Seven years ago, when my first marriage of fifteen years unexpectedly went belly up, I was involuntarily launched on what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. There are other names for this kind of experience. The writer Elizabeth Lesser calls it the Phoenix Process. Dante called it “the dark woods.” Whatever you call it, it’s a time of upheaval, pain, and eventually, transformation. And to be sure, the year I spent ending my marriage and recovering – perhaps from the marriage as much as the divorce – was one of the most powerful and potent of my life. I still look back on it with a sense of respect and awe.
What I didn’t understand for a long time, though, was that the year of my divorce was only the beginning of a much longer voyage. Life had a great deal more in store for me than merely the end of who I was in my first marriage. I would spend the next half decade learning nothing less than how to love well, and what it meant to be loved well. Those are taller orders, and far more enriching ones. To learn those things is to be rearranged at an atomic level. I had a long path to walk.
Through it all, to my infinite gratitude, there was a dog. If a soul dog is an animal who accompanies you along this sometimes painful and often terrifying road, then clearly Thomas fits that description. I found him at the Oregon Humane Society in July of 2006, after the death of our dog, Boo, of autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Three years earlier, I had lost the dog whose heart I’d stolen from my ex-husband, a mischievous Golden Retriever named Whiskey who had gone with me into the wilderness the first time. That July, I was ready for another companion, and I found Thomas after carefully considering what I wanted in a dog, and poring over many photos and breed descriptions.
A big dog, I thought at the time, is what I wanted. I love big dogs, and I believe in author Cat Warren’s observation that life seems less frightening with a large dog at your side. I had other requirements, too: A male dog, a little goofy and not too serious, and eager to follow a trail. Thomas was and is all of those things. And yet, it turns out he is so much more.
He was eight weeks old when I first met him at the shelter in Portland, Oregon, and a bit shy and frightened. He was a beautiful puppy, a mix of Border Collie and Siberian Husky, and something mysterious in our interaction drew me to him. His shyness didn’t deter me. He allowed me to hold him and pet him, but he wasn’t overeager about it. He had no real reason to trust me, this tiny puppy on his own for the first time in a shelter, but he did.
“He’s the one,” I whispered in the tiny meeting room, more to myself than anyone else. When we went back two days later to pick him up, he was freshly neutered and ready to go. I slyly handed my ex-husband the car keys and prepared to carry Thomas out. A friend of mine who had worked in shelters told me her theory that the person who carried a puppy out of a shelter was the one he was most likely to bond with. I wasn’t sure that was always true, but I was leaving nothing to chance. I wanted him to be my dog.
I put in the effort wherever possible to achieve that. I trained Thomas in the hills and mountains of Oregon, Montana, and Idaho, where we lived during the first 18 months of his life, as he quickly grew into the big dog I hoped he would. He came out of his shell almost immediately when we brought him home, but he was wonderfully behaved from the beginning. I’d never had such an easy time house-breaking a dog. At eight weeks old, I praised him once for peeing outside, and he never had an accident inside again. He was ruining me for other dogs.
And then came the dark day when I was sitting at my mother’s kitchen counter back in my hometown of Indianapolis, messaging with my ex-husband, and all of a sudden life had changed, over my objections. I was stunned at how swiftly my life had altered itself. I didn’t go back out west for almost five weeks. I stayed with my mother and absorbed my new reality. I also needed time to accept that I would be moving back to the Midwest from my home in the mountains, because I simply didn’t have the strength to go through a divorce without the support of all my family and friends. Then one day, I realized two things: First, I couldn’t simply leave everything I owned in Idaho for my soon-to-be ex-spouse to dispose of. Second — and much more important — I wanted my dog.
Shortly after that epiphany, my brother and I flew to northern Idaho to pack my things and drive them back to Indianapolis. I had instructed my ex to be somewhere else during my visit, but my stomach was still kinked and knotted when I pulled the car into the neighborhood where I lived before the world had changed. When I left in late April, there was still snow on the ground. But now, in early June, the trees were flowering and the grass was just on the edge of overgrown. I felt deeply disoriented. When I put the key in the lock, took a deep breath and opened the door, Thomas was standing just beyond it, wanting to know who was entering the house.
He didn’t know me.
It only lasted a second or two before his curious expression dissolved and he realized who was standing in front of him, but my five-week absence had left a mark. My heart, which was already in pieces, splintered again. I sank to my knees in tears, and accepted as many tongue swabbings as he had to offer. I promised not to let this happen again.
From there, I moved into a small bungalow in my hometown with my son, and my new life felt less frightening with the big dog in my house. We walked all over together that summer. I had to walk long distances every day to vent the pain, confusion and fear. When the feelings knotted me up, the only solution was to put one foot in front of the other until they quieted. Thomas faithfully accompanied me for many miles that summer. At night, he slept on my bed, and issued a fierce and protective bark whenever anyone he didn’t know approached the house. Possibly mirroring me, he developed a practiced side-eye; his first reaction to strangers was no longer trust. People had to earn it with Thomas that year.
So when the time came, about a year later, that I met a fellow backpacker and started tentatively and nervously dating him, I warned him about Thomas when he first visited my home. He’ll need a little time to warm up to you, I advised Travis. He doesn’t like most people at first. Travis listened, but didn’t seem concerned.
When he pulled into my driveway one June evening in the waning light, I opened the door and let Thomas out of the house so they could meet on the more neutral territory of the lawn. Thomas ran to the driver’s side door of Travis’s car, his tail wagging briskly. Travis opened the car door, greeted Thomas and scratched his ears, and submitted to a thorough sniffing. There was none of the usual hesitation, no customary period of character evaluation. No one had gotten through that easily in a long time.
I don’t really subscribe to the belief that dogs have an unerring sense of human virtue; I think it was more likely something confident and unafraid in Travis’s demeanor. But I will say that the relationship probably would have proceeded differently if Thomas had been unalterably opposed to him. But instead, he received Travis with an air of expectation, as if to say Good to see you, man. Glad you finally got here. Now let’s get on with things.
Thomas, now getting on in years, is still my dog, but only barely. He has our combined three children to dote on. He is the family mediator and therapy dog. If he feels that a wrestling session between Travis and the boys is getting out of hand, he’ll step in and make his displeasure known. When he hears raised or upset voices, he quietly slips between the two responsible humans, as a gentle reminder to govern strong feelings. When anyone in the house is ill or not feeling well, he has an uncanny ability to identify it, and will take up a position near the patient until the situation improves. When Travis and I separated for a few months a couple of years ago, he resumed his position as my protector and defender, but remained as enthusiastic as ever in his affection for Travis, until we came back together again.
On the morning of my wedding, I woke up before everyone else in the house, and Thomas and I bounded downstairs to greet the morning together, as we always do. But this time, when he came back in from the yard, we sat for a minute on the porch. Thank you for bringing me here, I said. He licked my cheek. And then we went back into the house toward his bowl.
More photos of Thomas can be found on The Trailhead’s Facebook page. Most of them involve his habit of stealing my pillows, except for the one of him enjoying a glass of chardonnay.