Unto the End

by: Michael Shields

A poignant ode to a man’s best friend…

Projecting vile words at my cell phone’s alarm clock while it frightened me awake, at a reasonable hour mind you, is no way to start one’s day. Least of all a day as momentous as the one that awaited me, my wedding day.

Groggy, disheveled, and fatigued is also no way to commence such a joyous occasion. But so it goes. It’s no surprise that I over indulged the night prior to my wedding, I have popped the champagne early on much lesser occasions. Par for the course one could say. Luckily it happens that adrenaline is a hell of a drug (hormone, whatever…). It paired with excitement will wash away an extended evening like a driving rain. Besides, there was something of dire importance to handle, and I do not speak of donning a suit pricked by a boutonnière and confidently uttering the words “I” and “do” before my closest of kin and cohorts. This, I do assure you, did lay high upon my to-do list for that day but first, I had to venture south to New York City to pick up an old friend who absolutely had to be there for the special occasion. I had to pick up my dog, Eliza, my truest of companions for fourteen solid years. There was no way my first love was going to miss the moment I steered my vacillating ship towards steady shores. No way, no how. And I was to see to it personally.

Eliza, I should explain, was not allowed to stay on the estate grounds the wedding was being held upon overnight, but was allowed to be present during the day of the ceremony. It was nothing personal against her, rather policy driven, no dogs, not just mine, allowed. This was the reason that on that particular Saturday, a red Jeep Cherokee, compliments of the good people at AVIS, could be spotted maneuvering frantically, yet purposefully, into the Big Apple and leaving the city just as swift, precious cargo in tow.

A two hour round-trip, tops, is all the journey would encompass and, fortunately, this is exactly how long it took. My wedding fell the the day prior to the tenth anniversary of our nation’s most current and devastating nightmare, and I was warned often, by those concerned in my affairs, of street closures and checkpoints along my route. I was, after all, entering the scene of the crime, traversing through a city perpetually burdened with a bulls-eye upon its back. The concerns were valid of course, but nothing was going to dampen my determination, my spirit, or my will and this mission would be accomplished no matter what. “Brown,” my affectionate nickname for Eliza, would be there for the wedding. This fact, true as steel.

Fortunately, the seas were calm and it was clear sailing in and out. Eliza, sitting shotgun, seemed more enthusiastic than the norm. She seemed charged up, energized even. Usually able to settle in a car, finding a position to nestle in the back, she sat passenger side, car-surfing, head occasionally out the window, all the way to Tarrytown, NY. It was no ordinary day, a fact Eliza had sniffed out immediately.

It is part of Eliza’s history, her legacy I should say, that my fourteen-year-old part Shepherd, part Mastiff, part who-really-knows-what, all mutt companion was well behaved sans leash. I never had to worry about her whereabouts and I had always chalked it up to the fact that she wanted to be near me. Eliza recognized what she had (and vice-versa of course), and yearned to be good. With this in mind, before I showered and began remodeling my weathered features, I saw no harm in releasing Eliza to the wild of the estate grounds, the large front lawn area in front of the wedding cottage, the same lawn encompassing the sculpture garden where I was to be wed. After showering and managing to only assemble myself as far as the suit pants, I realized I hadn’t seen my girl in some time, nor did I hear scratching upon the front door, standard Eliza practice upon her return. Thus I found myself curiously scanning the front lawn area, then sprinting around the estate grounds screaming “Eliza!!” at the height of my lungs, dressed in only my suit pants which I had clutched and raised to protect the cuff from the grass and dirt underfoot. Finally, the screaming paid dividends and was met with a response from a friendly voice. From the other side of the hill I could make out my friend Bert gently ushering Eliza back from the main compound, where Eliza presumably knew (I am sure of it) friendly old faces resided, her tongue wagging extra low, her smile extra wide. As I said, she was onto the importance of the day, and beaming.

The troops began to gather as the wedding approached. Eliza, regrouping, nestled beneath the shade of the black cherry tree in front of the matrimonial cottage, a large green bow tied around her neck for the occasion. My trained, fatherly eye had already noticed her twice-reconstructed hind leg shaking slightly and being favored. This would do little to deter her little from being a part of the festivities, of course, but a moment of rest was in order. She was to be given no commands, no leash, and be allowed to run free for the ceremony. She had earned that trust, what she did with it was up to her.

The troops were now organized. The groomsmen, best men, and groom had it arranged to approach the altar as a crew, a posse. This dolled up gang would blaze a path for the groom, clear space and bolster his confidence in the process. This also allowed for the bridesmaids, and the beautiful bride, to get their just shine walking the aisle one at a time, permitting a chance for all the participants to soak in some exquisite beauty. And for me to wipe away tears, without full audience, as the woman I am going to spend the rest of my life with approached, led by her loving father. The men, in lining up, were given their instruction and released from the gates in the provided order, with me positioned in the stern. My time came. Just one more deep breathe and then I was out the gate….

What happened next surprised me little. In fact, it is just how I drew it up. But, the best laid plans of mice and men, as they say. In situations like these, where so much is out of your hands, you just have to hope for the best, and in some cases expect the worst. Well, hope trumped expectance and as I embarked upon my final trot as a single man Eliza, instinctively, knew her roll. As I glanced behind me, hoping my cohort would be in perfect step, I noticed Eliza rise from her shaded perch. It was as if she had been given her marching orders from the wedding coordinator, and these were orders she was dead set on abiding by. She followed me, almost step for step, in perfect tune, with a natural stride and a nonchalant air. She was just doing what she did, she was being with daddy.

During the ceremony Eliza was heavy in the mix, but unobtrusive, respectful. She could be seen sauntering back and forth from groom to bride side. She weaved at times gently between my bride and I and the officiant, crossed even beneath our bridged held hands, all smoothly, all lovingly. She took a moment to catch her breath as the ceremony wound down, finding a shaded spot in the cool grass to witness two lovebirds kiss and seal the deal, and make her, finally, legitimate.

I didn’t see it. What happened next, as the officiant announced us as man and wife and we escaped down the aisle to thunderous applause, escaped my view. But as my newly wed bride and I made our way into the world, and the overjoyed crowd showered us with applause, from behind us, Eliza came running, treating us to her signature happy howls and barks. Eliza was never prone to missing out on the action and not one to neglect an opportunity to give love and to get loud. Her joyous nature never let her miss an opportunity to break her parents heart with her tender love which only served to grow her lore as one of the all-time greats on all fours. It saddens me I didn’t witness the grandeur of her act, but I am touched just by knowing that it truly occurred. And it blows my mind when I think about it, but Eliza cheered for us with the group, and she knew exactly what she was doing.

I am often told how special Eliza was. I have, for the many years I was fortunate enough to be within her keep, been catching a tan in her sunshine, as I like to describe it. People tell me I had “one of the best dogs ever,” even those who have dogs well-suited to be in the ring during this mythical best dog contest. But I know each owner’s relationship with their dog is personal, and so special to them in its unique way. Each person’s dog is their best dog and friend in the world. It’s what makes dog ownership so meaningful and rewarding. But I will say this, and I say it as proudly as any father has ever said anything about their child: On the biggest day of my life Eliza, my dog, gave me the best gift a man, a dad, could ever ask for. And she did it by just being there, and by being what she had always been – my biggest supporter, and my best friend.

It has been over a year now since I lost Eliza. She passed in my arms in the back of a taxi on the way to the vet in the quiet hours of a brisk Sunday morning. Her last breaths were coughed out of her mouth as her body spasmed in my clutches. Yet through it all we held each others gaze, doing what we always did for each other – give the other strength. In her eyes I saw fear. I saw a cry for help. But more than that I saw love, complete and in its purest form. And not a day passes where I don’t miss that devoted, unsullied, and pure tenderness. And not a day comes to its close that I don’t, for at least a moment, miss my girl. The best friend I have ever had. But I wouldn’t trade away the pain, or the cavernous hole carved into my heart by her loss, for those years we had together. And although the memories are still bittersweet, and they sting like fire, I hold onto each one with a stubborn, unrelenting grip – as I can no longer hold onto her.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. Eliza was always there for me, from the most notable of days to the most commonplace – unto the end. And I am a far better man for having shared so much of our brief time in this world together.

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