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A Life Well-Lived

In June, I said farewell to a very dear friend. And it was a hard goodbye, full of grief, sorrow, and gratitude. For almost fifteen years, this friend saw me at my worst and best and loved me.

Years ago, we drove out of our town's public library's parking lot. I worked there, but two of my daughters and I were simply patrons that day. A little black puppy roamed between the parked cars, small and lost. My daughter asked me to stop, and after a bit of hesitation, I did, and she scooped him up and sat him on her lap. I think she may have named him before we got home. Some controversy arose concerning his owners, they wanted him back, and then they didn't, declaring he wouldn't be an appropriate or suitable dog for a three-year-old.

Several people (including our vet) cautioned me that keeping this stray puppy was a bad idea. We had no idea what kind of dog he was. We already had two indoor dogs; what in the world was I thinking about adding another one? More than one person shook their head at me, but something deep told me otherwise. Despite the experts' wise counsel, I decided that the puppy would remain with us.

His name was Henry. He was a mix of black lab and perhaps Dalmatian though how could we really know? We had no idea he would become this sleek, agile seventy-pound dog. The first couple of years were full of the typical puppy and adolescent behavior. He never chewed or destroyed anything other than a flip-flop. In a flat-out run, he could nip a squirrel's tail, and cats rarely ever stepped through the pickets of our fence. He wasn't allowed in the kitchen but often pushed the boundaries.

He slept with me during a time when I was lonely and sad, just curled at the bottom of my bed, the mattress bowed with the weight of him. One evening he ran down the long hall of my house and jumped on the front door shattering the glass, barking at my neighbor (my someday husband). I sat with Henry on the floor, attempting to staunch the red flow while my neighbor went to get first aid supplies. We wrapped his wound together and then took him to the vet to get his sliced foreleg stitched. When we married, Henry handled the move from my bed to a cushion on the floor with grace.

Then the grandchildren started arriving. Parents carried them into our house and sat them on the floor in their car seats for Henry to be introduced. With each one, he tentatively sniffed their toes, fingers, bellies, and faces until he was satisfied he knew them.

The grandchildren pulled his fur, crawled on him, used him as a stepping stool, chased him, and pulled his ears. He was a wonderful floor pillow. Only once did he growl at one of the grandchildren—it was a warning with no menace, no snarl; it was just a please-don't-stand-on-my-hips growl. More than once, I watched him put himself between something or someone he perceived as a threat to the children or me.

The years passed, and Henry's steady presence was a quiet fixture in our home. He ended the evenings and greeted the mornings when I did, following me everywhere. He had a love/hate relationship with the leash. He enjoyed trips in the car, windows down, ears splayed to his head, and tongue lolling. He loved plain cheeseburgers and some peanut butter in his Kong. My husband said he wasn't a real dog because he didn't fetch, and he wouldn't play tug o' war. To say he wasn't fond of other dogs would be an understatement. He never demanded anything except to come to us, lay his head in our laps, and push his muzzle under our hands for us to scratch his ears and pet him.

No, he didn't demand much, but his generosity went deep.

As his days slowed, I contemplated the lessons this faithful friend taught me.

Although my daughter scooped him up in that parking lot, Henry was my dog. He respected others, but he looked to me to lead. Through Henry, I gained the confidence to value my assessments of circumstances. He taught me that there are times when the experts' counsel might be contrary or different from my own, but that doesn't mean I am wrong or have to dismiss my thoughts.

I could share so many funny and beautiful stories about Henry. But I'm not writing his memoir, just his memorial.

So, in the early afternoon of that warm June day, I gave Henry a cheeseburger and filled his Kong with peanut butter. Afterward, I laid down with him on his cushion. Henry never moved his face, just stayed close to me. I whispered how grateful and thankful I was for his love and service to my family and me. He listened as always.

Later in the afternoon, Henry lay his head down between my husband and me. After years of comradery, gentleness, and loyalty, he just rested; this old, weak, frail dog trusted us wholly. We said goodbye as we watched him close his eyes and take his last breath. And we wept.

My husband carried our Henry in his arms to his final resting place, and together we buried him. My husband (once my next-door neighbor) requested that we plant a dogwood to mark the graves of Henry and the two sweet dogs before him. I went to Lowe's, and the kind employee scoured the tree lot to find the one dogwood that remained. I thanked the sweet lady and God and fit the six-foot tree in my car.

When I wake in the mornings, for a split second I still listen for his snoring and shuffling and am still sometimes surprised when his face doesn't greet me at the front door when I come home.

But I look forward to the spring when Henry's Tree will bloom—a quiet and beautiful reminder of our faithful friend and a life well-lived.

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