An observation: if one person in a marriage or significant partnership dies, sometimes the other spouse or partner soon dies of loneliness within months of the other’s death.
I knew this was true for humans, but I did not expect it to be the same with our dogs.
Sadly, our chocolate Labrador retriever, Toby, died within six months of our yellow Labrador retriever Lil’s death.
Both were adopted at separate times from the Orange County Animal Shelter. Within weeks of living in our house they soon became the latest version of television’s “I Love Lucy” with our dogs becoming Lucy and Ricky, opposites, yet companionable in every way.
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While Lil grew into an adult dog, queen of her realm (our house), Toby never grew out of his Labrador adolescence. He became what one friend called our noble child. With boundless energy up to the last few days of his doggy life, Toby ran after his favorite toy with great energy, rarely showing exhaustion, tail wagging happily, while Lil was bemused by his antics and would occasionally grab a large branch and play keep away.
Toby and Lil came into our lives when my partner and I were raising my children from a previous marriage. To my now adult-aged children, the dogs were their link to childhood.
While Lil was the dog a child tells secrets to, Toby was the dog a child went to for a good game of hide-and-go-seek, fetch, and wrestled with on the floor or couch, with licks and paws stretched out, wanting to play some more.
The child in us
Even as we all grew older, our noble child pulled the child out of us.
He learned to throw his favorite red plastic toy our direction, drop the toy right on our foot, or come from behind us if we were sitting in a chair, gently nudging our elbow with his nose, toy in mouth, to let us know that he wanted to play, and play now. We would ask him, “Toby, go out and play?” He would jump up and down, wagging his tail, then run to the sliding glass door that led to our big backyard. Once the door was open he’d run right in front of us, turn, drop the toy at our feet, and wait for us to toss the toy as far as humanly possible. With great alacrity he would run and get the toy, bring it to us, dropping it in our hand if a hand was open, ready to run and play catch again.
Toby and Lil were on the campus of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, when North Carolinians were voting on the Amendment One, banning marriage equality in North Carolina. Like filings to a magnet, students flocked to pet their heads, with Toby eagerly going out to receive pets, hugs, and kisses while Lil sat back and let the students come to her.
Likewise, when my partner Dean supervised the Midnight Rave in the Pit at UNC during finals week, Toby would happily seek out affection, seeming to smile among students, while Lil remained chilled, waiting for the students to come to her, and come they did.
We said our good-byes to Toby, the noble child, burying him next to his adopted sister, in our backyard. But the veterinary tech who came to our house to help put him to rest felt his spirit leap out of his body, like the child he always: He slid out of his body like rain on ice. This dog, our Toby, this noble child, still lives on in all our hearts.
Brett Webb-Mitchell lives in Chapel Hill.