“I love you in this way because I don’t know any other way of loving.” Pablo Neruda
I have known love. Unfiltered, unfettered and unlimited love. Love that knew no reason not to love. Had no fear of not being loved. Love for the gift of being alive, love.
His name was Fred. “Pure love. Wrapped in a fur coat.”
This last description I heard for the first time four days ago. Words spoken by Chris to the emergency surgeon as he prepared us for our new reality. Life without Fred.
In the early hours of this new life - this unwanted, unwished, unprepared for existence - we stumble through days, and float through time. Grateful beyond words for the 12 years we shared. Despairing that it wasn’t ten times or a hundred or a thousand times more. Amazed that we ended up together.
I first met Fred at the corner of Oak Street and Rush in Chicago. I was volunteering at a Paws Chicago / ‘Angels With Tails’ adoption event and as Fred trotted round the corner, I instantly fell in love. But we had three dogs at home - Harry, Maya and Maude - and a fourth wasn’t part of the plan. My responsibility was to find this twenty pound, five-months old, living, breathing Gund, a home.
I carried him most of the day, holding him at eye level for a hundred passers-by, incredulous as each one turned away that they could not see what I could. Did not feel what I did. That this was a magical soul. “The perfect dog for a boy,” one of my friends said as they stopped by. The perfect dog for every one, as it turns out.
At the very end of the afternoon, as Fred and I sat on the pavement, exhausted, a middle aged couple from Evanston decided to adopt him. Giving love to someone else is an act of generosity. In this case, as I watched him leave with them, it felt like an act of madness.
I called PAWS two days later, an instinct behind logic or reason. Fred had been returned. To this day, I give thanks for whatever made them hand him back.
At the end of the week, after many efforts to find him the ‘right’ home, I finally did. Ours.
The deal was settled when I walked him into the back garden to meet Chris properly. Surrounded by Harry, Maya and Maude she took one look at Fred and said, “how are we going to give him back?” We didn't.
Until last Friday.
When we would have given anything not to.
Within hours it was impossible to imagine a time when he had not been part of our lives. Swimming in Lake Michigan. Sharing beds in the kitchen. Waiting patiently for treats.
Fred drew all of us towards him and held us there for every moment of his life.
His love was unwavering and unrelenting. If you were in pain - physical or emotional - he pulled closer and absorbed it. If you were happy, he amplified it. He was the most empathetic creature I have ever known. A healer, utterly selfless except for one thing - a relentless desire to be close and to belong.
A year after Fred’s arrival, Summer fought her way into our lives. Summer is almost fourteen now. I hope with all my heart that it will be some time before I have to tell her story. But she has lost her soulmate. And broken hearts have a will of their own.
Within a year of Summer's arrival, we moved the pack of five from the lakefront of Chicago to the rolling fields of Millbrook.
And Fred adapted instantly. The dog who would swim after tennis balls for hours, became a relentless catcher of frisbees.
Sun or snow, he would look at you, nudge you and encourage you outside, willing you to share in his joy at all that life offers if we are open to feeling it and willing to share it.
Fred didn’t walk, he bounced, an ‘isn’t life amazing’ trot that transported him from one opportunity to the next.
Even at rest, his joy filled the room, his legs extending upwards as he pressed himself into the couch, or twitching violently in pursuit of the balls and frisbees of his dream.
Dogs have but one failing. They don’t live forever. And as our pack started to suffer from the effects of time, Fred’s ability to sense the pending change was greater than any x-ray machine or blood test.
A week before Harry collapsed and died from cancer, we found Fred lying with the long-time leader of our pack, his love for Harry entwined with eternal respect.
Three years later, as Maya’s life began to ebb away, he spent countless hours comforting both her and me with his calm presence, wanting nothing but to be there for us.
And when our new normal became three, he reveled in his role as brother to two sisters who adored him as we did - without restriction or limitation.
Which was the way he lived, every day. Uncomplicated and unrelenting in his love for everyone and everything.
In 2014, we lost Maude - suddenly and dramatically - and Fred and Summer became inseparable. He helped her keep watch - her life’s work. He kept her comforted and safe, her lifelong separation anxiety melting away under his constancy and reliability.
He adapted his play to her needs. His places of relaxation to hers. They played together slept together, swam together and traveled together. They fit together, hand in glove.
And through all that, he never lost himself or us. His love of driving with the window down. Of curling up next to us. Or chasing a ball as frisbee catching became too much for his aging joints.
When in the heat of the summer, we had him shaved, he would check in with me the second I got home, wanting assurance that the other male in a house full of females, approved.
“Handsomest boy ever,” I would tell him. And his eyes would gleam with pride and happiness. And so would mine. That this endless expression of love entrusted me with his feelings.
But love is fragile, even when it is cared for carefully and with understanding. Three years ago, Fred was diagnosed with diabetes. His system weakened, he fought off bouts of pneumonia, an abscessed jaw, and cataract surgery. Each time, we willed him back to health, Chris’s love and relentless care a bedrock on which his life was built. The skill and expertise of two vets, Royal and Scheck, advising us at every turn.
Through it all, he never once complained. The regular ear pricks to test his blood sugar. The twice daily injections of insulin. He greeted them all with a willingness that bordered on gratitude, sitting patiently to make it as easy as possible on us.
Last week, we felt he had turned the corner, his appetite returning, his urgency to play even on the hottest days, filled with his effervescence. He had charmed our dinner guests on Thursday evening, all of us noticing his joy at having people he cared about around him.
But as the last of them drove away, he suddenly collapsed, and as we raced him to the emergency vet, memories of Maude’s final hours began playing sickeningly through my head.
Through that last, endless, gone- in-an-instant night, Chris stayed by his side for five hours while the vet staff triaged him and prepared him for surgery. He was awake and alert, looking at Chris with his newly repaired eyes. I came in and out, keeping Summer company in the car, desperately wanting to believe this time it would end differently and Fred would come home.
As I left him for the last time before surgery, I looked back and he fixed me with his eyes. There was no fear, no sadness, nothing playful or anticipatory. It was serious and focused, an expression I had never seen before. An expression that said, “this is what has to happen now.”
An hour later, the surgeon gave us the news that he had inoperable liver cancer, and our world stopped making sense.
We are surrounded by his memories, filled with his love, made empty by his absence. We have to build a new life for Summer, for whatever time she has left.
But there is a postscript that gives us comfort. And hope.
We are crazy dog people. A description both of us would take as headlines in our obituaries. And we have a relationship with an animal communicator that has helped us all over the years. As we made the decision to let Fred go, Karen told us of the excitement of his other three pack members waiting to greet him, describing in perfect detail their relationship with each other and with him, as the process unfolded.
He is with them now, the pack almost complete, waiting only for their blonde bombshell to join them. I desperately hope she’ll wait a while.
We drove home, talking to Summer about times we’d shared, laughing and crying, struggling to breathe.
As we pulled up to the house and got out of the car, Chris gasped and bent down. Sitting alone, on an otherwise pristine driveway, was a small pink container - a vial of Fred’s eyedrops, part of his post surgical eye care. Surgery that had let him see his world again over the last few weeks and allowed him to look at us in those last few hours.
You can choose to believe in animal communicators and you can choose to believe in signs.
Or not. That is your choice.
Mine is to believe. I believe in the power of possibility. I believe in love.
Fred was love without limitations. Love that lives beyond the frailties of a body. Love that sits on the summer breeze that has washed over us during these last few days. Love that fills every snowfall that brought him such joy.
We are grateful for the last twelve years.
Thankful beyond words that he found his way, finally, to us.
And filled with hope for whatever comes next, celebrating in the certainty that Fred will be there to guide us.
“I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.”