It was a chance meeting that led to a thirteen-year love affair. Our eyes met. She held out her paw. It was love at first sniff.
The baby beast would grow up to be seventy-five pounds of hound, a mutt's mutt who once tried to devour a beloved rocking chair, buried countless treasures in my garden and, after a leather-chewing binge, left me shoeless and clueless. She leaped from the window of my moving Volkswagen bus as we cruised down Highway 61 in Duluth. She rolled in dead fish during a camping trip along Lake Superior, then crawled into my tent. Excited by another barking dog, she exploded through a glass window in my south Minneapolis home.
I was single and childless then, but life wasn't necessarily simple. I lived with the constant fear that visitors to my home might be crushed when Kaya rushed to the door, draped her paws atop their shoulders, and began to slurp. If they didn't drown in kisses, the dog breath would surely do them in.
It was different with the neighborhood children. What is it about kids and dogs? There's a bond between them, like a secret code. They see eye to eye (literally). They share toys, and curiosities, and an innocence that grown-ups just aren't smart enough to grasp.
With Kaya around, the kids in the neighborhood flocked to our yard, tossing dog biscuits and affection. I used to think our yard was a haven for the kids to escape the craziness of the streets. But after I got married and moved to the burbs and the kids continued to come, I knew the real reason.
One day things really changed. I came home around two p.m., flopping down on a couch. Kaya stared at me, her head tilted slightly. Things had been more than a little peculiar in our home the previous few months. Kaya had noticed. "Kaya," I confirmed, "things are never going to be the same." I expected jealousy. Instead, Kaya welcomed our new baby, Sarah, with an almost maternal protectiveness and joy. The same was true later with our son Sam, although every so often she'd slurp him and knock him over, just to keep the boy in line.
The kids started to grow up. Kaya started to grow old. Arthritis robbed her of her speed. Ear infections came more frequently. The mailman became her best friend. My wife and I never hid the concept of death from our kids, but we began to wonder how much they should know. One night in May, Kaya and I took a walk. She stopped, turned her head toward me. Our eyes met, just as they had that day at the Animal Humane Society.
"You're dying," I thought as I looked at her. "You know you're dying and you want to make sure I know you're dying." I hugged her. She wagged her tail. Business as usual. Two days later, Kaya's heart gave out, long after the kids had gone to bed. We broke the news to them in the morning. Through tears, Sarah said she wanted to pet Kaya one last time. Sam kissed her. Then his tears stopped. He smiled.
"Good-bye, dear friend," he said. "Be free!"
Paul Levy has been a staff writer at the Star Tribune for twenty years. He is the father of two young children.
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