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In 1990, a bull terrier mix with a pirate s patch over her right eye, and an inky black wonder dog cape covering her white body, ran along a lonely road outside San Luis Obispo, California. A passerby rescued the running dog and brought her to the local animal shelter. And once there, she earned a reputation as an unfriendly dog, intimidating all those who passed by her kennel. But not my friend John who said, The first time I saw her, she stood straight and serious, her body forming an H. Rather than fearing this somber dog, John brought her home to his girlfriend Anne who lived in Santa Barbara, California. And so began a journey of my cherished friend, Sam, the dog who taught me how to face and overcome my greatest fear. I first heard about Sam when Anne called me and said, I got a dog. Suffering from a debilitating illness, Anne often had a tough time getting through the day. So when she uttered the words, dog, my immediate thought, which I kept to myself, was I hope this is one of those old, mellow, sleep all day, cat-like dogs, because Anne didn t have the energy for much more. Then I met Sam, the canine version of Eliza Doolittle. She had the will and the friendly, aim to please personality you only find in dogs, but she definitely needed some work.
I ll admit my skepticism over the decision to keep a dog who barked too much, chewed everything in sight, didn t listen, and needed hours of exercise to wear her out. But my uncertainty reversed itself when I saw how quickly Anne s love and attention, supplemented by the love and attention of her new, extended family helped Sam transform her frenetic behavior into the intuitive, considerate, and affectionate dog I knew for almost ten years. Now don t get me wrong, Sam didn t turn into the Zen master who spent her days in meditation. The turbo dog with a singular focus on tennis balls, birds, and whose favorite destination was the beach remained. In fact, Sam loved the beach so much it got to be that nobody could say beach in her presence without igniting a frenzied reaction of barking, high jumping, tail chasing, scattering everything and anyone in the near vicinity. To avoid this, the codeword for beach became Sea. But Sam, figured that one out quickly, demonstrating her knowledge by reenacting her Beach, did you say beach? performance. No matter the route, Sam always knew the way to the ocean. And when the footpath or car went in that direction, she d go crazy. Upon arrival, the entire beach became her playground. She once chased a bird so far out to sea, a boat with an outboard motor had to be dispatched to rescue her. Another time, on a mission to catch a tennis ball, she knocked the wind out of me with a blindside as she shot
forward to snatch the flying ball in her jaws. But she was also the dog who ran like a thief whenever her friends called out, Sammy! Who passed out slobbery kisses like candy. Who welcomed you anytime, day or night, with a wagging tail and a friendly bark. So, what are a fall and a little shortness of breath for a friend like that? A couple of years after Sam moved in with Anne and became part of my life, I moved to New York City. Even though we saw each other far less frequently, Sam knew I was her friend, the cat lady, who took her for runs, shared my muffin, and who liked to be greeted by the helicoptoring tail accompanied by a gleeful bark. And many years later when life found all three of us in the Bay Area, a bridge separating me from Anne and Sam, our routine remained the same, just more frequent. Not long after Anne and Sam moved to the Bay Area, Sam s health took a downward turn. When I saw her after a couple of weeks of battling her illness, I noticed the toll of it had dimmed her black eye patch and wonder dog cape, but it didn t diminish the twinkle in her eye or the mirth in her doggie smile. The following week, after many tests, the vet was ready to present the results. Anne scheduled the visit for early evening so Sam s posse could all attend. As she lay on the cold metal table, Sam shifted her gaze back and forth between Anne and the rest of us, wiggling her tail as if to say, Don t worry, it will all right. Still, a thick fear washed over the half dozen of us standing in the examining room awaiting the prognosis. More people waited by the phone. When the vet
entered, a momentary flash of surprise cross his face as he squeezed into the room. All of you? he asked. Many yes s and nodding heads answered in response. Once he reached Sam, the vet turned to Anne. I don t remember his exact words, but they were something along the lines of, It s not good . Sam has a large tumor on her heart. Some folks let out gasps. Those closest to Anne reached out to her as she reached out to Sam. I remember squeezing my toes to save off the pain that precedes tears. Someone, maybe Anne or another person who managed to find her voice said, What can we do? We can do nothing, said the vet. Or we can operate, but when we get in there if the tumor is too large, we would let her go on the table. So there we had it. Neither option offered any comfort. A lot of talking ensued and the only decision we made was to go get Sam s favorite meal hamburger and go back to Anne and Sam s home and cook it for
her. Even I, the staunch vegetarian, didn t object to this. Later after the hamburger had been cooked and devoured, we all sat in a circle in the living room while Sam flipped the switch on our collective mood, taking us from dark to light by running to and fro, wagging her tail, and occasionally barking. And after she finished with this, Sam started passing out kisses. Now Sam loved to kiss her family and friends. And her kisses consisted of a big slobbery tongue wash all over the face. Nobody could doubt my love for Sam, but she d only gotten in a few kisses over the years of our friendship, when she caught me unaware. I didn t go for the wet tongue on the face and she very well knew it.
That night Sam walked the circle, planting big wet kisses on each face. When my turn came, she sat down in front of me and gave me the Sam stare the regal, wise, you know you re going to let me so keep the protesting to a minimum look. She clicked her tongue signaling she was ready. I demurred. She clicked again. I held her gaze for a few seconds and noticed a change. Oh, all right, I said. Then I leaned forward and she slathered my face, both sides, temple to jaw line, crossing my nose in between. If I close my eyes and clear my mind, I can still feel the velvety roughness of her tongue passing across my cheeks. I wouldn t admit it at the time, and couldn t admit it for years later, but when she stared at me, what passed between us was an understanding that this was my last chance for a kiss from her. After she d finished licking all the faces, Sam lay stretched on her side in the middle of our circle, spent, her breathing fast and a bit labored. Before departing, I remember gently placing my hand on her ribcage, hoping my touch would slow her breathing, provide some comfort. I didn t have it in me to say goodbye. Early the next morning, I got the call from Anne. She didn t need to say it, the tears in her voice told me Sam had died. In between her tears, Anne managed to say, She just got up, went outside and . In life, we all have the family we re born into and the family we choose. When this family includes pets, its members are all the more fortunate, because animals are sentient beings who s purpose is to enrich the lives of human beings and teach us lessons if we re willing to learn them. Rescue animals in particular have a special purpose because they hail from difficult beginnings. The lucky ones get to break out
and choose their path, their purpose, and the people they want to teach. It is safe to say that Sam was one of the lucky ones, and even safer to say that we were the luckier for knowing her. Since childhood, I ve had what can only be described as an existential fear of death. Sleep offered no respite, because I equated it with oblivion. I fought sleep like I was fighting for my life every night leaving the light on so I d wake up, setting my
alarm for two hour intervals so I could confirm I was still alive and conscious. Because of my own fears, I d always thought I understood what Sam was running from all those years earlier when the passerby found her on that San Luis Obispo road. After her last night, I realized that day Sam wasn t running from something, she was running to someone in particular, and by extension, many someones. She was running because she had a job to do, she had people to teach, people to heal. In my case Sam did her job by showing me that death is nothing to fear. It doesn t matter that you don t know what comes after, what matters is you face it on your own terms. That you do not go quietly into that good night. You face your fate with a bark and a wag. Focus on your friends and family the people you hold close. Make sure your last words and/or gesture is the one you want to leave them with. That it s unforgettable no matter how many years have passed. Her last night, Sam didn t cower. She stood tall, this time instead of a straight and serious H, she exuded a relaxed and playful demeanor. She fearlessly faced her fate with a bark and a wag, focusing on her friends and family, making sure her last gesture to each of us was lasting. Even though I am a cat person, there are a few dogs that have a special place in my heart Sam definitely has the biggest room in
the doghouse. She may be gone, but she s certainly not forgotten by the many people who knew and loved her. I thought about Sam s last night for several days afterward, trying to find the message she wanted to convey in her last kiss. Then finally, late one night as my eyelids struggled to stay open while I read, I had a moment of clarity. I closed my book and set it on the nightstand. Then I reached up and turned off the lamp. As I shut my eyes for sleep, I whispered, Thank you, Sammy.
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