Early this year my husband, John, and I faced our most painful experience in a decade of marriage: We said goodbye to our dog, Sheba.
It wasn't a surprise. Sheba was elderly and her last weeks with us were a struggle. But that didn't make it any easier. From the moment I first saw Sheba in a New York City shelter – skinny, trembling, full of intense, imploring intelligence – I felt she was my canine doppelgänger. John used to joke that we shared just one soul between us.
The first Saturday after Sheba was gone, we fled to a diner for breakfast. There, we found ourselves crying into our pancakes – until John said the words I secretly longed to hear: "I'm ready for another dog as soon as you are."
Two days later we were at an animal shelter. On one level, it seemed crazy. Sheba was irreplaceable, we knew that. But as John pointed out, there is no shortage of dogs in need. Why not heal our hearts by taking home a stray?
Next thing we knew we were back in the car. Perched on the backseat, nestled into the reassuring arms of our overjoyed 8-year-old neighbor David, was Lucie, a sleek and graceful 1-year-old mini-Lab-greyhound mix rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico.
We had done it. We were dogless no more.
Lucie had a whirlwind first few days. She met our cats (with surprisingly little incident), refused to climb stairs (John carried her), forgot that she was housebroken, and chewed everything in sight. But that was all right. We understood that the early weeks might be shaky.
I worked from home for a few days to keep Lucie company. From the start she was eager to explore by day and snuggle at night, amusing both of us by offering vigorous face-washing with her darting, lively tongue.
It was going well. So on the fourth full day I decided to take her to doggie day care for a few hours. Sheba had always enjoyed day care while we were away at work, and we expected that Lucie, once settled in, would do the same.
Lucie and I walked together to the pet store, which doubles as our local canine day-care facility. It was more than a mile from our house, in a direction she had not yet ventured.
I rushed into work, did as much as I could before noon, ate a quick lunch, then returned to the pet store, eager to hear how Lucie had fared.
The woman at the desk looked ashen. "Let me get the owner," she murmured. Had it been that bad, I wondered?
The owner came out from the back, as pale as her young colleague.
"We've been trying to call you," she said. "Lucie is gone. She slipped her collar while on a walk."
"No!" I shouted. "No, no, no!"
How could this be? Just two weeks after saying goodbye to Sheba, had we now lost another dog?
It all happened quickly from there. Posters were made and distributed – a lot of them. Authorities were contacted. Search parties were organized. John raced back from work and began canvassing the neighborhood on his bike. I sat in our house with both the front and back doors open – just in case, against all the odds, Lucie could find her way back to the home she barely knew.
But all too soon it was sunset and finally too dark and too late for the hunt to continue. As it happened, it was one of the coldest nights of the year. I could only wonder how the frigid Boston air must feel to a frightened puppy from a sunny island, now wandering strange city streets without so much as a collar around her neck.
Finally we went to bed. But a little before 2 a.m., I found myself awake and knew that I was done sleeping.
I went downstairs. The wind sounded cruel as it whipped around our block. "All I can do is pray," I thought. So I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat down by the fireplace to do just that.
Suddenly, a thought came to me. Although I had enjoyed my days with Lucie, a large part of me was still yearning for Sheba. That was not surprising, I knew. But Sheba had passed into better hands than my own – and I needed to trust that. Lucie was now the dog in our care and she was the one in need of my love and my prayers. I opened my heart to her – this time without reservations.
Within minutes, I heard a rough scratching sound. I flew to our back door and there she was, dancing wildly under the halo of the porch light – half-crazed with joy and relief, amazed, it seemed, at the beautiful, brave, impossible thing that she had done.
Lucie had come home.
Even as I ran up the stairs, whooping and shouting to wake John (Lucie at my heels, taking the stairs on her own for the first time), and as we shared the happy ending with friends and neighbors in the days that followed, I knew that things would never be the same.
No more was Lucie the dog who had taken Sheba's place. She was now just Lucie. She had come home in a profound way. She was our dog, and somewhere in her cold, courageous, 12-hour journey, she had proved it both to us and to herself.