Last December, I knew.
Gracie the pug had followed me around the house like she always did during my Christmas blitz, but she moved slowly, full of sighs. She was 13 and virtually blind, yet managed to land inches from my feet as I decorated the tree, set up our mini Christmas village and spaced the stockings just so on the mantel.
Still, I knew.
I talked to her as I always did, even though she couldn’t hear a word. On Christmas morning, I carried her into the living room and sat on the floor with her on my lap as the family unwrapped presents. Later, I took a few pictures of her sitting by the fire.
“Best dog ever,” I whispered in her ear. She licked my cheek and fell back to sleep.
This was her last Christmas. I just knew it.
Gracie was a gift from my parents in 1998. She outlived both of them. She saw me through nearly a decade of single motherhood, watched my children grow up and away, and fell in love right along with me when my future husband, Sherrod, showed up.
Gracie was family. The kind you always want around.
Looking back, it’s easier to see the signs I worked too hard to ignore. In April, she started stumbling on the front stoop. So, I carried her. By July, she no longer wanted to be held or even touched. After a devastating diagnosis in August, my husband and I faced the choice no pet owner wants to make. Our final drive to the vet’s with Gracie in my arms is one of the saddest memories of our marriage. We were surprised by the magnitude of our grief.
For weeks, our male cat, Reggie, would visit Gracie’s favorite spot in the house and howl.
“No more pets,” I told Sherrod. “I can’t do this again.”
Sherrod nodded and said nothing.
Grief sneaks up on humans. I write at home, and it is my practice to read every column aloud before I hit “send.” Two weeks after Gracie died, I was reading out loud when I stumbled on phrasing.
“Oh, Gracie,” I said, “what’s the word I’m looking for?”
I caught myself. I looked down at the empty spot at my feet, took a deep breath and resumed typing.
Minutes later: “OK, Gracie, how’s this sound?”
I sucked in my breath, pressed my fists to my eyes and started to cry. I felt ridiculous and inconsolable.
Weeks passed. Friends suggested we get another dog, but I resisted. “There will never be another Gracie,” I said to Sherrod.
“Not ever,” he said.
One Sunday morning in late October, I was sitting at my kitchen table with Sherrod, staring at the last of the autumn leaves outside our window.
“I don’t think I’m going to get over losing Gracie until we have another dog in our life.” My husband looked relieved.
We decided to adopt a puppy in need of a home. I visited the website for Paws and Prayers, a pet rescue operation in northeast Ohio.
“Sherrod,” I said, pointing at the computer screen. He read the puppy’s backstory and started to laugh. The fluffy face of indecipherable origins was the consequence of a romance between a Lab/Husky mother and a gymnastic Shih-Tzu father.
“He doesn’t look a thing like Gracie,” I said.
“No,” Sherrod said. “He’s perfect.”
We reached out to the foster family caring for him. They were kind and protective. We filled out an application, provided refer ences and agreed to a phone interview. Then we waited.
“ Honey,” my hus – band said, “you probably shouldn’t stick that photo of him on the fridge until you know he’s ours.” But he didn’t take it down.
Franklin has lived with us for two months now. He’s named after FDR because we’re just that dorky. He is my husband’s first puppy in 50 years. Watching the relationship unfold between the two of them is as close as I’ll ever get to knowing the boy my husband used to be.
This month, Franklin is starring on the cover of this year’s Christmas card.
“ Mom,” our youngest daughter said. “Really?”
Sometimes joy sneaks up on humans, too.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators