Now and then you meet someone whose smile lights up your heart. My wife's got one of those smiles -- a big part of what first drew me to her. Our wonderful Lorraine, a cruelly mistreated animal before she came to us -- a dog long gone and still dearly missed -- Lorraine had one of those smiles. I just came upon another, on the face of a dog named Samantha.
Fourteen years ago, Jim brought Samantha home from a neighbor who had a litter of German Shepherd puppies. Jim was 67 then, recently retired and recently widowed. Alone, without a job to define each day, he struggled with whether "an old guy" should bring home a puppy. Now 81, he jokes that at 67 he was just a kid.
Samantha and I almost bumped into each other outside a bookstore, and I squatted to apologize. Her once black and brown face has faded to grayish tan, a silver bandit's mask around her eyes. Her teeth remain surprisingly white and although a few of them have fallen out, there it was: that smile.
Samantha slowly lowered herself to sit as close to me as she could maneuver while I gently hugged her pretty face. She's the kind of dog who enjoys being enjoyed, being whispered to and kissed, even by a stranger; perhaps the phrase "perfect stranger" was the invention of a dog, for what other creature on the planet but a dog would assume perfection in someone they'd never before met. Sweet Samantha.
Jim explains they've both slowed down a lot over the years, medical problems oddly in sync. Both have bad hips. Both are losing their vision. Neither can get through the night without waking up to pee. And while neither has much of an appetite any longer, each keeps a passion for a long favorite sweet treat (coffee ice cream for him, vanilla for her). It's rare hours they spend apart, now and for many years, and they are clearly in love with each other.
Samantha, in the manner of dogs, speaks with her body and that smile, but Jim is the chatty one of the pair. As one animal person to another, Jim shares that he has made his and her final plans: Neither of them, he assures me with clarity that indicates a blueprint, will live long past the death of the other. He promises they will "go out" together, and that they will be buried together. I start to raise some of the obvious objections which Jim brushes off, predicting that I'll feel the same if I'm as lucky as he has been, growing old alongside such a good friend. It is impossible to debate his certainty.
We part as new friends to go our separate ways. I turn to watch them go, each enjoying the day, bringing a smile where they go, committed to living every day that they can, happy to remain in the company of the other.
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