Dear Thelma Lou,
Right now I am five hundred miles away from you in Mississippi, out of town for work. And right now you’re probably in the backyard, trying to dismember a squirrel carcass. Or maybe you’re howling at the neighbors. Perhaps you’re digging a hole to Beijing, chewing our porch, or eating cat poop. There are so many options.
I miss you. Please mind your aunt Michelle while we are away. I have given her complete authority to spank you.
You might not remember the day we brought you home, but I do. Your loose skin hung over your eyes. You were chubby, with oversized paws, and a cute hindsection that wobbled when you walked. Your ears hung to the floor so that you tripped over them. You were all bloodhound.
For your first year, whenever you’d fall asleep on me you would pee. Every single time. One moment, I’d be reading a book, and you’d be cradled on my chest. The next minute, warm liquid would be soaking my shirt. I would scream, “THELMA LOU!” But you wouldn’t even bother waking up.
So I’d carry you out of the bedroom, careful not to disturb your sleep. Because even though I was covered in puppy urine, I liked to watch you sleep. I still love to watch you sleep, even though you aren’t a puppy anymore.
And believe me, you’re DEFINITELY not a puppy anymore. For crying out loud, the scale over at Pet We-Take-All-Your-Money Mart said that you weighed almost ninety pounds. Ninety. That’s heavy enough to be one of the Budweiser Clydesdales.
But you’ll always be a puppy to me. You came into our lives when we were a mess. We had just lost a thirteen-year-old dog named Ellie Mae. I wish you could have known her. You would have liked Ellie Mae. Everyone did.
When she left us, I was out of town for work, sort of like I am now. I still can’t seem to forgive myself for that. When I got the call, I curled on the floor of my room and cried until my head ached. Ellie Mae was one of my best friends.
See, some folks don’t understand guys like me, who love dogs this much. But I don’t have children. Heaven wasn’t gracious enough to give us babies, so we have had to get creative.
Thus, my best friends have always been the sort who take heartworm medication. My entire life can be measured by the dogs I’ve loved. I’ve loved some good ones, too. Great dogs who deserve to have bronze statues erected in their honor up in Heaven’s Hall of Fame. Dogs like Boone, Hurley, Gurgle, Hannah, Lady, Cody, and Moses.
But none were like Ellie Mae. She was in a class by herself. The old girl understood me better than most humans. There was a special kind of intelligence in her eyes. It was otherworldly.
When I was younger, I traveled all over to play music with various barroom bands, trying to pay the rent. She traveled with me. We would tow my tiny camper behind my truck and live in it for weeks.
In some ways, Ellie was my life’s mascot. She would wait in my truck during every gig. On breaktime, I would wander out to the parking lot only to find bartenders, dishwashers, and waitresses gathered around my tailgate. They were all smoking cigarettes, cooing at Ellie Mae, feeding her onion rings. Everyone wanted to take her home.
But Ellie would have never gone with them. Because she was sent to earth to watch over me. And she did her job well. She went everywhere I went. We shared every meal. She rode in my passenger seat. She slept between me and my wife. She watched ball games with me. She was everything to me. Just like you are.
Today, Ellie’s ashes sit on our nightstand. Along with her framed picture. But of course you already know that, Thelma. I often catch you staring at Ellie’s urn.
In some ways, it seems like you know her. Like all dogs sort of know each other. Maybe you do.
Anyway, the day I brought you home was only days after Ellie Mae died. The universe must have known that I needed you. When I found you, you were bounding through the tall grass on a small farm in Molino, Florida. My chest swelled ten sizes. I knew you were the one.
Sometimes I think I was born with your little face imprinted upon my heart. Maybe God did this so that there was no possible way I could miss you.
When I held you, you bit my ear with razor sharp puppy teeth and made me bleed. And the sadness that old dogs left behind became less bitter. You taught me that life keeps going, even after death. I don’t know how you did that. But you did. Just by being born.
I didn’t mean to get so mushy, but I can’t help it. I will love you until they lay me down. The same way I loved your brothers and sisters. The same way I would have loved my own child. Because that’s what you are. Mine.
I’ll be home soon. So drop that squirrel carcass right this instant.
Happy birthday, Thelma Lou.