When we first moved into our home, we would see this couple walking around the neighborhood every day, like clock work, with their big black Labrador retriever. We were still a month or so away from getting our own lab, so we would curiously watch them from afar, trying to pick up dog owner tips just by observing.
Their dog was older, you could tell. He was grey around the face and muzzle and on his ears. He walked at a slower pace, always right between the man and his wife, plodding along as he probably had for years and years, nestled in comfort. His eyes were warm with love and his big bones and hefty weight showed that he had probably been 100+ pounds of joy to his owners ever since they had him.
As we settled into our new home and welcomed Luna into our lives just a few weeks later, we slowly started to get to know the couple just a little. They were probably in their late 30s. He was fit and lithe, blonde and Californian-looking. She was kind and warm and dressed in sweat pants with her hair in a messy pony. They walked hand in hand every time we saw them, always with the dog by their side. As brief hellos evolved into quick chitchat, we learned his name was Charger. He was their baby. Their everything, really. You didn’t have to ask to get the sense that this couple had no children but perhaps had hoped to at some point and that Charger filled that role in their lives. They talked animatedly about his puppy days as they laughed at our little chocolate lab. They gave advice and encouraged Charger to come play with the puppy…but he wisely stayed between them, observing from a comfortable distance. Maybe smiling inside at our young babe. They loved that dog so fiercely that you could feel it from one conversation. One random moment in the sun.
We didn’t get to know the couple very well. I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they do for a living or where they are from or even what street they live on in our community. You do that with fellow dog owners. You cross paths on regular walks and you meet their dogs, but often not them. You develop an affinity for Lola or Scout or, in this case, Charger, and you leave their owners to their anonymity. It’s like an unwritten rule that we know our dogs are more interesting than us and certainly a better representation of all that is good in our world…so we focus on them instead of their humans. But we would continue to see them walking Charger and always marvel at his kind temperament and patient stroll and dream about the day our crazed pup would settle into her own.
A few months passed and one day I saw the couple walking while I was driving down the road…no Charger in sight. It hit me in that moment that I hadn’t seen them for a while and I knew he must have passed away. I had never seen them without him, not even once, and given his age it seemed the only logical explanation. I still didn’t know them. Not their names, not where they live. But I could see the sadness in their faces, even from afar. They still held hands, she still wore her sweatpants, but the absence of Charger was like a hole in between the two of them, moving down the sidewalk like a ghost. They walked along at a brisk pace, faster than they ever could with him in tow, looking at the ground most of the way. Missing the flowers in the trees and the warm sun on their faces and the crazed young pups down the street, perhaps deliberately. They walked with purpose. Maybe for exercise. Maybe for routine. But without the idle bliss that they had when they walked with that big old black lab with the greying fur and the slow stroll.
It made me sad for a moment. They had lost their baby. Their everything. And he had left behind such a hole it was almost physically present. I wondered if they would get another dog, insisted out loud to myself that they should, hoped that they would.
But I don’t know that couple. I don’t know if they want another dog. I don’t know where they live or whether they travel for work. I don’t know anything about them, really.
But I knew Charger.
And the joy he brought to them. So very apparent. So very powerful. So much love.
They kept on walking and I kept on driving. I looked back in my mirror to see them together, hands clutched, ponytail bopping in place. A 100+ empty space in between their legs.
And I smiled inside. Just like Charger would.