"I loved you before I even met you. When I was a kid, and I was sad or things were frightening or uncertain, I would always retreat inside of myself, to an idea – one idea in particular. I would imagine that I had a dog. I would picture all of the adventures we would go on together, the things we would do and see. He would be goofy, lovable, and sweet. A Labrador, because I liked their floppy ears and soft eyes. Yellow, because it seemed like a warm, comforting colour. I even thought of a name – Oliver. I liked it partly because it sounded distinguished, but mostly because then I could call him Ollie for short. Ollie. My Ollie. My safe haven, even all those years ago.
When the time came, I recognized you almost instantly. I had held other puppies, gorgeous puppies, that I’m sure went on to bring as much love to their companions as you did to me, but they weren’t Ollie. Something just clicked, with you and me. I don’t believe in magic, but the swell of absolute love and adoration that I felt when I held you for the first time and you fell asleep in my arms is the only thing that has ever come close.
When we left to take you home, you cried – it was a big, scary new world out there, you were 8 weeks old, and car rides in particular were NOT COOL (though they would be, in the future, where even a rumour of the word ‘car’ would send you into a frenzy). We pulled over, beside an empty farmer’s field. It was a beautiful, mid-August day. I remember how warm the sun felt when I carried you over to the grass and gently placed you down, coaxing you to play with a couple of your new toys. While you sniffed around, cautious and unsure, I promised you that everything was going to be okay, that you didn’t have to be scared. I promised you that I would protect you, and look out for you, and that you would never know anything but love for your whole entire life. Then I scooped you back up, and we returned to the car, where you slept soundly on my lap the whole way home.
What I didn’t realize that day was how you would reciprocate that promise tenfold. You loved, protected, and looked out for me every single day of your entire life. Through all our adventures. When things were dark, you were the warm golden light that encouraged me to keep going. When things were bright, you were even brighter still. I cherish every moment that I shared with you, from the exciting to the mundane. A swim in a mountain river, an afternoon nap on the couch. You were the secret ingredient. And you didn’t stop with me – you loved, protected, and looked out for countless people. Your love was boundless. Everyone who had the chance to meet you, even for just a second, could feel it too; that magic I felt that first time. Your magic.
Then came the most difficult time for me to keep my promise. I had protected you, looked out for you, and loved you your entire life, but never like this. Never with a choice that would separate you from me. I remembered the countless times that I would throw the ball for you, as far as I possibly could, and it would fall somewhere I couldn’t see – into a line of trees, into tall grass, around a corner – and you would bound off, excitedly, impossibly fast. And even in those seconds, those few seconds where you were out of sight, during the pause that you left behind where everything would go quiet and still, my heart would beat a little faster. My chest would get a little tighter. But it would be only seconds until you returned, ball in mouth, with the goofiest grin on your face that clearly could only mean “Again!”
When the time came for me to keep that promise, I held you again, much like that day in the farmer’s field. Except instead of a warm, sunny afternoon in mid-August, it was a cool, sunny afternoon in December. And instead of a farmer’s field, we sat at home – your home, the one I had promised you all those years ago – on your warm, cozy bed. You didn’t fit neatly into my arms anymore; those early days where I could pick you up were long gone. Instead, we cuddled together, and you gently laid your head into my lap. I pet your soft, floppy ears. I looked into your soft, brown eyes. I stroked your golden yellow fur, warm and comforting. You were everything I imagined you would be, and more. My Ollie. My safe haven.
Despite being shattered, my heart still looks for you, everywhere. Our routines and patterns are just like a reflex, even still. I maneuver around the kitchen for an 80-pound obstacle that no longer shadows my every move, on the lookout for errant pieces of food. I still close the bathroom door behind me so that you won’t get into the toilet paper. I pick up your bones and your toys from the floor and put them in your toy box, and then later realize you won’t be pulling them out minutes later. I jump at the sound of a doorbell unannounced by your dutiful barks, always keeping us safe. I sleep, scrunched into the fetal position, on my side of a queen-sized bed, still leaving space for you to sprawl. I wake up in the middle of the night, and reach for you, looking for the familiar feel of your giant, obnoxious hairy butt pressed into my back, always close. I awaken groggily at 6 AM, like clockwork – the time of morning when you would place a paw on my shoulder or stick your cold nose in my face and whine to be let out. I go to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, unable to sleep, and accidentally turn to fill your water bowl, because that’s how it always went. Ollie first. And that’s how it had to be. Ollie comes first. Ollie before me.
Since you’ve been gone, I haven’t stopped crying. It’s a big, scary new world out there, a world without you. I feel that same feeling, like you’ve run around the corner – into the grass, behind some trees. My heart beats faster, my chest gets tighter, but it doesn’t go away. Everything is quiet and still. The pause you left behind grows. But sometimes, in the middle of that pause, you visit me. In a passing thought, where I remember something silly you used to do. In the dreamlike space between sleep and wakefulness, when I could swear that I feel you next to me, fast asleep. When I come across bones I would have thrown away months ago that I instead find hidden in increasingly ingenious places.
Right now, it hurts. Almost more than I can bear. I knew that day would come, but I never imagined it would have been so soon. I thought I would never be prepared for it. I thought that, surely, it would be the thing that broke me. But you spent your entire life preparing me for any challenge, including this. You were by my side when I needed you most, by my side through some of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with. You taught me about love and gentleness. You taught me to be curious, to find joy in even the smallest things, like you did – a warm spot to lay on the carpet, a giant old tree to sniff, a car ride to the park, bubbles to chase, an old plastic pool filled with cool water on a hot day, the ongoing saga of the never-ending battle between you and the sprinkler, a forbidden dishtowel to run away with while no one is looking. A cozy, safe spot to cuddle up to your best friend, ready for the next Best Day Ever.
Some people will say you were just a dog. That you were here and then you left, as dogs do, and that it will be sad for a while, but you move on. And it’s okay that they don’t understand – I’m glad that they are insulated from this heartbreak, because it’s an agony that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But at the same time, I’m sad that they’ll never know the magic of a dog like you. I wouldn’t change a thing – even if I knew what would happen, how I would feel right now. The pause is all-encompassing. Overwhelming. Looming. And while right now it hurts too much, while I’ve stopped and started writing this same letter, this same paragraph, this same sentence hundreds of times over the last few days, I know that at some point in the future, when I’m sad, or frightened, and things seem uncertain, I’ll be able to retreat inside myself to something more than an idea – memories, of a dog named Ollie. A Labrador, with floppy ears, curious brown eyes, and soft yellow fur. Goofy, cuddly, playful, loving, sweet, smart, mischievous, and so, so magical. My best friend. My boy. My heart."