I've never been much of a dog person.
My friends had dogs, and I was unmoved. Big dogs scared me. Small dogs were yappy. Slobbery dogs grossed me out. When I was in high school, I was attacked by a German Shepherd as I walked home. By sheer luck, I didn't lose an eye. No, dogs were not for me.
When my husband and I bought our first home, I decided we needed a dog. And there was Molly -- free to a good home, being given away by a family who decided that she had had enough of their five kids. She had a scar down her back and scars in her psyche, and we loved Molly for six or seven years, until the tumours in her stomach burst and I was left alone to face the inevitable.
That was the night I had to go and buy our daughter all new bedding, because Molly had climbed on the soft duvet for comfort. And that was when I decided I would never -- could never -- have another dog.
Five years ago, the pleas from our daughter for a puppy began. Even my husband jumped on board the puppy bandwagon. I was steadfast. No puppy, no way. Puppies turn into dogs. Dogs make messes. Dogs are expensive. Dogs break your heart.
But my stance softened. One day, I countered the "please, mom," with this compromise: "If someone offers us a dog, that is fully trained and is up-to-date on its shots, I'll consider it."
Which is where Cooper enters our story.
He was six, met all my criteria, and belonged to friends of ours. They were semi-retired and had become Arizona snowbirds. Cooper had wintered with their son, and they were dreading taking him back over the summer. They had struggled with the decision to leave Cooper behind, but he was a boisterous not-quite-six-year-old boy, and his brother, older by three years, was a better fit for their new lifestyle. To become attached to him again over the summer -- only to leave him behind come November -- was more than they could bear.
Their son couldn't keep him, so Cooper needed a family to call his own.
It took seconds for me to agree to take him.
And so, on a Thursday night in April four years ago, right before Easter, Cooper was delivered to my brother's house, and brought home to ours.
It took him a while to settle into the pecking order. George, our 20-pound cat, was having none of the big yellow interloper, and made it clear with one massive swoop of his claws (although who cuddled up to him during those first turbulent nights?). Feist, our other cat, was far more publicly welcoming, and Cooper soon settled into our lives.
He was thin -- barely 50 pounds, far too small for a Golden Retriever -- and he was skittish, but as he learned that he wasn't in another short-term home, he quickly began to thrive.
There's no question of whose dog he is. Or whose person is his. When I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety unexpectedly last year, he was my faithful companion. It was for him I got up and got out of the house every day.
As we went into a long, miserable winter, though, he started showing his age. He didn't want to be out for as long. Sometimes, after walks, he seemed a bit stiff. And by spring, he was much less of an energetic pooch in his middle age than an old man. He limped, which we all attributed to an ice injury in the winter that hadn't properly healed and arthritis had set in. There was new food, for geriatric pooches, and joint-lubricating supplements and medication. None of which seemed to make much difference.
Which makes sense now, of course, because we now know that it wasn't an injury or arthritis causing him to slow down.
Forever now seems much shorter to us than it had four-and-a-half years ago. But new medication -- and a new vet -- have given us hope for better days, however many or few they may be. The Cooper I walked today is much different than the dog we had two weeks ago. He chased squirrels and geese and rolled in the grass while the autumn air blew over him. And as we walked home, I realized walking with him now is much more like walking with my elderly mum -- the strides start out strong, but it isn't long before time takes its turn and they slow down.
Time. I had thought that was the enemy we would face with our lovely boy, but I was wrong. It was miserable cells that dared to mutate and attack the best dog ever from within. We don't know how much time we have left; maybe months, maybe a year. Will he run and roll in the cool autumn wind, frolic in the snow or gambol about on the first warm day next year? Will he romp in the waves next summer? We don't know. And we try not to focus on that. Our focus is on making his remaining time with us happy and pain-free, even if it's a challenge to feel that way ourselves sometimes.
This Thanksgiving, we're thankful for Cooper, and all that he has given us: the walks and the runs; the sleepless nights during thunderstorms; the massive vet bill when he ate a stick and pooped out a block of wood; the soakings after a swim in the lake and the absolute, boundless love he shows us each and every day.
In all of this, I have come to realize one very important thing:
On the day we brought Cooper home, I knew he needed a family. What I didn't realize, is that our family needed him.