I pulled into the office lot, shut off the car and rested my forehead on the steering wheel. Just one more minute before work. I needed this.
Maybe it was the two-hour morning drive from my parents' house in Gainesville. Or the three or four hours of interrupted sleep the night before. Maybe it was knowing that last glimmer of childhood was gone. I'd never again be greeted by those warm brown eyes and cold, wet nose.
By my 21st birthday, I'd seen most of my pets expire. A cat. Three hamsters. A handful of goldfish.
Losing a dog is different.
I was 7 when my family got Sheila. Our neighbors, the owners of a German shepherd — and for a brief time a St. Bernard — had a litter of golden brown tufts of fur in their laundry room. We were invited over to play and to take one home if we'd like. We chose her.
She was soft and sweet and her breath, to me, smelled like coffee. At some point, I must have learned she liked the same food I did because there's an old Polaroid of me shoving a biscuit into her mouth. She ate and grew.
By the time I was 9, Sheila outweighed every kid in the neighborhood. More than a few times, we hitched her with a wagon or trailed behind her with a leash and pair of roller skates. A swing hung from an old bent oak in our yard and had a long braid of excess rope dangling from the bottom. Sheila would latch on and pull us in circles until the rope was pink with blood from her gums. She chased deer and pickup trucks. Only the dark seemed to scare her.
Sheila had one companion in the animal world. A tabby kitten named Moses. She'd sniff and lick and preen him. He'd bop her on the nose.
Her enemy: an Australian shepherd named Buddy. He and Sheila were at a fragile stalemate. A canine cold war. Until he went after Moses. Sheila came across the yard like a grizzly bear.
Afterward, two people and one dog had to have their wounds stapled shut. Blood stained a driveway. Buddy lived. Moses lived. Sheila came home to drink water and bask in glory. That summer, she became an inside dog.
As I neared the end of my high school years, she had slowed down. She spent her Sunday afternoons on the porch, hollering at strangers like Mrs. Dubose in To Kill A Mockingbird.
While I was at college, her muzzle grayed. She tripped every now and then. My mother would tell you Sheila knew the sound of my car. After 11 p.m., she'd barricade the front door with her big rump. I would budge the door open an inch and plead with her in whispers to move so I could sneak in.
When she let me through, she'd sniff me clean of girls' perfume and send me up to my room with a disapproving snarf. I made sure to leave on the hall light where she slept at the base of the stairs.
She faded fast toward the end of last year. Getting her to stand took coaxing and a treat. My sister and I had begun looking at grad schools in other states. Thinking less of home. Skipping weekends coming back. I had taken an internship with the Times here in Pasco and moved down as soon as I could.
The first weekend home, my parents sat me down for a debriefing.
"Now, we don't want you to get upset," my mother told me. "But we don't think Sheila's going to be around too much longer."
Sheila managed through the first two weeks of January, but that third Saturday was grim. She had grown incontinent and couldn't stay inside. We bundled a pile of sheets to make her comfortable on the garage floor. She was frail and fragile. My mother said she had refused food since Thursday. I canceled my plans for the weekend.
I sat crosslegged on the cool garage floor and pet her until my hands were numb and my feet fell asleep. She held on through Sunday, but that night was even harder.
When the garage light went out, she started yelping. Dad and I set a coffee table lamp on the work bench and left it on for her. I agreed to stay and make the trip back to Pasco in the morning. We knelt for a long goodbye.
Monday morning, I came downstairs into the kitchen. Dad was in the garage. I met him at the threshold when he came back in.
"She's gone." It was all he could muster.
Over his shoulder, in the coffee table lamp light, I saw that Sheila's heaving had come to a stop.
We wrapped her in a white, queen-sized sheet. Dad and I carried her into the back yard, under the live oak with the swing.
I peeled back the sheet and pet her thick, velvety ears one last time. Stroked the hump on the top of her head. Ran my hands through the hair of her loose neck. Smelled her homey, smoky old dog smell. Trying to record it in my mind forever.
Then I had to leave.
I had driven 10 miles down the interstate when, for some reason, the harmonica at the beginning of Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road on the radio caught me. I cried until I could hardly see the road. Then I cried some more.
I thought of the first time I saw Balto in the movie theater when I was a child. It was the first time I realized the inevitability of what would happen to Sheila. When my mother tucked me in that night, I asked her not to turn out the hall light.
For good dogs, you leave the light on.