Roses, hearts, chocolates ... these aren't what come to mind when I think of Valentine's Day. The image I'll always associate with the holiday is a small puppy, sitting in a cage and barking so enthusiastically that his front feet lifted off the floor with every yip and yap. That's because 15 years ago on that day, I met Pete, the canine love of my life.
My husband, Steve, and I had been married only a few weeks at the time and had just bought our first house. We wanted to share our home and our love with an animal in need. With so many dogs and cats waiting in shelters, going to a pet store or breeder wasn't even a consideration for us. We knew we would adopt.
So instead of going out for a fancy dinner, we spent our first Valentine's Day as a married couple at our local animal shelter. Adopting saved Pete's life, and it changed ours forever.
As prepared as we thought we were for dog guardianship, we had no idea what we were really in for. Puppy Pete had energy -- lots of it. He trained us to take him for a minimum of two long walks every day, rain or shine (or snowstorm), and coaxed us off the couch for games of fetch by depositing slobber-soaked tennis balls in our laps.
Pete grew quickly, and those little hops that I first witnessed in the cage at the shelter evolved into full-on vertical jumps of joy. For the first block of every walk, my 65-pound dog would bounce up and down like a basketball, his eyes level with mine. People driving by would stop, back up and ask if I had trained him to do that. Um, no.
I didn't know that I'd never again have a whole apple to myself, that my days of unwrapping presents unassisted were over or that two people could amass more than 80 embarrassing nicknames for one dog (yes, we kept a list).
We also didn't know that the puppy in the shelter would become a "special-needs dog" whose health condition would require a lifetime of special food, special supplements and special care -- none of which came cheap, financially or emotionally.
We only knew that we were committed to this new family member, just as we were to each other -- for better or for worse.
How Pete ended up in the shelter remains a mystery. Perhaps, like many puppies, he was abandoned when the "cute" factor wore off and the reality of puddles on the rug, chewed-up shoes and midnight trips outside for "bathroom" breaks set in. Or perhaps he was one of the countless "Oops!" puppies born every year because someone didn't get their dog fixed.
Whatever the reason, it didn't matter to us. From the day we decided to adopt him, he was no longer a homeless dog in a shelter cage but a member of our family -- and he always will be. He wove himself into our lives and our hearts, just as his long hairs wove themselves into our car seats and, seemingly, every article of clothing we owned.
It's been six months since we had to say goodbye to Pete, but I still find one of his hairs now and then -- on my sleeve when I'm out for a walk, under a rug, floating past my office window in the late afternoon sun. I let them go into the air, grateful that I went to the shelter that Valentine's Day and found my best friend there.