by Dr. Chris Colloca
Our best friend and loyal companion, Harleigh, our dog of 16 years passed away this morning in our arms. As we said our Good-byes and told her how much we loved her I did my best to shift my mind away from the sorrow and pain of losing her towards the gratitude that we have for being able to be her custodians during her time here on this earth. I thought of all of the time we spent together and sure there are highlights. Just as we humans get together and reminisce about the good times and tell funny stories, I’m reminded of our Harleigh stories. It makes me stronger in my belief that it is the journey of Life it is the experiences that are the most important, and not the end game. You know the end game. I’ll be happy when …
So many times, we think, “when these few things in my life straighten out, that’s when things will be great.” This is the end game mentality that I myself have all too often fallen victim of. But, its times like these when we realize that it is the little things in life that make Life as good as it gets. Right there in the moment when your child says something that makes you laugh. A hug from a loved one. Sharing a deep and connecting conversation with a friend who listens and advocates for us. The pride in seeing someone learn or advance. Giving a gift. The feeling of accomplishment in completing a task. Taking in a beautiful sunset. Enjoying a great meal. These are all examples of Life as good as it gets. And, I think it’s as simple as that.
Harleigh never saw things with any twisted end game mentality like us humans do. She got excited just being in our presence. She would wag her tail so hard that her whole ass wiggled when we simply came home. She wanted to communicate just how thrilled that she was to be in our presence. This is something I used to take for granted and this simple daily occasion was as good as it gets.
Like most dogs, Harleigh had a preference to human food over her dog food. She would wait until any and all opportunities were over to be fed table scraps to opt for eating her dog food. She still outsmarted us. When we would let her out to do her business, she would wander over to our Wine Bar and Outdoor Kitchen and come home with a full belly from patrons whom she had charmed into convincing to share their food with her. She loved the affection, she loved the food, and she welcomed the love our visitors showed her. She was even kind to other dogs visiting. It was as good as it gets.
My loyal companion followed me everywhere I went. She just yearned to always be with us. When I would drive the tractor in the vineyard, Harleigh was always one row over keeping her distance for safety, but trotting alongside parallel with me all the way down the row and all the way back until I finished. The vineyard rows are longer than 3 football fields, but it didn’t matter how long they were to Harleigh. She didn’t tire out. In fact, one summer several years ago I took her to the Vet for a checkup and they were concerned saying that she had lost 12 pounds. I told them about how much she ran all over our property all summer and they agreed the cause was simply exercise. I should have been the one running and Harleigh on the tractor! But, for Harleigh being outside and having the run of the property was as good as it gets.
On our wedding day, we wanted our best friend to be part of the special day. Mindy ordered a corsage for Harleigh and she stood at the arch with my best man and I waiting for the Bride to come in. Mindy came in on a horse and carriage and despite me thinking we had perfectly planned our wedding ceremony, written checklist and all, we didn’t plan on Harleigh going after the horse. But, that is exactly what happened. As the horse and carriage arrived, Harleigh took off and began barking and running toward the horse, who became a bit startled, but luckily didn’t get spooked, or we would have had a runaway bride. To this day, Mindy believes that Harleigh was just mad because she thought she was the one marrying me that day and Mindy was intruding. But, standing up there during our wedding ceremony, and being the only other soul on the dance floor with us during our first dance was maybe as good as it gets.
Harleigh loved the water. Whenever our family went boating, Harleigh could sense it with anticipation. She would observe Mindy packing towels for our outing and she would dart for the door being the first one in our Polaris Ranger that she knew we would drive down to the waterfront where the boat was docked. She wanted to make sure she didn’t miss out. When the kids swam, the Border Collie mix in her would kick in and she would immediately jump in to accompany them and swim in circles to corral the kids and make sure everyone was ok. She would swim to the point of exhaustion and when we would put her back on the boat to rest and catch her breath, she would bark to indicate her desire for more – to the point where we would put a ski-jacket on her backwards to make sure she would stay afloat. In her mind, that was her job – to protect us in the water – and it was as good as it gets.
At church last weekend on Easter Sunday, the sermon reminded us of the story of Jesus and his being the good shepherd to his people from the Book of John. A shepherd looks after sheep and collects a paycheck. It’s just a job and it could be that or any other job. The good shepherd, however, would lay his life on the line for the sheep that he cared for. It wasn’t a job. It’s a lifestyle. The good shepherd is all in. It was an impactful reminder to me of how we approach life and what we make of it. I thought about examples of the good shepherd in my own life. On every successful team I played on, when we knew each other would leave it all on the field, we had the most successful seasons, including a National Championship. Harleigh was the good shepherd to our family always, and we are eternally grateful for her service.
As time took its ultimate toll on Harleigh’s body and she became frailer, Mindy and I would carry her up the stairs so she could sleep in our room as she was accustomed. As I carried her, she looked at me with appreciation and I know that she knew that we were “all in” for her also. From the time Mindy rescued her 16 years ago as a puppy, I think Harleigh knew we were her good shepherds, too.
So, as I write this tribute to Harleigh maybe it’s about sharing this lesson. Maybe it just helps me cope or helps the grieving process. Whatever the case, I’m convinced that living in the moment is the best recipe for happiness. While our tears of sadness have filled our eyes, it is only gratitude that allows us to be thankful for being blessed with caring for her. I hope that Harleigh knew that for us, all of the time that we got to spend with her was as good as it gets. And, I hope that as we were holding her during her last breaths, as difficult as it was, it was still as good as it gets. Because in this life, maybe love is just as good as it will ever get.
We want to extend a heartfelt Thank You to Kat Spires and Kari Holbrook and everyone else who looked after Harleigh with love during our travels and Fruit Valley Veterinary Clinic in Oswego, NY for the care and compassion that they provided to Harleigh and to our family during this difficult time.
Scratching your back in the green grass on a sunny day is as good as it gets.
Getting invited to the party is as good as it gets.
Dancing with your Mom is as good as it gets.
Taking in the views is as good as it gets.
Every day is just as good as it gets.