When I was in 6th grade, my dog died. Pepper was a yellow lab, her dad a black lab. From him she inherited a sprinkling of black fur across her golden-yellow back.
I was the kind of kid who got bullied, ever since I was identified as “gifted” in third grade and sent to a special school once a week. I rode with two other students in a yellow taxi to another school across town. We played Oregon trail on the computer and bought lunch at the deli in the strip mall across the street.
Late elementary and middle school were never kind to kids like me. Smart, a little chubby, a late bloomer with an artist-mom who insisted we dress with individuality, and never taught me I shouldn’t brush my thick curly hair. Girls wrote and performed a song about how much everyone hated me. I asked my little sister to chase away the boys who tormented me on the playground.
Thankfully, my parents eventually relented and bought me a loyal friend in a hyper yellow labrador puppy. Pepper was not well-trained and only stopped barking at night when my dad would throw on his fuzzy robe and march outside with a cup of water to throw across her brow.
She had an outdoor run and a heated dog house, but in the dead of Canadian winter, we let her sleep in the mudroom. I snuggled her even when she smelled unendingly like a wet dog with snow-trodden paws. Eventually, her penchant for chasing moving vehicles caught up with her and chased a motorcycle down our two-lane country highway. I was watching Hello Kitty with my sisters when we heard sirens and ran outside. I think the motorcyclist was hurt, and later he sued us for damages, but all I remember is seeing my best friend, yellow fur and triangle ears, laying still in the ditch on the edge of our sprawling property right on the curve in the road.
I was inconsolable for days, further distraught by the slight tinge of relief that snuck its way into my crying jags. No more walks or baths, or flea treatments or grumbling from my dad about her midnight barking.
What I missed most, I guess, was someone to rely on. A predictable excuse for my dad and I to layer our clothes with snow pants and gloves and toboggan bags, and take Pepper for walks to the edge of the escarpment every night. Our feet crunching on hard-packed snow, we walked down quiet country streets under star-strewn skies every night, because Pepper needed exercise. I suppose I also needed my dad. I just wasn’t sure how else to tell him that. I don’t remember what we talked about, I don’t think I mentioned the bullying. I don’t remember asking him for advice or him telling me how he felt about work, or anything really. I only remember finally feeling safe, like I belonged beside this man in leather gloves lined with fur and a familiar tan jacket he wore over his winter sweaters. We walked through nights when I felt alone and afraid of what the future might hold. Like no one could love me or like me. Like I would never find my friends, besides Pepper forever panting at the end of the leash. We walked miles but I only remember that one winter, the crisp cloud of my breath under inky black sky, the bark Pepper gave when she heard something rustle in the brush.
What gift of time and friendship can I offer my own child? What escape from a world determined to call her less, to cause her uncertainty as she searches for where to place her feet? I followed my dad's footsteps then, carefully stepping my smaller snow boots inside the marked trails of his large ones. We walked the same path every night and I measured my steps beside his with hope.
After Pepper died I sobbed in violent crying jags for several days. My parents had recently redone my basement bedroom with quirky furniture I chose from ikea and a queen-sized bed with a mattress handed down from my great grandmother. My mom and I splatter painted the walls and drop ceiling with black and white, and I often stand in front of the mirrored wardrobe to lament the growing girth and height of my sturdy Dutch frame. Then I would remember the friend I recently lost in Pepper, resorting to sobbing loudly on my new bed, loud enough to hope someone hears me.
My younger sisters try to cajole me out of my grief. They ask if we can play soccer in the backyard, or perhaps a board game upstairs. I refuse and my mom tries another tack: ordering me to do my homework and piano practicing, though I am clearly uninterested in such mundane pursuits while wallowing in my grief.
Finally, my dad comes down. He is quiet but firm, "that’s quite enough. She was not your only friend, and there is nothing else we can do."
I nod, though snot and tears still flow freely down my face. It’s time, I suppose, to move forward despite my loss. To acknowledge that life comes intrinsic with hurt and heartache but also with beauty and a dazzling array of stars across the navy night sky and footsteps in the snow.
(Note: Dog pictured is not Pepper, but my kid’s own best friend, Maverick).