A few years back, I was talking to a friend of mine. A windstorm had swept through town, knocking down lots of trees. I decided to take a trail run to see how the storm impacted the trail in a local park. Little did I know that the storm downed an old tree housing a substantial hornets’ nest. Those hornets were none too happy about their abode.
That tree was just off the path. In a rather slow moment of reaction, I failed to notice the buzzing. By the time I did, it was too late. The first hit was on top of my head, followed by the back of my neck. From there, I lost count. I told my friend, “It happened so fast, all I could do was shove Sunny down the path and keep running.”
I finished my dramatic retelling, and my friend asked, “Is Sunny your running buddy?”
He was, indeed, my running buddy. And our family dog. Sunny was a 100 pound, all-muscle, yellow lab. He was full of energy, filled a room (with his body and his personality), and a fairly constant companion for me.
Sunny came into our lives a short eight years ago. We should have noticed his big paws and large tongue. He did, indeed, grow into them.
In the early days, he could crawl under my front seat and into the back seat. One day, he found himself lodged under the seat, just a little too big to pass. And we discovered this when I was driving down the highway with nowhere to pull over.
From then on, the very back of my SUV was his travel spot. And except for when the car would heat up in the summertime, Sunny generally went everywhere I went. He waited while I was in the store, waited for the kids at the bus stop, and generally bound into the car at any opportunity for a ride.
Sunny’s life ended too early today. He fell victim to cancer.
Not an hour after he died, I found myself making a peanut butter sandwich for my wife. I instinctively held the knife down to give Sunny a quick lick of peanut butter. He was not there.
I had a little more water in a cup, and went to put it into his bowl. There was no bowl.
It has been a day of discovering all the places where Sunny lived in my life. . . and I thought I was already aware. No more walks in the mornings and evenings. No more last looks at the sky before bedtime. No more quiet snoring at my feet while I write and create podcasts. Life is just a bit more empty now.
Life is like that, isn’t it? Lots of hellos and goodbyes.
A year and a half ago, I left my clinical office, spending my time working at home. So, for that year and a half, Sunny has been my constant shadow, 24 hours a day, for the most part. I will deeply miss him, as will we all.
At the beginning of the summer, we discovered Sunny had cancer and knew we were on borrowed time with him. Someone asked, “would you do it again, if you knew he was going to get sick?” My answer? Absolutely.
Living a life while trying to avoid loss, is really not about living. If I lived a life with no loss, I would have not been really living. I would have been avoiding life — and the consequences of life!
I am sad. And I will be for some time.
But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to have such a loving, devoted companion of a dog.
Dogs like Sunny teach us about loyalty and love. He never held grudges, and was always ready to play or chill.
In Marley & Me, John Grogan writes:
“Never slow down, never look back, live each day with adolescent verve and spunk and curiosity and playfulness. If you think you’re still a young pup, then maybe you are, no matter what the calendar says.”
Sunny taught me about having abounding energy, followed by an earned nap, followed by more activity. Not a bad way to stack the day!
Over the past few years, I have really begun to notice those “lasts:” the last time you do something. They sneak up on you. The first time is obvious: the first time your child takes a step or says a word, the first day of school, the first date, and all those other firsts. They seem so obvious.
But the “lasts” sometimes sneak up on you. You notice them in the rear-view mirror of life. Hindsight. The last time you speak with someone. The last time you drive a child to school. The last time you are at some stage of life.
My kids are growing up. We are never sure if a vacation is the “last family vacation” or not. Was it the last chance we will have to do that? Jobs and other commitments can easily take that away. . . but you usually don’t know it until it happened.
So, in these last weeks, I have been very aware of my “lasts” with Sunny. The day before he died, we took a last drive, a last walk, and a last pause on that front step before bedtime.
Sunny didn’t know it was a last — and he had a great time! In my anticipatory grief, I dwelt on the “last-ness” of the moment. Perhaps I gave up too much of that moment. Perhaps Sunny had it right, to fully enjoy that moment, as if there was no moment before, nor worrying about the moment after. This instant — perhaps that is where to live it. And a dog can teach us that.
Have you ever seen that bumper sticker, “My goal in life is to be as good of a person my dog already thinks I am”? I am not quite sure I can live up to that, but I can keep on trying.
And I will always be grateful of having Sunny in my life, even if it was too short.