The third night our puppy was home with us I slept on the kitchen floor next to his crate. He was whimpering. He had a stomach bug. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t control himself. My little good boy pooped a million times and stunk and I got so tired of going back and forth from the bedroom to his crate to clean him up and take him outside that I laid down and fell asleep on the tile with one hand petting him to keep him calm.
I woke up with a giant red splotch on my face, a creak in my shoulder and a stiff neck that took a week to go away.
He woke up wagging his tail and yipping and celebrating that he’d gone over an hour without spraying doody everywhere.
It was 5:00am and I was groggy, but he felt better, so I did too.
I guess you could say that was the night I fell in love with him. The two of us, together, on the cold brown tile, covered in his poop.
Three thousand and nine hundred or so nights later, things had come full circle.
He was once again uncomfortable and in pain. He once again couldn’t sleep. He once again couldn’t control himself. At this point he’d been battling lymphoma and the side effects of the treatments for almost a month and it was beating my good boy down. He was rarely hungry. He was lethargic. He had bladder issues that he couldn’t shake and he had to pee every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day.
Once again I was tired of going from my bed to the back door to take him out all night so together we laid down on the cold kitchen floor about ten feet from the door and once again, I stroked his head to calm him down.
It was dark, but he looked me in the eyes and we spoke.
Some people will say it’s not scientifically possible to converse with dogs, but that night, eye-to-eye and exhausted at 3:34 in the morning, with the glow of the clock on the oven light blanketing us on the floor, my best buddy and I talked with our pupils.
I asked him if he remembered that third night home and he winked and gave the slightest smirk. He reminded me that our home back then was a small condo and that his mom (my wife) and I weren’t even engaged yet.
He knows this fact because he played a starring role in how I proposed.
At the time we lived in Delray Beach and we started every single day together.
The dog and I would wake up, eat and then go for a long walk down Atlantic Avenue. Some days we’d cut left at the Intracoastal to look at the boats and maybe spot a manatee or school of fish and other days we’d go all the way down to the water and walk along A1A.
He was strikingly good looking. Every single person we saw stopped to pet him and comment on his light eyes and his white/blond coat and his uniquely handsome features. He was the Robert Redford of dogs and he soaked it in.
On our way back from the ocean, I often took a detour through Veterans Park. It was usually before 7am so we had it to ourselves and I’d let him run off-leash for a bit or we’d do some laps around the playground. There was a pavilion next to the park and that’s when I got the idea to propose there…and to include Mr. P (we’ll get to his name later).
The plan was to take Steph (my then-girlfriend, now wife) for a walk along the Intracoastal with the dog and at some point, he was going to pull a tennis ball out of the bushes (that I would secretly plant in his mouth) and then I’d crack open the tennis ball (I’d pre-cut it, obviously) and inside would be the box with the ring. Then I’d propose.
Mr. P and I practiced this scene for a week with a tennis ball (without the ring and box) so that he’d get it just right. Things looked promising. He nailed our rehearsals every day.
Finally, the big Saturday morning came and it was Showtime.
As Steph and I worked our way down Atlantic, Mr. P looked up at me a thousand times in anticipation of his moment. He was jacked and ready for his starring role.
“Now, dad?! Now?!?” he asked, leaping up and down.
I shook him off like a disgruntled pitcher.
When we finally got to the pavilion, I winked at him and on cue he began hopping around and yanking his leash towards the bushes.
“What’s going on with him?” Steph asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Oh wait… Looks like he found a tennis ball in the bushes.”
Things were going exactly as planned.
I reached into my pocket, concealing the tennis ball from Steph’s view, and placed it in Mr. P’s mouth when his head dove into the bush.
Then, just as we’d rehearsed, he pulled his head out of the bushes with the ball in his mouth and I took the tennis ball out, split it open and got down on one knee.
Steph saw me pull the box out of the tennis ball and figured out what was happening and started to cry.
I took the box and began to recite the short proposal that I had rehearsed.
The sun was shining. The water was glistening. Boats cruised by in the background…
If an ‘Explosions in the Sky’ song started playing in the background at that exact moment, it could have been a movie scene.
Mr. P leapt up and began humping my shoulder and the side of my face. Hard.
So hard that at the exact moment that I was asking Steph to be mine forever his little red rocket smashed into my ear like a sticky gummy worm.
“Gross!” I yelled, jumping up.
Steph laughed and I stood up and wiped the side of my head.
“What the hell, dude!?” I said.
It was a disaster. It was hilarious. It was perfect.
Steph said ‘yes’… to both of us.
Back on the floor of the kitchen, I asked him why he humped me during the actual proposal but not during any of our rehearsals. He told me he was so happy for us to get married that he couldn’t control himself.
I believe him.
It was 3:41am now and his hips were so sore. I rubbed them but it didn’t do any good. He’d lost almost 15 pounds from the cancer. His fur sagged and his once thick, powerful haunches felt like deflated balloons. Despite having chronically weak hips, he was blessed with uber-powerful legs. At least three nights a week after work when we lived in Florida, I’d wait until the Lifeguards left their stands and we’d swim in the ocean. I used to joke that if we didn’t stop him he’d go straight to Cuba. At the houses we lived in that had pools he’d swim for an hour or more and have to be dragged out of the water. His endurance was legendary. He never, ever got tired.
Those days were long gone.
As we lay on the floor, his breathing was labored. Slowly in and slowly out. Whenever he really let out a deep exhale, it would cause a little steam cloud to form because the hardwood was ice cold.
It was 38 degrees out, but he was using the backyard so much that I left the door open in case I fell asleep so he could go. It was near-freezing and a stiff chill blew through the kitchen. It didn’t bother either of us.
He had a hard time getting up and getting comfortable so he had recently developed the habit of just shifting his body over rather than getting up to change positions. I helped him scoot so his right side got relief and his left side could lie on the ground. Then we settled back down.
“There you go, Pierce.” I said.
Then he looked at me funny because I never, ever called him Pierce. Yes, that was his official name, but I rarely used it.
Steph surprised me with the dog when I got home from a business trip in 2009 and she already chose his name and put it on his collar and nametag. She put a lot of thought into the name and chose it specifically for me. She wanted to call him Pierce after Paul Pierce, my favorite basketball player and Celtic of all time.
But there was one problem.
I had a very strict rule about naming a pet after an athlete.
In short: don’t.
I loved Paul Pierce but there was just too much of a chance that he’d get traded or spend time on another team, and then as a Celtics fan I’d have a dog named after a Brooklyn Net or an LA Clipper or a Washington Wizard (which is exactly what happened, by the way).
I mentioned my concerns but the paperwork was done and it really wasn’t that big of a deal so I just started calling him ‘P’, for short.
In a really bizarre twist of fate, about four months after we got Pierce, I was hired to work on a project with the real life Paul Pierce that included a kid’s fitness initiative, a possible book and a weekend with Paul at his house in Boston.
The weekend was amazing and went smoothly except for one moment, when a neighbor of Paul’s brought over a new puppy and the talk turned to dogs and I said we had a puppy too (without thinking) and then Paul Pierce asked me what we named it…
And I… stumbled.
How lame would I sound in front of a room full of people who all worked with Paul if I told him I had a dog named after him?
“What’d you name your dog?” Paul Pierce asked.
“Pier- pier- Pete,” I said, before finally settling on ‘Pete’.
“You sure,” Paul said, laughing. “You’re not guessing?”
“No, no, sorry,” I said. “It’s Pete.”
Then I showed him a few pictures and the moment of embarrassment had passed. Also, a new idea for a name was born.
From that point on, when I didn’t call him simply ‘P’, I took to calling him Pete. Somewhere along the line, when the kids began to talk, they made it more formal and called him Mr. P and I liked that even better.
3:56 AM now and Mr. P had to go out. Again. I could see it in his eyes. He was debating his comfort level with his desire to empty his bladder. The bladder pain won and so we proceeded with another round of our now-familiar routine.
I’d give him a boost on his butt to help him get up and he’d stroll outside, pee, then pee again, then squat again just to make sure he got all the pee, then he’d come in and we’d lay back down on the floor.
I knew we weren’t going to keep this dance up much longer. It was no good for either of us. We had given him a fighting chance after his diagnosis but none of the medications we tried worked on him for more than a day or two before the cancer came roaring back.
As we settled back down on the floor I remarked that I hadn’t been on this schedule since our kids were newborns.
“I remember,” he said. “I was there.”
He was there.
He was right by my side through it all.
My first-born daughter was a terrible sleeper and had colic and for months on end she’d wake up and scream for hours in the middle of the night.
The only thing that would calm her down was taking her outside and holding her and patting her back while I paced around the backyard, which I did on countless nights for twenty minutes… forty minutes… or even an hour until she fell asleep.
It would be 2:15am or 3:20am or 4am or some ungodly hour and she’d wake up bawling and I’d grab her and as soon as I slid the door open, regardless of the hour, Mr. P would trot to the door to walk with me.
And there we’d be, the three of us, perhaps the only people awake in our whole neighborhood, often in the still-humid air of the pitch-black Florida night, circling the backyard under the moon and the stars.
It was magical, in a way. I’d open the door for the dog to go inside if we’d been out there a long time and my daughter wasn’t asleep yet, but Mr. P wouldn’t have any of it. Rules are rules and best buddies are best buddies and if I was outside he was outside and that was it.
Eventually, my daughter would fall asleep and we’d go in, exhausted.
As our daughter learned to crawl and walk, Mr. P took his rotating roles as a stool, a support beam, a landing cushion and a four-legged hurry-cane in stride. He was right next to my daughter when she took her first steps and she fell on him when she had her first fall.
When my son was born, he had to spend some serious time in the NICU and while we waited to bring him home, Mr. P was the one who greeted us at the door every time we’d get back to the house. He was excited to meet his new brother, but when he’d register the worry on our faces, he’d dial it back and lay with us in bed, giving each of us an ear to stroke as we calmed our nerves after another long day in the hospital.
Eventually, our son came home and once again Mr. P was a one-dog welcoming committee, ready at any moment to offer licks and kisses and to clean up any spilled milk or formula or spit-up or boogers.
As both kids grew, he willingly let them treat his body like an amusement park. They’d chew his tail and nap on his belly and try to eat his ears and yank his legs and when my son was about two he hit him with a straight jab square to the pecker and the dog just took it. He was there for them. Whatever they needed to do. He had their back for life.
Both of our eyes were bloodshot. We heard a toilet flush upstairs. One of the kids had gotten up to use the bathroom.
He looked at me and then his eyes darted up.
“I know, buddy,” I said. “I know you’ll miss them.”
In addition to the overwhelming sadness I had been feeling since his diagnosis and my increasingly morbid gut feeling that we weren’t going to beat the cancer, the hardest thing to watch was the kid’s realization that Mr. P wasn’t going to be here forever. My kids are 6 and 8 and they aren’t equipped to grasp a looming tragedy.
But they knew something was wrong.
Mr. P wasn’t cleaning their plates or picking up their dropped food or following us to the door on the way to the bus stop. He wasn’t waiting for them at the door when we came home or going to lounge outside while we played catch. He wasn’t chilling on his bed in the driveway while we shot hoops.
Inherently, I think they could feel him slipping away.
At dinner time that night, my wife and I explained that Mr. P was nearing the end and that he didn’t want to eat anymore and we had run out of options to help him get better.
My daughter has such a huge, wonderful heart, and she made it her mission to get him to eat something. She sang songs. She made up games. She sat with him and did the airplane move with food… And when he finally, completely for her sake, managed to swallow a half-piece of deli turkey, she jumped up and celebrated and shouted, “He’s eating! He’s eating! He’s gonna get better!!!”
My wife and I looked at each other. We were way past the point of fighting back tears. Our eyes watered because we knew it wasn’t true.
“Thank you for eating the piece of turkey, man,” I said to him, stroking his ear on the chilly floor. “I know you didn’t want to but it meant a lot.”
He stretched and rolled to his side and licked his dry chops.
There was a time when his appetite was insatiable.
Back when he was a young boy I’d take him to a local burger stand called Doc’s after we’d go swimming in the ocean and we’d both eat two double cheeseburgers. And we’d split fries.
He loved cheeseburgers.
Whether I was grilling them at home or stopping at In-N-Out, if I was getting burgers, I was buying one for Mr. P.
Swimming. Cheeseburgers. Peanut Butter. Long walks. Hikes. Sleeping in our bed between my wife and I. Chasing the kids around the backyard. These were some of his absolutely favorite things.
And car trips.
He loved being in the car with me.
When we moved to Dallas from Florida he joined me on the ride out and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to do; just me and my dog and 1500 miles of open road. We ate all our meals together. We took walks on the campuses of Florida and Florida State and LSU and Shreveport and around a restaurant called Two Eggs in Alabama together. We stayed in six La Quintas in seven nights. Then we slept in our new house together before the rest of the family arrived. It was our time and our adventure and it was glorious. It felt like the Goonies.
In Dallas, Mr. P was involved in every facet of our lives.
He hung out with me while I worked out. He came with me on my morning walk with the kids. He’d sit with me while I wrote one book and one article after another. He sat with my wife while she studied for her boards and her MBA.
He was dedicated and enduring and loyal.
He was also neurotic – he couldn’t pee alone and he couldn’t sleep alone.
And goofy – he hated regular blueberries but loved frozen ones.
And weird – he barked incessantly at the turtles sunning themselves in the small lake in our neighborhood.
Every year on Halloween we’d dress him in this humiliating pumpkin outfit, which he loathed. But he was a good sport because the kids liked it.
“I’m not gonna miss that stupid pumpkin costume,” he said to me.
“I bet,” I said.
It was 4:40am and in a way, I didn’t want daylight to come because I knew what the day was going to bring.
We had an appointment with his oncologist in the morning but barring miraculous news or a stunning recovery and a new appetite and new hips, there was simply no reason to continue fighting. It would only bring more pain and suffering.
I watched the clock turn to 5:10am.
This was the time when he’d normally join me in my garage gym and sleep while I lifted (if it wasn’t too cold – otherwise he’d stay in the bedroom with my wife).
I hadn’t slept in about three days so getting in a workout was out of the question.
Still, I took him into the garage for a change of scenery and he sat on his old bed and I sat next to him and we stared at the street in silence for an hour until the sun came up.
When we saw the first rays of light peaking over the trees at the end of our neighborhood and into the garage, Mr. P miraculously stood up, unaided, and walked down the driveway to stare at the light.
I froze, because he hadn’t moved that well in weeks.
When he got to the bottom of the driveway for a full view of the sky, he paused and stared. Then he looked at me and swung his head, as if motioning for me to join him.
“I’m coming,” I said and walked the twenty feet to him.
He snorted and looked back towards the yellow streaks of light streaming behind the clouds, creating a swirl of purples and oranges.
The bright light muted his sagging face and sunken cheeks and for a moment, he looked like a puppy again.
Then he sat down and stared off into the distance. I did too.
After thousands of morning strolls and over a decade of being best pals, I realized this little trot down the driveway was going to be our final walk – our last sunrise.
And this beautiful, peaceful, pain free moment together was his final gift to me.
That night, Mr. P went to sleep for good.
Love you, good boy.
We all miss you.
Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height,“Mean” Joe Greene , The ‘Greatest Stars of the NBA’ Series and other books about sports, fatherhood, fitness and more. His work has been endorsed by Spike Lee, Tony Dungy, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Chef Robert Irvine. He is the co-host of the Life of Dad Show podcast and Lunch Break Facebook Live Show, and he’s written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and dozens of other national publications.
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