Mourning a Loss, Welcoming Heroes

She had been breaking through the wireless fence with more frequency. She would patrol the neighborhood, meet some friends and normally return as soon as I opened the garage door to go find her. On Sunday night Hershey didn’t come home. The girls stayed close to home in case she returned, and I went scouting her usual hang outs. Just before dusk, I found her. When I did, time stood still and the air was pressed from my lungs as Hershey lay motionless on the median on the highway. She was dead.

She may have been our dog, but she was as much a part of our family as any one of us. Like us she was loving, empathetic, curious and completely imperfect. That morning she woke me early and the two of us executed our morning routine perfectly — Hershey went outside and Liz filled the bowls with food and water, and the coffee maker with grounds and water. The girls wouldn’t be up for hours, so Hershey and I curled up on a couch and checked in with a long distance friend on the phone and got some writing done. If her head weren’t resting on my leg, she tucked her chin on the back of the couch to guard the back yard and keep track of every rabbit, squirrel, bird, groundhog and deer that dare enter her kingdom.

Once the house was full of activity including a friend for breakfast, Hershey was only happy if we were all in one room. When we were, an audible exhale proved she was content. That same sound ended every day as I turned off the light and settled my head on the pillow, then Hershey could rest. Her work was done for the day.

Later in the day, we were in the back yard with Hershey as we installed Ella’s new ninja warrior monkey bars. I kept noticing how Hershey would chase something and then fall exhausted into a panting puddle somewhere in the shade. That was her second great love after taking care of her girls — chasing other animals. In fact the only time she wasn’t underfoot was the moment something caught her eye and she went for a chase. As I put steaks on the grill, the absence of her nose near the plate of raw meat was evident. She never did come home.

It’s hard now to get up in the morning and only have half of my routine to complete. The little things that drove me crazy about Hershey were all the things I hadn’t yet trained her to do — to come when I called, to leave food on the counter, to stay out of the trash, to stay down when a visitor arrived. Those were harder commands that we hadn’t mastered yet. We were working on them still.

If I knew Sunday morning how my day would unfold before I put my head on the pillow that night, I would have lived that day very differently. I dare say I would have tried to change the outcome. But we aren’t to know what is to befall us. We don’t get the glimpse into the hours ahead.

When something like this happens, we are reminded to find the joy every chance we get — to cherish that unexpected smile when you see your dog panting breathlessly from a good run. When something like this happens, you look for the heroes — the friends who take your breath away by their kindness. They are there to sustain you and they do.

Odd as it sounds, the girls and I know how lucky we are. Hershey came in to our lives exactly when we needed her. She loved us though some pretty tough times. She left us with the knowledge that we were loved unconditionally by her. She would expect nothing less from us but to love others unconditionally ­– especially those heroes who brought us peace.

Elizabeth Hofreuter is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has two daughters, ages 9 and 14.