I walked into the Gwinnett County (Georgia) Animal Shelter 11 years ago on Feb. 6 to finish researching a newspaper story I was writing. Every dog in the place knew I wasn't going to be able to stop myself from taking home a little something to remember the story by.
I had interviewed too many people and heard too many horror stories about what those dogs' previous owners had done to them. I had to do my part.
A scrawny little black and white Siberian husky with ribs protruding from his sides took my breath away at first sight. Accounts conflict as to exactly how we chose each other. Depends on who is more reliable, the Chris Lancette writing an article the week I adopted him -- or the memory I've had all these years. Mostly likely, both are accurate.
My first memory of him was looking into his sad blue eyes as he lay in his pen. His owner had starved him, beat him in the head, and fed him beer. What was supposed to be a 60-pound dog couldn't have been near that. While all the other dogs tried to get my attention and begged for salvation, the three-year-old husky didn't move. He just looked up at me and used his eyes to say, "Don't pick me. I'm about to die anyway. Pick one of these other dogs who will be with you for a long time."
My own blue eyes watered up and I mumbled to the staff to unlock the cage: that was the dog who was going home with me, and I would call him Orion -- naming him after the constellation I've long admired in the night sky.
I remember that moment vividly.
Maybe that's what happened the first time we saw each other. Perhaps the written record of the time refers to me coming back after finishing the paper work.
"My husky -- I felt a bond the moment I saw him -- called me from run 64," I wrote in the Gwinnett Loaf, a paper that no longer exists. "When that 60 pounds of grace and beauty had my attention, he twirled around and jerked his head, as if asking me to come nearer. I obeyed, and stuck my fingers through the chain links. Once I was by his side, he rubbed his thick black coat and snow white legs through my fingers.
"'Come on, man," his glance seemed to say. 'Let's go home.'"
Though I have no memory of that moment, that twirl and head jerk, enhanced with a little husky yelp, would be one of his endearing mannerisms that would make me laugh for nearly a decade. Orion knew he could get anything he wanted from me with the twirl and yelp. Dinner. Snacks. Walks. A ride in the car. I was always putty in his paws.
I quickly learned Orion had a lot of problems. Epilepsy topped the list, and he had it bad. I was horrified the first time I saw him have a massive seizure -- collapsing to the ground like he was being electrocuted, foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling back in his head, his bowels emptying themselves. He would have consecutive seizures like that for 24 hours at a time at first. Attack after attack with little rest in between.
The wonderful veterinarians at Beaver Crossing Animal Clinic worked with me to treat his condition, but there would be some grueling nights before we found the right dosage of meds. One bitterly cold, rainy night, when I was too broke to afford to take him to an emergency medical clinic and get him a shot that would help him go to sleep and ease the seizure activity, I had to tackle him and pin him to the cement carport.
The vets told me if I could keep him still and relaxed, it could help break the cycle. I remember finding blankets for him and holding him until he fell asleep ... while the cold and cement sent pains shooting through my own limbs until sunrise. I remember thinking that was the first time I had truly understood what it meant to put another being's needs before my own ... to be committed to the happiness and well-being of another. I hoped I'd be able to carry the lesson over to my romantic life some day.
Orion made it through that night. Next up was getting him back to his natural weight. That took six months or more as he just didn't want to eat much. I also tried to help him realize he didn't need to flinch in fear every time someone moved too quickly near his head.
I spoiled Orion rotten for the next 10 years, as I would his adopted half-husky sister Alexis who's staring at me as I write. She understands her walk can wait until I'm through writing about Orion. And man did we know how to celebrate the anniversary of his "Gotch'ya Day" that I considered his birthday. The best bonfire party I ever threw was in his honor. Huge party. Birthday cake. House full of my friends. Flames soaring so high that I'm sure we scared the hell out of the neighbors.
Orion returned that love to me just as powerfully. Jobs would come and go and he'd be there. Girls would come and go (some we wanted gone; others broke our hearts) and Orion would help me recover. He knew when my heart hurt the most.
He also touched the lives of a great many people over the years. Encountering a wheel-chair bound young man with an enormous, hideously deformed head shaped like a triangle, Orion knew what to do. When the man grunted a request to get closer to the dog, I tried to wipe the look of shock off my face and let Orion do his thing. The man tried to move his fingers to pet him but he just couldn't get his hands to work.
Orion, who used to get a great big grin on his face when he'd stand in front of me refusing my request to move out of my way, eased his head under the man's hand -- then moved his head back and forth to give him the sensation he was petting my pup. The man's elephantesque face lit up: for if just a moment, someone was treating him like a person and not a freak. I looked away only to see the woman pushing the young man had tears in her eyes, too.
Orion did that kind of stuff all the time. Without a minute of training, he walked into an assisted living center, roamed the halls with me, and made friends. People would touch him and start telling stories of their fondest childhood memories. He'd lean up and give his famed ear lick to residents whose minds were mostly gone already and, if just for a second, they would become lucid. Alive.
He had the same effect on children, especially when serving as the mascot of the travel baseball team I named after him and Alexis, the Huskies. The image of his face was sewn into our caps. The laughter we all shared doing the Husky fighting gesture -- lifting up our legs and pretending to pee on the ground -- still cracks me up.
Orion died on Jan. 29, 2007, exactly one week before what would have been our 10th Gotch'ya Day together. I came home from work and he was dead on the living room floor. In absolute shock, I raced him to the vet; I didn't know where else to go. Beaver Crossing had taken care of us for a decade. The vet said he looked as if he simply had a brain hemorrhage and died in an instant. No pain. No suffering. Even I had noticed the look frozen on his face, a look of complete peace as if he saw where he was headed next -- and that it was a beautiful place.
The closer the anniversary of his death came, the worse I felt. I still miss him and know part of me always will. He was a huge part of my life. As I look toward Feb. 6, however, I'm thinking it's time for me to focus less on the pain of his loss -- and more on celebrating his life and the meaning he brought to mine.
Maybe it's time for me to gather my new friends together here and throw my first D.C. bonfire bash. I can see Orion twirling around and yelping now: He knows there will be cake.