The best decision I ever made was when I was a freshly unemployed twenty-something writer living in Jackson, Wyoming in the early days of the 2008 recession.
Jobless. Single. Hungry for adventure. I needed a fearless best friend who inspired me to explore Jackson’s intimidating backcountry while my friends worked 8 to 5. One day I walked into the local animal adoption center and out with a foster pup: a gangly black-and-tan shepherd mix from the mean streets of Idaho Falls. He was skinny with alarmingly big feet and an old soul. I fostered him for a week but decided to bring him back. I told myself the adoption fee was too much for someone without a paycheck.
The morning I brought him back in, the employee said, “Oh good. He’s back. A family wants to adopt him today.”
But he’s already mine, I said.
I walked out the door $300 bucks in the hole.
He was my first “I choose you” family member. We were inseparable. I named him Santiago after the old man in the Old Man in the Sea. My roomie Kelly gifted him the last name Domingo because she said a dog with an old soul needed a last name. I called him Santos for short.
He taught me to be brave. I taught him how to run. After he chased his first moose, I taught him how to heel. He spent the first two years of his life in Jackson off leash—running beside my bicycle and waiting for me outside of grocery stores and bars. He was perfect, even when he tried to eat my mattress.
And in a town where men outnumber women, he made the perfect wingman. I tested out suitors on dog walks. Santos doesn’t want to nuzzle you? Buh bye.
David not only passed the test; he upped the ante, taking him mountain biking, trail running, and skiing. Santos was smitten. He’d whine at the sight of him and stare longingly after him whenever he left. So we hopped into my SUV and moved to Colorado with him.
Boulder was busier and its residents demanded leashes, but Santos' adventures continued: 14ers, camping, mountain biking, and road trips to Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Iowa, and Arizona. (The latter two where he’d start hysterically whining at the sight of Poppa Erb.) No matter where we were, he’d nuzzle my hand before bed and I’d whisper to him, “Goodnight Tos, I’ll miss you while I’m sleeping.”
Like many dogs, he held many jobs. He was the best dog at my wedding, he trained me for a marathon, and he was my copilot on dozens of road trips. He served as my therapist when life got hard. He saw me through three career moves, where he’d curl up under my new desk and remind me to get off my butt and enjoy the sunshine.
In his old age, Santos slowed down and my two sweet babes sped up. He liked to snooze on the rug, one eye peeking at me as I ran around the house tripping over toys and trying to find missing shoes. Our walks became very slow kiddo-led adventures. Even then, when his sniffs were contained to the radius of a sidewalk, he’d still wag his tail with joy.
We snuck in camping trips and hikes when we could. He growled at elk from the confines of our tent in Jackson, he zoomed through meadows in Crested Butte, he dove into Lake Dillon’s icy waters, and he investigated (and then ran from) his first rattlesnake in Arizona.
Two weeks ago he was romping down a trail in Silverthorne, ducking in and out of the creek, circling back with a wag to make sure I was still in sight.
But that great dog park in the sky comes for all pups, and it came suddenly and unexpectedly for him. A little over a week later, he laid down in our living room and refused to move. The next day he was diagnosed with secondary pulmonary adenocarcinoma—a disease that had lurked inside his body for months unbeknownst to us. And there I was looking at the real reason he slowed down: that villainous C.
The vet guessed Santos had two days; he lasted four. I took him on a tour of his favorite places. I blew up a mattress and slept next to him. I stroked his tricolored fur and hoped my tears and I love you’s would heal him. They didn’t.
So, I let him go. That last day, his eyes never lost sight of me and I’d like to think in the end it was his way of saying “I’ll miss you while I’m sleeping.”