He was there, and then he wasn’t. The whole thing was like a wisp of a breeze brushing past me on a frisky, spring day. Yet the relationship lasted nearly 12 years.
That’s what it felt like when Darby, my sweet-beyond-words Lhasa Apso, passed from life in my arms last week. How could he be gone so soon? I only just adopted him. Didn’t I?
He came to me by way of a rescue league website based in Tennessee. Someone found this little dog with no tags or chip, wandering the back roads of Knoxville. He was starving, dehydrated, matted and battling heartworms. And yet he was impossibly filled with joy and brightness.
Most dogs with heartworms are euthanized immediately in public shelters, but someone had the foresight to know this one was special.
After months of recovery, he came to live with me, and I named him after one of my favorite beers, Fehr’s Darby Ale, brewed then by Bluegrass Brewing Co. That seems like maybe a week ago. A month, at most. Somehow, that happened in early 2006.
He was the first dog I ever knew that could play fetch by himself, launching stuffed toys over his back with his mouth so he could chase them down, and he was fiercely loyal to one specific toy, a tan bear-like thing he had claimed while being fostered in Tennessee.
The woman who passed Darby on to me said it had belonged to one of her other dogs, but Darby loved the toy so much, she had to give it to him. Darby simply had that effect on people. That toy is now known by the name Darby Bear.
On the day Darby died last week, after years of charming people culminated in a battle with an aggressive tumor, he took a final couch nap using Darby Bear as a pillow.
Couching had always been our respite. We spent countless hours cuddling on our couch; it was simply part of our life. So how could nearly 12 years have elapsed already? That seems impossible. The tattered bear, which now sits on my couch in Darby’s favorite spot, can’t really be a product of almost a dozen years of fetch and chewing. Can it?
Darby loved taking long walks that started out with a dead sprint for the first few blocks. As I ran along behind him, watching his signature, rambling “Darby run” (you’d have to see it to truly appreciate it), all the joy emanating from him flew back in a cloud and permeated me. I giggled each time this played out, like I suddenly was a small child running through a playground.
I’m sure I had this experience eight, maybe 10 times. But somehow, it actually happened at least twice a day for the better part of a decade. Thousands of times.
But how? How can this unbridled joy suddenly be gone? It makes absolutely no sense. The universe can’t allow it.
Darby loved to go “bye-bye” — not necessarily the car ride itself, but the anticipation of a surprise destination. When I said those two words, he would whine, bark, yelp at me as I finished combing my hair or brushing my teeth. He then would grab a toy, usually Darby Bear, and start flinging it around until I came to him with the leash for our next adventure.
We hung out at a friend’s lake for a few summers. Took long walks by the Ohio River. One day at the Waterfront Park fountain on a particularly hot July day, Darby plopped down at the Dancing Fountains on top of an idle jet. I couldn’t wait until the water jet snapped on, to watch him bounce up in surprise, wondering what had just assaulted him from below.
But when the water stream hit his belly, he just lay there enjoying the cool reprieve, a spray emanating from around his belly and legs. It was like something from a cartoon. I laughed at what sweet goofiness I had just witnessed. It was just Darby.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and yet it happened yesterday, didn’t it? This can’t be possible. How can he be gone? How can I possibly feel so lost and alone?
He was an escape artist, that Darby, and he got away from the yard on several occasions. Each time, I panicked, scouring the neighborhood like a madman. Each time, someone would call me and say, “I think I have your dog. He’s so sweet. He just walked right up to me.” I can’t believe one of those people didn’t simply keep him; I think I would have.
Over time, he charmed hundreds of people without me realizing it. The time seemed fleeting to me. We lived a quiet life together, taking walks each day, having breakfast and dinner. I shared my Cheerios. Sneaked him nibbles of cheese. We lounged on the couch, played with Darby Bear, and I scratched his belly each morning before I went to work. We were best friends.
And then time caught up with us somehow.
When the outpouring of support came in the wake of his death, I was astounded by just how many he had touched besides just myself. People I hadn’t spoken to in years who had met Darby reached out to tell me what a wonderful companion he was, how cute he was. People he’d never met did the same. How can he have touched so many people in so short a time?
Oh yes, I forgot. It was nearly a dozen years he was with me. And he was Darby. Everyone loved Darby.
Now, somehow, he’s gone, old age and cancer having finally claimed him. As I sobbed over his motionless body last week, having just felt his life force flow out into the universe as I held him in my arms, my heart sinking through the floor, I thought for a moment that his joy had gone, too.
All those wonderful things he had brought to me and to those around him were no more. Tears and heartbreak can do that to you, make you think that all the good had collapsed into nothingness in one moment.
But in the wake of literally hundreds of friends and family coming to me either on social media or personally to share condolences, I know that’s not true. The pain comes out in tears, but the joy remains in memories.
Somehow, everyone knows. They noticed. I still cry nearly every day, but I also hold Darby Bear every day, and I smile for what is left behind.
And even though Darby’s time here seemed utterly fleeting as it happened, the joy will remain for years. I guess it wasn’t really such a short stay after all.
It only seemed that way to me, because I never wanted it to end. Goodnight, my wonderful Darby, and thank you for all the happiness.