Toby comes to live with us on Thursday. We weren't going to get a new puppy until spring - at the soonest. When Riley died last February, the week of his tenth birthday, we weren't actually ever going to get another dog. The pain of watching him suffer with cancer the last weeks of his life was something neither of us wanted to repeat.
Well, maybe we would get another dog - eventually - but certainly never another Golden Retriever.
My first Golden, Jesse, was the rescued orphan upon whom I could lavish my overflowing mother heart and love while I waited for children that would never arrive. He was my biggest sacrifice in the bid for freedom from the life he cushioned me against.
Just as soon as I was settled into a new life and a new dog became a possibility, I knew I had to have another Golden. Convincing my new husband was easy, and the hunt was on. Once we decided, the search took on an urgency I didn't understand, but had no desire to deny. We found ourselves in a dirty house being shown three scrawny older pups by an equally scrawny man who smelled of mildew and cigarettes. I would have taken all three, just to get them away from that place. The new husband, often the voice of reason in the midst of my emotion hurricanes, said no as gently as possible. I chose the one who looked like she needed me the most.
And so Kelly came into my life. I loved her with an intensity born of fierce guilt and aching hope for redemption and a deep well of unfulfilled mothering. Before she was two she nearly died from a thyroid condition that left her paralyzed for months. A determined vet and my need to not abandon another life that depended on me kept her going until she was back on her feet. Weeks of daily visits to the vet clinic, more weeks of carrying her outside to our back yard and daily baths in our tub, and still more weeks of teaching her how to walk again restored her to a life that lasted for five more years. The medication that kept her going and those months of illness took their toll and her body eventually just shut down, organ by organ. She died in a clinic, alone, on a weekend I had decided to play instead of visiting her.
I was never going to feel that pain again. I was never going to feel that guilt again. I was never going to care that much again.
I held out for three years, then found a perfect solution. Walt, my no longer new husband, was ready for a dog. We had grieved Kelly long enough. He wanted the experience of being the primary person for our next dog, and he wanted another Golden. I was getting the best of both worlds. A Golden in my life to love, but he wouldn't really be mine, so the pain wouldn't be as bad when he eventually died.
Again, spring break was the time. A week home to get the puppy settled, then a few short months until the summer when we could both be home with him. We were going to be strong this time. No rescuing. No emotional decisions. No problem.
We found ourselves in the back yard of a restored Arts and Crafts bungalow in an older Portland neighborhood. I loved the home, I loved the men who owned the home, and I especially loved sitting on their lawn being overrun by thirteen balls of frenetic red fluff while Walt chose his puppy.
Somehow in the ten years Riley lived with us, he managed to become my dog, too. I was the one who took him for long walks in the park. Walks made longer by his love of the river we walked next to. I was the one who had dozens of silly nicknames for him. I was the one who made sure we remembered to give him ice cream on his birthday every year. I was the one who noticed his failing health two years before we lost him, and began grieving his departure long before he died.
When it became clear, just weeks after Riley died, that no dog ever was not possible, we began to cautiously explore our options. We figured spring break in a year would be a good time and far enough away to be choosing a new companion and not trying to replace Riley.
Clearly Golden Retrievers were a breed that were too fragile. We could avoid the pain of a too early loss by choosing a dog that was hardier. We talked about getting a pound puppy. We looked at breeds that looked like Goldens. Flat-coated Retrievers. Irish Setters. Golden Doodles. None of them felt right. The only ones either of us felt drawn to at all were the ones who looked the most like Golden Retrievers.
We finally decided this fall that we'd get a Golden, but choose a breeder very carefully. And we didn't have to decide for a long time. Spring was months away.
Somewhere in the last month or two, I found myself asking Walt fairly regularly whether he was ready for a new dog yet. Not nagging exactly, but not that subtle either. I would point out pictures of Goldens at every opportunity, and suggest online searches for kennels. We had already decided that Walt would be the primary person for our next dog, so he needed to be ready before anything could happen.
Then just last weekend, in a series of events that are nothing short of miraculous, the decision was made. The day after Walt said he was finally ready to have another dog, a friend whose Golden is in her last days called with the name of a kennel. A reputable, long-established kennel only eight miles away with puppies that would be available at Christmas. Christmas. When we have two weeks off, not just one. And this a year with no plans at all. A Christmas at home with nothing special demanding our time.
Walt called. We went to look on Monday.
We were greeted into a homey clean house by a friendly comfortable woman with an air of caution about her. She led us into her kitchen where four male puppies were gated into the dining nook. I had planned to enjoy the experience and the dogs and support Walt in his choice.
All that went out the window the minute I saw the puppies. I actually only saw one. He was redder, bigger, galumphier than the others. He had my heart completely before I had time to remember he was going to be Walt's dog.
I was in the pen, on the floor, with him in my arms before Walt even had a chance to see him. It didn't take much convincing. Walt fell just as hard as I had. An hour later, the owner was showing us to the door, all traces of caution gone, congratulating us on our choice.
Toby comes home on Thursday. He'll be seven weeks old. He'll be our dog. He'll be loved with open eyes and open hearts. Hearts that know what they want and won't be denied.