Column: Ode to a good dog

My father gave me Hank as a puppy after my first miscarriage. Dad knew that I had lost something, and he thought a black Labrador Retriever with good bloodlines and a hankering for gathering ducks might help me find it. He was right. In the 13 years that I claimed Hank as my own, I learned unconditional love, sacrifice and that even the brightest among us can flunk out of school because they simply don’t care to be there.

Hank was no duck dog.

After nine months away at dog training, and bucket-loads of money blown, Hank returned home with his tail between his legs. He became content passing his days plopped on our kitchen floor or in his outside kennel basking in the sun. Even the lure of an open tailgate and a truck bed full of hunting paraphernalia did not tempt him. Hank knew he had it made.

Hank spent his early years jogging with me before dawn, a large black presence that reassured me between the protective rays of the streetlights. He was a healer of sadness, a comfort during loneliness and a bright face of joy in the midst of a storm. Hank put his head in my lap or a paw on my book when he wanted attention. He had eyes of love.

When our first child came along, there were fewer hands available for petting. However, Hank never barked, he never growled and he never jumped up on anyone. When the baby was old enough to crawl, Hank curled up on the floor and transformed into a jungle gym—without moving or complaining. Hank was a good dog. He was perfect for us.

As the years went on, our house filled with more babies who cried, crawled and climbed all over the dog. He ate spilled food off the floor, licked dirty faces and obliged to be a pillow when a nap was needed. Eventually, he started to spend more time outdoors because there were too many little feet about. He grew older. He grew tired.

One Mother’s Day, I was given a chaise lounge for my back porch and Hank quickly took it over. From that perch, he spent his last years watching children run in and out of the back door, birds drink his water and a stray cat eat his food. When I was at the kitchen sink, his head would pop up and his eyes would meet mine through the window.

Letting Hank go was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. He was ill, he was in pain, he was fading. And I didn’t want the children to discover him first. My dad went with me, and we both cried our eyes out. But I made sure that the last image Hank saw on this earth was my face. It was a peaceful passing.

My children miss Hank desperately. My 3-year-old’s attempt to convince Santa that we need a puppy went unheeded. I’m not ready. She entered the kitchen yesterday with tears running down her face. “I miss Hank.” I do too. It’s been five months, and I still catch myself looking out the sunroom windows to an empty chaise lounge and a yard full of memories. Hank was a good dog.