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I dream I search the world for my dog. I shout for Eko from the top of each mountain. I dive to the darkest depths of the sea. I cannot find him.
Enraged, I storm the doors of hell and tear down the gates of heaven. I lay waste to any man, beast, angel or demon who dares bar my path. I battle and bleed until I cannot walk. So I crawl. Until, at last, I confront the creator herself. What God this may be is of no import. She holds Eko by her side, surveying my ragged form and the destruction in my wake.
“You do all this for your dog?” she asks.
“You misunderstand,” I reply. “This is the least I would do for my dog.”
“But he is in a better place.”
I laugh at the thought and call to Eko. He bounds over to my crippled body and licks the blood and tears from my face. God trembles. For who would ever choose a broken boy over divine perfection? My dog, that’s who. For us, there is no better place than by each other’s side.
“Take your dog and go,” she commands. “You may never return.”
We are cast from heaven, blissful. I carry in my arms all the salvation I will ever need.
I wake to the crack of thunder. Jaw clenched, muscles rigid, tears soaking the pillow. My puppy is dead. This is the real nightmare. I relive our final day together for the thousandth time:
“Good morning, baby dogs!” I say through a yawn. On cue, Eko and Penny pounce to life and shower me with kisses to speed my rise from bed. We go for a walk, the pups eat breakfast, and they cuddle together on the couch while I write. Later, I head to the gym under an ominous gray sky and think that it’s perfect weather for a day at the beach.
Most people want beach days with blue skies, bright sun and warm breezes. But I’ve found both the beach and my dogs come alive in the hours before a storm. I load the pups into the car and we drive to the deserted shore of Lake Michigan. A city of nearly three million people teems behind us, but on this side of the dune the world is ours.
The wind whips, the waves crash, and we whip and crash along the shore in time with the music of the earth. We wrestle and play and laugh. Not even the fears and troubles which chase me each day can catch us here. Here it is only a boy, his dogs, and love.
We pause to watch a kite surfer wade into the water. He stands on his board and rides the current swiftly past our revelry. Penny gives chase. Only she possesses the audacity to believe she can catch the wind. Eko stands at the ready by my side. Guarding me, but with a watchful eye on Penny. Only he possesses the strength to protect us both.
The kite surfer, seeing he would soon be caught, quickly accelerates downwind. Penny runs back to us with an impish grin and I laugh as we turn for home. Eko soars over the fence and we hop in the car. Dirty, exhausted and thoroughly content.
Back home, Eko and Penny curl up again while I send a few emails before leaving for the airport. Just like the weekend before, Emily and I have a wedding to attend. I feed the pups dinner and I shut our closet doors, checking for stray socks, shoes and other chewing temptations. Both dogs are well past the age of getting into trouble, but I am overly cautious.
An hour later we go for one last walk. I tuck Eko and Penny back into their favorite spots on the couch then give them each a treat and a kiss. As I always do before leaving the apartment, whether for a minute or for the rare weekend away, I make the pups one last promise – “I’ll be right back.”
That was the last time I saw Eko.
My phone vibrates incessantly the moment we touch down in Charleston, South Carolina. Through her sobs my mom is only just barely able to tell me that Eko is dead. It’s difficult to articulate my feelings in that exact moment. The closest I can come is to say I felt like a ghost who believed himself a person, but just discovered he is in fact dead. While my body landed safely, my soul died in a fiery crash.
I collapse in a chair just past the jetway, crying with Emily. It takes four tries to steady my hands enough to call my brother. Just as he had the week prior, James arrived to my apartment a few hours after I left. Except this time he found Eko on the ground, barely breathing. My poor brother, who only two years ago held his own dying dog, now had to hold mine – knowing that as Eko died, so too did his little brother.
James heroically carried my dog and my heart to the emergency vet, but both were gone before he made it through the door. Here are the meaningless answers: They do not know why Eko died. It was not bloat. It could have been a brain aneurysm, it could have been an acute cardiac issue, it could have been massive organ failure due to an undetected cancer.
The only meaningful certainty, both that night and now, is Eko is gone.
I, the ghostly remains of my dog, haunt the streets of Charleston. There are no flights to Chicago until morning. I cry and choke on my tears as Emily props me up. I am lost, I am scared and I want to run home. Both the feeling and the place are familiar. The pain tears open a memory from four years ago, right here in Charleston, when the only certainty I could hold onto in this world was my dog.
It was the end of the initial three-month trial of the crazy idea to live with Eko on the road for a year. I was exhausted and I wondered how the hell I was going to survive another nine months. I wanted to run for the comfort of home.
To contemplate my future, I rented a kayak and paddled into the Atlantic with Eko standing up front like George Washington crossing the Delaware. People on shore took photos and waved as we passed by. I settled into my seat and weighed my options. I could go home or…
Eko left me no time to finish the thought as he dove off the bow of our ship. He’d spotted a large group of seagulls lounging on a small island offshore. I knew his intention, but despite my furious paddling Eko made it to land first. He bounded into the heart of the flock and sent the birds exploding skyward. I could hear the laughs and shouts of the people on shore as I chased Eko around the tiny beach.
Somewhere in the space between footsteps the chase turned into a game of tag. Instead of running at Eko, I decided to run with him. We raced across the sand until we were both happily panting from the exertion. The birds Eko sent into the wind seemed to carry my troubles with them.
I pushed us back out to sea with a laugh and I knew right then we’d carry on. I was still scared and I was still lost, but I had Eko. A boy and a dog are safe at home, but that is not what boys and dogs are made for. We are all here to dive into unknown waters, chase off our fears and delight in the adventure of the experience. It takes courage, but luckily our dogs are happy to lend us theirs when our own falters.
Now, four years later, I’m ready to run home again. But is it even home anymore without Eko? This is my worst fear. The one where everything you love is cruelly and suddenly ripped from you without warning. How am I supposed to face this without Eko to steady me?
I rise from bed at dawn and take off down the street at full speed. I run until I the agony in my muscles matches the agony in my heart. I run until my lungs gasp for air the same way my soul does. I find an old semi-truck tire in a field and flip it over and over until my body is as broken as my spirit.
Sitting in the field, I weakly reach for my phone to tell James I cannot come home. I do not know what to do, but I know I cannot hide. I tell him I need him to hold Penny for me, and he says he already called out of work to do just that. He understands I cannot honor the dog who taught me to be brave by choosing to run away.
We stay in Charleston for the weekend. It is interminable. It is excruciating. It is necessary. This is Eko’s last test. It was easy to spread joy and love when he was by my side and life was wonderful. But do I have the courage to do it when my heart is tarred black? I sit crying on the waterfront where I once sat with Eko and I think about my parents.
Shortly after my younger brother was born he suffered a SIDS episode and had to be rushed to the hospital. Nate survived, but he was transferred to the NICU where his life hung precariously in the balance. While Nate was in the hospital I remember my mom coming home to read me a book and then crying in the middle of it. I remember visiting Nate with my dad and seeing the tracks of tears on his face. While his infant son could die at any moment on one side of the glass, my father made his other son feel safe, loved and less afraid by doing silly voices.
“So that is the true measure of a person,” I think. “When blinded by grief, can you remember what love looks like? Even if you can’t see it yourself, can you find a way to still put love into the world?”
My mother did it. My father did it. I do my best. I cry with Emily and then make our friends laugh when we go out for lunch. I sob alone in the bathroom then wipe my eyes and exit with a smile for my wife. But I fail at this juggling act. I endeavor to drink my grief away and end up wailing in the street while Emily holds me.
The hopeless dam I attempted to build in Charleston collapses the moment I’m home. I don’t know if there’s a heaven but I’m quite certain there’s a hell. There’s no fire or brimstone, just the unbearable torture of opening your front door knowing your dog is not on the other side.
I lay on Eko’s bed and weep. He was supposed to grow old and gray. He was supposed to lay with my children on the couch and keep them warm and safe. He was healthy, he was fit, and I brushed his goddamn teeth to perfection because I needed him to stay with me for a long, long time.
Our story was only halfway done. How could it end like this?
I wander a post-apocalyptic wasteland of my soul. I look at the crumbled ruins and struggle to remember the skyscrapers of joy and laughter and delight which once seemed indestructible. I starve for Eko’s love and nothing in this broken world can satiate that hunger, so I wither.
The outpouring of sympathy we receive after sharing news of Eko’s death astounds me. Thousands of people from around the globe take time from their lives to honor my dog. My friends and family support me when I cannot stand on my own. The flood of my tears is matched by a flood of empathetic emails, letters, comments and calls. I hope one day to have the ability to properly express my gratitude for everything each one of you has done for me.
But I must first confess an ugly truth. In this moment I wish I could build a bonfire with every word I have ever written, every blog I have ever posted and every photo I have ever shared. I wish I could use every kindness ever said to me about Eko as kindling. I wish I could tear flesh from my bones, strip years from my life, sacrifice them to the flames and burn it all down for one more chance to hold my puppy.
I am so angry and bitter and depressed that I scare my wife. She tries to pierce my sorrow with tenderness, but of what use is tenderness to one who has lost his heart? My pain and sorrow swirl until I am a tempest of grief. My winds of anguish blow aside all the love and support in my path. Emily and Penny, alone in the eye of the storm, watch as my rage pushes the world away.
Emily stands unwavering against the gale, holding me in her arms. She makes no promises and offers no answers. She simply whispers the three most important words she’s ever said to me.
“You’re my Eko.”
The storm breaks. One final swell of emotion crashes over me as I remember everything Eko was, is, and will be for me. A well drilled into my soul from which I draw forth courage, inspiration and a limitless supply of love. Worse than losing Eko would be to also lose everything he taught me. I must pick myself up and practice that seemingly impossible juggling act of grief and love. I will fail. But I will begin again and again until I get it right. I must honor my dog by living his legacy. I must do for this world what he did for my world.
I must build a funeral pyre of all I’ve done and all I’ve learned – not to burn it down, but to spark a signal fire that stretches to the stars. A beacon which reaches to the furthest corners of the earth and shouts, “Do not be afraid of the darkness! Come see how the love of a dog can light the world!”
I will build this fire.
The next morning we visit the beach with Penny before sunrise. It’s cloudy and dark, but there is just enough light to see by.