Your eyes were what I noticed about you first. Unusually large, glistening and rich, they were the color of shiny new copper pennies and framed by the soft, thick lashes I liked to brush against my index finger. There was black was etched around those rounded almond eyes, further accentuating them (as if that were possible), naturally doing what the ancient Egyptians achieved with charcoal. Not only were they aesthetically beautiful, but nearly everyone who met you commented that your eyes expressed so much depth and emotion, beyond what one would expect from "just" a dog.
To be honest, though, the first time we met, I thought that the rest of you was kind of goofy looking. For one, your head was huge, its proportions easily dwarfing the rest of your body. And your body? A low-slung basset hound type physique with short front legs that seemed to warp inward in a permanent plié, covered with beagle markings on the face and back, but dotted with brown and black speckles along the legs and chest. Your face was distinctly beagle, but at least two times the average size. People would often comment that it looked like you were made from several different dogs, somehow patched together. A couple of people even went so far as to call you a Frankenstein dog. You and I just rolled our eyes, knowing better. Jerks.
It was interesting, though, that a very short time after you came to live with us, your particular beauty became so blindingly apparent I was astonished that I ever for a moment thought otherwise. I think, though, that part of it was that you transformed into the magnificent creature you were to become under our care.
The day we met, you were in Daphna's living room, and because you'd just been neutered, your hormones were still raging, so you were too distracted by her female dogs to pay dad or me much mind. After three baths, you still had fleas. You had a little BB pellet lodged under your fur on the top of your head. Your teeth were covered with a thick yellow tarter. You were skinny.
Do you remember Daphna? She and I worked together at the shelter. She had been trying to catch you for two weeks and you always managed to elude her, you wily boy. On the Fourth of July, Daphna was in the car with her mother when she saw you running in the street yet again, firecrackers exploding and showering down on the city from all directions. She said the look on your face was one of utter terror. She managed to catch you on a day soon afterward, using canned food as bait, a leash hidden behind her back formed in a loop, ready to throw around your neck. You approached her cautiously, but ultimately couldn't resist: the food was too much of a temptation, and you were finally hungry enough to take the bait. You took a few bites, soon becoming distracted by how good it felt to eat, and -whoosh! - the leash wrapped around your neck before you knew it. Who knows? You probably let it happen.
I often thought about you running down Irving Park Road, knowing how much you hated loud, explosive sounds like firecrackers and how you had no obvious sense of caution around cars. Every year during Fourth of July, you would pace all night, panting and shaking, shunning your usual poise and evening walk for just one night a year. I would hold you extra tight, agreeing with you about how obnoxious people could be. I hate firecrackers, too. On those nights, I hated them all the more, knowing how they terrorized you, my sweet baby.
When the people who used to let you run loose in the city streets came into the shelter where we worked looking for you, they guessed your age to be around four. They wrote on their lost report that your name was Pinto and that the grandchildren missed you. They lived only a block or two from Daphna's house, so she needed to find a new sanctuary for you, and since she knew they were looking for you, she asked if dad and I could foster you until she could get you into another home or a shelter far away. I agreed and Daphna was thrilled.
That evening, we parked behind her house and threw a blanket over you as we smuggled your strange long form out the door, looking over our shoulders in paranoia as we darted to the car. What must have been running through your mind? I had to giggle, feeling like Harriet Tubman or something, but I didn't feel safe until we were out of the neighborhood.
Daphna said she had been calling you Lenny, but we were free to change that, of course. No need. You were without a doubt a Lenny. You accepted the new name like it was always waiting in the wings, waiting for the perfect moment when you could throw off your old life and become the dog you were always meant to be, always knew you should be.
That first night you were suspicious of dad (hard to imagine now, I'm sure), and you sat on the other side of the room, as far away from him as possible while keeping him within your frame of vision, and just barked. It seemed like you were telling him off. At the time, I imagined you saying, "Look, you're going to have to earn my trust, bud. Don't just come over to me thinking that I'm going to be overjoyed just because you deign to pet me. Maybe I don't want to be petted. Did you ever think of that? You humans are so arrogant. What makes you think I should trust you? How am I supposed to know that you're not like them?" After this confrontation, though, you seemed to get it out of your system. You and dad understood each other from that moment on and became the best of buddies.
Then came the day two weeks later when Daphna told us she was finally able to get you into a suburban shelter. Or did we want to adopt? Dad and I just looked at each other and knew the answer: there was no choice.
I remember the day we officially decided to adopt you. It was one of those perfect autumn days: crisp, but not cold, sunny but not obnoxiously so. Perfect sweater weather. Actually, your favorite kind of day. Mine, too. To celebrate our new little family, we took you for a walk down at the forest preserve with the spectacular crimson and gold leaves, and, gosh, what fun you had. You panted and frolicked and drank from the stream: every photo we have of you from that day quite nearly bursts with the joy and excitement on your face. I think that day was when you really knew you could be the spirit you had been waiting to become.
You adapted to our lives seamlessly, fitting in as though you were there all along. You were like the piece of the puzzle that fits in so perfectly, snaps right in place, completing the picture.
What we discovered about you right away: you had a rich, sonorous voice, and you liked to howl along with passing sirens, matching the pitch perfectly. You also liked to join us in a family howl, but you couldn't abide certain instruments: dad had to suspend his dream of teaching himself the accordion. You didn't like female German shepherds, and no dog was allowed to hump you. Ever. You preferred people to dogs, but you liked most dogs just fine as long as they knew their place. You would rather be chased than give chase. When you got really excited about something, you threw your head up, barked five times in rapid succession (woowoowoowoowoo!) and ran in two or three little circles all at once. You always drank water in threes (lap lap lap - pause - lap lap lap) and when you barfed, it was in three neat pools, too. Being scratched about the ears was your ecstasy. You loved rice, noodles, carrots, apples, cabbage, and broccoli stalks. If I ever got upset with you, even for a moment, you would put your paws on my chest or legs and look deep into my eyes until I relented. (How could I resist?) Whenever I cried, you sat next to me, not trying to lick my tears, but keeping a respectful distance, letting me know you were there. All it took to get you riled up was a little pretend boxing, and you'd be as rambunctious as a puppy. Squeaker toys were fine until they squeaked, at which point they were discarded and eyed with suspicion.
You soon started collecting nicknames from us that fell under four basic categories: Traditional; Butt-focused; Nonsensical; and Funny. Traditional included but were not limited to sweetie, pumpkin, lovey, cuteness, buddy, my baby, and angel. Butt-focused seemed to be your favorite category, guaranteed to get you wagging: monkey butt, pumpkin butt, munchkin butt and butter bean butt were the top four. When I greeted you after being out for a period of time, for some reason Nonsensical always seemed to be right: pooky, scooty, flukey, lunky, boobela and scootchie were some that inexplicably stuck. Some Funny names that made it into heavy rotation were Mr. Handsome, Mr. Gorgeous, nutty butter, wiggly boy and little man. Most often, though, we would just call you Len or Lenny. Your name fit you like a perfect pair of jeans.
About a year after you joined us, we took a vacation together... Do you remember our trip down Route 66? How could anyone forget? What fun we had, crammed together in the little Chevy, working our way in the pounding September heat from Chicago to New Mexico, smuggling you through the back door into cheap hotels.
Remember how we posed you in front of all the kitschy monuments along the road and in the little towns? You knew that if you sat and waited for the camera to click, a Mr. Barky was your reward. Annoying at times, but ultimately worth it. We posed you in different bandannas, and in the years after, you wagged and wiggled with abandon whenever we took one out. You were the perfect model, succinctly capturing the mood of a place with your expression. In front of goofy oversized cold war-era statues, you seemed to laugh. In ramshackle, rustic front settings, you looked like you were snoggered on moonshine and ready to break out the harp. As we squinted and coughed our way through the red dust in ghost towns, you looked lonesome and wizened, like something out of a Woody Guthrie song. Surrounded by the grandeur of the Rockies on our way home, you looked proud, patriotic, your chest puffed. How did you manage to do that every time? Compared to those blank-faced, boring models I see on the cover of magazines - well, there's really no fair comparison.
We enjoyed that trip so much. Remember that woman in Santa Fe who ran across the street just to tell us how perfect you were and how she was looking to adopt a dog just like you? Remember how dad and I nearly starved through Oklahoma and Texas? Remember Lucille at her namesake Historic 66 gas station in Hydro? All the memorabilia and photo albums dad and I looked through as Lucille petted you and gave us a running commentary about all she had seen from her little shack on the road. Remember the magnificence of the view from New Mexico to Colorado? The sky that was so beautiful it almost hurt? How we were all stunned into a gasping reverence for the soaring mountains and astonishing beauty that surrounded us? I was so happy that we were able to show you that.
We never took a trip together again on that scale, though dad and I always intended to. Time has a way of slipping away, my love. I'm sorry.
In 1996, we introduced you to Buster. It seemed to us that you should have a playmate, plus we had moved so we now had the space for another dog. And he was so damn cute. Remember the first time you met? It was at the animal shelter, and you two played and wrestled. You probably thought, though, that this would be the extent of it, and soon we'd return home and the three of us would resume our happy, content lives.
It was not to be.
Buster came home with us that night, his loud hound dog bray and slobbery puppy essence announcing quite clearly that things would not be the same. That little guy with the enviable metabolism, tirelessly seeking more wrestling matches and inhaling his food like a vacuum cleaner gone berserk, defied every basset hound stereotype. I swear, I caught you rolling your eyes at him more than once.
You do know that he idolized you, though, don't you? He's been a little lost without you here. You were like the impossibly cool older brother whose little hyper brat of a sibling could never catch up, no matter how hard he tried. You did finally accept him, though, didn't you, despite your reservations. Even though you probably wouldn't have chosen to become a foursome, you have to admit, Buster brought a certain charm and joie de vivre to the mix. Grudgingly and despite yourself, you came to like and even enjoy the little hellraiser. So we made our little adjustments and, with some growing pains here and there, we became a slightly larger family.
Your favorite times were just with dad and me, though. If you had it your way, this would be the way you'd spend most days: the three of us would sleep together in the big bed, then go out for a nice, long walk (the temperature would be between 67 and 72 degrees), during which we'd end up at a lake for you to wade through. Then, after not being toweled off, we'd walk back home, and you'd be able to eat all the chicken bones and discarded fast-food detritus you discovered on the path without interference. After that, dad would wrestle and chase you for a while, then we'd take a little nap together. When we got up, we'd get in the car and drive with the windows open to a beach or forest, where you'd be able to run and explore off leash to your heart's content. Then we'd come back home, where you'd have a meal of canned food, and we'd scratch your ears and belly. We'd howl together as a family, and then we'd go to sleep. If you had a say in it, we'd repeat the same thing the next day. And the next. Unfortunately, your beloved Mr. Barky's didn't show up in our pantry for free, so our days were maybe a little more quotidian than you may have liked.
Then again, you did love the simple pleasures of our daily routine. I still can see you lying on the little doggy bed next to the computer as I write this, perfectly content, maybe sleeping or chewing on your Kong toy. I guess it didn't really matter what we were doing, so long as you were with us. That was where you wanted to be.
It's taken some getting used to, Lenny, you not being here. When Buster barks at the doorbell or when dad comes home, I still expect to hear you joining in. When I go to bed, I expect to hear your little toenails clicking on the wood floor, then, with a little bounce of the bed, you'd be curling up next to me (across dad's pillow, of course), with a little sigh of contentment. I miss your sneezes, howls, excited "dad's home!" wiggle and knowing glances in an almost physical sense, the way I'd miss part of my own body if it were removed. Most of all, I miss the kisses: kissing your soft ears and beautiful graying muzzle countless times throughout the day just because you were there. I miss having your sturdy little body next to mine.
Do you remember the day before you got sick? It was a blustery, painfully cold Sunday, but you, dad and Buster went out for a marathon walk in Humboldt Park anyway. By the time you got home, nearly two hours later, dad's face was all red and chafed from the wind, but you and Buster were still wound up, ready for more action. Buster grabbed a squeaky toy from the wicker basket, and you two went running through the apartment, barking and skidding across the floor as dad gave chase. We had no indication of what awaited us.
Lenny, the details of your sudden illness seem to make you into a medical profile instead of the flesh-and-blood, vital, unique spirit that I know you to be. So I won't linger on it, other than to say that on Monday morning, after we found you shaking on the floor and rushed you to the vet, you seemed to be totally accepting of what was happening. After being poked and prodded and observed and X-rayed and having had your blood drawn, you were stoic. The vet, however, couldn't find anything amiss, and after consulting with the other doctors on staff, was no closer to understanding what was happening. I do know, though, that there wasn't any suffering; you just gradually receded over the next day and a half, being drawn to some place where we couldn't accompany you. Despite my pain, I have to marvel at the dignity and grace with which you met this unexpected turn of events.
Lying on the balcony of our home, your favorite place in the house, the mild March breeze fluttering through your fur and rumbling through our pretty chimes, I have to think you were at peace, as they say. As I stroked your face that final time, you gently wagged your tail and looked up at me, your eyes full of love and tenderness, and I was instantly reminded of my beloved grandfather, and the look on his face the last time I saw him. Like you, his eyes were old, kind, and full of cherished memories. There was not an ounce of regret or striving. In life as in death, you are a lesson to us all. In the end, it was all about love.
There's so much more to say... How can I express that you were the most balanced creature I'd ever met, perfectly at ease being goofy or serene? How can I describe the way it made my heart dance every time I saw you lying on your bed with your front leg tucked in like Napoleon? How do I convey the way that you intuitively always knew how to behave, whether it was silly, protective, reserved, affectionate or somber without sounding like I'm exaggerating? That knowing and loving your graceful spirit guided dad and I to veganism? How can I say that I loved you more than I ever thought it'd be possible without sounding maudlin? That you have made me a better person without sounding melodramatic?
I've been told that your spirit is still here, Lenny, and I believe that's true. Your essence was too big for you to be just a warm memory. And you know those people who claim that animals don't have a soul? Well, they never met you, my love, and the glorious light in your eyes never shone upon them. We are the lucky ones, dad and I.
We love you, my sweet Lenny, and that will never fade.
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