A Second Chance at Love: How I Filled the Dog-Shaped Hole in My Heart

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I am thinking about love, and how just like with romantic love, there are other kinds of love that will always be the first time you feel it and full of the intoxicating nuances that leaving you feeling a little tipsy. My first head-over-heels romantic love? Dirk; not uncoincidentally, rhymes with jerk. Didn’t end well but thankfully it did end. First best friend love? Suzy Lane will always have that honor in my life and we’re still friends today. The first time I felt genuine love for another species? For me, this will always be Lenny.

Years ago, around the time I adopted Lenny, I worked at an animal shelter and there was a regular volunteer who would come in every week to spend time with the dogs, walking them, playing with them. He was retired. He just always was right on time to volunteer and had a big, friendly smile on his face. One day, he came in a little early, before we were ready for volunteers, and we were talking a bit about his life. He told me he’d had a dog who died some years before, his first and his last. His eyes started welling up as he was talking, his voice cracking. He said he loved dogs but he would never, ever adopt again because he wouldn’t ever allow himself to experience that kind of loss again, he was still in such deep pain grieving his beloved dog’s death. No one would ever hold a candle to that dog for him. He sniffed, wiped his eyes, took a deep breath and went in to volunteer. That little exchange has always stuck with me.

The depth of love we might feel for an individual of a different species from our own is something we don’t talk about much, but if my friends are any indication, interspecies emotional connection is a huge part of countless lives. Every day on my social media, I see touching tributes and stories, photos and just random moments featuring animals and their people — tender, funny, warm, heartbreaking, matter-of-fact — encapsulating these rich and complex relationships. The attachment we can feel with beings of other species, and how this connection enriches our lives, is immeasurable. A relationship where verbal communication is at a minimum makes that relationship less fraught, so we can fill those inner sharp angles where misunderstandings and resentments usually settle with just more love, softening them, softening us. I should clarify that less complicated doesn’t mean less meaningful because that has not been my experience at all. Maybe feeling this love is part of what makes vegans feel so isolated sometimes; when there is the loss of an animal we love, we’re told, well, don’t forget, he was just an animal. You can always adopt again. It’s not so easy, though, when you have lost a family member.

I’ve adored all animals since my earliest recollections but dogs have especially possessed my heart. Lenny was the first one who hit me bullseye right in the center of my chest, the one who set a new bar for a previously unexplored capacity I had for loving another. My husband and I adopted Lenny not long after we’d moved in together, and circumstances would line up that we moved in together not long after we met. Thankfully, it worked out beautifully. Lenny was a not-quite stray my friend rescued from the street: she would see him running across Chicago’s Irving Park Road often, dirty, scared and thin, darting between cars. He was just as wary as he was street smart so it took my friend two weeks to catch him but she eventually was able to lure him with food and loop a leash around his neck; then she needed him out of her house and neighborhood as soon as possible in case his neglectful previous family was looking for him. I offered to be a foster home and that same night, we covered Lenny with a blanket and dashed with him to our car so we could safely get him out undetected. I didn’t even get much of a chance to look at him.

My friend had been calling him Lenny and I had to admit, that was the perfect name. He was such a Lenny. He was a scrappy but secretly regal beagle-basset-cattle dog hybrid, an endlessly interesting pastiche of multiple breeds: he had the speckled, thick fur of a cattle dog; the long, low-slung body and short legs of a basset hound, paws in permanent plié position; and an oversized, gorgeous beagle head with velvety ears I loved to nuzzle and bright, big, coppery eyes accented by a generous fringe of caramel lashes and seemingly rimmed with Cleopatra’s own charcoal. Lenny’s eyes were what people remarked on most often — how beautiful they were, how intelligent they made him look — but it took me a little while to see his real self. He had a stubborn case of the fleas and due to being malnourished, his head was just so disproportionately big. Eventually, though, we got rid of the fleas and his body filled out. That big beagle head stayed big, though, more of him to love. Just thinking about him made me clutch my heart in full kvell mode and I knew we were family: he was so full of love. Or maybe I was the one full of love and was just projecting it onto him? Regardless, I knew how those bright eyes and that joyful pant and that exceptional spirit made me feel, and that was happy and complete. Make no mistake, though, Lenny was not my dog. He was my canine soulmate.

I could tell you about our road-trip down Route 66, and the way he always did things in threes (three laps than a pause from his water bowl, three turns before he’d lie down, three woo-woo-woo! barks in a row when he was excited about something), his sonorous, muscular howl and the way he’d perfectly match the pitch of an ambulance’s siren, Pavarotti in a dog suit but I don’t think you’d get the whole picture of him and certainly not what he meant to me. I could tell you about his soulful expressions, his confidence and his unwavering dignity. How I would skip home from the train after work, so eager to see him. Lenny was just a perfect being — well, perfect for me, for us — and the day he passed, almost 17 years ago now, is still way too painful for me to dwell on for long, certainly not now, because it’s hard to cry and write at the same time. Part of my heart shattered on March 12, 2002, though. I will say that even though he died three months to the day before my son was born, “Lenny” was Justice’s first word. When Justice was less about a year old, I was showing him a photo of Lenny and he smiled, pointed to the handsome dog and said his name just like that.

I thought I would never connect with another dog like that and in a way, I was right. I don’t think I can. It’s not that Lenny ruined me any future dogs but that my love for him was different because it was the first time and the first time cannot be re-experienced. When I met Romeo, I learned that I could love another dog — every bit as much — but with different dimensions: the textures of gratitude, appreciation and fondness that are entirely specific to this other magical being.

Romeo came into my life in a much different time. When I met Lenny, I was in my 20s, free-spirited, not terribly responsible, full of idealism, free of care. When I met Romeo, about ten years after Lenny passed, I was caring for a parent who had a very cruel, ever-worsening disease and felt like I was drowning in worry, sadness and loss. That carefree and blithe young woman of the Lenny era felt almost unrecognizable to the harried person I’d morphed into: sorting pills, managing doctor’s appointments, trying to figure out how to get to the grocery store with a child and a parent who needed constant monitoring, doing endless piles of laundry, trying to not drown in self-pity. As much as I didn’t need another responsibility, I had a dog-sized hole in my heart that I’d felt since Lenny passed and it added to my grief. The wind kept gusting through that hole until I met the little ragamuffin who I would come to name Romeo. I knew immediately that he was who I needed and that I could give him what he needed; seven years later, I can say without a doubt that Romeo rescued me. At a time when I was nearly void of hope and so desperate for joy, this little ten-pound dog was my lifeline to it and back to myself.

Romeo does not diminish my love for Lenny, nor did Lenny diminish my love for Romeo. The way he threads my arms and legs when I am in downward dog. The way he snorts just to be silly, pushing himself on his side like Curly. The way he insists on being spooned at night. The way he kicks up grass in front of his rival’s house down the block, getting the other dog agitated and then just sauntering on his way. Romeo’s gentle, sweet, loving, silly spirit, so different from Lenny in so many ways but with a shared capacity to love and generous willingness to be showered with love from me.

At first I thought I was “cheating” on Lenny somehow by loving another dog after him but then I realized that if Lenny cared about me in the way that I thought he did, he’d want for me to experience this kind of love again, not live the rest of my life in faithful devotion to his memory.

I wonder about that volunteer I met at the shelter sometimes: did he ever adopt again? If not, I certainly understand. The vulnerability of loving another you will most likely outlive is incredibly real. But I hope he did. I really hope he did because you absolutely can love again and as painful as the vulnerability is, it is worth every loved moment.