I was eleven days shy of my seventh birthday when my family brought home a dog for the first time. Boomer was smart and awkward and the best friend you could imagine. Along with Kelly, who we adopted a year later, he grew up with me in our suburban Toledo home. Boomer died very young. He was just eight and half when my mom called me while my dad and I were in Chicago to tell us Boomer was fading fast. We made it home for his final hour but, as anyone will tell you, losing your first dog rips a hole inside you that can never quite be repaired. Even with Kelly by our side, the days after Boomer died were empty.
In typical Weinberg fashion, we made the fateful decision to “just go look” at a litter of golden retriever puppies four days later. Because you can’t do anything else when you meet a golden retriever puppy, we fell in love. We named him Duke. It was July 23, 2005.
Dogs are theraputic, but there was something especially restorative about being the one who was responsible for most of his care during those early weeks. I was on summer vacation and both my parents worked full-time, so I potty-trained him and we bonded as he grew from a pup into a massive ball of golden energy. There is still a Boomer-shaped hole in me, but there is also Duke-shaped duct tape.
To say he was spirited would be an understatement. He was smart and full of love and was a troublemaker of the highest order. He chewed cell phones. He tore up my Tigers hat. He grabbed mail off the counter. If it wasn’t load-bearing, he was probably going to mess with it.
He stole food off the table. He even ate an entire plate of brownies, earning one of his famous trips to the vet. For years there were bungee cords everywhere because he could open cabinets and rummage through the treasures that lay within. If you’re trying to picture it, think Marley with long hair and less of an appetite for walks on the beach.
But it was hard to stay mad when he pulled off one of his trademark heists. For all the trouble he caused, he was always there to greet you and show you what he had recently stolen.
I left for college when he was about three and moved away for good four years later. He never held it against me and was thrilled to see me whenever I came home. He took to Becky just like you’d expect and their naps together became pretty frequent when were in town. In fact, last year when we visited over Christmas he climbed into bed with her before I was done brushing my teeth and I spent the night on the floor while my wife snuggled with my golden brother. When he was younger, I would have told him to move, but he played his age well and I couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.
Over the last few years, he’s slowed down. He couldn’t jump on the counters the same way or bust out of the house and run free the way he could as a pup. Just a few weeks ago he got loose and I was able to catch him in just a few steps. His hips weakened. He lost his booming bark. Going to the park in the heat was out of the question.
But he kept his happy-go-lucky outlook. He instigated wrestling matches with Violet, my folks’ newest doggo, and was more than happy to beg for scraps from the table. He knew how to have fun, a quality I’ve never been able to master. He didn’t have Boomer’s intelligence or Kelly’s fierce loyalty, but he could liven up a room in a way that will stay with me forever.
In many ways, Duke was the last remaining bridge to my youth. He came to us before I could drive a car and has been around for every major life event I’ve had over the last thirteen summers. He was there when I got into college. He got to meet Becky shortly after we started dating and I gave him a nice head scratch the afternoon I walked into the house after buying an engagement ring. He helped me craft my senior thesis and pack up everything I owned into a U-Haul. He was there when we mourned Kelly, and when I decided to move home, he was sitting under the table as I prepared for job interviews. He greeted us when we drove through Toledo on the way to Lansing.
He’s been present in my life, even if he was physically far away, for nearly every important moment. Sadly, even dogs who live long, happy lives aren’t with us for long enough. Duke, the dog with an iron stomach and hidden thumbs, left us tonight two months after his twelfth birthday. It happened suddenly, so I wasn’t able to be with him, but he was surrounded by family and didn’t suffer long.
I’m not a religious person and don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if heaven is real, it’s full of dogs. And now that Duke is among them, heaven is also full of people chasing a giant golden retriever who has stolen a bag of chips or a towel that was supposed to go in the washer.