Best friends come in many shapes, sizes, colors and personalities. Friends are there when you want them to be and perhaps more importantly they are there when you don’t.
When times are at their worst, when things are dark and everything looks grim, a good friend makes all the difference. At the deepest depths of our despair and depression, friendship props us up. It reaches into the pits our pain, grabs our hands and rips us out of our loneliness. There are people in our lives that we’ll never forget because of their companionship; even if it was brief. We remember them because they were present. Because they cared.
Our loved ones, our friends, our cats, our dogs; all fulfill that role of friendship. Growing up, one of my closest friends was our family Australian Shepard. His name was Dakota, but we all called him Cody for short.
As I’ve shared before, my adolescent years were a particularly tumultuous time for me. I was short, awkward and lacked any sort of self-confidence. There was this part of my brain, a sinister voice that told me I wasn’t worth much. It told me that I was a loser, that I was boring, that I should stay quiet and stay under the radar. I desperately wanted to swim, to excel, but all I could do was stay afloat.
“You’re so stupid,” it said, “you’re not funny,” “you’re a nobody.”
I couldn’t sit in the front of class because I was sure a snicker behind me was about my hair or the stupid clothes I wore. When walking to classes, I took the long way. I walked outside the building, not because I wanted a breath of fresh air, but rather I couldn’t handle walking amongst my peers; I was sure they were turning their heads and mockingly smiled at me as I passed them in the halls.
I avoided school, I skipped not because I was doing fun things, I skipped because of my social anxiety. Every school day it seemed I came down with some sort of bug. I’d do my best to act sick to avoid school, I’d lick my palms and spritz my face with a spray bottle; when my dad first showed me Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I thought they should have renamed it Skipping School, For Dummies, because I treated it as such.
As the weeks rolled on and my parents grew more suspicious, I’d have to come up with new illnesses. I couldn’t have a stomach flu four Fridays in a row, so I’d have to get food poisoning. I’d go to the bathroom and pretend I had the worst case of diarrhea any 6th grader has ever experienced. My ability to make fart noises has nothing to do with adolescent immaturity and everything to do with playing the part.
Fridays were optional to me; I managed to avoid most of them during middle school. Eventually, my parents insisted if I was sick on Friday, I couldn’t do anything with friends during the weekend because I was probably still sick.
“I guess you’re sick, huh, Nick? Well, that’s alright. We’ll just cancel your plans for a sleepover this weekend.”
“Sick? Who said I was sick? I feel great! Where’s my backpack? Mother dearest, I’m going to be late to school!”
As if by a miracle or some act of God, I was completely cured of my end-of-the-week ailments.
Yet the days didn’t get better. As time progressed, I became more and more of a recluse. One day melded into the next and they were days I wasn’t particularly fond of. I had friends, and a family that cared for me but that sinister self-conscious part of me wouldn’t let me free. I didn’t know how to silence that part of me that said I was worthless.
It wasn’t until we got a dog that things started to change in my mind; that I started to walk to class in the hallways, or sit in the front of the class without issue.
I have to backtrack a little bit and talk about the animals I had growing up, the one’s I had as a child; there were a couple. We had a cat, named Figaro, who was born under a house, or in a barn, or perhaps in the thunderdome, I’m not sure where (any of those three should provide ample evidence of how cuddly he was). In the 21 years he lived, I never once held him in a way that he enjoyed. He’d tolerate being held for about three seconds and then do that thing cats do where they jump from your arms as if a bomb went off, taking a few ribbons of your skin with them.
He’d hide under my sister’s bed all afternoon and evening, waiting for her to go to sleep. As she’d walk up to her bed, he’d lash out and attack her feet from below her hanging duvet cover. Nightly exercise became a sort of ritual for Alison, since she’d have to sprint from her door to her bed and leap over the swiping paws of our feral-made-domestic cat. He spent most of his time outside, and only came in when he was hungry. He wasn’t a bad cat, but he wasn’t a particularly good one either.
We also had a dog named Daisy. I use the term ‘dog’ very loosely here. She was a lhasa apso by birth, but I think she was more of a mix. Half pig/dog, half carpet/badger. She was horribly bull legged, had a myriad of skin issues making her skin oily. Much to my mother’s carpets chagrin, she had a bladder the size of a nickel. She was fat, smelly and couldn’t move much past our front porch. If you pet her, you’d instantly want to wash your hands, the mix of oil and fur made your hands look tarred and feathered. There was so much oil on her, we could have rubbed our shoes and jackets on her for waterproofing. Sure it’d smell like a wet towel, but hey the water wouldn’t be penetrating that kind of filth.
And she was ornery. She made Waldorf and Statler seem spritely. She could have made Winston Churchill blush. I saw an Animal Planet special on the top 10 most aggressive mammals. When the badger and wolverine took second and third place, I half expected them to announce Daisy when number one finally dropped.
At times I was desperate for a real dog; I’d slap the collar on Daisy, clip her on the leash and grab a little black bag. I’d lead her off the porch and we’d start our walk. She go for a while, early on she began panting and moving her deformed front legs as fast as she could but invariably Daisy would get tired. She’d collapse on the ground and refuse to move.
I’d feel a small tug on the line behind me as I out walked the leash’s reach and there was Daisy, lying on the ground, panting heavily just three feet from edge of our property. Her limit was somewhere between eight and nine yards from the front porch.
She was a terrible dog. I loved her, but she was nothing more than a waddling, breathing, pooping obligation. She lead a good life despite her ailments and almost outlived Figaro.
So when my dad said we were getting a dog, a real dog, I was excited, at a time when very few things brought me excitement.
We visited Cody just nine days after he was born. He fit in one of my small, twelve year old hands. He was tiny, almost impossibly small.
Cody was the runt of his litter, he was pushed out by his brothers and sisters. The smallest, the weakest, the least desirable. He was like me; that’s when I first fell in love with him. In a selfish way, it brought me joy to know that I wasn’t alone; that we had an innate connection with one another.
When I would come home from school, I’d have to greet Cody outside, because he’d often pee himself with excitement. He would refuse to leave my side when I was home, and when I left he gave me that look that dogs are so apt at doing. His eyes seemed to grow three sizes whenever I watched him while I left.
And no matter how bad a day I had, no matter how terrible my hair looked, how blemished my face was or if my mood was foul, Cody loved me. There was nothing on God’s earth I could have done to cause that dog to despise me. He was always happy to see me, to the point of annoyance at times.
Cody was a constant companion I counted on. Even though I didn’t always need him, he was always there for me. On days where I felt particularly self-loathing, I knew I was at least good enough for Cody.
He was an active dog, fast, agile and frequently beat the other dogs at the dog park. He loved to run, most of all he loved to chase things. When we played football in our backyard, he was an amazing cornerback; he’d chase me down and grab the cuff of my shirt preventing my hand from reaching up to catch the ball. Many t-shirts and jeans were ruined by Cody’s all-star defense.
Whenever there was a squirrel in the back yard, Cody would chase it down with a savage fury. Only once did he catch the squirrel; he caught it by the tail and shook, the squirrel’s tail came loose and the rodent was thrown high into the air. It sailed into the trees that surrounded our lawn and scampered high above furious barks of frustration below.
He looked back at me for approval and gave that same dumb look all dogs give when they’ve done something really exciting. “Did you see that?” I imagined him thinking, “I didn’t know flying squirrels were native to these parts.”
As time wore on, he slowed down, his couldn’t quite keep up with the dogs at the park, and he didn’t have the same energy to chase squirrels up trees. My mom was buying less T-shirts and jeans and sewing less holes; I caught more footballs and scored more touchdowns in my backyard.
A couple of years ago, we took him to the vet because he was having a hard time breathing. After a brief inspection, the vet gave the prognosis leaving him a couple of years to live.
In some ways it’s good to know the time your friend has left on this earth. It provides opportunity saying goodbye, for relishing what time is left. It gives us time to come to terms with the passing of something or someone we love.
And yet, it’s horrible. It’s the worst thing in the world to watch a good friend wither away; I wouldn’t wish it upon my greatest enemy. To watch him slow down, to listen to the harsh pants that follow a previously easy task is hard to bear.
To witness his mind go with his body. Near the end he couldn’t be alone; he constantly felt like he was being left behind for good. Before we could keep him at home alone for a few hours, but in his last year, he’d yelp forlornly for hours.
In one night, my friend and I taught Cody how to shake, over the years we taught him other tricks with similar ease. In another night a decade later, he no longer recollected the tricks we had taught him years before. He was deaf and his vision was poor. He oft forgot faces of people.
But despite his weakness, despite his racked body and mind, Cody exuded the same excitement when he saw me. Whether I came home in a school bus in the sixth grade or parked my car in the driveway visiting from college, Cody displayed the same frenzied happiness for my arrival.
When the vet gave her diagnosis, she shared that Cody had congenital heart failure. He died because his heart was too big for his body. That fact that is horrifyingly perfect; it’s almost poetic. The love that Dog gave me was immeasurable and I will always be in his debt for that. When I felt alone in the world, Cody gave me purpose.
When we did basic training, or when we went on walks, having him around helped show me my worth. He helped demonstrate that at least one living thing on this planet needed me around. Not so much for physical survival, but rather emotional.
That’s what’s beautiful about a dog. They don’t care if you’re smart, fat, stupid, attractive, slow, ugly or a ‘loser.’ All they want is reciprocation.
If you give a dog your heart, they’ll give it right back.
I’m going to miss him terribly, there’s a void in my life I can’t replace, but I am so thankful for his companionship.