The Dog I Loved Least

I never saw Eko die. I never saw him grow old and gray. I saw him bounding joyfully towards me across the beach one day and then I never saw him again.

So even though tomorrow marks a year since he’s been gone, a part of me still looks for Eko. My dogs and my newborn son have unknowingly been recruited to the search party. Lincoln’s fussing wakes us in the early morning darkness and I load the rescue team into the car.

Penny and Zero race into the pre-dawn haze blanketing the beach. If he’s out there, they’ll find him. Lincoln rests snugly on my chest and we walk quietly along the water. I watch my dogs who are here and wait for the one who is not.

Because in my heart lives a boy who refuses to believe his puppy is gone.

“Look,” that part of me whispers as the sun rises over the horizon, “he’s here.”

Despite knowing the futility of it all, I look. Ready for Eko to step out from a shadow, emerge from the fog or simply be standing next to me, having hitched a ride in on the first light of day.

Of course, in all our trips I’ve never seen Eko. The boy disagrees. This preternaturally hopeful boy lives within this resolutely pragmatic man and life goes on.

I found time does not heal all wounds. It simply increases my tolerance for pain. If I reach past the patchwork scars on my soul I can still touch the nerve where Eko was torn from me. It remains a livewire of electric hurt.

I grabbed and held that current of suffering in the weeks and months following Eko’s death. “Good,” I would think, embracing the coursing agony. I wore the pain as a badge of honor. A testimonial to the fact I would never love another dog as much as I loved Eko.

Otherwise adrift, I anchored myself to that certainty. I placed Eko’s collar around a photo from our wedding and displayed it as an exhibit of my unshakeable truth.

I resisted the temptation to wall off the part of my heart where my love for Eko lived. Instead I made it a museum. A place I could quietly visit to see my puppy when I needed to retreat from the world.

And boy did I retreat mightily. I locked myself in that shrine in my heart and tried to bar the doors. But Emily pushed me, Penny pulled me, and thousands steadied me as I learned to live outside myself again.

I had no choice. Because the morning after Eko died we found out Emily was pregnant.

I wish I could write some mellifluous metaphor about the moment I learned I would be a father. Claim it as a moment of existential revelation. Or at least feign some greeting card wisdom like, “I realized every end is a new beginning.”

In truth, I felt nothing and was certain of nothing. It was neither a poetic ending nor an auspicious beginning.

By segmenting my heart I found a way forward. I held Eko in one part, just for me, and offered to share the remaining part of myself with the world. It seemed like an even trade. The world took Eko from me, so I took my love from the world.

My strategy seemed to work. My bond with Penny strengthened, I opened a new part of my heart to Zero, and my love for Emily grew in leaps and bounds as we prepared for our first child.

Still, I would often sneak back to that museum in my heart to visit Eko and the love I had quarantined for him there. But as I gave more of myself to the other part of my heart, I found I spent less time in my little asylum.

Until one morning I realized I hadn’t thought of Eko at all the previous day. I was heartbroken. I feared it was the beginning of an emotional amnesia which would culminate in losing all the love I shared with my dog.

It was that fear which subconsciously motivated me to steal from myself.

Just small things at first. Tiny bits of love secreted away when I returned from visiting Eko. An unencumbered laugh while racing along the sand with Penny. A contented sigh when holding Zero for the first time. An eagerness for the future when Emily and I wondered what it would be like to have a child together. It felt right to dust off these feelings and use them again.

For a time though, each of these joys felt like a surreptitious betrayal of Eko. I would sheepishly return to that place in my heart like a repentant thief, yet each time I could not resist the temptation to take more.

I wrestled with guilt for months. How could I give the present moment the full love and attention it deserves while still holding back love reserved only for Eko? I couldn’t. And thankfully, before my son arrived, Zero taught me that I shouldn’t.

Zero showed me you cannot keep love in your heart, no matter how precious it is. You either lose it or you give it away. Love lives in action, not in a museum. For four months I hoarded my love for Eko, but in the past eight months I’ve done everything in my power share it freely. To tear down Eko’s mausoleum and use each priceless brick to build a new future.

“Gooooood morning, baby dogs!” I sing as I get out of bed. It’s a morning revelry I once shared only with Eko but which I now say to rouse the pups as I pick up Lincoln from his crib. A brick from Eko to build a better day.

I wrap my arms confidently around my son and pour my heart into him. I do not know how to raise a boy, but neither did Eko. And I like to think my puppy did a pretty good job. A brick from Eko to build a better father.

I walk with Lincoln, Penny and Zero along the lake as the sun rises over a refuge I first discovered with Eko. I will have regrets, but I will never regret a moment spent here with my family. A brick from Eko to build a better life.

When Zero outgrew his puppy collar I didn’t think twice about taking Eko’s weathered collar from around a frame and placing it around a neck. The scars and the love that leather represents are our greatest inheritance. We wear them proudly.

Now, as I walk the beach a year later, I have scattered Eko in so many place that no two pieces of him are left touching in my heart. And the hope my puppy will come running back to me through the fog now mingles with worry. What if he did show up? Would he recognize this changed man with a new dog and new baby in tow?

Eko was always a reflection of myself. Could I look at him at now and justify what I’d done and who I’d become?

I hope I could.

I hope I could show him the place in my heart where I hid him and then show him the puppy who set him free. I hope I could point to every single piece of him I used to build a better life. I hope I could show him the boy who his love will help raise. I hope I would have the strength to tell him that my love has grown in ways greater than he had ever known.

It hurts to write that. But anything less would not do justice to everything Eko taught me.

The alternative is to love yesterday more than today. Love memory more than experience. Love the world less after having shared all those life changing moments with Eko. If he did show up, tomorrow or years from now, the one thing I could never justify to Eko is that my heart is smaller for having loved him.

The easy truth is that I loved my puppy with every fiber of my being. The hard truth is that the greatest honor I can give Eko is to remember him as the dog I loved the least. That his life transformed me into a person with an ever increasing capacity for love, no matter the cost.

Tomorrow I will lift Lincoln from his crib with a familiar melody and we will head to the beach with Penny and Zero. I will cry. I will smile. I will endeavor to love the day more than any day I shared with Eko. It will not be easy, but the worthwhile things in life rarely are.

And at last I will admit the boy was always right about seeing my puppy. At the beach, and everywhere else.

67 Comments

I lost my girl 11 year old golden retriever Carlee 5 months ago. She was my everything as the kids went to college & then off to their own lives. She was a therapy dog & loved her job! Heart problems & not wanting her to suffer we let her go. The house is too quiet…. I cried as I read your words … so true….I miss her so much … Your words give me hope that I can love another golden someday

No easy or good or right way to lose a dog. No easy or right way to carry on afterwards. It seems impossible to ever consider loving another dog, but I hope you find the courage in your own time to start again. Not easy, but the worthwhile things never are.

I remembered exactly where I was when I read your post from last year, The Light Has Gone Out Of My Life. I was on making the return trip to Houston from Yellowstone with my boy. I cried for you and Eko then because I could only imagine what it would be like to lose your everything. I had been following your adventures with Eko and then Penny. So, I cry now because I know what it’s like to lose your heart, your everything. I wrote last year, one day it will be my time, and my time came six weeks ago, to the day.

I am at the beginning of my painful journey without my boy. It’s been enlightening to see your evolution to this point without your boy. They were so loved, weren’t they?

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