I remember the joy in his bright eyes, the softness of his untouched paw pads that had yet to explore the new world around him, the distinctive sweetness of his puppy breath that made my heart skip a beat every time he kissed and nibbled at my face. The happiness experienced after bringing home a puppy is remarkable; you want to take him everywhere, introduce him to everyone, and share with him everything that you enjoyed before he came into your life.

A small plane flew in from New Mexico, and I stood on the tarmac waiting for him. I crawled up the wing, and took his little kennel and peeked inside. He looked like a potato covered in cotton balls. A mix of Great Pyrenees and Australian cattle dog, with a sprinkle of husky and dash of German shepherd, he had one patched eye, a quarter of the other eye piercing blue, brown ears to match the patch, and a striped tail that only a raccoon mother could love; he was unlike any other dog I’d seen before. When I came across a photo of him at barely a month old, covered in dirt and laid on top of his litter mate for protection, my heart could not bear it, and I thought to myself, “I can help him for just a little while, until someone else comes along.”

I named him Petey and gave him a safe place to call home, but I made it clear to everyone around me that he wasn’t my dog, just staying with me for a little while. He was calm, quiet, and so patient. I’d never witnessed a puppy watch the world as he did, looking around with wonderment, and anytime those eyes turned to look at me, they asked me one thing: “Am I staying here, with you, forever?” For months the answer remained “no” as I fostered this nearly perfect puppy, and I constantly convinced myself that it would be too hard, that I wasn’t ready, and that Petey wasn’t my puppy.

If I could wipe it from my memory, I would; I let the day come for someone to adopt Petey.

After they walked away together, I sat despondent in a scene from a sorrowful movie; cue the rain, the emotional breakdown, and a long, dark night spent in bed alone, crying and wondering why I let him go. Early the next morning, with my heart in my hands, I asked to take Petey back, and the response was soft and honest: “Yes, of course. He’s your dog.” When I picked him up, I wrapped my arms around my puppy and kissed his soft nose, and I could feel his raccoon tail whipping around in excitement. With his heterochromia eyes, he looked at me and forgave me for telling myself the lies that I had. I understood then that this sweet puppy was not a gateway to a new life, but rather a bridge back to my old life.

Less than four months prior to rescuing Petey, I had lost my first dog to a cancer that he bravely fought for years. A 20-year-old me named the eight-week-old pup Bailey, and for almost 13 years we lived as hard as we could, to a point where the only thing that could outdo our adventures was our love for each other. A 90-pound white German shepherd, Bailey was stoic, strong, and very serious, but also tirelessly playful, and he had a kind soul that could be seen through his deep brown eyes. Never a morning without a kiss, and never a good night without saying so, Bailey was as constant as the sunrise for me.

As it does for us all, time came for Bailey, and because no amount of time on this Earth together would be enough, I couldn’t bear watching it; kings don’t die this way. He deserved more than the fate he was handed, but the brightness in his eyes began to fade, the roughness of his paw pads told a story of tiredness, and his breath weakened.

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I said, “You tell me, Bailey, and I will be strong enough to let you go. I want you to be free of this sick body. I will be here until the end. I will never leave your side.” Those beautiful eyes looked back at me and told me they understood. Late one night in late fall, I laid with him by our wood-burning stove, nose-to-nose on his favorite bed, when suddenly he sat up, arched his back, and let out his goodbye. He came down into my arms and I held him so close until he took his last breath, and I whispered, “Thank you, be free my sweet boy.”

This is what I know of a broken heart, and nothing else comes close to the pain that weighed on me so heavily that there were days I couldn’t get out of bed. But now, one year after Bailey’s death, I appreciate the pain as a blessing. I experienced a lifetime of memories alongside a beautiful soul who taught me about the type of human I want to be, the one I aspire to be. The type of person that takes a puppy from New Mexico who has no shot in this world, a human who is so shattered by losing her best friend, but understands that this love has to be put somewhere, so why not this puppy? Why not use that strength of fighting for Bailey’s life to build something new with Petey?

I subscribed myself to the ludicrous idea that if I loved Petey, it meant I couldn’t love Bailey anymore, that there was no room for both. My mind had become so dark that I couldn’t see the light that is Petey. I couldn’t see the value of teaching a three-month-old puppy to sit, to stay, to give me his paw, and watch as those simple teachings build into a beautiful partnership over a decade together. Bailey showed me that the cycle will repeat, that the love evolves, and that my heart can grow. My dying boy showed me how to live, because it is in those last breaths that you can sit with them, you can hold their paw, and you can beg them to stay.         

Follow the adventures of Ally and Petey: @acouke

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