Marley hobbled down the driveway, as close to a joyous run as she can get, her arthritic joints struggling to support her seventy pound body. I put my arms around my old Black Labrador’s neck and hugged gently, the cloudy opalescence of age turning her wise brown eyes a strange blue. Marley, who was born on March 9th, 1996, has been with me since she was six weeks old. If she were human, she’d be 108. And until this trip, I had never left her behind.
We were not home yet. From Europe we flew to Boston to pick up Marley from the Ott Family, friends who’d been dog sitting since early July. This spasm of generosity is equivalent to caring for someone’s grandmother with twin toddlers at home, as the Otts already have nine chickens, two bunnies, six fish, three Golden Labs, and two tow-headed kids. But Marley is treated like a respected matriarch in their home—and via the miracle of Skype, we often got to see her lolling on a giant, orthopedic doggy bed or sniffing around the chicken coop.
Marley holds fifteen years of my life in her large black paws, dotted on the bottoms with white. Through two marriages and one divorce, seven in-vitro fertilizations and three miscarriages, hirings, firings, deaths, births and too many wonderful moments to count, Marley has set the gold standard for unconditional love. Now, seeing her limp, deaf ears no longer able to hear my voice, and struggling to raise her head off the floor when I kneel to pet her, I knew we were lucky she was alive to see us return. And it occurred to me that taking my longtime friend home to rest might be the best, last gift I can give her.
On walkabout, what I missed most were things I had often forgotten to appreciate. My mother’s cheerful voice on the phone, the laughter of my girlfriends during a stolen hour of chat, my sisters being close by, and Marley’s musky doggie breath. No matter how many cathedrals, castles, glaciers, volcanos, or charging hippopotamuses I might catch on camera, without these things, life would be unspeakably lonely.
We left for Logan Airport at 5a.m, choosing the early flight to Los Angeles instead of a more sane afternoon departure so that Marley could stay cool. The previous day I had given her a bath, wanting her to be looking good for our arrival, and the trauma of standing for so long left her nearly unable to walk. Ethan carried her down the stairs in the grey, humid dawn and placed her gently into the van.
“Why did she have to be clean?” I scolded myself. I wouldn’t scrub any other old lady vigorously with anti-itch shampoo and then douse her with cold water—even one I didn’t love! But Marley gave no guilt trip as she struggled into her crate for the final journey home, probably too stoned on prescription painkillers to care. Her thick, black tail, so powerful in her youth that it could knock over trashcans, did not wag when we said goodbye.
In my seat on the 737 jet, just above the climate controlled baggage area where my dog was, I worried and prayed. Please let her be OK, I asked the Flight Gods–just this one last time!– promising in return never to walk by her again without a pat or a scratch. Scared she wouldn’t survive the flight, I started eulogizing her in my mind and began to cry. How could I possibly go home without her?
But worry has a way of teasing those who needlessly invite it in. At Los Angeles International Airport, Marley bounded out of her crate with the energy of a puppy, sniffing, snorting in happiness, and very thirsty. The fur of her greying muzzle felt soft as silk under my hands and she panted doggy breath in our faces as we showered her with love.
Our five member team had made it home safely, the bleached blue Southern California sky cloudless and hot, just as it had been when we left Los Angeles thirteen months ago in a Honda Odyssey mini-van. Somewhere, out on the horizon, a future hovered in which Marley would no longer be with us. But today, she lay calmly at my feet, her heart feeling at home as long as she was with us. And there was no end to her story in sight.