A Dedication to a Dog Life Well Lived
The young pup and I hiked our favorite stretch of Illinois prairie alone yesterday. It is a walk I've taken thousands of times with my old dog. But those days are gone.
Lucy Smith passed suddenly, but softly, from this world on April 29, 2023. She would have been 10 years old in June. A friend aptly noted that if all the people who knew and loved Lucy were counted in dog years, she would have lived forever.
Born near Paxton, Illinois, she was purchased after a handful of University of Illinois Alpha Gamma Rho agriculture fraternity boys spotted an advertisement for golden retriever puppies on Craigslist. Lucy was chosen because she stood apart from her siblings -- chewing on a stick while the rest of the litter chased some cats. College kids are apparently great judges of character.
When my son, one of those involved in the transaction, told me about the pup purchase, I groaned aloud. The new dog dads were beginning their senior year of college. In my motherly opinion, their syllabus was full caring for themselves. Were they ready for mid-night potty training, keeping the water bowl full and tending vaccination records?
My fears were blessedly unfounded.
While a golden retriever puppy must be the biggest chick magnet ever, those boys had honest intentions with this female. She flourished under their care, even if she was occasionally held hostage by sorority sisters. I remember walking Lucy during one of my campus visits and passing young co-eds on the quad who addressed her by name. Lucy did have her own Facebook page in those days, but still ...
The only complaint I ever heard about her behavior was she destroyed several pairs of wingtips. The boys were in job interview mode, and Lucy must have felt impending change. I have pictures of young men proudly wearing caps and gowns with Lucy planted possessively in the middle of the photo looking as though she'd raised them herself. Maybe she did.
Somewhere in all this pomp and circumstance, her caretakers made the decision that Lucy would graduate to my care. I don't remember applying for the position, but it wouldn't have mattered. By this time, I was head over paws in love with her.
I'd been around a few farm dogs. Trailer, our beagle, was a rabbit chaser and champion collector of ticks. Great Pyrenees pups Babe and Baabs served as livestock protection dogs for the sheep flock. I worked with border collies as part of my college job at the University of Illinois sheep farm. But I'd never cared for a dog that lived and acted more human than canine.
It was immediately clear that Lucy missed her boys and the chaos. So, she went back to school for herself and proved to be a natural for therapy dog work. Certification required testing that simulated all sorts of difficult scenarios. She passed with flying colors, despite her inexperienced human handler.
Our lives changed as she started changing the lives of others. We adopted a class of first-grade student readers. What was on their minds invariably tumbled out during reading sessions. "Lucy doesn't make fun of me when I make mistakes reading." "Lucy knows what's in my heart without me telling her." "I love cheese. Does Lucy like cheese?"
"Yes, yes and yes ..."
We were asked to visit a severely depressed nursing home resident. Over the next few years, our first "therapy client" would become like family. Dick's greeting was always the same: "Well, hello there, Lucy ... have you come to love me?" He would tell us the same story about his childhood dog every visit, but Lucy always pretended she was hearing the tale for the first time.
The elderly we visited would often mention that they did not know why they still existed. In their minds, their lives no longer had purpose. I would point to Lucy's wagging tail and tell them how much better they made her day.
"You did that. You made her happy. That was your job today."
One of Dick's last requests on this earth was to see his golden girl. We said our goodbyes as she laid her head next to his pillow and he whispered into her ear. Finally, Lucy turned to comfort the family, who had watched, incredulous at the exchange.
Lucy was graceful in her acceptance of life transitions. I've tried hard to adopt that attitude about hers. Forever faithful and careful not to inconvenience, she gave no signs of the cancer growing inside her until it was too late to fix.
Lucy was a sniffer and she often lagged on our walks. I would finally rattle the treat bag and she'd come running. On this walk, I turned to look down the trail and purposefully repeated the gesture.
As if in answer, a sudden gust of wind came up, rustling the trees. My young dog, Willa, felt it too, and came to settle her weight on my foot -- a very Lucy-like thing to do.
I know enough not to question these moments when it feels as if something bigger is at work. I have seen miracles in real time with Lucy by my side. More than once I witnessed a previously non-verbal patient speak her name. I have watched Lucy calmly offer a paw to still a palsied hand. She gravitated toward those who desperately needed a touch offered from the heart and not out of need or obligation.
Three years ago, a young neighbor died in an accident, and I mourned his loss deeply. He loved Lucy and she was crazy about him. Is it happenstance that they died on the same day just a few years apart?
Lucy loved rolling in stinky stuff and the stinkier the better. She hated flying insects, a result of an early encounter with ground hornets. She feared fireworks and thunderstorms enough to take refuge in the bathtub. She'd play fetch but was a poor retriever. She would snort like a piglet when she wanted a nibble of your food (barking would be impolite). Her ability to shed will provide furry mementos for years to come.
But her empathy was extraordinary. And while she was the great comforter, the pain of her passing is real. Others have told me the fear of this kind of loss is why they will never have a dog or another dog. Isn't that a bigger loss?
I started my life with Lucy afraid of dogs. Several encounters during farm visits had left me beyond wary. Lucy healed those wounds and, in the process, taught me valuable lessons about compassion. Dogs are quick to forgive and always eager to please and play. If only we all could adopt this attitude.
Lucy Smith left a long list of followers and fans for all the right reasons. She belonged not to me or any one person, because she gave her love to so many. Her ashes will be scattered amid the fields and furrows she loved to roam and where her whispers will serve as reminders to love hard and to do it while we can.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmith
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