I am a card sending, note dropping, letter writing kind of person. I have raised two children who always send “Thank You notes.” It is an important touch of civility in a sometimes un-civil world. And I cling to the notion that sometimes a written expression of thanks, congratulations, or condolence is welcome and appreciated. So early this year when our dearest friend announced his retirement as well as his relocation to his Florida retirement home I knew a letter was in order. Almost immediately I started composing in my mind what it would say. In the five months between his announcement and his leaving I considered all his contributions to our family life and how to put them down in a meaningful way on paper. It would read something like this. “I want to thank you for all you have meant to me and mine and how much we will all miss you when you are soaking up the sun and enjoying your retirement. Over the past 39 years you have been the best kind of friend. More like family or “framily” as I have called it before. You have shared holidays, trips, good times and hard-times with us. A member of our wedding party, a pallbearer at my father’s funeral, you have always been there. When we were adopting our oldest and the process turned into a dreadful drama of disappointment and tears. You were with us every day in court. And when it all ended improbably with a wonderfully happy ending you were there too. Was it any wonder that we picked you to be our son’s godfather. You had already demonstrated your love. Six years later when we drove to the airport to pick up our daughter when she joined our family you were there again. That night I had carefully orchestrated the order of her welcome. First to hold her when she was brought off the plane would be her father, I would take her next. But after the ride home from O’Hare and the entrance of us all into our home, I handed her off to you. When I think about it, the relationship you have had with our children has been one of the most gratifying parts of our relationship. Even during those angst ridden teen years your presence was always appreciated by them. And the buffer you sometimes provided often gave their parents much needed breathing space. The laughter we have all shared, at holidays, sporting events, backyard barbecues, birthdays, graduations. These have cemented your place in our lives as a family and I am grateful for all of them.” That’s something how my letter would have gone. But, as summer went on busy days and no little amount of denial of your departure on my part, the letter went unwritten. So on that early morning of your departure I had no letter for you. Instead, I handed you a framed black and white picture I had taken of you with my daughter, both of you intent on the iPad she held. Perhaps you were helping her with her resume, maybe she was showing some goofy U-tube video. The picture just exemplified that close relationship you shared. You looked at the photo and I could tell you saw in it what I had. We hugged goodbye and you left for the airport and winters without snow and ice. We spoke often over the next several weeks. And you being even more dedicated to the U.S mail than I, sent me a card for my birthday as well as flowers. Ten days later our anniversary brought a card from you, I told you I would not open it until the actual date, just as I always did with every card you have sent for every birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day. You laughed and said you counted on it. I was still formulating the letter I would send to you, as we ended the phone call. Sadly I never wrote that letter. But you had one last note for us. For somehow, a dark insidious sickness had followed you on your journey. One you had hidden from all those who knew and loved you. From your brothers and sister, from your beloved mother from all of us. And on a rainy day one day before I would open that last anniversary card the darkness over took you. You wrote that you were sorry, you said you loved us all. And you were gone. My husband as shocked and horrified as all of us, warned me that we all would probably process the grief and feel anger at you and your decision. His expertise is founded on eduction and practice. And more than one person has shared with me that they were indeed angry with you. But I cannot find it in me to be angry. No, someone else can have my “mad.” The despair that laid you low was a symptom of a disease that you tried to protect us all from. It was the wrong choice, I wish your judgment had been clearer. But the dark cloud of depression somehow overtook you and we are left with sadness and only speculation of what might have been. So there was no final letter from me to you. And yet somehow I know that you knew everything I would have written in that letter. The understanding is there in your smile in the last photos I took of you. A group of us at the botanical gardens and then a concert at Ravinia, enjoying a summer day and laughing. You knew you were appreciated and loved by many. You will be missed. The poet Dickinson wrote, and I paraphrase, “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,- Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!” You could say our last notes to each other crossed in the mail. But the thing I will remember is that our lives crossed. And I am glad.
Summer time is “golden” time. And I’ve enjoyed getting to know the Golden retrievers who have been part of our “pack.” They’ve all been unique dogs, possessing the central characteristic of a golden. People-love. A vet treating one of my dogs summed it up this way. “He’s a golden so he will mope when he’s not with his family.”
Our first Golden was Kalahan. Selected from a shelter as a gift for my husband, basically the smartest dog I’ve ever known. A friend once told me “he’s not a dog he’s a person in a dog suit.”
Kalahan, could open a peanutbutter jar, and not leave teeth marks. He opened drawers, and rearranged stuffed animals-neatly-under the dining room table. He also retrieved items on command. An especially helpful trick, when my hands were full of baby. He never growled or frightened children. But he guarded his “charges” loyally, always placing himself between them and approaching strangers. Eating the babysitters dinner seemed to be a small price to pay for such devotion. When it came time to help an aged Kalahan on to his next home, we were all bereft. But he looked at us with his typically wise eyes and bid us fairwell with grace and dignity.
The children were young and I missed a walking partner so seven months later we brought home Yankee. He joined our family at two-months old a few days before the Fourth of July. Hence the name. (Which my husband came up with in fear that the kids would name the dog “Guy.”) Although only a puppy, Yankee was always ,to put it simply, huge. He grew taller than any other golden I had ever seen and though I kept his figure svelte ,he weighed in at over 100 pounds. Other golden owners would stop me and ask where I had gotten such a mountain of dog. Yankee just smiled his golden smile and waited to be petted. And that was Yankee’s gift. A large heart just wanting some love. If Kalahan was one part of the canine IQ scale, Yankee sat on the other end. I never had to clear the counters of food. Cookies out of the oven could cool on the kitchen table and I could leave the house! Yankee seemed to have no faults except for his inability to fit places. Which was fine with me since that included most of the furniture. He just lumbered through life. My son, a teenager at the time called him “Sweets”. And never was a nickname more justly deserved. When Yankee did not wake up last July 5th the entire neighborhood was shocked and saddened. No one could belive he was 12 years old he seemed like such a puppy. One neighbor remembered how just a few days earlier,Yankee had appeared on his back porch gave one bark to be petted, and than trotted home. “As if to say ‘goodbye” to me , he mused.
“So,” my husband said as this year’s Fourth of July neared, “we lost Yankee last year at this time and a few months later you brought home Ethel Merman.” Well, her name is actually Bella. Named by the family who turned her into a local Golden rescue group. And like Ethel Merman she sings. It’s loud, really loud, and untrained ,and full of gusto. It’s a fullthroated song of joy when any of the family returns home after a prolonged abscence of say 5 or 10 minutes. She also sings when friends arrive. Bella is also our retriever most likely to truly play fetch -for hours and hours if she could. She is, my husband says, our most athletic dog. To use his basball analogy , Bella is a centerfielder, Yankee was a DH, and Kalahan was a baseball executive.
Loving a golden means sweeping up soft mounds of golden fur, having a large supply of tennis balls , and keeping track of your socks. It also means unconditional love, and being the recipient of that daily “golden smile” that means “I love you, and it’s so great we are all together.” What more does anyone need? I’m just say’n.