The long walk home

IMG_0060_2.jpg

The sun lights up the sky even before it breaks the horizon this time of year, so our morning walk would start even earlier.

The navy and gray leash bearing the Amy Marie Crabtree Foundation logo - a tribute to our too-early-passed friend and animal lover - still hung on the door. The food bowl with the painted dancing puppies and the once-overstuffed dog bed now morphed into a nest, still there too.

But on this Tuesday morning, for the first time in nearly 20 years, I had no dog to push me out into the world. No paw tapping, tail wagging, quizzical tilt of the head reminding me to throw on my sneakers and get out the door.

Just hours before I’d held Wojo, our 15-year-old cockapoo, for the last time.

Together with his buddy of ten years, our first dog Bingo, we’d set out on our walks with purpose. They had trees to mark, spots to sniff, greetings to bark.  We moved at a quick pace and covered miles, stopping only for brief distractions.  

Occasionally we'd slow down to accommodate our separate injures, but bounced back quickly.

Most of the time I’d have to nudge them towards home.  But plenty of times they walked me home instead.

We seemed to be on the same path after Wojo’s cancer surgery in April.  “He’s raring to go,” the nurse remarked as she released him, jumping around the vet’s reception area on his leopard-print bandaged right leg.

Though he hobbled a bit, his big soulful brown eyes still lit up.

But in the weeks that followed the walks grew longer in time and shorter in distance. His trotting slowed and his at-attention tail dropped down. Instead he’d stop mid-street, face in the wind, eyes squinting in the sun, as if to say, let’s just feel the breeze and absorb the sun. His eyes grew more distant and, in these last few days, tired and afraid.

On Monday I gave him a bath, wrapped him in a towel, and held him in my lap as we sat out on the deck. For a while he threw his head back with a smile and let those warm breezes dry him, eventually looking back into my eyes.

It’s time, he said.

Over the years the dogs had taught me so much. How a walk can show us the world. How sometimes just showing up is all that matters, and sitting quietly by can give the best comfort. How a simple smile could change a day, and a life. And how messy a life could really be.

Now Wojo was giving me one last lesson: how to let go.

***

I was content growing up with dogs in the house, but I wasn’t bringing home stray or abandoned animals. That was my younger sister, the lover of all souls.

And when hectic jobs and then children came along, my husband Kurt and I felt no need to add to the chaos. Plus, I had allergy issues.

It was a conversation we revisited regularly though, especially around Christmas and prompted by my son Ryan, who’d scratched “puppy” at the top of his gift list from the time he could hold a Crayola.

We wanted to wait until the kids were at least old enough to assume some responsibilities, but as we watched our other kids back away from dogs in fear, we knew we had to make a move.

Bingo, a white-and-tan cockapoo with a button nose, a stubby tail, and outsized appetite, arrived on Ryan’s ninth Christmas. Bingo never met an object he didn’t want to swallow – bottle tops, cigarette butts, dog poop. We used to joke that he’d eat so much one day that he’d self-explode.

He taught us our first lessons in pet communication. When he was hungry or thirsty, he’d push his bowls around the kitchen floor.  When he had to go out, he’d tag along on the heels of whoever was nearby and bark incessantly.

He also had some tricks. When we moved into a new house at the Jersey shore and were celebrating my son Casey’s birthday with ice cream cake, we gave Bingo a taste. As he took his first few licks off a paper plate, his hind legs elevated into the air till he was on just his front paws, in handstand fashion.

We all looked at each other, stunned.

“Did you just see that?”

Within seconds we all realized that we’d need proof if we wanted to credibly share the story. We gave him some more cake and one of the kids flipped open a phone to capture the act on camera. No luck.

A few years later Wojo came along, a Christmas gift for Casey, who’d decided after conquering his fear of dogs that he needed to have his own.

(Over the years our daughter Haley - who loved the dogs just as much as the rest of us - assumed dog responsibilities begrudgingly, often pointing out that she’d never asked for her own dog.)

Two days before Christmas my husband dragged Casey along to an old barn in Jackson, N.J., ostensibly to pick-up a collector’s edition Hess Truck (a Christmas gift my mom always gave the boys).

They walked into the barn to find a litter of cockapoo puppies instead.

“Pick one,” my husband said.

Casey rolled a ball to see which one would chase it. That’s how we got Wojo, named after his then-favorite Duke point guard, Steve Wojciechowski.

Like Bingo, Wojo was white and tan, but he was longer and skinnier. And he was a runner and jumper. He’d start with a trot, move into a gallop and finally leap, air bound on all fours.

For more than a decade they tagged along together, playing and sparring like brothers. They fought over food and water bowls and staked their territories when it came to sleeping spots. Often we’d find them, chins tucked on the first step of the stairs leading up to the bedrooms, waiting for a sign that they could race up and tear around. When one was missing, the other sulked and sniffed until his return.

They were all bark and no bite.

One time a friend called me at work.

“Just want to let you know that when I walked by your house the front door was wide open,” she said.

Oh no, I thought, the dogs had escaped.

“Hope you don’t mind, but I went in to check on the dogs and close the door.”

“Were they there?”

“Yes,” she said, “cowering under the dining room table.”

***

As years passed, Bingo grew wider, slower and smellier, and while still easy to love he became difficult to get close to without pinching your nose – for everyone except Ryan, who’d hold him no matter what.

He held Bingo for the last time on Christmas Eve, 2012.

By then I’d been living in North Carolina for two years, often alone during the week as Kurt commuted back and forth from New Jersey – our attempt to transition to a new life in the South.

They were my guys then, Bingo and Wojo. They got me up and out at sunrise for a long walk before the gym, helped me gather my thoughts during a mid-day stroll, and pushed me through plenty of writing blocks.

Once I fell so deep into my head that I failed to notice a leash without a dog. In a panic Wojo and I ran back and found Bingo waddling in the middle of the road, headed in the opposite direction.

When I pulled into the driveway at the end of the workday, they’d be standing on their hind legs at the front window, patiently waiting, as if their clocks told them it was time.

Who knows how long they'd been standing there.

And when I pushed through the front door they did that happy dance – the jumping, barking, racing around the house that just lights you up.

All you had to do was come home, they were saying.

They knew too when to tone it down. When they saw tears or sensed distress, they’d stop their antics and come sit quietly by me.  We’re here, they said.

After our Christmas Eve goodbye to Bingo it took Wojo a few days of sniffing and searching for his buddy before he settled into a new routine as the lone pup.

And a pup he was.  He never seemed to age.

Together we walked the neighborhood twice a day, rain or shine, ice or mud. When my husband joined us, he’d unclip the leash whenever the space was clear and let Wojo fly, always coming back when he heard his name.

He became my protector-in-chief.  He took to sleeping next to the bed on my side, even when I wasn’t there. Though not physically intimidating, he’d make enough of a racket to alert the neighbors.

When I returned to New Jersey in 2016, Wojo became a road warrior and an erstwhile staff pet at my husband’s office. He loved riding in the car, at attention in the passenger seat, watching the road ahead, or head out the window, wind blowing back his wispy white fur.  When they’d pull into the neighborhood at the end of the workday, he’d start jumping around inside the car, front to back or across the seats, landing just behind the steering wheel. He knew he was home.

He also got much better night walks, as my husband took over that shift. I can still see them, gone for twenty minutes or longer, strolling up the quiet street, Wojo off the leash, dashing and sniffing.

Wojo survived three surgeries for bladder stones and then the toe amputation in April, when all signs pointed to another quick recovery, at least initially.

But then he began to sleep more in the car. He turned his nose up at snacks and treats, eventually eating only chicken, if at all.

His stride grew wobbly and labored, and the up-the-hill sprints turned into challenging short steps.

We learned that his cancer had spread to his lymph nodes and pushed an assortment of pills on him, trying to quiet his stomach and spark his appetite.

How do you know when to stop, we wondered? How do we know when it’s time?

We wanted a clear answer or, if not that, the pass-in-his-sleep comfort.

On one of his last walks, a passerby with a frisky puppy remarked how well behaved Wojo was, quietly standing and staring as they strolled by.

Not Wojo, I thought to myself. He jumps, pulls on the leash, barks like a hound.

That’s when I realized that we’d been holding on too long and too hard.

We wanted to keep him so much that we’d failed to acknowledge what was plainly happening right in front of us.  If we’d opened our eyes, we would have gotten the clear answer we wanted - from him.

It was time to let go.

###