A sweet life

Story and Photo by Mike Kemp

Pepper was never meant to be my dog. 

She chose me.

She came into our family at the insistence of our children. They wanted a dog, and a friend found an abandoned puppy on a fishing trip. The kids wore down my wife, Crystal (who chose the name Pepper), and a dog came into our lives.

The day she came home, we played with her in the back yard until the kids were ready to go inside. I lingered with the new puppy, sitting cross-legged on our deck and petting her. She crawled into my lap, curled up, and fell into a deep sleep.

I think that’s when she chose me.

Pepper was a ball of energy for many years and always enthusiastic to greet me when I came home. She would run laps around the yard — “zoomies” is what most dog lovers call this behavior — and would almost clear our privacy fence by running up to it, jumping and launching off of the fence parkour-style to get a glance over it.

When we moved to a new neighborhood, she became an indoor dog. We had no fence in our backyard, but she took the new environment in stride. She learned to find me to let me know when she needed a walk — usually at about two-hour intervals.

It wasn’t bad, although she never really developed a good sense of timing. It never failed that she needed a walk right when I sat down with a fresh cup of coffee, or got on a call, or was knee-deep in a project that demanded my attention.

But the walks got us up and out. It helped me meet our new neighbors, which was a nice perk. I may not be able to remember all their names, but I knew their faces, and their kids would come to pet Pepper.

Sometimes, the adults would, too.

The past few years, I noticed time catching up to Pepper. Gray began to show on her muzzle, and she didn’t want to play like she used to. Over the past year, her arthritis really made itself known. Our walks became slower; when she would lay down at night, it was a process that was painful to watch.

We knew our time with her was short.

During a routine visit this summer, I discussed our options with her veterinarian. He gave her some painkillers that would help in the short term, but the decision was made that we would end her suffering.

Over the Labor Day weekend, our children came home to say goodbye to their longtime companion, and the Tuesday after was the appointment we all had dreaded but knew was inevitable. Crystal posted in our Nextdoor neighborhood group, explaining what was about to happen and we wouldn’t be out for our walks as we had in the past.

Sunday came and the kids came to spend some time with us and Pepper. Having already done our early morning walk, Pepper decided it was time to go again. Our oldest daughter thought about joining us but said she couldn’t bring herself to it, so Pepper and I headed out.

As we circled the block, we came to a house in our neighborhood that had a sign in the front yard. As we approached, I noticed it read, “Dogs leave paw prints on our hearts.” I thought they had lost a pet, knowing they had a couple of dogs who sometimes barked as we passed, and I felt a pang for them.

We approached the next house, and I noticed they had the same sign. Pepper stopped tugging long enough for me to read the personalized message written on the sign – both to Pepper and to my family.

I was dumbstruck.

Another house across the street had the same sign, with their own personalized message. I stood in the street choking back my emotions at the act of kindness my neighbors had shown to me and my dog.

I came home and could barely get out the words to explain the kindness of our neighbors. I lightened the mood by adding, “But she couldn’t read them.”

By our next walk, more signs had been placed in yards. When we ranged out into adjacent neighborhoods, others recognized her from the post and expressed their sympathy.

The next day, we encountered our next-door neighbors on our walk. They walked with us while choking back their own tears and remarking on the number of signs placed in the yards, theirs included.

That Tuesday, we made it through the appointment, and Pepper peacefully passed. The signs came down one by one, and we settled into a new normal without a family member.

But the actions of our neighbors have not been forgotten.

The priorities of dogs are different from ours, which isn’t a bad thing. They don’t care about the color of your skin or the amount of dollars in your bank account. They could care less who you voted for or if you went to church on Sunday. They love you regardless. And sometimes, you find out your neighbors do, too.