Dogs have been the connective tissue in my life since I was a child.
My earliest memory is of being given a bath while Treve, my mother's Irish setter, looked on and sniffed the handsful of soap bubbles I would hold in front of his long snout. This is not to say that I have cared more about dogs than people, but I do deeply value their unconditional love and of course mourn their passing. As an old friend liked to remark, dogs never cheat, lie or get drunk and drive. And they don't start wars.
When Nicky and Jack, sister-brother Chocolate Labrador Retrievers, came into our lives on a bitterly cold day in January 2011, they were neither their former nor future selves. They had been confined to cages and got virtually no exercise, and perhaps even less attention.
Nicky's coat was a mess and she was obese because of her confinement. We were concerned that her heart would explode from the unaccustomed exertion of twice daily walks and long runs in the fields below the mountain retreat that began the afternoon she and her bro arrived.
But given a chance, the resilience of canis lupus familiaris is extraordinary. After barely three months of regular exercise, a top-flight if pricey diet and that great intangible -- the reciprocated love of their masters -- Nicky and Jack were the selves they always were supposed to be. Nicky lost weight, her endurance improved and her coat came back to a thick and rich brown luster.
The disability of Nicky's brother Jack, who lived the last 18 months of his nine-year life blind because of canine diabetes, brought out his nobility and Nicky's grace.
She was there to lead the way as she helped Jack address stairs and other obstacles. The house, yard, walking paths, fields and mountain stream were familiar even though he could no longer see them. When he went for a swim, he would grip his beloved blue rubber ball in his teeth and paddle about, Nicky's nudges and our voices letting him know where he and we were.
Nicky, who was 11 going on 12, succumbed to illness -- which is to say the ravages of old age -- rather quickly. Actually only a few days before we said goodbye to her on Friday morning.
As strange as it may seem to people who have never felt the joy of bonding with a dog, both Nicky and Jack in their own distinctive ways enabled me to better understand who I was through my understanding who they were. I was a creature with a stew of emotions percolating inside me. They both had a Zen-like serenity. Except when they were racing across a snow-covered field, play nipping and arfing at each other, or plunging into that cold mountain stream.
And that when you lose a dog, you not only lose someone who has been your friend, you also lose a vital connection to the person you have been.