I never had a dog and never wanted one. Until yesterday.

Two days ago, I got a call from Mickey, an old psychotherapy client of mine. He asked if he could come in and see me. I agreed, knowing something was wrong. Had he broken up with his boyfriend? Did his elderly aunt finally die? I didn’t think about it too much. I’d know soon enough. When he came in the next morning, it was good to see him, but I could tell that his mood was somber. He carried a small plastic bag. He removed a photograph. The photo was of my client, his boyfriend, and a nice looking pooch. I knew the dog was dead. Mickey said, “It’s been so hard,” and gripped his heart with his hand. Then he told me Sandy’s story.

Mickey got Sandy in 1994. That was a tough year for Mickey. The fashion industry was collapsing. He gave up a job with an abusive garmento and went freelance. Work was not pouring in. It was a good time, too. He met his lover, Stefan. Stefan was 24 and Mickey was 31. Stefan reminded him that when they met, Mickey had two goals: to buy an apartment and get a dog. He remembered that even though he was an only child, his parents wouldn’t let him have a pet. When his aunt went to Europe for six weeks one summer, they left their dog with his family. When they came back Mickey was heartbroken, and decided then that when he could he would get a dog. 20 years later, he fulfilled that dream with Sandy.

He didn’t know anything about dogs, and the first couple of years were wild. His puppy ate through rugs and the furniture.

Mickey covered his face. He confessed that early on at one point things were so bad in his life, and Sandy was so frustrating, that he took his anger about his life out on his dog. But, he said, Stefan reminded him of how good he had been to Sandy for so many years, and about how Sandy had forgiven him, and that he should forgive himself.

In the last few years, Sandy’s arthritis started getting really bad. He knew that her time would soon come, but Stefan couldn’t let go, and Sandy still seemed to get enjoyment out of life. They did all they could to maintain Sandy’s quality of life, and she hung in there. There was such a bond between them.

When the vet knew that Sandy had a few years left at best, he suggested that they get another dog. This might help Sandy stick around a while longer. Mickey found a rescue dog in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Chuckie was a dachshund who had been kept in a cage 17 hours a day. Chuckie was scared when they brought him home, but Sandy took care of him. Chuckie learned from Sandy how to get their human to take him out and give him biscuits.

In the end, Sandy was so weak that Mickey would have to hold his legs up for him to poop. He laughed remembering what this looked like on the streets of New York.

Finally, they knew that the time had come to put Sandy to sleep. Mickey called the vet. Mickey and Stefan took Friday off and they went to their house by the beach. Early Saturday morning, they went to the beach one last time. Mickey remembered how much Sandy loved the beach. She would run on the sand in great circles over and over again. This time Sandy just lay next to Mickey and Stefan.

Later that day, they gave Sandy the sedatives so that she would be in a peaceful place when they brought her into the vet. But Sandy didn’t seem to react to the strong medication. Finally, Sandy did become tranquil, and they brought her in. The doctor told them that Sandy had a huge mass on her liver and now Mickey understood why the drugs weren’t working that well. She didn’t have much of a blood flow. But with each passing minute, Sandy became more and more in a quiet place. The doctor had a hard time finding a vein. Finally, he gave Sandy an injection, and it was all so peaceful. Mickey put his face in Sandy’s fur, and took a deep, deep breath and sobbed.

Mickey looked at me, and cried. After some minutes passed, he asked me if I had a dog. I knew what I was going to say to him when he finished his story, and now he asked the perfect question to lead into what I was about to say.

I told him that I didn’t know if I would be able to keep it together as I spoke, and I couldn’t. I said that my two kids have been clamoring for a dog. All their friends have dogs and they love every dog they meet. My wife, Sharon, and I told them we’d do it next spring, when Maya is 8 and Ethan closer to 6. I was resigned to it, but I didn’t really want to do it. I knew what having a dog would mean. I would get the main part of the responsibility. I’d be walking it in the freezing cold. I’d be up with it at night and cleaning up when it got sick. I’d be paying the vet bills. I’d have even less time for myself. It would be smelly and messy. I had two small kids, and I wasn’t naive about the costs of such a relationship. My kids thrilled me, but they were my limit. Now here was Mickey in front of me, in about as much emotional grief as a human can feel, and in listening to his story, it became absolutely clear to me. I had to have a dog. At this point I completely lost it. I was supposed to be there for Mickey, but now he was consoling me, telling me it was ok, that we were there for each other.

This is what great therapy is about. Sometimes people ask how I could sit there listening to people complain about the same crap week in and week out. I tell them that’s not the way it is. I get to be with people at their realest, when they are most authentic, honest, and open. And when I’m at my best, I’m at my realest. Mickey and I had a long standing relationship of trust, and he knew that he could bring this grief to me and my room, and we could hold that pain together. It is an honor to be a witness in such situations. What he didn’t know was how much that moment would change my life. As Jung said, when two people have an authentic encounter it can’t help but change both of them.

Mickey was thrilled to hear what I had to say. I could see that it gave Sandy’s death some new layer of meaning. He offered to help in any way he could. We hugged, and he left.

At first I thought, how crazy. How human. This guy comes in in agony. He tells me about what a giant pain in the ass it was to have this dog, eating his furniture, driving him crazy, having a long, slow decline and in the end bringing him nothing but unbearable agony. And my response is: bring it on! That’s what I want!

But when I was driving home that night, I got what it was all about. I could see the love that Mickey and Stefan and Chucky and Sandy all shared together. Mickey with his story of never getting what he wanted as a child, Chucky having been locked in a cage and being rescued. I could see them all running in great big circles on the beach.

Love is not easy, it’s not pretty, it’s not cheap. But whatever the cost, it’s the goddamndist greatest thing this life has to offer. And I want my family to have about as much of it as they can get. Before Mickey I never really understood. Dog is love.

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