We had Howard before our girls, our house, our marriage. On June 9, 2009, we adopted him from a rescue 364 days before we officially adopted one another. He was a bundle of golden fur, a former stray from Espanola, New Mexico. Just one week separated from his siblings due to kennel cough, he sat cuddled in the back corner of his crate. Once I saw him, I didn’t leave his side; when Ben came around from looking at other puppies, he smiled immediately sensing I was already attached. We asked to play fetch and while we kneeled, gently throwing the ball, we chuckled as he dutifully brought it back. We knew he would be the one. Once we paid the fee, signed the papers, snapped the photo, we climbed in our car, eager to bring our guy home.
I held him close in the front seat, wrapped snugly in a blanket, as he shook with nervousness. He sort of tumbled out of our blue honda civic once we arrived to our apartment complex and sweetly struggled up the stairs. We gave him a bath and he ran from us once out of the tub, eventually jumping onto the low shelf of a plant stand willing us to come closer. I remember feeling so happy in that moment – chasing our fluffy puppy, laughing at him and ourselves, so much time before us.
The end of that month, we moved into our first house – a cozy, 1939 stucco surrounded by wonderful neighbors we had yet to know. That home was Howard’s favorite by far. He staked claim on the front ottoman in front of our picture window and there he stayed until we moved five years later. He would see us pull into the driveway, jump up, and run through the dog door to our backyard waiting for us to walk out of the garage. We came to expect his greeting: a dog so happy he couldn’t stand still, jumping as high as our heads, rushing back in to beat us inside. He approached everything with this same gusto – the potential for a walk, shoveling snow, chasing squirrels. We loved Howard through muddy paw prints on hardwood floors, five pairs of leather shoes, endless destroyed Christmas presents, and a neighbor’s phone call informing us he was galavanting through our hood midday with a neighbor dog as his partner in crime.
And when our life brought us changes – beautiful baby girls, a bittersweet move, sudden job transitions – Howard was always there, by our sides, greeting us with glee.
We didn’t take too much notice of the warning signs – perhaps didn’t want to see them for what they were – the loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, lethargy. We chalked them all up to him being older. His beloved day companion, Mary, Ben’s aunt, first noticed the blood in the snow. Same thing happened six months prior, which the vet diagnosed as a urinary tract infection. I met Ben at the vet that morning, a Tuesday in mid-October. We thought – hoped – it would be the same diagnosis. I remember looking at an older dog in a crate thinking how terribly sad it was that he was locked in there, all alone, grateful I would be taking our dog home with me.
The next morning, October 17, the veterinarian walked into our small room, took one look at Howard, then us and said, “the blood work is bad”, the shock spilling over us like a cold shower. We pored over the results, made what meaning we could from the heartache. The focus was on the fluid therapy for two days, hoping it would flush out whatever it needed to from his kidneys. The blood work on Friday was worse in some areas than it was on Wednesday, even after the therapy. His appetite was dwindling, but he still seemed mostly o.k. The vet prescribed him a steroid and other medications to help him be comfortable; he warned us we likely didn’t have much time. We made heartbreaking phone calls – arranging what we could for a comfortable end of life.
That weekend, we stayed home. Ben missed the state championship game of his school’s softball team without an ounce of regret. We lay in the green grass of our front lawn by Howard, the girls hugged him, snuggled him, talked with him. Anything he had an appetite for, we gave to him, nutrition be damned. He walked slowly around the property – looking at the girls, us, the yard that was his home.
He did so well, we were fooled into thinking we might have more time with him than we originally thought. On Tuesday night though, reality set in, and he woke us up with his pacing, not able to get comfortable. When he wanted to go outside at one in the morning, I went with him, and we stayed for nearly an hour. He stood in one spot for at least 15 minutes, simply staring out in the yard. I took a piece of chalk from the girls’ bin and – for whatever reason – marked the outline of his paws. He looked up at me and just stared, he round black eyes, looking sad and tired. And in that moment, I could feel his goodbye.
Howard died the next day at about 9:45 in the morning, on our back stone patio, as the leaves fell and birds flew above. Ben and I were there with him, giving him what comfort we could.
Linnea planned a memorial service and seemingly handled this first encounter with grief with grace and understanding. If you ask Willa about Howard, she will say, “boo, boo”, “night, night” or “bye, bye”.
Back in September when life was still chugging along, I marked the full moon on my calendar – October 24. Since our time in Denver, I would try to sit outside for at least a little bit to see it, and my trusted companion came every time without fail. If it had to be his time, perhaps it is fitting Howard died on the day of the full moon. And on November 23, I will think of him once again.