Having spent 20 minutes verifying if yawns are contagious between people and pets, my Bernese Mountain Dog, Big Silly, is frustrated with me. I sense her implying she's too old for this nonsense. She turned five in December, several months after being told she would not live to see that birthday. I write this letter to her, not because it's Love Your Dog Month or Pet A Puppy Day, because that's every month and every day. I write this because I have had the rare pleasure of having two first dogs, and I owe this letter to both of them.
Dear Big Silly,
You have successfully herded me and the Girl to our couches. You may now position yourself between us, your herding instinct sated. Quite a mess of contradictions you are, drawing people in, then shying from their attentions. You are gentle and nervous, goofy and aptly named. I take a great pleasure in the many ways we are similar. It speaks well of me. I like our little family, the Man, the Girl and the Dog. It is smallish and can misfire, but it is crooked smile-perfect.
Here's the tough part. I have resisted revealing a secret which could fundamentally shake our relationship. Big Silly, though you will always be my first dog...you are actually my second first dog.
1980s. As the youngest of three boys, I pined for a puppy to nurture and torment. I tried convincing my parents of my blossoming reliability through pouty tirades. I spent evenings placing checkmarks beside favourited breeds in my copy of The Big Book of Dogs. I would circle and rank and nominate Whippets and Goldens and Siberian Huskies.
But no breed was more beloved, no more in line with my burgeoning big-tent liberalism, than the black, white and brown, floppy-eared Beagle.
As the hackneyed story goes, my parents never allowed me to have a dog. It was not until several years later that fate intervened.
1995. I awoke that crisp Spring morning at 3pm. Just another workday for the University of Western Ontario's most diligent student. I stumbled, studiously, into the living room, possibly to consider leaving the house, but upon my arrival my eyes would widen, my arms dropping to their sides.
A beagle named Akimbo. My beagle.
Oh Big Silly, stay calm, this was long before your time. Akimbo was my roommate's sister's dog, but hadn't found a place in the world, so our university dog he became.
Over the next two years I would learn a great many things, though none more indubitably than this: A house occupied by several 20-year-olds is not the best place to raise a high-strung beagle. Despite an adorability mark off the charts, and a delightful penchant to ram his chest into your foot, this beagle was not quite Snoopy.
On one particular weekend, Akimbo -- in a near constant state of berserk -- had grown tired of my requests to sit or chill or maybe not try to maul everything. Agitated, I returned to my room to find peace and tranquility...only to discover a steamy brown gift on my carpet. That was Akimbo. The softest ears imaginable married to Beetlejuice's temperament.
1997. After graduation, his official family found him a new home. I didn't have the stability to oversee a toaster-sized tornado. Allegedly, a young woman was taking him to a farm in Northern Ontario. I worried briefly, Big Silly, that "farm" may have been a euphemism but, no, I was assured he had a storybook new home, and that made my heart glad.
2008. Man and Girl have House and Hatchback and it is time for Dog.
Eight weeks young. Black, white and brown, floppy-eared, and incredibly brave when no one is looking.
You are built like the letter N. You make pig noises when we come home, squealing in bladder-compromised delight. You can catch a treat off your nose and when we yell Mardi Gras! you flip on your back to await your reward. You are that rare dog who gets coaxed to come up on the bed, but never asked off of it. I have combed the literature (searched Google) and never found another example of a dog whose neck smells of baby powder when she is nervous. You smell like baby powder when you are nervous. You likely don't realize how unbelievably endearing a trait that is.
My darling Raccoon Skunkface, most remarkable is the rhythm the three of us share. You have turned us into superheroes, Morning Girl and Nighttime Man, balancing affection between us with charm and fairness.
I never told you, because you worry like crazy about everything -- the beeping of our dishwasher leaves you rattled for days -- but when we first got news of your cancers, we were told we shouldn't expect more than three weeks with you. The Girl and I were devastated. You ate pineapple that day.
I'm getting ahead of myself.
2011. December. You just turned three. I receive a message announcing big news: Akimbo is alive.
He must be 17! Maybe 18! Can it be?
I am given his New Girl's information. Her name is Victoria, and she's had the little terror for nearly fifteen years. I have to see him!
I make contact. Victoria tells me he is old, he is crotchety, but he is alive and snuggly and living in London, Ontario, where our odyssey began. We would meet again. Would he remember me?
It is nearly New Years, so we plan to connect during the first week of January. I am exhilarated, spending hours revelling on Akimbo's Facebook page. I feel like the one dog I may have let down would see I just want to nuzzle and scratch and love him.
Akimbo died on January 1.
Though I hadn't seen him in forever, a sense of loss enveloped me. To this day my chest tightens when I think how close we were to meeting again. I had forgotten, Big Silly, that before you, there was another dog who may have seen me as family. I don't get to find out if Akimbo remembered me, but it doesn't matter -- I remember him. With love. That is bond forever and enough.
I won't wait like I did with Akimbo again.
2013. August. Everything just became urgent.
Big Silly, your diagnosis marked the first time I've cried in eight years, since my uncle Rolly died. It would trigger months of recurring daydreams where I save you from traffic or beat up strangers who dare to kick at you. I find myself desperate for a chance to preserve you.
Initially, I wanted to write a column entitled "Why Dogs Are Valuable For More Than Warding Off Intruders" but I did not want to provoke facile responses comparing dogs to cats or kids or central alarm systems. It is just good to love a dog. An animal can love you like only your parent can. The British even invented a word for it: unconditionally.
I flip through your file folder looking for remembrances and inspirations to find it filled with oncology invoices and insurance claim forms. You have been an unhealthy girl for so much of your life. You were never going to have an easy time. But my joy from you isn't found in who is the fastest or the fluffiest or the friendliest. You are special because you are my dog. I say it with the pride of ownership, like I would about my friend or my sibling. You are my Dog. Owned. I am your Man. Owned.
I don't know how much time we have left together, buddy, but I'm cherishing all of it. It's hunker down time. Hug 'em if you got 'em.
For years we've been asked, "Why did you name your dog, Big Silly? Do you actually call her that?" I traditionally respond, "You don't name a dog Big Silly and then not call her that." To which the Girl rhythmically adds, "It's not the size of the dog, it's the size of the silly."
I recognize the chances of an afterlife are slim -- particularly one which preserves our memories or even fortifies them -- but if there should be one, either encapsulated entirely within my dying brain, or in an unending heavenly realm beyond comprehension, Big Silly, you are the first creature I am coming to find. You and me, together, we'll go find the Girl and herd the others.