“Welcome home, honey,” my mom said, ushering me inside the front door of my childhood house. My dad followed close behind with my suitcases. As soon as we stepped through the door, we were greeted by a wriggling 82-pound bundle of brown-furred energy: our family dog, a boxer named Murray. I hadn’t seen him in five months, not since I had been home for Christmas. He yelped and barked with joy, leaping up to kiss my face, then running around the living room—his own version of welcoming me home.
“It’s good to be back,” I said, petting Murray’s head. He slobbered all over my hand, but I didn’t mind.
“I’m going to make you a sandwich,” my mom said, heading into the kitchen. “I can tell you haven’t been eating enough.”
I didn’t argue—I hadn’t really been eating or sleeping much the past month and a half, not since my engagement had quite suddenly but irrevocably unraveled. At the time, I had been living halfway across the country from my family, finishing up my third and final year of graduate school. My brother flew out to be with me for the shell-shocked initial week of the break-up, and he was a godsend: hugging me as I cried, walking with me to class, sitting patiently with me at the kitchen table and gently plying me with a few more bites of food, a few more sips of water.
But then my brother had to return home for work. I told my family—and myself—that I could make it through the final five weeks of the semester on my own. I was strong. I could take care of myself.
I managed to keep it together on the outside—I finished up my teaching obligations for the semester, turned in my thesis, and completed all my course requirements to graduate. But inside, I was a wreck. I had trouble sleeping. I lost weight. For the first time in my life I suffered from anxiety, a near-constant pressure in my chest that sometimes made it hard to breathe.
Finally, the semester ended and I boarded a flight home to California. I arrived home shaken, unsure who I was, scared to be on my own facing a wide-open future. Just months before, I had everything mapped out. I thought I would spend the summer planning a wedding. I thought the two of us would get jobs at a university together. I thought I was done looking for my life partner. But now, all of that was gone. I was back at square one.
“This is exciting!” my friends said. “You’ve got a fresh start.” But I did not feel excited. I felt lost.
My family only talked about my ex in negative terms. “We could always see he wasn’t right for you,” they said. “You’re better off without him. You dodged a bullet.” I knew their comments were meant to make me feel better, and I was grateful for their unflagging support of my choices. But, despite everything, the truth was that I missed my ex deeply. And I felt confused and guilty for missing him.
Out of everyone, it seemed that Murray, our family dog, was the one who best sensed my bewildered, raw grief. He looked up at me with his large, concerned eyes and I felt understood. He didn’t prod me forward when I wasn’t ready to move yet. He didn’t judge me for my contradicting, inconsistent emotions. He loved me and accepted me, just as I was.
Murray is not normally a big cuddler. He’s been known to leap off a queen-sized bed if someone else dares to invade his personal space by lying down beside him. Yet, as May melted into June and June gave way to July, Murray was my shadow. He followed me around the house. He snored under the desk as I wrote on my laptop. Every night—as if sensing that nights were the toughest time for me—he curled up at the foot of my bed and kept me company as I tried to sleep.
As July faded into August, I began to sleep more. And eat more. And laugh. And smile. The hollowness and fear inside me slowly began to dissipate like fog in sunlight. Excitement and energy began to grow anew in my core. I was healing. I was becoming myself again, passionate about life, unafraid to try new things. When I came home from my new yoga class or volunteer work at the food pantry, Murray would rush up to the door and greet me with his sloppy dog kisses. Always, he made me feel safe and loved for exactly who I was.
In September, I moved out of my parents’ house and onto the next chapter of my life, which is still being written. Murray stayed behind—he is, after all, our family dog and my parents’ home is his home. I get to see him whenever I visit. He is still not a big cuddler, but whenever I return to sleep in my childhood bed for a night or two, I will always hear his doggy footsteps padding upstairs. His big head will nudge my bedroom door open. And he’ll curl up at the foot of my bed for a little while, as if to remind me that no matter what happens, he’s there and he understands.
This essay was originally published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog.
Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Zyzzyva, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Loss, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers young people through writing: www.writeonbooks.org.