Growing up, I — like most children — was desperate for a pet. But not just any pet… a dog. I wanted a dog for as long as I can remember, from the moment I knew the word and what it meant. My parents, however, were against the idea. Not because they didn’t like dogs and didn’t want a pet. In fact, their reasoning was quite the opposite. Both my parents had grown up with lots of pets, many of them being dogs. But because of that, they knew just how much work was required and maybe more importantly, just how attached you become. Despite their protests I begged and begged, taking out books from the library on dog breeds, making lists to decide which would be “best for our family” and swearing up and down that I would be the best dog walker in all the land. My parents were steadfast in their rejection of the idea, and instead bought me a GoGo My Walking Pup (remember them?! I can’t believe they’re still around!), and let me have as many fish as my little heart desired.
Eventually my sister and I wore my parents down, mostly because I knew deep down inside they wanted a dog just as badly as we did. There was one condition though — my mom was NOT interested in getting a puppy. She’d say how she already had and raised two babies and wasn’t interested in a (furry) third. So, we needed a dog that wasn’t a puppy and had some general training. Enter: The Seeing Eye. I don’t know how my mom found them, but she learned that in addition to being a puppy raising family or adopting a “senior” dog after they retire (they retire them at about 7 I think), you have the option to adopt dogs that they decide are not a fit for the program, for whatever reason. So, we added our name to a waitlist… a waitlist that had an average wait time of TWO YEARS. I think we eventually forgot about even adding ourselves to the list, until one day we got a call that they had a dog for us.
It was May 2004, a mere month before I graduated high school. I remember driving to Morristown to The Seeing Eye and exclaiming to my parents, “WE ARE TAKING THIS DOG NO MATTER WHAT!” They bring you in for a meet-and-greet of sorts where you can feel out the dog and the program can feel you out to see if you’d be a good fit. They brought us on a tour of the facility and talked to us about their program, while all I could think to myself was “bring us the damn dog!!” Eventually we were brought to a room where we’d wait to meet our (hopefully) new dog… and that’s when Kennedy came bounding in the room. I’ll never forget it. He had an adorable bandana (make him presentable so the nice family will want him!) around his neck, and he was so excited. He came running in, threw himself on the ground and rolled over, belly up, right next to my dad. He had officially identified the sucker. We got to take him for a walk around the property and within about an hour, we were driving home with our new dog! It was one of the best days of my life.
What would follow would be twelve years filled with some of the best memories that I’ve been privileged to acquire. We developed our own (ridiculous sounding) language to talk to Kennedy. We gave him a middle name — O’Reilly. My dad took him for hour long walks every morning, no matter the weather, up to the park a mile away that was eventually referred to as “Kennedy’s Park.” We taught him to give us his paws, to lay down and roll over, and even to “dance.” We learned that if we rubbed the inside of his ear just the right way he’d purr like a cat. We also learned early on that if you left any food out, he’d eat it… including a dozen funfetti cupcakes left by my sister on the back of the counter. We figured out he couldn’t be tamed by a baby gate, and would break it down and take part of the wall with him. He couldn’t be kept off the couch, but was smart enough to only do it when we weren’t around. Walking was for sniffing time, and he had no interest in any running aside from short bursts in the backyard. Bath time was a chore in which he refused to sit, and would roll around in the grass immediately following, running in fast tight circles like a lunatic. He thought ice cubs were a treat (until he eventually figured out it was just frozen water), he loved fruits and vegetables, and was the perfect post-meal floor vacuum. He never barked. He never growled. He knew just the right moment to come over to you when you were sad. And he loved with all his heart, just the way we loved him.
Our little family of five was brought together by chance and a little later than I would have liked, but it was everything my 8 year old dog obsessed self could have dreamed. Everyone tells you that their pet is the best and the most wonderful pet you’ll ever meet… and my feelings for Kennedy are no exception. I didn’t live with him very long, but always looked forward to pulling up to my parent’s house and seeing him waiting for me outside in the nice weather, or greeting me right at the door in the winter. So at the age of 10 and with every passing year, I became increasingly nervous knowing that a labrador’s life expectancy is generally 10 to 12. But we hit 10, 11, 12, even 13… and Kennedy was still truckin’, albeit at a much slower pace. His hind legs became increasingly weaker, he started having little tremors where his eyes would blink and his head would shake for a few moments, and he became picky with his food choices. But he was still happy and wasn’t in pain which was important. As each year passed, my parents agreed that they wouldn’t be selfish and try to keep him around just because they wanted him around… if there ever came a point where he seemed like life was just too difficult for him or he was in pain, there would be no hesitation. We had a little blip a week before his 14th birthday where he came down with a virus and we though we would have to say goodbye, but he made it to 14. Not only did he make it to 14, he gave us 5 whole extra months to give him love… and boy did he get it. I visited my parents almost weekly, spending as much time as I could snuggling him and just telling him how much I loved him.
As the summer months progressed, it became more and more clear that living each day was an exhausting chore. Walking was hard; my parents covered as much as their hardwood floors as they could with cheap $5 yoga mats to prevent him from slipping. He became even pickier with his food choices, some days barely eating at all. He’d walk around anxious and confused, seeming like he wasn’t really sure where he was or what was going on. But despite all of that, he was still that sweet Kennedy I met back in 2004 and fell in love with. We knew it was only a matter of time, but still hoped that somehow he’d defy the odds and live comfortably for a lot longer. Oh how selfish we can be.
Unfortunately on Friday, September 2nd 2016 it was time for us to say goodbye.
Anyone that’s ever owned a pet knows that the love you have for your animal cannot be put into words. It’s an indescribable bond that I was privileged to have. It’s really hard to imagine my life without him in it, but the time he shared with me and the memories from that time will last forever. So while I’m heartbroken and writing this post through a veil of tears, I know that I’m oh so lucky to be in this position. To have had a dog that was such a huge and important part of my (and my family’s!) life for so long, that I can’t even imagine my life without him. It’s just another reminder that all life is short and precious, and you need to cherish every moment; the good ones and the bad ones.
So sleep well, sweet Kennedy O’Reilly. May your days be filled with belly one rubs, pup treats and pupcorn, long walks, and the occasional punch in the fatche. You forever changed our lives for the better, and we are so grateful you chose us as your forever family that fateful day 12 years ago. We love you, buddy boy.