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When Sam loved me 

When puppy love yields to doggie divorce, the separation can be final

I never had a dog growing up.

It was not for lack of trying. I asked for some version of a four-legged friend every Christmas. And every Christmas morning, I'd wake up thinking just maybe there would be a pony tied to the swingset in our backyard.

After Santa and my parents repeatedly failed me on the pony thing, I resorted to a higher power. Each night, I'd go to sleep clutching whatever stuffed animal was my favorite at the time, and I'd pray that this stuffed animal would magically come to life while I slept. I believed in God enough to think that just maybe I'd wake up in the morning with a kitten, a puppy or a horse — or better yet, a unicorn.

Higher powers failed me too.

But at the age of 26, I finally got my first puppy.

Well, he wasn't really mine. I had just started dating this guy, and one day he texted me and told me he'd gotten a puppy named Sam. I was on the fence about the guy, but I couldn't wait to meet his dog.

And when I met Sam, it was love at first sight.

Sam was a boxer, a breed that is just unfairly cute by nature. His giant head composed the majority of his body weight, and his giant cartoonish eyes could've melted Cruella de Vil's heart. He was clumsy, sweet, and dumber than a box of rocks. But love is blind, and I was certain he was the best dog on earth.

As a novice dog owner, I soon discovered there's a reason Mother Nature makes puppies (and all infant creatures, really) so damn adorable. It's for their own survival, because Sam — like most infant creatures — was horribly behaved. On a bad day, cuteness might be the only thing preventing a mother from abandoning her offspring, human or animal, at the grocery store or the park.

He peed and pooped everywhere. He ate important things, like the knobs off my new washing machine and a book I wrote when I was 5. He slept next to me, all elbows and knees, sharp edges jabbing into my ribs as he tossed and turned, making me wish he slept more like a stuffed animal. Everything in life had to be scheduled around him. Every time I left the house, his darling face was filled with misery, breaking my heart on a daily basis — only to be mended by the joyous look he awarded me when I arrived home.

So I married the guy, and throughout the next few years, what started as a civil union at best grew decidedly uncivil. Sam was my saving grace, my loyal companion, 50 pounds of pure, everlasting, nonjudgmental love that begged to sit in my lap every waking hour. At night, he'd sleep between me and my husband, a warm barrier in an icy marriage bed of two strangers not touching. I was suddenly grateful for Sam's sharp elbows and knees; they were much less painful than anything else I wanted to confront at the time.

When the inevitable divorce came — and the inevitable division of all possessions, including pets — it was decided that Sam would not be coming with me. When you take marriage vows that essentially state "what's mine is yours," the legal dissolution of those vows might as well state that "what was never yours to begin with certainly isn't anymore."

After the divorce, I asked to see Sam. I honestly thought my ex-husband and I could work out some kind of visitation arrangement, but he disagreed. I immediately regretted not writing this canine custody provision into my Decree of Divorce, but there was nothing to do about that, ex post facto.

Once I'd harassed my ex with at least 5 million text messages and emails about it, however, he finally relented. He said I could see Sam ... once. Once was better than nothing.

It had been three months since I'd seen Sam. I arrived to pick him up at the same location where my ex had proposed to me five years earlier. The visit was facilitated by my friend Tabitha, who had agreed to be the diplomat in the doggie hand-off. When I saw Sam, my eyes lit up.

But his didn't.

Sure, he was happy to see me, but Sam was always happy to see anyone. When I looked in his eyes — still giant and cartoonish — I realized something that made my heart sink. He didn't know me anymore.

But I had exactly eight hours to spend with him, and I was confident I could trigger his memory, like with an Alzheimer's patient or even that lion in those YouTube videos. We played, we ran around, we visited our favorite bars. He greeted every stranger the same way he greeted me.

How had I become a stranger to him in such a short time? How could he forget me?

As the day drew to a close, I pulled him into my lap. We were both sweltering on that mid-June day, and he wiggled from my grasp to the cool ground. Two strangers, not touching.

When I dropped him off, I knew I'd never see him again. I pulled away from the curb, blinded by the tears I'd been holding in for eight hours, or maybe five years. He wasn't mine anymore. Really, he never was.

But maybe dogs have it easier, with their brains that erase memories they don't need anymore. Maybe that's why they're so happy, and why humans are so miserable. We haven't figured out how to erase. We can barely figure out how to forgive, let alone forget.

Which is why I hope that in my next life, I come back as a dog. And I hope I'm as good of a dog as Sam.

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