I first became aware of the story of Cowboy and Wills in September 2009, when I read the "two-minute memoir" featured in Psychology Today's print edition. I shied away from it at first, and once I did read it, I was left with mixed feelings. Monica Holloway's tale about her son's relationship with a special dog, Cowboy (and his subsequent loss), hit way too close to home. You see, I had my own Cowboy - a special dog who was my lifeline to the world, just as Cowboy was to Wills.
In the months after first reading this story, I tried to dismiss it, and my feelings about it, but reading Eileen Garvin's recent review of the book brought it all back, in a way I find difficult to ignore. I found myself remembering, and facing a reality that in some ways makes me uncomfortable. I thought I was over the loss of my own special girl - but I realize now, many years after the fact, that I'm not. And I'm not sure I'll ever be.
When asked in an interview how Wills is coping after the loss of Cowboy, Ms. Holloway responded:
"Wills's heart will always be a little broken over the loss of Cowboy and I don't think that's something that will ever truly go away. As I wrote in the book, Cowboy was his ‘first love and his first love lost.' You never outgrow feelings for the ‘firsts' in your life."
If he's anything like me - she's right on target.
My little girl came to me when I was still very young. I'll never know why my parents thought I needed a dog... but their instincts were absolutely accurate. Who knew that tiny little squirming ball of fur would come to mean so much to me - and what she would teach me.
She was the source of one of my first lessons in empathy. When we were first introduced, I had no idea of how to relate. My parents watched us closely. Unsure what to make of this little blonde creature, I examined her dispassionately as I did so much of my environment. I have always liked regularity in my environment - symmetry, proportion. I became fixated on her eyes - in my young mind, I thought they stuck out too far.
I reached my hand out towards them, to see if I could rectify that. Fortunately, my parents were quick to intervene, teaching me the basics of empathy: "If someone poked you in the eye, it would hurt. Whatever you would feel in that situation, she would feel too." Mercifully, that teaching stuck - in later years I was appalled to hear that story. That I would have hurt my best friend without understanding it, hurt me inside, and made me ashamed.
We were soon inseparable. We went everywhere together, and at night, she slept at my feet. Everywhere we went, she drew people's attention. "Oh," they'd exclaim. "Look at the puppy! She's so cute! How old is she?"
This was my opening to talk about my most favorite subject, and my best friend. As she got older, it became a longer and longer conversation - in part, because that question never went away. Almost at the end of her second decade, passersby would still greet us with that question, and would be shocked at the response. "She's how old?" They'd ask in amazement. Even as a doggy senior citizen, she had the speed and energy of a puppy.
She was fearless. We'd take her hiking, and to the beach. She'd scale any hill, any rock - wherever I went, she'd go too, no matter how high. Despite her small size, she had the agility and tenacity of a mountain goat. This fearlessness also drove introductions - people were often amazed and taken aback by her.
I'll never forget the day she pulled away from me at a nearby park. Immediately my father and I chased after her, only to find she was too far ahead of us. With her short stature, she always liked the high ground, and she found it - on the backside of a sunbather who was spending a romantic afternoon in the park. It made for an interesting introduction - but fortunately the couple had a sense of humor about it, and we all had a good laugh.
Despite this unflagging energy, she didn't fit the snippy dog stereotype. She was, at times, almost supernaturally calm and patient. When my mother got a kitten, she let him win every fight. It was several years before she'd finally had enough. Then, she pulled an aikido-like move, flipping him over her shoulder into a box full of papers. He thought twice about bothering her again.
For me, she was always there. When I came home crying from bullying, she was there. When friends rejected me, she was there. If I had a meltdown, she didn't run from it. Instead, she became my guard, taking on any creature, canine, feline or human, who would cause me distress.
Like many on the spectrum, I liked to spin. With her help, I found a more socially acceptable way to do this: dancing. I'd put on a record, scoop her up, and we'd waltz around the room while I sang along to the music. She never seemed to get dizzy.
For years, I prayed that she'd never die. I couldn't imagine living without her - and when she passed 18, still amazingly healthy and energetic, it almost seemed it had worked. Even her vet found her age difficult to believe - she took great delight in sending her records to colleagues at a nearby university, then quizzing them on the subject's age. They all got it wrong.
But time and death can't be cheated, and the day came that I lost her. She woke up one day, weak and limp as a rag doll. As I lifted her off the bed, I knew something was terribly wrong. I stayed home from work, and called the vet. We tried to treat her, but in the end, it didn't work.
Mid afternoon, she stood up, fell over, and began convulsing, I desperately tried to rush her to the hospital, but we didn't make it. As I held her in the car, I felt her heart beating. Then it stopped. I bent over her, put my head to hers, and begged her not to go.
Suddenly, her heart sprung back to life, and she turned to look me in the eye. Something passed between us in that moment. The look seemed to say, "I tried - I tried to stay. But you're grown now. You don't need me anymore. It's time for me to go now." Then she closed her eyes for the final time. I still think of her as my guardian angel. She was always there for me in life, and even now, she visits me in my dreams.
One of our favorite dancing songs was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version of the hit song, "Mr. Bojangles." Midway through the song, there are a few lines that get me every time:
"He spoke through tears of 15 years, how his dog and him traveled about. The dog up and died. He up and died - after 20 years he still grieves."
Yup, still gets me every time.