The day Shadow arrived, she was a loaded spring — all tongue and a wagging red body and a vision to behold. I was in a MFA program at the time and over the next few weeks we not only bonded, but she gracefully slid into her life as the only dog in film school. Almost overnight, I went from being, Tony, the guy with Shadow, to Shadow, the dog with the guy, Tony. A fact, which for some — with a larger ego than mine — might’ve been off putting, but for me, part and parcel with having a companion with four legs and a tail.
To say Shadow has been an invaluable part of my life would be an understatement. And while I would love to share with you every little thing she did for me (as I’m that inspired) — I think one specific moment can encapsulate what we were all about.
Coming home at 2:00 a.m., after one of my late-night sessions in the school editing bays, I dropped one of my portable hard drives on the sidewalk. Typically this would’ve been a huge problem, and not just because I lacked the ability to pick it up, but because the material on that drive (my film at the time) was far too valuable to leave behind in order to seek assistance — even at 2 a.m..
Up to that point, Shadow had been a huge help; picking up papers, pens and other odd items, but she’d yet to grapple with something that awkwardly shaped or heavy. But the moment that hard drive hit the ground her ears went up and she waited for my command. It took her a few minutes to figure out how best to go about the difficult task I’d requested, but they are some of the most beautiful 10 minutes I’ve ever witnessed.
Watching her tail wag and her eyes brighten as she attempted to problem solve — pushing the hard drive into various positions with her paws and snout — made me swell with joy. Having at last placed it back onto my lap, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog look so proud and happy. And I was right there with her as she barked and spun in tight circles. And though it probably wasn’t a suitable volume for the suburbs at 2 AM, I didn’t care, and I laughed and threw heartfelt praise upon her. Because what could’ve been a major problem, ended up being nothing more than a little hiccup and a slight delay on my ride home.
But for me, Shadow was so much more than the sum of what she could do for me. In the same way I was charmed by her efforts in picking up the hard drive, I was equally, if not more so, moved by her chameleonic ability to fit into any situation. At times it was with disarming affection and goofiness, and other times with a nonchalance that was nothing short of mystifying. And it was in these moments my heart strained to the point of bursting. It was in these moments where you found the true essence of Shadow.
When I first came back to the Bay Area after graduate school, I was concerned that BART (our subway system) might be a problem for her, so I contacted the local field trainer and asked if she could come along on our first ride just in case there were any issues. But Shadow — in her typical casual manner — simply laid down beside me and relaxed as if she’d done it a thousand times before, and it was the most normal thing in the world (which I guess it is). But like I said, nonchalance.
To this day, I’m amazed how she slept through the rush-hour crowd coming back from San Francisco. She may have opened her eyes when somebody stepped over her, but not out of concern for being stepped on, but rather to see who boarded the train and might be charmed into giving her a belly scratch.
Without hyperbole it’s safe to say Shadow was an extension of my arms and hands, and as such there’s no value that could be placed upon her service. Because after all, what value can you place on your arms and hands?
But as I said, Shadow was so much more than what she could do for me. She was a friend, a family member and above all that, she’s a miracle. In their short lives dogs give us so much — unconditionally and with devoted enthusiasm. But as I saw Shadow age — and 17 was indeed aging (though she was a little old lady who could still run marathons) –I knew our time together would both change and come to an end. But this, I believe, is one of a dog’s final and greatest gifts – to see death not as a finality, but the continuation and essential part of this beautiful world. They are like stars who have gone supernova and whose light continues to shine brightly long after they are gone. *
*Excerpted from PAWS Quarterly 2009 (the tense has been changed).
The indescribable life
I’ve been close to a lot of dogs in my life, but until Shadow, I’d never had a service dog. And while I feel the above piece paints a pretty good picture of what our relationship was all about, I’m not sure it captures the depth of the bond between us. For starters, we were never separated; be it a five-star restaurant, a play, a stay in the hospital, sailing, a plane flight or an underground hip-hop show in a warehouse, she was always with me.
Trying to describe what this means in terms of a connection – unless you’ve been through it – is nearly impossible. Even now, after nearly 16 years, it’s difficult to wrap my head around – it’s a huge chunk of my life.
Shadow’s entire life – each phase – was a blessing to be part of and I’m forever grateful for the whole of it. But these last six months have resonated with me in a way few things have in my entire life. Being around her at this time, as the wheels were starting to fall off; deafness, losing an eye, somewhat incontinent, stubborn, breath like, well, surprisingly no worse than it ever was, prone to seizures, was beautiful and profound.
This was the part of life so few want to see, acknowledge or embrace, even though it’s just as significant as any other part of life. At her advanced age, with all her maladies, Shadow never once complained or wished things to be different, she lived entirely in the moment. And while, one might be tempted to argue that this is her nature as a dog, it doesn’t diminish its power as an example of how to live. No teacher, no priest, no guru can teach this, but if you were fortunate enough to spend any time with Shadow during this portion of her life, with her enormous heart, resilience, joie de vivre and lack of fictions about what life was “supposed” to be, then at the very least you probably got a glimmer of this understanding. For me, it’s been a time of unbelievable transcendence and I smile every time I think of her.
Shadow died – aside from meals of potato pancakes, packages of ham and a renaissance fair sized turkey leg – just as she lived, surrounded by friends and family who loved her with a fierce devotion. And though it was heartbreaking to say goodbye, the magnificence that was her life and the way I got to celebrate it in the end takes away a lot of the sting.
But no matter how at peace I am with the decision to let her go, a world without that sweet voice of hers is going to take some getting used to. Because those who knew Shadow, knew this about her –she was a talker — she had something to say about everything; if I wasn’t leaving the theater fast enough, people were dancing, she wanted me to hurry around the track so she could get home for lunch, or the most effusive, when she saw somebody she loved.
But as loud and as frequent as it was, I’d never have had it any other way. It was music — off key, a little abrasive and perhaps a bit demanding — but nevertheless, music.
Thanks to all who loved the red dog and were part of our lives. Love. Peace. Aloha.