It was one of those days. The snow swirling through the fog looked how my head felt.
We’d brought Quinn home from the hospital prepared for sleepless nights with a newborn, but we hadn’t planned for Lincoln to come down with a respiratory infection at the same time. A deep cough informed me that my prize for sharing my son’s bed to comfort him would be sharing his illness. I felt like giving up.
“Get to the beach,” Emily insisted.
The lot was empty, except for a familiar van. There are a few stalwarts who visit the dog beach year-round, and Julie and her Bernese Mountain Dog, Lilly, were two of our favorite regulars. Not least because of Zero’s unrequited love for Lilly.
Cupid’s arrow struck Zero as a puppy. He was hopelessly enamored from the moment he saw Lilly’s beautiful flowing hair. He pranced and bowed and barked and preened. Anything to get her attention. But she dismissed the upstart pup with an assertive bark of her own, then trotted after Julie.
Any other dog might have gotten the message, but it seemed to bounce harmlessly off Zero’s thick skull. For three years running, Zero would bound over to Lilly only to be rebuffed each time. Any other dog might have sulked, but Zero always happily strutted away with a tail wag which said, “I think she likes me!”
We hadn’t run into the pair in a while, so seeing Julie’s van was a bright spot on a dark morning. But my breath caught when I noticed Lilly’s lean silhouette and a clinically shaved strip of hair on her leg.
Julie saved me from fumbling through the question she saw on my face.
“Cancer,“ Julie said. “One vet said do it today, another said she won’t make it to Thanksgiving. And when we’re in the office, I believe them. But look.”
As Julie pointed, Lilly’s lethargy lifted at the sight of Zero galloping over in greeting. I made a motion to put myself between the two, to implore Zero to turn away, but Lilly neatly stepped around me to deliver her customary retort. Having cancer was one thing, but Lilly would be damned if she let her wannabe paramour think he’d finally have a shot with her.
Zero made a hasty retreat and Lilly stepped into the frigid lake with bowed head.
“It’s the only water she’ll drink now,” Julie continued with a laugh. “And she’s never better than when we’re here.”
I kneeled to offer Lilly affection and Julie empathy.
“Don’t worry,” Julie said. “We have today. And we’ll be back tomorrow if she’s not ready to go yet.”
Julie and Lilly walked into the fog and I felt as if I’d been visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The skyline was gone, the horizon absent, the lake invisible. Somehow the wind blew in my face no matter which direction I faced. If there was a time and place to be visited by a spirit, this was it.
And like Ebenezer Scrooge, I was moved. I saw that the self-pity I’d wrapped myself in that morning was not a comfort, but a burden. I met the day insisting I was owed more sleep and better health, but Lilly revealed the corrosive greed of that impulse. Because the question should never be, “What am I owed this day?” It must be, “What can I give this day?”
Two familiar apparitions broke through the fog and forced me to jump out of the way as they wrestled across the sand. So too did they break the fog in my mind. Wheeling and dancing and insisting I join their revelry. Penny and Zero would not stand for my greed, they would not stand for my guilt, and they certainly would not stand for my standing around.
I whooped into the wind and joined the chase. Sick, sleep deprived and grateful.
Lilly saved the day. Not just for me, but for my family. Back at home I felt just as exhausted as when I awoke, but I cared for Emily, Lincoln and Quinn with renewed purpose. If Lilly could still find joy while dying, what excuse did I have for not doing so while living?
Like Zero, I have a thick skull and often don’t get the message the first time around. Fortunately, over the next few weeks Lilly was kind enough to share it with me anew. Each morning I’d breathe a sigh of relief when I saw Julie’s van, and witnessing Lilly restore herself in the waters of Lake Michigan so too restored my spirit at a time I needed it most.
Those first weeks with a newborn are hard. Doubly so with a sick two-year-old. Triply so when the newborn catches that cold and you spend so much time at the pediatrician that the front desk just waves you in.
The impulse is to put your head down and get through these difficult moments in life. To hang on and survive until they pass. But survival is not enough. Time is too precious for circumstance to dictate how much of our heart we give to each day. Julie could have let Lilly fade away quietly at home, but instead they returned each morning to the place they loved best, doing what they loved most.
And if a waning dog could find the spark to send her wayward suitor fleeing each morning, then surely a weary father could find the strength to give his family the love they needed.
A day finally came when both Lilly and Julie seemed to know it would be their final morning at the beach together. I offered each a hug and watched them walk the shore one last time.
The next week, the beach was deserted. I crisscrossed the sand with Penny and Zero, lost in thought. Over the years I’ve written so much about what my dogs mean to me, but in that moment I realized how much better I am for witnessing the love other people share with their dogs.
I’m not sure why, but we lingered at the empty beach longer than usual. I think it might have been simple appreciation for the ability to linger at all.
As I loaded the dogs back into the car, Julie’s van turned into the lot and she stepped out. Alone.
There is something indescribably heartbreaking about seeing someone who has just lost their dog. They look both exactly the same and completely unrecognizable. Standing whole, yet wholly broken. Despite this fracture of her soul, or maybe because of it, Julie came back to the beach.
With a wry smile, she handed me a bag and said, “Thank you so much. For the all the photos of Lilly, and for everything. These treats are for your dogs. And I couldn’t resist a little something for your daughter!”
One of the greatest gifts our dogs give us is leading our hearts where they need to go. But the true strength of that gift is that they teach us how to find our way back to those places even when they’re gone.
Rather than turn inward with her grief, Julie found her way back to the beach to offer a final tribute. I didn’t have the words to tell her how much that meant to me. I couldn’t articulate how her bond with Lilly helped make me better at a time my family desperately needed me to be just that.
But between those who know the wordless love of a dog, and the ultimate cost of that love, a shared hug can say more than anything spoken.
Emily got called into work the other night so I was up feeding Quinn at 2:00 am. Then Lincoln decided to get our day started at 4:30 am. Breakfast was a circus, and I the bleary-eyed ringmaster who almost fed Lincoln’s oatmeal to the dogs. With great fanfare we packed up our tent and loaded the menagerie into my car. I assure you, it was all a less than pleasant affair. But I couldn’t stop smiling.
Because it’s always foggy, someone is always sick, something always goes wrong. Why? Because it’s always one of those days.
After dropping Lincoln at school we made our way back to the dog beach. I strapped Quinn to my chest and adjusted her new socks. The ones from Julie and Lilly. The ones which keep her feet cozy and her father’s heart warm.
If you’re having one of those days, make sure you get out with your dog. In the end, not only will it mean the world to you, but the love you share might just make a world of difference for someone else too.