The difference a dog makes

Just by being there

I took this picture of our dog Twix last summer, from the back porch of a house we rented for a vacation on a small island in South Carolina. She’s rolling around in the grass, doing exactly what she loves to do — get dirty, especially right after we’ve given her a bath.

Part of the reason I love this picture is it captures perfectly who she is; an almost-five-year-old golden retriever who wants to enjoy herself, be with us, and soak in the sun, the air and the moment she’s in. When I snapped this photo, she stopped wriggling around on the ground just for a moment to look me in the eye, as if to say, “this is pretty fun — you should try it too, you know?”

She was already grown when she came to live with us back in the fall of 2019, a three-year-old who had given birth to 10 puppies earlier that summer. After her delivery she developed mastitis, a painful infection that made her milk toxic for her newborn puppies. Realizing another pregnancy would be too dangerous, her then-owner decided to find her a home where she could enjoy some well-deserved rest and play.

The night we went to pick her up, driving from our home in Atlanta to St. Louis, I had all this anxiety about the logistics — could she stay in the hotel, would she be okay alone for a little while, what if she relieves herself on the floor? It was silly, I realize looking back. But you worry about the people (and animals) you care for. When something or someone is completely dependent on you, you tend to hold onto it very carefully.

Bringing her home was like turning on a light that had been off for a long time. Our dog Murphy, who had died several months earlier after more than seven years with us, left a big, big hole. (For me, especially. The feeling of seeing him running around our back yard one day and the next day gone — and not coming back — is still something I don’t quite have words to describe.)

I’d love to be able to tell you about all these adventures we’ve had with her ever since then, Travels with Charley-like trips that would make for great copy here. But the truth is, like you we’ve mostly been hunkered down since we brought her home, thanks of course to Covid-19. So what we do have is lots (and lots, and lots…) of time spent going through the daily routine of life together.

She’s there when we’re relaxed, and she’s there when there’s tension. When our 7-year-old pitches a fit, when our 16-year-old is worried about her social life, and what’s being said behind her back. When my in-laws are dealing with health issues, when my parents are in town and my father clearly doesn’t want to have a dog in his lap. (Of course, she finds him first.)

The dog we lost two years ago was the heart of our home too, but his heart wasn’t open to everyone. Particularly if you were a child who ran up to him and got in his face too quickly; he needed a little time and a lot of space first before he’d let you in.

Twix, on the other hand, seems to draw no distinction at all between family and someone from the other side of the world. We’re all equally fantastic in her eyes, no matter what actually lies behind our own. (As my mother-in-law said not too long ago, “she’s never known anything but kindness.”)

When I look at her, I’m often reminded of something an old college English professor of mine said once: “virtue is its own reward.” What he meant by that, I think, is that all the striving we do to earn things — from money to career advancement to love to the social life we desire — we do with the aim of getting to a place where we can finally feel contentment, that we’re where we want to be.

Cultivating virtue, on the other hand, isn’t something we strive for in the same way. It’s not something we can reach for outside ourselves; we don’t lack it in the same way we lack the things we pine for. It’s something we already have inside, like a seed waiting to be watered.

Come to think of it, I wish I’d asked my professor to expand on exactly what he meant all those years ago — because I’ve been wondering about that phrase ever since!

Seeing my extended family last week — when I took a break from our usual weekly publishing schedule here — was a blast. It really was. But late one night, after perhaps a glass of wine too many, we kind of let it rip with a discussion on politics. Things got a little heated, a little off the rails. I won’t go into specifics, but let’s just say I felt terrible about it the next day, and apologized to the family member I felt I’d wronged.

But even though I did, I wondered if there was anything I could say to undo it. If the rupture really was healed, or if I was being humored because they simply wanted to drop it. (And to be honest, I wouldn’t blame them.)

Something interesting happened after that, though. Twix, almost like she knew what only she could do, nuzzled up to them, looking up with her dark brown eyes. She’d spend the rest of the day going back and forth among all of us, almost as if she was checking on us to make sure everyone was okay.

If you’ve seen the 2008 movie Marley & Me, you probably remember the scene when Jennifer Aniston’s Jenny Grogan learns she’s had a miscarriage. Alongside Owen Wilson’s John Grogan, the pair come home from the hospital after receiving the news and we see Jenny sit down on the couch, devastated.

John tries to cheer her up by reminding her they never took the honeymoon trip they’d planned to Ireland, so why not take it now? The camera then pans into their living room, where we see a silent Jenny, trying to process what has happened:

I watched the movie again the other night; I’m not even sure why, really. But there’s something about this scene that reminds me of what Twix brings to everyone’s life who’s in her circle right now. I know she, like Marley above, can’t make anyone’s burden go away.

But she can make it a little more bearable, even if only for a moment, by reminding me there really are things gentle and kind in this world, and that it doesn’t take anything to experience them other than to remind ourselves that they exist.

As I’m sure you do too, I know people in my life who are going through some hard things right now. For some, it’s a cancer diagnosis they’ve just received; for others, it’s a really tough stretch in their marriages; for others, it’s depression they’re only recently finding their way out of. And like you, no doubt, I wish I had a magic wand that could wipe away their heartache.

Of course, I don’t have one. But maybe I can let them borrow Twix for a little bit, even just for a walk around the block — to lift the weight, even if just for a little while.

Perhaps even better, maybe Twix’s job is for me to have her to lean on, so I can be there for my friends who are struggling right now. Because we all need someone to do that for us, don’t we?

I hope you are well and having some great, great runs out there this early summer — as always, let me know how you are and how your running is going.

Thanks for reading! And thanks for being here ☀️

Your friend,

— Terrell

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