This is one of my favorite photos of Penny. She’s hard at work on one of the three chores she loved best, sniffing. The other two being eating and sleeping, of course. If all of those can be considered a career, then Penny was a seasoned professional.
There’s another picture here with her sister, Casey, when we celebrated Penny’s fifteenth birthday last Summer. That was a very happy day for all of us. Frankly, we never thought Penny would last that long. Every day after that was a gift. And we cherish them all.
Today would have been Penny’s sixteenth birthday.
Sweet sixteen for a Labrador Retriever is more like 99 for you and me. And toward the end, Penny did seem that ancient. But I like to remember when she was still black as a hairy coal, filled with mischief and energy, ready to chase those pesky cats or sneak away to find one of their feline bowel snacks. You dog people know what I mean.
Penny would eat just about anything. One time she chewed into my son’s backpack and swallowed two handfuls of foil-wrapped candies. Stomach-pump time for any other breed, but not Labradors in general nor Penny in particular. As they say, it came out all right in the end. Foil-wrapped, too. Watching her remanufacture those candies the next morning was an inspiration to anyone who’s ever been constipated.
She loved to eat healthy foods as well. Years ago when we worried that she might be putting on a little too much weight, we started feeding her carrots, broccoli and cauliflower as snacks. She loved them as much or more than her kibble or biscuits. But we quickly had to back away from that strategy due to the risk of a methane explosion. The cauliflower was especially dangerous and unpleasant.
But Penny loved the smells she made. Just like she loved all the odors. She didn’t even have to bury her head in the grass or dirt to enjoy them. At times, she would stand in our yard on the hilltop, leaning into the wind, her nose quivering, concentrating, trying to suss out all that lay below her. So focused. I never interrupted her when she was like that. I didn’t want to break her spell.
Another passion of hers was walking. Up the block and down the hill, all around and around. No doubt to get closer to whatever she had smelled from her perch above. Every morning after breakfast she wanted to get out and check her pee-mail. We would go strolling to investigate the neighbors, the deer, fresh lawn clippings, some spilled refuse, perhaps a varmint or two. And she never tired of it. Even treading the same paths every day. It was just as exciting to her as dog food.
Meetings were always fun for Penny. She could get scratched, smell some new humans, and pick up a few sympathy snacks. She never bit anyone nor threatened a child. Although she did lick a few of them pretty thoroughly. She certainly loved my son — they grew up together. But it took her awhile to accept Casey, our other dog. Penny had us all to herself for so long that I think she was a bit miffed at the newcomer. But once Casey was no longer an annoying puppy, they became family. Eventually they would curl up asleep next to each other.
Penny had a rich, double-thick coat of fur with a subtle but stylish wave running down the middle of her back. Beautiful and therapeutic. When I would come home from a long day at work — after she licked me repeatedly in my face — I would place my hands on her hairy head or fuzzy sides, scratching her, tickling her, stroking her back. And soon all the tension would leave my body, and all my worries would dim from my mind. Every time she would give me this gift. Every time.
She was dedicated to sleeping. Even as a puppy, Penny seemed to spend over half the day at it. And she had a snore that would shame an apnea-suffering fat man. Her dreams could be loud too. While not exactly violent, she sometimes moved and shook, twitching her legs, tail and nose. For a long time she slept on the bed at our feet. I always liked her close by, even if she was noisy and in the way. It just seemed right to have her there.
In her later years, when she could no longer leap up safely on the bed, Penny would curl up in the closet. Tucked away like a shadow in the shade. That little room became like a burrow for her, and she sought it out for comfort. And as I moved around during the night, I took comfort too in the gentle buzzing and creaking emanating from the darkness between the clothes and the hangers.
Now, when I get up in the middle of the night, I still pause to check on her in that closet. To make sure she’s okay. To make sure she’s safe. I thought I heard her collar tags jingle. Didn’t I hear it? And every time I’m sad all over again.
She’s gone away forever.
Toward the end of March, Penny couldn’t walk or even stand. Her bowel and bladder episodes were not at all regular. But on her last day she wanted a bit to eat again. So we bought her a bacon burger from Five Guys and fed some of it to her in little pieces. How many of us will have bacon on our last day?
We carried her out to the front lawn and let her lay on the grass so she could sniff the air and feel the breeze. A few of our neighbors came around to hug her and say goodbye. She was a celebrity on our block.
At the end of that day, my wife, son and I took her to the same room where we said goodbye to Casey. We kissed her, we hugged her, we stained her still beautiful coat with tears. And with all of us gathered around, and with her head resting on my knee just like Casey had done, Penny passed away from this world.
We placed her ashes in a little oak box on the mantle next to where Casey also rests. Together. They’ll always be my little girls. But I miss them so very, very much.
We love, you Penny. And we’ll never forget you. Find Casey and be at peace. Be at peace.