We said goodbye to our dog today.
He left this world late this afternoon, surrounded by the people who loved him. I'm heartbroken.
But before I sink into the couch with a hot tea and box of tissues, I need to tell the story of what he did for our family. Because Shadow wasn't just any dog. He came into our family when we needed him, loved us at our worst, and left us only once the storm had passed.
The first time I met Shadow, I walked into a house and he came running for me. "Who's this?" I yelled excitedly, immediately getting down on my knees to greet him. He flopped into my arms like he already owned me. As it turns out, he did.
Shadow was an American Cocker Spaniel, larger than most of his breed, but with all the lovely characteristics like big floppy ears and a teddy bear face. His eyes were a rich honey brown, and when he looked at you, you were the only thing that mattered in his world. I fell in love immediately.
He was just around three years old, and had already lived in as many homes. Shadow had a wetting problem, unable to differentiate between inside and outside when it came to marking his territory. This, of course, made things challenging for him and anyone he shared a house with. I very quickly decided we needed to be his forever home, and made a phone call to my partner to make sure that was okay.
It was weirdly spontaneous; I don't make decisions that quickly, especially when it comes to pets. But I knew the minute I met Shadow that he was special. So he jumped into the car with me, his beaming face poking out the passenger side window. I surprised some really happy kids with a new family member when they got home from school. And my spouse, who was never that fond of dogs, was instantly smitten.
It took us a year to gently train our new friend to only pee outside. The vets said it was likely impossible at his age to do so. But with persistence (and way too many diapers), he learned, and spent the rest of his doggy life accident-free.
I don't know Shadow's full history, if anyone reprimanded him harshly before he came to us, but I do know he suffered from nightmares for a lifetime. Several times a week, he would howl in his sleep like someone was hurting him, and whoever was closest would go to him and soothe him back into a restful state. "It's okay, Shadow," we would say. "You're safe. It's okay."
Sounds great, right? This family gives a dog a home, accepts him with all his little imperfections, and loves him for nearly a decade. A perfect story on its own. But that's only half the story. Because what Shadow did for us eclipses that completely.
Our daughter came out as transgender in 2014. She was in grade 6 when that happened, and her classmates, not fully understanding, turned away from her. She struggled socially and emotionally, coming home every day feeling defeated and alone.
But Shadow would greet her at the door. He would wag his cropped Cocker tail and look up at her with his honey brown eyes. Every day, she would drop her bag, pull off her shoes, and give him a much-needed hug. She had not a friend in the world, save one. He was the glue that held her together at a time when she had never felt so broken. He spent nearly every night asleep on her bed, and rarely left her side when she was home. It's as if he knew she needed him most of all.
When my wife came out as trans the following year, she spent the first few months living "part-time," meaning she was out at home, but not at work. It was a painful time for her, spending hours every day being called a name and pronouns that didn't match her. She would come home exhausted from pretending each day. She would breathe a deep sigh of relief, knowing she was in a safe place where she could be herself. Shadow would often be the first to greet her, happy to see a person he loved, and nothing more. He was the bridge between two worlds: the one she was forced to be in, and the one she wanted to be in all the time.
When I fell into a depression in late 2015, feeling unable to navigate all the changes under our roof, worried about my marriage falling apart, worried about my family collapsing under the weight of the world, worried about the cruelty of humanity towards the people I love most, Shadow was a constant confidante. He would sit with me, his head on my lap and a paw on my knee, and I would mimic his deep, calm breaths as he slept. "Keep breathing," I would remind myself. "It's okay. Keep breathing."
Shadow didn't know judgment. He didn't care about gender. He didn't fear change. He just gave us his unconditional, unrelenting love. On good days, on bad days, throughout the biggest storm our family had endured, he was a beacon, a life raft, hope. He was mindfulness, he was playfulness, he was joyfulness. He was so much of what a person needs when they're struggling, and he gave it all to us freely, as only a dog can.
And then, when the storm had passed, when the clouds went away and the sun came out again, when my daughter was back in school with new friends and my wife was out at work without issues, when the smile returned to my face, he left us.
Not right away, thankfully. He gave us another year of his love. But then he got sick, and the prognosis was the worst imaginable. We got the news yesterday, and brought him home for the night with medication to keep him as comfortable as possible.
Our eldest came back late last night from his girlfriend's place after hearing the news. We kept the two younger kids home from school today. My wife and I gave a presentation over lunch about the very family our dog helped hold together, and came back right away. It would be our last afternoon with our favourite Spaniel.
Shadow was tired, sick, but still excited to see his leash. He was always excited to see his leash. Walks were his favourite thing.
We took both the dogs to the park, our little terrier mix, Taylor, skipping along happily, with Shadow walking more slowly behind. We found a quiet place by some trees and laid out a blanket.
It was warm today. Not so hot that a black dog would need to seek shade, but just perfect for an old man catching some final rays.
We fed him some of his favourite no-no foods: a burger and fries.
Don't worry, Taylor got some, too. She's a whole other ball of sweetness, that one.
But mostly, we enjoyed Shadow's company, and he enjoyed ours.
We took some final pictures, and told him all the things we love most about him.
But mostly, his unwavering love.
And when we were done, we took him to the clinic, into a dark and cozy room, and we sat on the floor all around him, with tears running down our cheeks, until he took his last breath.
Now we're home. And I am heartbroken. But before I go have myself another cry or five, I wanted to honour Shadow, the dog who stayed through the storm. Not only because of how special he was - although, yes, he was indescribably special - but also because this wonderful canine can teach us a few things about humanity that humans still haven't entirely figured out. Namely:
Love your humans unconditionally.
Run towards change when it greets you at the door.
The storm will pass, but it's good to have someone with you while it rages.
Oh, and if you lose your favourite orange ball, it's probably under the couch.
Rest in peace, sweet Shadow. Thank you for rescuing our family.