Unqualified love. Given by humans rarely. Given to us by the most discerning whether or not we actually deserve it. I am the recipient of such a love from so many sources, and I lost one of them today.
We had to put Sunny to sleep, put her down, end her life today. She had become creaky, but never cranky, slow apace and yet after 13 years of a dog’s life still looking at the world with the eyes of a puppy.
She was a rescue dog; we rescued her from the shelter and she in turn rescued us, especially me, from a life growing increasingly hermetic. She filled a hole in my heart I didn’t know was there until she leapt into the back of the car the day we picked her up. She was nervous, I was nervous. Marcia and I immediately took her to one of those pet stores where every whim of dogdom can be satisfied, and yet it was her newly adopted parents who were loading up on toys, on joy, on hope.
She taught me that the first order of business in her life was hope. Hope we can go out and play ball. Hope that dinner might be delicious. Hope for a walk in the woods where the smells were so exciting she didn’t want to leave them and would change her direction with every shift in the breeze.
A Chesapeake Bay retriever, her honker was so gargantuan that it surely could tell what was in and around the leaves, could let her know that when I brought Chinese food home for lunch she’d always get the fried rice I couldn’t finish. I’m told that when we smell a pizza, dogs can tell as soon as you opened the box how much of each ingredient is in play, oregano, anchovies, onions! Alas, she rarely got to sample the leftover pie, such was the avarice of her owner. She seemed to learn that pizza was going to smell good, but it would be slim pickings for her. This was in contrast to the treat she would get when I would bring home the lunch special from China House, when she would know that in a few minutes she would be licking the remaining fried rice with sauce from the bowl until it squeaked.
A little background on the Chesapeake from the American Kennel Club: “Chessies are strong, powerfully built gundogs standing anywhere from 21 to 26 inches at the shoulder. A male can weigh up to 80 pounds. The distinctive breed trait is a wavy coat that is oily to the touch. Chessies are solid-colored, either chocolatey brown, sedge, or deadgrass, with keen yellow-amber eyes that nicely complement the coat. Chessies are more emotionally complex than the usual gundog. Chessies take to training, but they have a mind of their own and can tenaciously pursue their own path. They are protective of their humans and polite, but not overtly friendly, to strangers.”
Sunny was colored “deadgrass” and apparently was a bit large for a girl, tipping the scales at 80+ pounds. One of the things I appreciated most was that she was tall enough to get a head-scratch simply standing next to you.
And was she ever a retriever. I’m not even sure she was ever trained as waterdog but her instincts were intact. Back when we both had a little more spring in our muscles, I would launch the Chuckit ball over the roof of the house and she would take off after it with an infectious glee. She was big enough and fast enough that when she ran she sounded like a horse in full gallop. She’d return the ball and stop. It took me a few sessions to learn that unless I had a second ball at the ready, she was not giving up her first prize. But, flash the next one at her and she’d drop the first and hedge a few steps back toward the house, ready to spring.
We stopped being able to play ball about a year ago. She’d still chase it but only after a few halting stutter steps, and there was no more gallop to be heard. In the last month, I’d roll the ball and she would amble after it, stand over it, glance at me, and beckon me to pick it up myself.
I think back to the day we picked her up. We drove down to Queenstown, to the shelter, after being pre-approved to adopt her. She had quickly become both the staff’s favorite and greatest concern since she couldn’t fathom being in the kennel after having spent seven years in a home with her original owners.
When we were introduced I asked if I could take her for a stroll—Marcia was left with the paperwork as I hooked up the leash we’d brought and left by the back door. She got outside and I stopped to watch her raise her nose and take in the world outside. She seemed to glance and smile at me whereupon I started around the side of the building hell-bent on getting her to jump in the back of the SUV. As we passed the side door Marcia came out and asked me if I thought we wanted to keep her. I just nodded at the car and she smiled and admitted that she’d already paid for the adoption.
As we were crossing the front lawn a family of four—mom, dad, two sprites around five or six—were walking in to the shelter and dad saw us heading out. I noticed his shoulders slump, and face tilted down. They had come for her as well.
I wish they could possibly have known what she could give a good family; especially what a couple of kids with nothing but hope in their hearts could learn from Sunny, but I’m selfish by nature and wouldn’t change a thing about that day. And I must say I have a little bit of envy that they won’t feel the hollow I have at the moment.
But they have no idea of the new life I was given, the purpose, the care I felt, the love I received. Sleep well, sweet girl.
Chris Landskroener and his wife, Marcia, lives outside of Chestertown