersweet. His chest X-ray looked like that scene when the Grinch’s heart grows two sizes. Beau was so full of love and the need to be loved, and his illness—an overgrown heart—was a heartbreakingly appropriate metaphor.

Medication gave us extra months with Beau that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. But there was no cure for his condition, and we knew that we would be facing a difficult decision sometime soon. I had just hoped we would have more time than we did. The dog I had once thought I didn’t want had become one of the best friends I’ve ever had. The thought of losing him was crushing. But as his illness progressed, watching him suffer became more difficult than the decision to say goodbye. He still had a spark in his eye. His “Beau-ness” was still in tact. But his body wouldn’t do what he wanted it to do. He would try to jump only to collapse onto his back legs. We couldn’t let him run in the yard with his brother Buddy because he got winded too easily. And toward the end, simply getting up to go outside became too taxing for him.

I think Michael knew it was time before I did, but he waited until I arrived at the conclusion myself. In all honesty, I probably knew for a while too but didn’t want to say the words out loud. But one day last month, as I watched how labored his breathing was and how uncomfortable he looked, I decided it was time. His quality of life was next to negligible, and keeping him any longer would have been selfish.

Fortunately, we were able to have the vet come to our house. It was Sunday, and she would be there at 4pm the following day. That night was one of the longest and most difficult of my life. Buddy slept next to Beau on his dog bed, something he hardly ever did. It was as if he knew that his brother wasn’t feeling well, or maybe he was even aware on some level that he would be gone soon. In the morning, Michael went to work and Beau managed to climb into bed with me. I stayed there with him until noon and gave him a big bowl of ice cream for both breakfast and dinner. His appetite had all but disappeared, so it made me happy to see him lapping up a treat he’d never been allowed to have before. Michael came home early from work and we and the dogs went out in the backyard to spend some time together. It was a beautiful fall day, cool and cloudy, a rarity in September in Texas. It was Beau’s favorite kind of day, and he sniffed at the breeze as if he was ready for it to carry him away. We took pictures together, and cried countless tears, and Beau sat in the grass right next to us, never leaving our side as always, all of us silent as the clock ticked toward the inevitable.

When the time finally came, we showered Beau with hugs and kisses, our arms wrapped around him right until the very end. Watching him go felt like the most unnatural thing in the world. My very soul seemed to rip in half. But, at the same time, I felt such peace in knowing that the pain he’d been fighting so bravely was finally gone. It was at once one of the most painful and beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.

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When it comes to religion, my opinion is that I have no opinion. The only thing I’m certain of is that we mere mortals can’t be certain of things that are inherently unknowable. But I do know that, if there is some kind of heaven, our dogs will be there with us—because they deserve it more than we do. A lazy afternoon spent in the company of a dog is a kind of heaven on earth, and I can’t imagine any version of eternity that doesn’t include them.

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Before we said goodbye to Beau, I silently asked him to find a way to show me that he was still with me and that he was okay, if there was something on the other side. Now, understand that I am a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. I don’t believe in ghosts or horoscopes or prayer, though sometimes I wish I did. So I fully realize that it was likely just a coincidence. But something happened that day that put a question mark on all my skepticism, at least for a moment.

My sister and I have been going through a rough patch over the past few months. Really, over the past few years. That afternoon, as Michael was preparing to bury our sweet Beau, I went to his grave and gave him his favorite bone and a letter I had written him. I stood there crying into Michael’s chest and the grief felt unbearable. I couldn’t believe he was really gone. It was getting colder outside and Michael told me to go in the house, and as I slowly walked back, my legs like led, I got a message on my phone. Three words from my sister, who had no idea what had happened that day: “I love you.” We hadn’t spoken much in the past few months, and when we did, the exchanges were heated and unfriendly. I hadn’t told anyone in my family what was happening with Beau, so there’s no way she could have known that, at the very moment she was sending that message, I was walking away from my best friend’s grave.

Maybe it was some subconscious sisterly connection that compelled her to send that message at that moment. Maybe it was purely happenstance. I’m not sure. But what I’d like to believe, and the thought that occurred to me as I looked down at my phone through my tears, is that Beau had found a way to let me know he was okay. I don’t know if that’s possible—if it had happened to someone else, it’s the kind of story I would probably roll my eyes at—but I’d like to think it is.

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I have no idea what the origins of this story are, but I recently read about a Native American legend that explains the singular bond between dogs and man. They say that, long ago, the Great Spirit decided to divide animals and humans into separate realms. He gathered them up and drew a line in the sand between them. The line began to break apart and a crevasse grew between the two groups. And at the last moment, just before the chasm had grown too large, the dogs leaped across it to join the humans on the other side.

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Maybe I’m socially stunted or simply a misanthropic introvert, but, given the choice, I would generally choose the company of dogs over the company of people. After all, l’enfer, c’est les autres.  Beau truly was one of my best friends. My idea of a fun Friday night was curling up with him on the living room floor and watching movies. He was always by my side and followed me from room to room throughout the day. To say he was a constant companion would be an understatement. He was such a part of me that I feel I’m missing one of my limbs now that he’s gone, the phantom pain manifesting as a Great Dane-sized ache in my heart.

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The house is quiet and empty now. I never realized how much space Beau took up, not just because of his size, but with his very presence. His energy and his sweet personality have left a gaping hole that nothing will ever be large enough to fill. Any amount of time we’re allowed to have with our dogs is too short, but, even after going through all the pain of his illness and losing him, I wouldn’t exchange the time we had with Beau for anything in the world. He taught me so much without being able to actually say anything. He set an example of love, loyalty, simplicity, happiness, and unrestrained excitement for no other reason than the fact that we are alive and there is air to breathe, treats to eat, sunlight to bask in, rain to romp in, and a warm bed to curl up in at night next to the people and creatures who mean most to us.

That is all there is to life, and Beau lived his to the fullest, right up through that cool and cloudy day—so like the one when we brought him home—when he left us for whatever comes next. I hope that he is waiting for me, somewhere, but until then, I take comfort in knowing that the love I felt and continue to feel for him is indeed immortal.

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A Wise Man Once Said…

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!'” -HST

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen

“Make no little plans…

…they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Something I read in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.

Estes Park

Estes Park, CO. December 2012.