To Corbin, Forever Our Canis Major
My beloved friend,
As I write this, you are cozy on your bed by my desk. You are dreaming, likely of running on our favorite beach. Just two months shy of your 16th birthday, your legs can no longer support you while you are awake, but in dreams? In dreams you still run.
I am writing this now, while you sleep by my feet. But if this is out in the world–being read by anyone other than me, it means you are no longer here.
The truth is I wanted to start to write this now, because I knew that when you left, my voice would likely leave with you.
This is for you, my Corbie.
This is also in honor and tribute to anyone who’s had their life touched, world changed and heart opened–because of an animal friend.
Love at First Sigh
I remember it clear as a full moon; she placed you in my arms, a soft, pudgy black puppy and still sleepy, you gave me a tiny yawn and the littlest sigh. That delicious scent of puppy breath swept through my face like the softest breeze–with that, you cast your spell.
You looked even smaller in Bill’s arms, your new daddy. He had the glow in his eyes and smile on his face that a person can only get when you hold your first puppy for the first time.
He drove back home, while we curled up in the back. After you got bored looking out the window, I cuddled you on my chest, where you promptly nuzzled, sighed once more and fell deeply asleep. Elton John sang on the radio “…how wonderful life is while you’re in the world…”
Your spell was sealed. We were yours from that day on, till your last breath, wrapped in our arms, 16 years later.
With Great Dogs, Comes Great Responsibility
Labrador Retrievers, one of the world’s favorite dog breeds. Loyal, friendly, spirited, agile, intelligent, gentle, resilient, goofy, kind, devoted, hardworking, etc. etc. Somewhere in there, they forget to add that most Labs tend to be spirited puppies for the first 5 years.
Labs come with one hell of a resume, and it’s no wonder why they thrive as beloved family members and playmates as well as hardworking canines in multiple job spheres.
But if there’s something I learned in my years of study, it is that dogs are one thing, infallibly: individuals.
While years of genetic makeup can gift a Labrador with good soil for all those lovely descriptive words, it is not my belief that dogs come prepackaged. There must be a good balance between seed and soil, between nature and nurture.
These things, we would come to learn alongside you. Corbie, you have been a far better teacher than we ever were. Your first lesson included throwing away the “box description” altogether and embrace the dog we had in front of us.
It’s funny, isn’t it? When you miss someone, all your mistakes ring in your ear, like a cruel ghost. To borrow words from Maya Angelou; we did the best we could until we knew better, and when we knew better, we did better. The mistakes we may have made with you, we never repeated with Willow, and so it will go. Every dog brings the gift of experience to anyone willing to learn, and you my friend, have been the ultimate teacher, in such a kind, patient and forgiving way.
We got lucky with you, beautiful individual. I still remember sitting in my Canine Behavior Academy classes and listening to my teacher, Trish King talk about what people look for in a “perfect” family dog:
- loves people/friendly
- loves/can be social with other dogs
- can be gentle and friendly with cats and small animals
- patient and playful with kids
- happy to be active but also able to chill on the couch
- will protect his family when threatened
- loves to be social but is comfortable hanging out at home by himself
- easy to train, smart
- can sit with you at a café and be polite
In short, the list went on describing a dog that is easy to live with, up for anything a human world throws at him.
My first thought was: that is a TON of pressure on a dog.
My second thought was: my goodness, Corbin ticks nearly every box.
We never again took you for granted. You taught me to value and appreciate individuality in every dog I meet, regardless of how many boxes they tick on that list.
Cancer Changes Everything, if you let it
To be given a diagnosis of mast cell tumors is a nightmare scenario for anyone who’s loved a dog. Your first bout with mast cells came at a tender 2 years of age, and the second and last time at 6. By then, Bill and I had settled in comfortable jobs, yet I began to grow anxious and depressed tucked in the walls of a cubicle, watching the seasons change from the window. Increasingly resenting the status quo: the hustle culture, performance reviews, 10 days of PTO a year and constantly getting shamed for not being “a team player” because I am an introvert.
Your second cancer diagnosis was a bitter reminder that time is not a promise and I began to wonder what a life of fulfillment looked like, personally and professionally.
Enter our “Fairy Dog Mother”, our friend and adoptive mom Linda.
Upon hearing the news of your diagnosis and forthcoming surgery, she requested we photograph her two dogs, Kacee and Oscar on our next hike together. It was a service, she insisted, and she would pay us for the photos. She of course, knew we would put that money towards your care.
I will always take great pleasure in knowing you fought and beat Cancer twice and that you enjoyed the rest of your life without it ever touching you again.
That day on the trail with Linda and her dogs, rusty as we were with our camera, was a day I will never forget. I can’t speak for Bill, but for me it was finding the way back to myself. Dogs and art. And so it was that a gate was opened, and just like a dog–fresh at the beginning of an adventure–we set off into the wild. I gave my notice at work and started what would become The Labs & Co.
A whole new world was opened to us. Experiences, friends, colleagues… a different way of life by the beat of our own drum. Our own heartbeat.
It was all because of you.
Muse, Mentor and Master of Hearts
One of my favorite things bout you, is not just your general kindness and acceptance of nearly everyone (human or animal), but rather your obvious joy and affection for someone you love. It was very obvious when we became foster parents, first to kittens and then to dogs in need of a temporary home. While you were patient and social with them all, it wasn’t until a gangly tangle of legs and giant ears by the name of Willow came to stay with us that you made it clear where you stood on the matter: “I wouldn’t mind having this one around for the rest of my life.”
I believe you were around the age Willow is now when we brought her home. An 8 year old dog and a 6 month old puppy–I still remember sitting in Sue’s office with Bill. She was then director of behavior and training at Humane Society of Sonoma County, where I volunteered and got assigned to care for Willow. We were talking to her about potentially adopting our little fearful foster.
Willow was already so attached and dependent on you, and we were afraid of what your absence would mean for her. “He will have a lot to teach her” she said, “make sure you give them each one-on-one time, but you will find her to be a great comfort towards the end of his life.” Sue was right about everything.
Dogs are made for love. There is no doubt in my mind. Their love is real, palpable and delightfully obvious.
We worked our asses off to provide Willow with a safe place to call home and a loving circle of friends. We worked diligently to help her be her own dog, and like an orchid that took root between shadow and light, she bloomed into the most amazing dog (aside from you) I have ever had the honor to love.
But you know what? It is you who helped her get here. Nobody but you could have taught her important things dogs teach, such as social skills, the best places to sniff or how high to lift your leg to pee. You taught her that it’s perfectly fine to share a water bowl and how to engage in the perfect game of tug. You taught her the simple joys of being a dog, replacing fear with fun. You were the sunshine that little orchid needed in order to bloom.
You both inspired so many projects, the most basic of which is the dearest to my heart: photographing what you love.
I am so grateful you existed in the time of iPhones, leaving us with endless photos and videos of everyday moments, often the sweetest and the ones we’ll miss the most.
It has taken my breath away, Corbie, to see the love you inspire in others. Friends and family near and far, and in this day and age of social media where sharing you with the world fills my inbox with messages from strangers, sending you their well-wishes though they have never felt the magic of your presence. But I suspect they know such magic, because they have loved a dog like you.
You are so loved.
You are so loved.
Our Last Song
Your last days on Earth were spent not that differently than the life we made for each other: always together, picnics at our favorite beach, leisurely walking by the creek, often visited by your favorite people, enjoying real food cooked with love and cuddling before bedtime.
We make a promise, the minute we open our hearts and homes to a companion animal. The most difficult promise, yes, but also the most important one: I will protect you, I will be there for you until the last breath and I will love you, forever.
After a misty morning spent at the beach, and a delicious second breakfast of venison and sweet potato; I put on ocean waves as music for you. You were already so serene and at peace. Your two humans by your side, your Willow and even your kitties nearby. I sang lullabies to you from day one, and that day was no different, salty tears aside.
“Golden slumbers fill your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise, sleep pretty darling…”
You closed your eyes for the last time, peacefully at home and surrounded by love on the afternoon of September 17th.
I hope that the first thing you did was run across an endless beach, full speed, mouth open wide in joy and that you were greeted by everyone we miss.
I hope you’ll visit us in dreams and salty ocean breezes. I hope you’ll be there to walk us home, when we close our eyes to this world. I hope you know how much we love you.
Back here on Earth, it was as if all color was stripped away. Willow lays on your bed, with her nose deep in the crevices where your scent must remain. She was so lost the first few days, waiting for you by the door or just laying down outside. Like us, she lost her compass and we are learning to be ourselves in this new chapter.
Grief is a vast amount of love that doesn’t know where to go just yet. Joe Cocker’s Bye Bye Black Bird will always grip my heart. We’ll be seeing you in every crow or raven that crosses our path, “Corbie” after all, is a Scottish nickname for “black bird”. We’ll be thinking of you every time we visit our beach, and our special spot, “Corbie’s Cove”. You will live on in Willow, your greatest legacy and you will remain harnessed to our hearts.
I will think of you every time I start to question why I do what I do, because you’ll always remind me why we started. You really were the catalyst for writing our own life. We must have done something good along the way to deserve a gift like you. You taught me that if nothing else, I want to be worthy of such a gift, and make the damn most of our time.
As Gail Caldwell writes in a favorite book of mine: “I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them, and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures.”
My beloved friend, you are not just a bright star, you are an entire constellation. Our Canis Major.
Thank you for lighting up our lives. We miss you dearly.
We love you forever.