In the beginning there was Gracie.
I had just met someone and had fallen in love in a way that I never had before – hook, line, and sinker – and when I saw Gracie, I fell in love again.
He wasn't Gracie yet, of course. He was just a scrawny pit bull terrier running around in a busy Los Angeles intersection, rearing up on his hind legs and putting his paws on the hoods of cars that were stopped at a traffic light.
This dog is going to get run over, I thought. Why isn't anybody doing anything? I saw three old ladies standing on the corner watching him dodge cars, their hands over their mouths, but none of them made a move to help. I sighed, pulled over, ran over to the intersection and shouted, “Hey puppy! Come here!”
The dog turned around, panting happily, and charged at me full speed as I crouched down and called him over. I caught a glimpse of enormous smiling jaws and had just enough time to wonder if I had made a terrible decision when he leapt on me, wagging his entire body, and knocked me off my feet. I grabbed him and held him so he wouldn't run back into traffic. I had left my car door open, and he jumped into the back seat and sat there.
“Where's your owner?” I asked him, looking for a collar. There was none. He was filthy, skinny, not neutered, and looked like he needed a good meal and a bath before anything else. I sighed, looking at the time. I was late for work. “Okay, pup. You get to hang out with me for the day.” After work, I reasoned, I could find his home and get him back there. Somebody around had to love this dog.
I left him in my car in a parking structure at my work and got him food and water. Every half hour I would go out and check on him and walk him around the parking lot with a belt around his neck as a leash. “Your owner must be really worried,” I kept telling him. He would just grin at me.
After work, I went all over the neighborhood where I had found him. Nobody had ever seen the dog before, they said, but hinted at dog fighting rings and stray pits. “Take him to the shelter,” advised the last person who opened the door for me. “And you probably shouldn't be knocking on doors around here after dark.” He shut the door in my face.
I had already made up my mind that I wanted to keep him by then, so I began the long drive back to San Diego. On the way there, I got him a leash and a collar and called my boyfriend to tell him we had a dog, at least temporarily, hopefully longer.
“No, Brooke, we are not keeping a dog,” he said. “What kind of dog is it anyway? What? A pit bull? No. No. No. That's the only type of dog that scares me. Not that we would be keeping it anyway. I don't even want it in the house.” I brought the dog in anyway.
“Meet Jaws!” I said. My boyfriend shook his head. “No. This dog is not staying here.” Jaws started to growl and then bark at him. “You see what I mean?” he asked me. “He's going to attack me.” He got up and left the room, and Jaws followed him, tail wagging, until he got closer. Then he stopped barking, because what Jaws really wanted was attention. After that, Jaws followed him everywhere.
That was the first day.
Over time, Jaws became Gracie, so named because he was graceless, ramming into people's legs with rough affection, knocking over cups and vases with his constantly wagging tail. He was a street dog, awkward with other dogs but wonderful with people. We weren't supposed to have a dog in our place, so we took turns taking him to work so as not to leave him alone. Gracie became a constant companion during my frequent drives to Los Angeles and back. He was unfailingly wonderful company. He was family.
“Man,” said the Los Angeles Police Commissioner during a press conference, “I always see you covering stories with that dog. He's a beautiful dog.” By then Gracie was a fixture when I was out on the field. He met commissioners and politicians and celebrities and got to sniff them all. He got to smell every city between Ventura and Tijuana and loved every moment of it.
One day, I was covering a triple murder and suicide in Laguna Beach at a beachside hotel. When I was done, I decided to take Gracie to the water. It was a secluded beach and no one was around, so I dropped his leash to let him run.
He went straight into the water, tail waving happily, getting submerged and then popping up again like a flag. I gaped after him for thirty seconds – god, could he swim! I had never known – and realized I had to go in after him. I jumped in with my clothes on and my phone in my pocket and went after him, finally catching up to him on a rock about a quarter of a mile out. I grabbed his leash, screaming and swearing, and tried to tow him back to shore. He towed me instead, and we swam back together as I held his leash tighter than I ever had.
When we got back to the beach, I looked up to see hotel security lined up on the cliff watching the whole drama play out. They had followed us out to the water, thinking that I was going to take paparazzi-style shots, and watched in awe as I dove in after my quick-moving dog. They had towels for us and gave us pizza and we laughed about the whole thing. Gracie had never looked so happy in his life – and he always looked happy.
He was family. It was the two of us for a year, and then there was Gracie too. He was our proxy for conversations, our companion as we slept. I bitched at him in the mornings when he woke me up early and groaning with a hangover to feed him. I curled up around him and my boyfriend curled up around me at night. When we sat on the couch, we unconsciously started sitting at opposite ends, so that he could jump up and curl up between us, his favorite spot.
“Honey, we have to stop letting the dog come between us like this,” I would say, jokingly. I never meant it. By then, he was us, the third leg of the stool, the hypoteneuse of our relationship. We were a pack, a family.
“That's a damn happy dog,” people would observe, watching us walk together. In pictures of the two of us, we had identical huge, stupid grins. We ran together, jogged together, and finally, as he got older, we walked together.
Gracie was part of us for ten years, and I valued every moment of our time together. This week, he got sick and died. His happiness and liveliness concealed the tumor that was quietly growing in his belly for months, maybe longer, until two days ago, it no longer could. He was ten years old and so tired at the end, but still wagging his tail, still curled up with us, still giving us every bit of love he had as he always had, with no judgment and no reservations.
Now we are lost, looking at the empty spot on the couch where he curled up every day for years. I am lost, listening for his happy snores at my feet as I write. Sometimes, I would listen to his breathing all day and panic if I couldn't hear it, thinking he had died in his sleep. “Gracie!” I would say, and he would open an eye and look at me as if to say don't be ridiculous, I'm right here, what are you yelling about? Then he would sigh and stretch and go back to sleep.
Toward the end, I think I knew on some subconscious level that he was getting ill, even though I would take him to the vet and they would tell me nothing was wrong with him but age. I would have recurring dreams that I was frantically looking for him, crying and yelling, running after him, and that he was gone. I would wake up and shower him with relieved affection, knowing that he was still there, for the time being, at least – that he hadn't run away, that he was with us.
Just before he died, those dreams stopped. When he got sick, I knew it was final, but I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe that those dreams were coming true so soon. We have another few good years, I told myself. At least a couple of good years. But we didn't.
Gracie, where are you now? We miss you so much.