I spent enough time at the veterinarian's office to memorize that popular poster about learning all you need to know from your dog, even if I wasn't convinced by its message.
After all, a similar poster about cats hung next to it, competing for attention. I figure that each pet is unique, and to compare them is unfair -- and pointless. Still, I had plenty of time to digest the idea on trips with Chessie.
I got Chessie, a yellow Lab mix, from a shelter outside Cleveland when she was small enough to hold in one hand, which was convenient, because as soon as I placed her in a box in the passenger's seat she leaped onto my lap and clung to my chest -- for 150 miles to my mom's house in McMurray.
Chessie was feisty and exuberant, occasionally mischievous and about as healthy as could be for several years before developing some scary problems, including a drop in platelets and symptoms of Cushing's disease. With the care of the vets, Chessie battled everything. Nothing could keep her from our daily hike along the Montour Trail or around Peters Lake, or accompanying me on daily visits to my mom in a nursing home.
One thing Chessie taught me is that it's not that hard to make friends -- just walk up and introduce yourself. Of course, some dogs are not as sociable, and the same goes for the owners. That's when Chessie taught me another lesson: Dogs don't hold grudges or waste time stewing if they are rebuffed. Maybe somehow dogs know better than people that life is short.
That reminder hit me when tests revealed growths in Chessie's liver two years ago. With my fears racing, I scheduled surgery. Less than an hour after the operation, the surgeon let me peep in on Chess, and rather than rest, she was in her hutch, gamely rising to her feet, like a newborn foal. Dogs have an amazing will to live.
I counted 10 dogs we owned over the years. What made Chessie different is that she seemed so ... well, human, with more empathy than you find in a lot of people.
I once struggled to explain how a dog could snuggle its way into your heart as easily as burrowing into the crook of your arm, but the answer was simple: love. Pure love. Loyalty. Trust. And knowing that any time the world rose up heartless, all it took was one look at Chess and her grin to remind me that every day brought hope and a fresh adventure. She appreciated life, and you can't say that about everyone.
Chessie survived a second operation when the cancerous growths returned, but followup ultrasounds showed no advancement. At 13, Chessie had slowed, but she still raced to the car for our walks. She reminded me of how fragile life can be, but it was still startling one November morning to see how sick she had grown overnight. The vet couldn't pinpoint a problem, so we laid her in the back seat of my car and I drove to the emergency room of the veterinary specialists.
By the time I arrived, Chessie had stopped breathing. I was gratified by the compassion of the vet who spoke with me. I guess it wasn't the first time she listened patiently while a grown-up who was unashamedly crying tried to explain how a dog cheered up her master every day, how she conveyed love with a smile, how she made me laugh when she jabbed my thigh with her snout to goad me into scratching her ears as we lay in bed.
There was nothing tragic about her passing; nature was just taking its course. But Chessie's death struck me the same way I felt when my dad died. It was not just the loss of a father, a friend, a companion. When my dad died, it seemed as if a presence of love had evaporated, as if a force of goodness, hope and cheer had been taken away, and the world seemed like a colder, less merciful place.
I look at photos of Chessie and that grin, and I realize that her greatest gift was teaching me that what you need to get by in life is a zest for living. Eyes bright, legs quivering with anticipation. Search for the joy. Race after it. Snatch it up, and then clutch it tight to your heart. As you would a puppy in your arms.
Rudy Dicks of McMurray is a former newspaperman. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Animal Tales" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.