When I met the man who later became my husband, he came supplied with one big, old worn out dog named Chip (short for Chocolate Chip). I walked into his house and smelled the dog smell and saw the little wisps of dog fur scooting across the floor and I thought, “Uh oh, he’s a dog man and I’m a cat woman. There’s no future here!”
I had never owned a dog. I had pet cats most of my life and, as I child, I had hamsters, birds, fish and even a spider monkey at one time. Dogs were a mystery to me.
Having just recently been divorced from a marriage that I thought would last forever, in many ways, I thought that men were, too.
I got to know my first dog at the same time that I was getting to know my future husband, Tom. In many ways, the dog was easier to get to know.
Tom, too, had just ended a marriage. But, his had been a much longer marriage, and the divorce had been very painful to him. He was withdrawn and quiet and didn’t seem very anxious to open his heart to another woman that might end up hurting him.
Tom was a good man who worked hard and wasn’t very expressive with his feelings. So I learned much about him by the way he treated his dog.
When I met him, Chip was a 13-year-old black lab that was a bit past his prime.
Tom had gotten him as a puppy and I saw many photos of them running, playing and swimming together. They were constant companions.
But the extra years had taken their toll on Chip. And as our relationship progressed, Chip became more and more frail.
Every night when Tom came home from work, Chip’s tail would start wagging furiously as he tried to struggle to his feet. Many times, Tom would have to help him up. And then they would take their slow, limping amble of a walk up and down the driveway. It always looked like it was painful for Chip, but he still wanted to go. And Tom was always willing to take him.
At night, Tom would lift Chip up to share his bed with him and in the morning, he would lift him back down.
I felt almost jealous, sometimes. Tom always seemed to greet the dog before me. He even seemed to talk to the dog more than he talked to me. No matter what was happening between us, Chip could always seem to distract Tom with a simple “woof” or wag of his tail.
Tom took Chip to the vet on a regular basis and even gave him medication for his arthritis. But eventually, it got to the point where Chip could hardly stand, and often when he had to go to the bathroom, he just couldn’t get up in time. For the longest time, Tom just kept cleaning up after Chip. He knew the alternative, and he just didn’t seem able to face it.
But eventually, he did.
Eventually, Tom realized that Chip would be better off if we just had him put to sleep, so we made an appointment with Chip’s vet.
On the day of the appointment, Tom was silent all morning. To me, anyway. He kept up an almost constant chatter to Chip.
When we drove Chip to the vet, the doctor was nice enough to come right out to the van and administer the shot so we could hold Chip in our arms, in private, and let him fall asleep into doggie heaven. Our tears started then, and we drove home quietly sobbing to ourselves.
We had decided that we were going to bury Chip on the piece of property that we had purchased to build our dream home. We pulled up on the property and Tom got out and started digging a hole, softly crying the whole time. Then he gently lifted Chip out of the truck, wrapped him in his favorite blanket and placed him lovingly in the hole. Almost as an afterthought, he slipped Chip’s collar off of his neck and placed it into his pocket.
When we finished burying our dog, Tom fell into my arms and I held him as we both cried what seemed like an endless sea of tears. It was the first death that we shared together. The first time that we had shared tears. And they seemed to seep into our hearts and break something free inside. There had been some wall around our hearts before that moment. A fear, perhaps, of letting ourselves get too close to each other. Of loving each other all the way.
But at that moment when we laid Chip to rest we realized that as painful as parting can be, it is still well worth the love that comes before it. In that respect, Chip’s death was not an ending for us, but a new beginning.
**Author’s note: This essay was first written in 1999. It has been published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, ©2020 . This particular version isn’t exactly the same as the one that appears in the book.