The first time we saw her, she trotted over to us, the heart-shaped mark on her chest—the reason we chose her—pure white against her black fur. Her tail wagged, as if she knew we were hers. She was right.
What we didn’t know was that Willow had been traumatized somehow in the first twelve weeks of her life. She was terrified of people, men especially…except for McIrish. She loved the four of us, she loved my mom, and that was it. Otherwise, she hid, peed in terror and trembled.
But at home, she was joyful. That’s the only word for it. Joyful. Every day began with a race around our five acres, barking at nothing, the speed of her border collie heritage evident as she pivoted and herded whatever was at hand…children, leaves, tennis balls, birds. As a puppy, she refused our cat’s haughty rejection and won him over by her constant delight in him. Eventually, they’d snuggled together, and Huck would rub his head against her chin.
The kids adored her, of course. She was the family’s dog. Every day, she came with me as I drove the Princess to school. She came to pick up Dearest after cross country. We trained her to roll over, stay, catch a treat. She never quite mastered “come,” but if I said, “Do you want to sleep on Mommy’s bed?” she’d bolt in from the dark and wait to be hoisted onto the mattress. She knew the words “Cape Cod,” “ride,” “cookie, as well as the kids’ names. She loved Dearest Son and slept on his bed; she loved the Princess as her sister.
As she got older, she started to trust people more. First Shaunee, then Jen, then Stacia, for whom she had a soft spot. When we adopted Luther, she took him under her paw…Luther, who was afraid of other dogs, loved all people, and Willow, who was afraid of people, learned that she was missing out on pets if she kept her distance.
When the Princess brought her boyfriend home, all six-foot-four of him, Willow hid. It was a magical day a good year later when she allowed him to pet her with his foot, and eventually, with his hand. She and Luther shared a mat at night, as Luther was needy.
Willow loved my mom and knew where the treats were kept; every time she went in Mom’s house, she sat in front of the pantry door, waiting as my mom insisted she never gave our dogs treats.
When the twins from next door came over, she herded them, barked at them, jumped into the trailer to protect them as we played Sea Monster vs. Pirate. She loved our front porch and sleeping in dirt. She didn’t mind baths, and she was so silky and shiny afterward that we couldn’t resist petting her even more than usual.
Willow loved swimming; she’d break through the invisible fence and jump into the pool, barking in delight. Same at the ocean, where she’d take her own leash in her mouth and run into the water, no matter what time of year.
When McIrish was at the firehouse, Willow slept on the bed with me, a perfect lady curled up near my icy-cold feet. Such a comfort to feel her there, all forty pounds of her.
The cancer came fast and hard. We only had three weeks from diagnosis to death. But in those three weeks, our love for her was shown even more. She came to the Cape for her last few good days, running once again into the water, charming a toddler, wagging and sniffing and sleeping on my bed. I had the comfort of having my beloved dog next to me during the pandemic, the only living creature I could cuddle without reservation. Those four days were among the happiest of her life. Long walks along the ocean, the trails of Cape Cod, the occasional swim, rolling in the sand.
She took a turn for the worse the fifth day, and our fears were realized. A week after she had come to see me, we had to say our final goodbyes—The Princess visited her to say goodbye. On the final day, when her breathing had changed and her ribs could be felt, we called Dr. Kumar. Dearest Son, her beloved, carried her in, and the three of us said goodbye.
Oh, the heartache of losing such a pure love! The beauty in a good death, the sorrow of losing a friend who has walked you through a decade of life. The mourning, the tears, the gratitude. From the moment we adopt a puppy or kitten, this day is on the horizon, that dreaded fact that we will, in most cases, outlive our beloved pet.
And yet, as I write this, I picture Willow barking at the waves, trotting on the beach, snuggled on my bed, offering her tummy for a scratch.
She was such a good dog. We were so lucky to be her family. As Will Rogers said, “If dogs don’t go to heaven, I want to go where they are.” I know she’ll be waiting.