As I turned the corner at the rescue into the front parking lot, I came upon an elderly man looking a bit lost. It was well before adoption hours. He looked frail and sad. I asked if I could help. He said he had just let his dog go. It turns out that he had lost her a week earlier; he had just returned from picking up her ashes.
She was 11-year-old Emily, a beautiful Golden Retriever. He had her from a pup. He noticed that she was not wanting to get up one morning; she turned down her favorite treat. He rushed her to the local vet; they told him to rush her to the specialist. The specialist said that Emily might be taken immediately to U.C. Davis in hopes of finding a canine heart surgeon there, but that the operation would be hard on a senior girl—and the odds not good. Her heart was enlarged; she was bleeding internally; fluid was pooling around her heart as quickly as they could drain it. It was a painful but clear decision – perhaps influenced by the man’s own battle. With cancer. A fight he is losing. They let Emily go peacefully. Her ashes were in a beautiful, inscribed wooden box in his truck. Her paw print immortalized with it.
He wasn’t looking to adopt. He knew his own time on this earth was short. He was just in pain and wanting some Golden love. Someone sent him to a shelter, but he found that overwhelming and heartbreaking. A friend told him about Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue & Sanctuary.
“I’m here as a total stranger, just hoping to be able to pet a few dogs and share a moment with them,” he said.
We don’t typically allow the public to interact with the dogs unless they have gone through our foster or adoption vetting process. But everyone understood his need; we have all been there. You feel them, still, in your heart but the absence of their physical presence is difficult to bear.
We allowed him to sit and love on some sweet Goldens – no one too rambunctious. One beautiful girl sensed his need and buried her head in his lap; that was enough to send the tears gushing. He shared photos and stories and asked about the dogs: how they come to be with us, how we find them homes, how anyone could ever give up their beloved companion.
I gave him a tour and told him our story – about our founders, their inspiration, their vision, and how it had come to life through the dedication of hundreds of volunteers. As we walked, I shared the stories of the dogs we passed; we watched the youngsters in training class; we greeted the seniors at the fence.
He told me about a dream he had. His legs were strong and whole again. She was by his side. They walked familiar trails. Coming to a gate that looked like Heaven, they asked for entry. He was told he could pass through, but not Emily. They turned away and walked on, realizing they were in the wrong place. They came to another gate. This time they were both welcomed. Inside were trees, rivers, fields, and blue sky. They knew where they were…together…at last. And then he woke up and saw his frail, ravaged body – and his heart sank.
Maybe Emily went ahead because she knew it would be too hard for him to leave her behind.
He cried. We hugged. He said he would like to help. He made an incredibly generous donation in Emily’s memory which is reflected on our virtual Giving Tree.
As he was departing, he asked me if I had ever met a rocket scientist. I thought it was a setup. But he said, “Well, now you have.” He had helped to design the heat shield for the space shuttle. When Congress failed to fund the development of an emergency vehicle to return our astronauts from a planned space station, he was part of a group that went to Russia to negotiate the use of their Soyuz vehicle in exchange for shared ownership of what became the International Space Station. I looked him up. It’s true.
Bonds created through the love of dogs. You never know who you will meet. Maybe even a rocket scientist with a broken, golden heart.