Like a first kiss, one’s first dog is something you never forget.
Lil was my first dog, and I will never forget her. Fourteen years ago I adopted her through Orange County Animal Services. Lil was a beautiful yellow American Labrador Retriever, with the breed’s distinct markings, bone structure, and huge paws, which told us we should not be surprised when she hit 80 pounds when fully grown.
When we first visited her at the shelter, she jumped all over us, licking us everywhere on our bodies, from head to toe and back again.
“Lil” was short for “Little Doc,” as I promised myself I would adopt a dog upon my completion of my Ph.D. But sometimes she resembled Lilith, the notorious demon in Jewish tradition. For example, when throwing her a branch to retrieve, she wasn’t as much “retriever” as she was a keep-away artist, inviting us to run after her while almost kneeing us as she ran by us. She loved chewing anything that looked like a stick, including red or black pens, grinning with either a red or back smudge across her muzzle.
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Lil was like other dogs in many ways. She was my running bud, running slightly ahead of me along country roads. She loved nothing more than to go for a ride in a car, putting her snout out the open back window, ears flapping backwards, while taking advantage of all the smells that came along the currents of air. One friend taught Lil the art of eating pretzel sticks from her mouth as Lil gently nibbled the other end. However, unlike some Labs, she was not wild about water. She was intimidated by ocean waves, and Lil seemed too prim and proper to be washed, looking put out when we hosed off the soap.
Lil was a steady presence amid all the radical changes in my family’s life. She would let me pet her thick yellow fur as I transitioned out of one academic position, to a pastorate, and back to the academy again. When in high school, my daughter told her deepest secrets to Lil late at night. My partner and son swear there was nothing like coming home after a hard day and being welcomed by Lil’s “welcome home” bark as she soon brushed hard against a leg, waiting for someone to rub the sweet spots behind her ears, eliciting an ongoing low, satisfying moan from her, telling us to rub harder.
Yet what made Lil stand out from other dogs was her community work. During the campaign around North Carolina’s anti-marriage equality bill, Amendment 1, Lil and her adopted brother Toby (our chocolate Lab) were on UNC’s campus near Ram’s Head Parking Deck poll site. Those opposed to the amendment borrowed the dogs as a way of getting students to come out and vote. Both dogs were magnets, attracting students’ attention by just being on campus. Student after student came over to pet and then vote.
Similarly, our dogs attended “Raves” on UNC’s campus. “Raves” are held during finals week when UNC students dance fiercely for a few minutes at the stroke of 12 midnight in UNC’s famous pit. We were on campus because my partner supervised the “Raves.” But before and after the “Rave,” there was a large group of students who came running over to both dogs, eager to pet them and receive their wet kisses in return, and regale one another with tales about their dogs at home.
In both community events, Lil never barked or backed away from the students, but graciously received their attention, always seeking more pets, and always ready to give affection in return.
Lil died this past week. We all miss her terribly. Each one of us – from Toby, to Lil’s human family, and the lives she touched – are thankful for that first dog and her kisses.
Brett Webb-Mitchell lives in Chapel Hill.