Brooke, a black Labrador retriever, taught me courage and absolute love. She was an inspiration as she overcame disability, never complaining, steadily enjoying life.
I waited so long until I could finally get a dog, but after high school, living in apartments, working full time, college at night, there was no place or time. When I graduated from college, moved into a house, the first thing my husband and I did was go to the local shelter. The dogs were housed in kennels where they could choose to be inside or outside. It was a hot summer day, so we started our search in the air conditioned building. We were greeted with dozens of dogs barking at once, vying for our attention, the noise was deafening. We walked outside and there sat Brooke, alone and quiet, her shiny black coat absorbing the mid-day heat. As we approached her, she seemed to shrink into herself, trying to disappear. She was young, healthy, and a bit overweight, clearly a pampered and loved pet, now in an unfriendly environment of concrete and wire fences.
The shelter employee told us that Brooke had been dropped off by a lady who cried because she couldn’t keep her. She and her allergic granddaughter had named her Brooke. We took her home, gave her a tennis ball, and she relaxed.
Housetrained and well behaved, Brooke was the perfect dog. On a walk, we would break into a run and she would quickly outpace me. I would drop the leash to let her sprint, but she took the leash in her mouth and slowed to a high-stepping, jaunty trot that matched my pace. She was always happy with her warm greeting, and her obvious pleasure of life and love of food.
When we brought home Hayden, a bluetick coonhound puppy, Brooke eyed the gangly and noisy puppy. She instinctively knew what we did not: that Hayden would copy her, that she was the natural puppy trainer and needed to set a good example. Hayden indeed mimicked Brooke; housetraining had never been easier.
One day, Brooke ran into a wall when turning quickly. Smack! It was so loud and hard that it must have left her with a headache as severe as a hangover after New Year’s Eve. Yet she did not flinch; she adjusted her step and kept moving to her destination. When we realized that something was wrong with her vision, we took her to the veterinarian, who told us she had macular degeneration. She was losing her peripheral vision, and the degeneration would slowly move inward, until she was completely blind. We learned that this is common in the breed, and especially tragic because Labradors are often used as guide dogs.
Over time, Brooke’s vision dimmed, but her spirit did not. She still loved the same things—food, a walk, her tennis ball (that had a bell inside to help her find it), and more food. She did not become anxious as she lost her sight; she simply readjusted. She would walk into a wall, trip over a shoe, misjudge a jump onto the bed, but she would try again, never whining, never giving up. We made efforts to remove obstacles from her path, and to give her clues about her location. For example, we strategically placed rugs to let her know when she was near a door, hung a jacket on a chair, so when she brushed the jacket she knew to turn. No more runs with the leash in her mouth; we guided her up and down curbs and kept her from running head first into fire hydrants. Her skull must have had dents in it from all the times she banged her head, but our veterinarian assured us that she was fine.
Brooke became so in-tune with her environment that she even found Hayden’s food and snuck bites. It was hidden in a kitchen cupboard, which we believed only he could open. Hayden defended his food cupboard, but even with the disadvantage of blindness, Brooke would risk a bite whenever she dared. She loved food; she could and would eat anything without getting sick. If she had any regrets, it would be that she did not get to eat enough cheeseburgers.
Brooke was completely blind when my marriage ended. I had one more year of law school, could afford only a tiny apartment, and there was no doggie door to access the backyard. Brooke stayed with my husband and Hayden, and I visited her every weekend. She was always happy to see me, forgiving my long absence, never holding a grudge. I sobbed just as much about being separated from Brooke as I did the end of a seventeen-year marriage. As I cried, she sat quietly next to me, my arms around her neck.
I waited to graduate before I looked for a place where Brooke could join me. I settled into a job, and found an apartment that was a block away from my office. I could go home at lunch to walk her; we were reunited.
When I met my boyfriend, Brooke was the first to give him a kiss—a sloppy, wet doggie kiss—he laughed. In my eyes, her approval of him sealed his fate. We bought a house, and Brooke again had her doggie door and backyard. She courageously found her way around our new home, and welcomed Zoe, an adult yellow Labrador mix. We settled into a routine.
A few years later, when Brooke was old, frail, and crippled with arthritis, she still looked forward to her morning walk. No longer able to step up and down the curb, we wound our way down driveways to cross streets, the route familiar to her by smell only. She would sit for long stretches on the grass, nose working, ears perked, headed tilted, enjoying life.
The time came when Brooke’s pain was constant. She was always panting, which is what dogs do when they are hurting, and she no longer wanted to be touched. I didn’t know what to do. I wondered what Brooke would want. If only she could tell me just how miserable she was. Was the pain bearable or was she ready to go? I had no idea. She still wanted to go for a walk every morning and her love of food never ended. Brooke had always been there for me, the example of courage, persistence, and undying love. I finally made the call and scheduled an appointment to have a veterinarian come to the house so she could die at home. We walked that morning; she enjoyed her last cheeseburger, and sniffed around looking for another one. She was seventeen when we put her to rest, buried her in our backyard, and marked the grave with tennis balls. I will never know if she was ready to go, but I do know if she wasn’t she will forgive me. I think of her daily and strive to be like Brooke.