A few months into our year on the road together, Eko and I checked into a well-appointed Houston hotel. As I handed my credit card across the counter, a hard-marching bride led her wedding party through the lobby. When she saw Eko, the bride ordered the company to an abrupt halt.
“Can I pet your dog?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said.
The woman tucked her flowing dress, knelt, and held Eko’s head in her hands. She took a deep breath and reverently stroked his soft coat. The groom settled for second that day because Eko planted an enthusiastic kiss on his new friend. I started to apologize but the bride spoke first.
“Thank you. I needed that.”
As she stepped into her limousine, I wondered exactly what Eko had offered the woman. The bride also reminded me that while I traveled with my dog, my longtime girlfriend traveled with her resume. Eko and I slogged through muddy hikes, Emily slogged through OBGYN residency interviews.
When I told people about Emily, they asked why I hadn’t married her yet. When Emily told people about me, they asked why was she was dating a dog blogger.
I can’t speak to Emily’s lack of judgment. As for my own, I always said I would ask Emily to marry me when I was ready.
What did “ready” mean? I wasn’t quite sure. I felt like it meant “certain about the future.” It meant knowing where I was going. It meant being like Emily.
Emily always knew where she was going. When we first met in college, Emily had her next decade planned – medical school, residency, and a career as a physician. On the other hand, I switched majors, switched jobs and then switched my life upside down by deciding to freelance.
Emily moved through life with the poised determination of an Iditarod dog – always heading towards the finish line. I moved through life with the grace of a gangly puppy – well-intentioned, but crashing into everything.
A marriage proposal is exactly that, a proposal. I loved Emily madly but felt I had nothing worthy to propose.
“Hi, I’m an idiot with no money, no idea what I’m doing in life and I’m about to live in a car with my dog for a year – want to hitch your rising star to my broken wagon?” didn’t seem like much of an offer.
I could not ask Emily to step with me into such a foggy future, but I had no such qualms about driving into that fog with Eko. My hope was I would return from our adventure with the answers and certainty I sought. Only then would I feel worthy enough to propose to Emily.
During a break from her interviews, Emily met us in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Weary of polished professionalism, she eagerly dressed Eko and me up in matching Blues Brothers outfits for a blog post. Through fits of laughter she snapped photos of her Jake and Elwood amidst the revelry.
We shared drinks with too much sugar and just enough alcohol. We danced with Eko in the streets as a stream of marching bands paraded by. We had love, we had the present moment, and it seemed like more than enough. Marriage could wait.
Residency interviews could not. At the end of our week together Emily flew home to finish the application process. As I packed the car for our next destination I was confident Emily, her class valedictorian, would match into residency at her first choice – Brown.
I closed the trunk and asked Eko a familiar question.
“Ready to go?”
As always, Eko eagerly hopped into the backseat. He never knew where we were going, but he did know we were going there together. That was enough for him.
If you spend enough time on the road you notice a familiar pattern in the journeys of others you meet along the way. They’re each navigating chance and fortune while wrestling gut-wrenching uncertainty.
In public, we present a façade of certainty to one another. A shared mirage to cover the humbling doubts we struggle with. But this trick is powerless when matched against a dog’s wagging tail. From brides to businessmen, countless travelers asked for a moment with Eko.
With relieved sighs, men and women shrugged off their emotional armor and bared themselves for my dog’s judgment. Always, Eko offered a rejuvenating moment of unequivocal, loving affirmation. And a kiss, just to make sure they knew he meant it. After watching Eko work his magic for so long, I began to suspect the antidote for life’s uncertainty is not answers. It’s acceptance – of our circumstances, of ourselves, and of each other.
Doctors are assigned training hospitals much like magical children are assigned school housing in Harry Potter. But it’s a computer program, rather than a sentient hat, which sorts the soon-to-be-MDs.
After interviews, candidates and residency programs rank their preference for each other. The matching algorithm pairs candidates and programs with mutual interest. When the much hyped “Match Day” arrived, Emily was in Philadelphia while Eko and I holed up at a forgettable stop in the Southwest.
Emily opened her letter with one hand and held my phone call with the other. I lounged with Eko in the beat up motel, expecting a perfunctory announcement from Emily that she matched at Brown.
A sudden sobbing shook me from complacency.
“What’s going on? Where are we going?” I asked, frantically.
“Please. You have to come with me,” she replied.
Despite all our years together there was still a part of Emily which feared how our relationship would fare when carefully mapped plans went awry. A part of her which feared our love was somehow bound to our destination.
Suddenly, sharing love in the present moment didn’t seem like enough. Because it’s easy to be in love and make romantic promises while carousing the streets of New Orleans. But what could I promise when we faced sobering and unexpected difficulty?
Had I not spent so much time on the road, I think I would have tried to promise Emily the certainty of a perfect future together. But as I listened to Emily’s tearful voice, I finally admitted that certainty is an impossible promise. Instead, I promised Emily what Eko promised me – devotion.
I promised the type of devotion where you jump to answer the call of “Ready to go?” not because you know the destination, but because you don’t. Because no matter how far or arduous the journey may be, no distance or difficulty could ever be worse than the distance or difficulty of being apart.
I didn’t know where we were going, but I knew we were going there together. That was enough for me.
“I’m in!” I yelled. “Antarctica? Outer space? It doesn’t matter, I would follow you anywhere.”
Anywhere turned out to be Chicago, which as we’ve since learned, often feels like Antarctica. Over the phone, I offered Emily the same thing I’d seen Eko offer all those travelers – loving affirmation. As usual, I had no answers, but at last I understood that true love doesn’t require any.
Which is how, laying with my dog on the floor of a rather unromantic motel, with no money or job prospects, and no idea where I was going in life, I knew I was ready to take a knee beside my broken wagon and ask a shooting star if I could hitch a ride.
A few months later, Eko and I raced across the Northwest to meet Emily in Chicago. Home, at last. Emily and I both embraced the challenges, uncertainties and imperfections of our new surroundings, while Eko graciously helped me scratch together some money for an engagement ring. Then, on a late-winter evening, because nothing (and everything) had changed, I asked Emily to marry me. Surprising most of the world, myself included, she said yes.
I was the second best dressed guy at our wedding. Eko, in a well-fitting tuxedo, carried our rings down the aisle. It seemed only right the dog who showed me the power of a simple promise should be the one to carry the symbols of that promise.
I knelt down and welcomed my pup into my arms. As a paralyzing swell of emotions threaten to break over me, he licked my face and I laughed.
“Thank you. I needed that,” I told my pup.
I turned to Emily, said I loved her, and planted an enthusiastic kiss– just to make sure she knew I meant it.
Yes, I may have stolen the move from my dog, but that’s where I get all my best ideas.