Getting a Golden Retriever was a lifelong dream of my father’s ever since he’d met and fallen in love with one as a child. My mother was considerably more wary, on account of the only other dog in our family history, Cinder, being kind of a disaster. Cinder made a career of escaping from our backyard at every opportunity, which, given that our yard was the hub of neighborhood activity for all six of us kids and our myriad friends, happened frequently. Basically, my father viewed a dog the way my mother viewed another baby. (My mom thinks of babies and sees first steps and dandelion bouquets and kindergarten plays and homemade cards. My dad, on the other hand, sees designer jeans and out-of-state college tuition and expensive weddings with ice sculptures. )
Anyway, so the summer I went off to college, my mother finally relented and agreed to let my dad get this dog, and that is how Gracie Ellen came into our family. We brought her home from the breeder a few weeks before I left for school, an adorable little golden fluff-ball who was ready to love all of us to bits. She was sweet and gentle from the start, a trait she has never lost.
Being a retriever, she was constantly on the lookout for things to bring you to show she cared. As a puppy, she would pull the socks out of people’s shoes and bring them over, tail waggling so fast her whole back half looked like it might come off. Of course, it was adorable, and we praised her for it. This proved to be a mistake, because she never gave up this habit, and, if you came into the room, she would frantically search around for socks to bring you. Failing this, she would retrieve anything she could find in the laundry room–dish towels, t-shirts, double bed fitted sheets–and there were more than a few times she joyously trotted over to a guest in the house touting somebody’s underwear.
From her earliest, she was a dog with a radar for small children, old people, and anyone who might be feeling blue. She’d be perfectly happy roughhousing with my brothers, but just has content to sit next to a stroller to have her ears tugged on by a toddler or be gently patted by a little white-haired lady in a wheelchair.
Gracie has had some adventures–like the time that she ate half a box of raisins and we all thought she was going to die (dogs, by the way, are deathly allergic to grapes and raisins). The time we threw a stick in Lake Michigan and she didn’t see it behind her, and was well on her way east to the Michigan shore before somebody threw a rock in the water to get her to turn around. The time she got stuck in gridlock with my dad in Chicago and had a marvelous time hanging her head out the window so other drivers could pet her. The thirty-six hours in her whole life that she wasn’t with at least one member of our family, and the neighbors watching her were convinced she was dying because she was so violently ill. All the family walks we took and didn’t stay close together, and she would do her best to herd the family attached to the leash toward the stragglers. All the times people had bad days and sad days and came home, where she’d sit next to them and let them cry on her fur. Her stories are many and live in the family lore and are told time and time again.
Gracie is old now–almost fifteen. She has arthritis that makes it hard for her to walk. She’s stone deaf. Her stomach can’t handle dog food any more, so twice a day, she gets scrambled eggs and chicken and rice with cheese (and salt. Once my dad forgot that, and my parents both swear she took one bite, stepped back and refused to touch it until he put the salt on it.) She’s old and slowing down.
I live near my parents now, and go over there pretty regularly. I always stop and pet Gracie, who, even now, puts her head against your arm, and struggles up so she can come and sit by you and guard you from intruders (though what an arthritic, deaf dog with the sleep of the dead can do, I’m not quite sure. But I’m sure she’ll do what she can.) I’ll sit by her sometimes now, and pet her old, golden coat, brush her, and whisper in the ears that can’t hear any more that she’s the best dog in the whole world, and that I love her. I do it because I know she won’t be around for much longer. Eventually, the day will come when I will go over to my parents’ house and she won’t be sleeping on the kitchen linoleum. The old, white face won’t look up when I walk into the house, and the floppy, golden ears won’t perk up whenever I make a move toward the pantry.
I do it because she is my dog. She saw me through the ups and downs of my college years. She was a faithful friend when I graduated from college and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. She sat next to me five years later when I was longing for my China home, her head on my lap, big, brown eyes that said, “I’m sorry that being back in America is hard for you.” Gracie has always been around when life got hard for me, so now, I figure I should return the favor. I know she’s just a dog–she didn’t understand all the things that I went through, but in her own, canine way, she did her best to help. I do it because she is the best dog. She’s my dog. And God let her be part of my life because He cares–even about the little things, like Golden Retrievers.