He came out of the womb a little crooked, and had a leather band around his rear legs to keep them straight when we
went to see him while looking for puppies in late July 1985. He wasn't moving as fast as the other pups in the pack, but he was the cutest one there, and my brother and I fell in love with him. Against mom's objections ("the runt of the litter", she said) we took him home, soon to meet up with our other new dog, Velvet, who was arriving a few hours later.
Our family had set them up as husband and wife, and we eagerly awaited when they would meet up and be the best of friends.
At first they fought constantly, and we were at a loss for what to do. ("They're fighting, see, they've gotta be married!"). After initially separating them, they eventually got along with each other famously, and made one of the best husband-and-wife teams since Bonnie and Clyde.
Nugget and Velvet in their later years, photo from Lawrence, KS in 1996
It turns out Nugget had hip dysplasia, and the vets said he wouldn't live to be five, but he made it to twice that. I remember the vet telling that to us when I was 16, and I spent the night with him in the doghouse as if it was his last night on earth. He had plenty of health problems in his life, but he was a fighter, and every time the vet said that he wasn't going to make it, he somehow would make it through. He was my Comeback Kid. He made it to 13 years old, ancient for a Golden Retriever.
Nugget was your classic Golden Retriever, the one right out of the books and dog treat boxes, and was descended from four different champions in the breed; I had never known much about dogs before them (and was pretty much afraid of dogs until they came along) but I grew to love the Golden Retriever breed for their honest love, their earnest impulse, and their beauty. I spent many nights crashed out on the floor with a beer with Nugget and Velvet; I wish I had done more when I still had them.
Nugget and Velvet taught me the value of pure love, more than any other being I had ever seen in my life, and since. I was a nihilistic teenage hacker pissed off at the world, alienated by race, culture and the slings and arrows of a shitty high school. I wanted to blow shit and up and rage against the world. It was Nugget and Velvet that showed me in their own way that love was all you needed, and the rest would work itself out with time. I would come home all angsty about the crap going on at school and in my life, and they always seemed to understand in a way my overbearing parents never could. They always seemed to know when to just lick me in the face or jump on me when I was angsting about my [f-ed up] world. They weren't allowed in the house, but I would pretty much live in the garage with them when I could. It wasn't until I got to have them in 1995 that they were given free reign of my house in Lawrence, KS. Their last years were great, I believe, with me.. I took them everywhere I could, they were there for some of my first steak parties (and got to have all the leftovers!) and I spent many nights with them on the couch.
I bought a house (yes, really) in Kansas just so I could get them from my parents, who kept them confined to a laundry room. At my house, they could go wherever they wanted.
Although I was told this from the get-go in 1985, I had never truly understood what you go through when your pet dies, especially when you're the one having to pull the trigger, or the needle, as it were.
The mixture of regret, anger and self-hatred almost killed me, not once, but twice. The emptiness and loss, especially after Nugget died and I had no one to love, was unbearable. I really died right there and then, I just stick around because there's a few friends that still seem to want me around. I truly hate myself for what I did to have to end the life of most everything that I ever loved, and my rage against myself was debilitating. Most of what you see of me any more is a husk of a man left over from the time when everything I loved died before my eyes, by my hand.
I still get messed up just walking through the pet food aisle of a grocery store seeing the stuff I used to buy for them; Whenever I see another Golden Retriever up close on the street I still want to break down and cry, I used to have not one, but two. It's been seven years now since Nugget died, and nearly nine years since I had to give Velvet the Big Sleep when she was dying of cancer. But to have Goldens, you have to have a house, something impossibly unachieveable in Silicon Valley. I could never have one here in the postage-stamp of a place where I hole up trying to wait out The Crash.
So all I can do now is wait for the day when I can be happy again, and pore through my old pictures and my dreams.
Normally I never have dreams, like, ever. Maybe I do, but I forget them when I wake up. If I have dreams, they're powerful, disturbing ones that give me the shakes and chills, wondering what the hell I just saw.
This time of year tends to be especially difficult because it's around the time of Nugget's birthday, Velvet's birthday, and Nugget's death. I am haunted yearly by incredibly vivid dreams of seeing them again that leave me sobbing in my bed when I wake up, wanting to just spend a few more seconds with them like an dying old man clinging to the last seconds of life. Last year I had the dream in the lighthouse on the edge of the ocean where I found the reincarnated Nugget and got to meet him for a few minutes before having to hand over his leash to his new owner and telling him to take care of him as I tried to control myself; This year it was Nugget swimming in a flooded backyard and coming back as I towelled him off, he as happy as a clam for the swim. For some reason, whenever I come across Nugget and Velvet in dreams, they're either swimming or in water, or we're near the ocean. I'm not sure what this means, I've heard that a lot of dreams are near or in water, but it still seems rather odd, especially as vivid and intense as the dreams tend to get.
Dogs, alas, don't live long enough. Even the oldest dogs rarely make it to twenty, a third to a quarter of human's life. Maybe it's true that they are reincarnated, and as their previous owners we get a fleeting glimpse into how they're doing now, but only on their birthdays. If it's true, and if I got to see a small glimpse, I hope you and Velvet are happy, wherever you've landed. I hope that I did a good job and your owners are too, in a world where so many pets are unwanted and thrown away. I know that while both of you are gone and I hold your ashes, your love will never die.
If only Golden Retrievers lived to be twenty, this would be his twentieth birthday, so Happy Birthday, Nugget, wherever you are. As long as I live, even if I get another dog or two someday, I will never forget you and Velvet, and your ashes will be buried with me. You were my everything.