Wednesday, August 31, 2011

At home in Belgium

The opportunity to work in Antwerp Belgium for 10 days sounded too good to be true and excitement overcame me as I thought about visiting such a beautiful historic city but first I had to ensure there would be no issues with Erin accompanying me. If she was not allowed to tag along then I would remain in Germany but after placing a call to the hotel all of my fears were erased as they informed me of their dog friendly policies. On a Friday morning with my furry co-pilot in the backseat we headed west towards our destination of Antwerp and with relative ease the hotel was located; we arrived several hours ahead of schedule but that would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Check-in was accomplished, belongings were tossed into the room then we milled about the lobby in anticipation of the arrival of my co-workers over the course of the afternoon and into the evening. We had made it to Belgium safely and though it was the heart of winter there was no doubt this would be a memorable time for Erin and myself.

Many employees of the hotel took a keen interest in Erin after spotting her in the lobby area; from management to a janitor they warmly greeted the newest four-legged guest and lavished attention upon her. A pair of bartenders were arguably her biggest admirers as they repeatedly made trips to socialize then returned to the adjacent bar from where they came. The hotel staff was completely smitten by her charm, ability to follow commands and within the span of a few hours they urged me to allow Erin off-leash to explore the property. I reluctantly agreed thus she was free to roam the vicinity where everyone could keep tabs on her; she kept the servers company as they prepared the tables for dinner service, lounged on the floor behind the check-in counter, and wandered into the manager's office where a garbage can was too tempting to not topple over in search of goodies.Of course she wandered into the bar area where shrieks of "Erin Erin" were hollered in her direction and excitedly she ran towards the voices with a huge grin and wagging tail. As she bonded with the staff and visited anyone who displayed the slightest of interest in her, I played the role of overprotective parent to ensure her safety while making sure she wasn't being a nuisance.

We ventured outside in hopes of finding something to keep Erin occupied and that would be discovered behind a dormant covered swimming pool and maintenance sheds. The rear of the hotel property consisted of a wide plot of land surrounded on three sides by dense trees and as we strolled along the forest perimeter I eyed movement ahead in the distance. Continuing to move forward my eyes were focused on the vague outlines while Erin was inhaling the rich scents found on the ground; finally I recognized the shapes as a group of hares minding their own business. Kneeling down I quietly called Erin to my side and she promptly sat beside me as I whispered "Rabbit" into her floppy ear. Her head jerked upwards while the hazel eyes intently peered into the distance and I knew she had spotted them when she started to shake in anticipation of the chase but I told her to wait until we were closer. Oblivious to our presence the hares continued to forage as we moved nearer and nearer until finally Erin heard the magic phrase "go get em"; she chased her prey in every direction and repeatedly pursued them into the woods until daylight faded away. It became obvious that play time was over as we stood all alone in the bitter cold with no prey in sight but there would many more days of outdoor fun.

Before retiring for the evening I asked the desk clerk to inform the housemaids that a dog would be in my room during the days; it would be unfortunate if the employees were startled upon opening the door or worse yet somehow allow Erin to escape the room. To my amazement it was suggested that the hotel staff pet-sit her during the days I'm working and I was hesitant to accept such an offer for several reasons but finally agreed after they ensured her safety and reiterated she would have plenty of companionship. Erin certainly enjoyed the company of the staff and likewise they liked having her around but I would be overly worrisome just the same. As I returned to the hotel in the evenings Erin would run to greet me with a rapidly wagging tail and her trademark leaning against the legs where I can conveniently stoop down to dispense kisses and hugs. A manager or desk clerk would give me summary of the day's activities which usually consisted of napping in the manager's office or loitering behind the check-in counter where she acted as the hotel mascot greeting newly arrived guests.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Death Of An Angel

Today marks the one year anniversary of Erin's passing and to say I miss my dear friend is an understatement. She was never just a dog to me but the reason the sun rose and set thus her absence in my life has been extremely difficult. Our special bond was established early in the relationship and continued to grow throughtout the years in a way that made our connection very unique from most human-dog relationships. As a novice dog owner I had alot to learn about raising a puppy and most certainly I made mistakes along the way but her loyalty and patience never wavered even when I started to doubt myself. Upon entering my life she captured my heart, mind, and soul and gave me a reason to live when often I believed there was none; Erin was my beacon in the storm and when I called her "Daddy's Angel" she would give me a coy look that said "Uh oh, Are my wings showing?" I thought of her as my angel in fur as she possessed the traits necessary for inclusion into that exclusive group and over the years her actions proved my suspicions were correct!!

Erin opened my eyes to the world while teaching me life lessons that I never would have learned without her guidance but learn and grow as a person I did. Her positive influence upon me increased my capacity to love while teaching me the value of friendship and not ever wanting to disappoint her I thrived to be the friend she truly deserved. It was my sincere intention to give Erin the most amazing life a dog can have and in that regard I feel contentment as her journey was filled with many years of love, friendship, and adventure. At my side she led a most wonderful life that would make any dog envious; she trekked across a dozen countries, served the community as a therapy dog, attended church, and performed onstage in a local production. Beaches, parks, forests, lakes and so many other locations were explored with the sole purpose of injecting happiness into her life; nothing brought me more joy than seeing her beaming smile and rapid tail wag. My life revolved around making her happy hence if Erin was happy then I was happy!!

While Erin's journey was filled with adventure and excitement it's what was inside that really separated her from the pack; she had the ability to touch everyone that crossed her path and rare was the heart that was not affected. People fell in love with her soulful gentle nature, felt complete ease in her company while her friendly personality made it easy for folks to become instant friends. It's these attributes that led Erin to be so popular wherever we ventured and the affection felt for her was clearly demonstrated by the show of grief and love at the time of her death. I feel so blessed to have received her love and friendship for nearly 12 years while sharing so many smiles and I'll cherish those memories for the remainder of my days. My love was certainly not a one-way street as Erin's passion matched mine in intensity and her display of affection always filled me with warmth; she was often referred to as a "Daddy's Girl" due to her desire to be near me and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I'm prouder of my relationship with Erin and the wonderful life I laid at her paws than anything else I've achieved; our years together are the highlight of my existence. Everyday with her was a true blessing and words can't describe the sorrow and pain I've suffered upon the loss of my beloved friend. If I was to amputate a limb there would be less ache ravaging my body as it certainly feels that my heart has been fractured beyond repair. Given the opportunity I would have gladly sacrificed my life to have one more day with Erin; just one more day of stalking squirrels, another day of frolicking at the dog park and just another day of being best friends. In a state of shock and oblivious to the world around me I told Erin how much she meant to me, how everybody loved her and how we would miss her dearly. It was very important for me to let her know that she was the best friend I could ever ask for and how incredibly proud she made me. During that timeframe I witnessed the most incredible act of devotion as Erin suddenly pushed herself up in respond to my words but I eased her back down and continued to provide comfort. Thinking of that scene brings tears to my eyes as she was minutes from death and in obvious distress yet she loved me so much she still tried to please me.... That defines love and devotion!!

Our final photo. Erin would pass away a few hours later.

Her passing came suddenly after the onset of an illness and was a complete surprise to all including the veternarians who oversaw her treatment. Within 36 hours of taking ill she was pronounced dead and despite an unbreakable spirit her body could not continue the journey any further. I'm so thankful I was able to hold her paw while lovingly looking into her eyes so she could make the journey with a friend; there was no way that my beloved Angel was exiting this world without me comforting her as she did for me on so many occasions. The medical staff left me alone as tears ran down my cheeks onto her lifeless body, knowing our time together was limited I stroked her coat and smothered her with kisses for the final time. A pair of scissors was located then I proceeded to snip off a handful of her beautiful flowing coat and before long a vet tech returned to ask if she could remove the collar; I shook my head and muttered no. It was my responsibility and honor as Erin's Daddy to remove it myself so the leather collar was unbuckled then I reluctantly walked into the waiting room where family members were sobbing. The outpouring of love for Erin in the days after her passing was remarkable while the support of friends and family kept me from being totally consumed with grief and to them I'll be eternally grateful.

One year later it's still hard to believe that she's gone and while I miss my Angel beyond words I'm comforted by the fact that she led an incredible life and was loved by so many people. Thanks to everyone for keeping the memory of Erin alive!!

RIP Erin!! October 20 1998 - August 16 2010

"I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness. If it takes my dog being there in Heaven, I believe he'll be there" ~ Rev. Billy Graham

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

And The Tony Award Goes To....

This photo was taken during a production of The Miracle Worker in which Erin played Belle the Keller family dog and in this scene a young Helen Keller is attempting to teach sign language to Belle.

"Would you be interested in allowing your dog onstage in a play?" That was the question presented to me by a member of the drama department before morning service at a major Savannah Church and one which didn't involve much arm-twisting on their part. The staff's search for an "obedient hunting dog” had been unsuccessful until they heard of  Erin through the grapevine thus I was approached with details about the dog's scenes and the drama department director was to be called if there was further interest on my part. This was an opportunity that couldn't be passed over so a call was placed the following morning to Wayne and Erin's therapy dog service, obedience training, friendly demeanor, etc was discussed at length and mutually we decided she would be perfect for the role of Belle.

Over the next several weeks Erin took part in rehearsals with her fellow co-stars and it's an understatement to say she had a great time. It took little time for Wayne to express complete confidence in my stage performer thus her scenes were rehearsed the bare minimum but that was okay as that decision allowed more time to bond with fellow co-stars. It was called rehearsal but in reality it was a chance for Erin to receive as much attention as possible and everyone treated their four-legged star with the utmost respect and affection. The cast and crew loved having her around and heaped praise upon her; children and adults alike doted on her and were constantly calling her name so she could wander over for a round of socialization. She often wandered around the auditorium exploring every inch that was made available to her while in pursuit was a gaggle of kids longing for a hug or a kiss on the cheek but without fail she always returned to lay near my feet. Another perk of rehearsals was the delicious catered food and we especially enjoyed the lasagna from Olive Garden; Erin never took her eyes off the fork as she knew I'd give her a portion and I most certainly did.

Erin was taken backstage as the auditorium overflowed with hundreds of paying customers while beaming lights, sound checks, racks of costumes and props told me it was almost show time. Reluctantly she was handed over to a teenage actor who would be her backstage guardian then I headed to a table near the stage where family members and loyal friends were sitting in anticipation of this once in a lifetime event. I was a nervous wreck waiting for the play to began and all I could think about was Erin backstage with strangers wondering why I deserted her. On cue she was led onto the stage by two youngsters holding the leash and they hit their mark where the scene unfolded around them; she did very well but I could tell she was searching for me in the crowd so that really stressed me out as I knew she missed me. The crowd buzzed upon seeing a dog onstage and murmurs could be heard at nearby tables about the doggie actor; I was beyond proud of my girl. At intermission I promptly went backstage to comfort her and the cast said she was very anxious due to my absence so I decided to remain backstage with her for the rest of the evening and future performances.

It was calming for both of us to be together backstage and when the time came for her scenes I reassured her "It's okay. Go on. Daddy will be right here" then she walked out into the blinding light.  From the shadows I watched with a huge smile as Erin did remarkably well and when she was brought backstage I smothered her with affection and praise while her tail wagged a million miles a hour. Erin’s scenes went very well including a pivotal scene where a young Helen Keller tries to teach Belle (Erin) sign language, it was so awesome to see just the two of them onstage with the spotlight shining upon them. Helen was sitting down with Belle’s paw in her hand instructing her in the art of signing while Belle looked lovingly into Helen's eyes, it was so touching and endearing to everyone in attendance. A standing ovation took place after each performance with Erin joining her human co-stars in soaking up the love of the audience; it was a special time for her indeed. After the audience retook their seats the cast lined up outside the door for a meet and greet with the spectators who streamed by to pay their respects to whomever they desired. So many people stopped to pay Erin a compliment, pet her on the head, and many praised me for raising a wonderful dog; it was an amazing experience for us in every aspect.

It was sad when the production ended as we made so many friends and shared many laughs along the way. Erin had an incredible time, touched many hearts and I’ve never been prouder of her than at that moment; as always she never disappointed me. Everything she attempted was achieved with the highest results and her stint as a stage performer was no different; despite my worrying as a concerned father she was amazing every night and gave me many more great memories. After Erin’s passing I received a letter of condolence from Wayne on behalf of the drama department and a phone call during which he said everyone was saddened to hear of her sudden death; it meant alot to know she lived on in their hearts but that demonstrates how special my angel was.

And the Tony award goes to Erin Smith....

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Strike A Pose

This picture was taken in June 2010 while on an early morning stroll through Chippewa Square in Savannah Ga. There were very few tourists around the monument so the opportunity presented itself for a impromptu shoot. Erin was hoisted up and instinctively she snuggled up to one of the four marble lions while General Oglethorpe's statue looked down with respect upon the regal canine. She sat there for several minutes while I snapped a few pics and this is one of my all-time favorite photos of her. Erin's face shows complete happiness and contentment with life. Beautiful girl in a beautiful locale!!