Next month will mark the three-year anniversary of my professional relationship with this wonderful magazine. My column has given me the monthly opportunity to share thoughts and stories that are important to me. When I sit down to write, I try my best to choose topics that might make our readers laugh, think, relate and connect. I am so grateful for the relatively free rein that I have been given in selecting my subject matter. While my personal life is usually the inspiration for almost all my articles, my goal is always to tie it to something larger than just me, my husband and my two children. But not this month. I have chosen to be purely selfish with my January column and use it as a forum for an in-memoriam tribute to my best friend.
In 2009, after one year of marriage and one long dinnertime discussion about the prospect of expanding our family, my husband and I agreed that while each of us felt an urge to welcome a new addition, neither of us was quite ready for a baby. At least, not one in human form.
He was still in school full time, we were a one-income couple with astronomical student loans, and we loved to travel places and do adventurous things that weren’t exactly newborn-friendly. Plus, we both really valued our sleep. We concluded that adopting a baby of the furry variety would be a reasonable compromise and decided to start searching for a dog to call ours.
One morning, as my husband leafed through the newspaper, a photo in the classifieds caught his eye. It was a picture of a litter of newborn Labrador retriever puppies. Eight of them — some black and some various shades of yellow — waiting for their forever homes.
According to the ad under the photo, this particular litter had been born in rural Roseboro to a sire and dam with particularly impressive pedigrees and mastery of waterfowl retrieval. None of that mattered much to us. All we knew was that those puppies were irresistibly adorable. We followed a link to the kennel’s website, where we studied the series of pictures and videos of the new puppies and set our sights on one particular female. She was not the smallest or the largest. Judging from the videos, she didn’t seem overly rambunctious or excessively lethargic.
We called the owner and scheduled a trip to Roseboro to meet our puppy.
Several weeks later when we arrived at the owner’s home, he walked us out to his backyard kennel and unlatched the swinging door of the puppy pen to allow us to find the little lady we had selected from the photos. I sat down on the concrete floor to greet the puppies as they ventured out of their pen, one by one.
My husband immediately recognized our top prospect as she rounded the corner and, without so much as a sniff of a hand or a wag of her tail, bypassed both of us to chase after one of her siblings.
Then came the last pup. That little girl puppy, the roly-est and poly-est of the bunch, with a coat much lighter than all the others, walked straight from her cozy little kennel, climbed up in my lap, rested her head on my hip, and fell fast asleep.
And that is how Annie B. Tarheel chose her family.
We drove back to Durham and spent the remainder of the eight-week weaning period puppy-proofing our house, fencing our backyard, and watching episodes of “The Dog Whisperer.” When we made the trip back to Roseboro to bring Annie home for good, we were greeted in the driveway by the owner. He looked at me and said, “Ma’am, I just want to let you know that it’s going to be real hard for my daughter to say goodbye to this one. Your dog’s been sleeping in the bed with her every night.”
As if on cue, his precious little girl, maybe 8 years old, walked out of the house cradling our puppy like a baby. She bit her lip, looked at her dad and then reluctantly handed the Lab to me. I told her that we had decided to name her Annie and asked if she might like to help me get Annie settled in the car. I showed her the soft blanket, treats and toys we’d brought along and let her clip on her new collar. She helped me situate Annie on my lap for the ride home and, right before closing my door, I made that little girl a promise. “We are going to love her and take really great care of her.”
I’d like to think that over the course of Annie’s 13 years with us, we made good on that promise. She spent her puppyhood romping our cul-de-sac with a small pack of neighborhood dogs. Chasing tennis balls into just about every body of water in Eastern North Carolina. Camping in the mountains. Walking in the woods. Sneaking bacon and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches off plates when she thought I wasn’t watching.
She would occasionally nestle her 75-pound self between us in our bed, until our babies came along and she began the habit of dutifully making her way upstairs each evening to curl up beside their cribs or outside their doors. The second word out of our daughter’s mouth (after “DaDa,” of course) was “Aa-ee” — her version of Annie. As our son learned to walk, she would patiently allow him to grip her neck to pull up onto his feet and slowly shadow him through the house as he used one hand on her back for balance.
And then, as her hearing slowly went and her joints started to fail her, she was content to pass her days following patches of sunlight throughout the house for her marathon naps. Some days, she would rouse just in time to accompany me on the ride to school pickup. I would lift her into the front seat and roll down the passenger window so that she could feel the wind in her face. She’d nap as we waited and perk up when she heard her brother and sister jump into the car and feel them pat her on the head.
This was Annie’s very favorite part of the day.
On her very last day with us, she spent an unseasonably warm late-fall Saturday afternoon playing in the sunshine with her people before her old, tired body gave out on her young, adventurous spirit.
It’s been almost two months, and I still go to fill her food bowl in the morning before remembering. We hope that before too long, we’ll welcome another canine companion into our family.
But one thing is for sure: There will never be another Annie. The best darn dog that ever was.