An Open Letter to My Golden Retriever Pal, Korby

(The staple in the corner of the document was rusted. That gave me an idea of how long the story below sat in my paper files, unused. When finding this recently, I chuckled at the list of big publications I wanted to send it to. That never happened. It has been some 30 years since I wrote this. Mom and Dad are gone now. My three children are grown. But the memories of those days are still so vivid, of a cherished canine friend.)

I stood in my bedroom that Sunday night in July, tears rolling off my face and sobs shaking my body. An uncontrollable tide of grief welled up inside me, and although my wife Sue was with me in the room, I suddenly felt very alone.

I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when you died, probably because I never thought I would have to face the situation. But now the shock of realization hit me with incredible force.

A million thoughts raced through my mind as I tried to come to terms with the news. I was at a loss as to why I was taking it so hard. I wondered if I was abnormal. The same feelings of loss and desperation haunted me as if Mom or Dad had died. But my tears were not for them. I was crying for you, Korby, my big-hearted, beautiful golden retriever.

As I sat down and sobbed into my hands, I remembered you laying on the hallway floor the last time I saw you. You couldn’t get up to play, or to take a walk around the block like you loved to do. I knew you were sick, but I convinced myself you would get better. I was sure that nothing— not old age, not sickness — would get the best of you. But when Mom and Dad called to say they had to put you to sleep, it cut me to the core. I could not accept that your time had come, and I didn’t want to believe that someone who added so much to my life was gone.

His legal name was Korbel: My Brandy Man, but we called him Korby. With me in 1986, college graduation day.

A rush of memories passed in front of me, and I realized just what I would be missing the next time I stepped foot in Mom and Dad’s house.

I remember the day Dad brought you home. You were an adorable, long-eared puppy with huge paws and the enthusiasm to match. You charged across the front lawn and jumped into my lap, chewing on my hand with your baby teeth. I was afraid of dogs, but you seemed different to me. You had boundless energy and limitless affection. It would have been hard not to fall in love with you.

I remembered how strong-willed you were while growing up. You were good at heart, but you always did what you wanted and went where you pleased. I’ll never forget the day you flunked out of dog obedience school because you couldn’t sit still. While other dogs were heeding commands to stay, you opted to run around looking for someone to kiss.

Your playfulness and spunky character quickly became the talk of the neighborhood. I always wondered what the neighbors thought when they rang the bell and you came to the door with an old shoe or pair of underwear from the laundry pile in your mouth. I’d laugh when they reached down to accept the gift you brought them and you ran away. Your face seemed to say “chase me,” and I always did. I never got sick of galloping around the living room until I was able to tackle you and retrieve what you had in your mouth.

The nights I came home late from work or school, no matter what the hour, you always came downstairs from your bed to greet me. Half the time you remembered to bring a gift, like one of Dad’s slippers. Your groggy eyes told me how much of an effort this was for you, but you came just the same. Even if you were sleepy, you always waited for me to go to bed before you went back upstairs. Thanks for watching out for me.

Joe and Korby: Christmas in the mid-1980s

The year after college when I was looking for full-time work, we became constant companions. After Mom and Dad went to work each morning, I waited for you to push my bedroom door open with your nose, then jump on the bed and fall asleep until I was ready to get up. Later in the day, if we had nothing else going (which we usually didn’t), we’d take a walk. I loved your reaction when I looked at you and uttered that golden phrase: “You want to go for a walk?” You cocked your head sideways as if to say, “Really?” Then all I needed to say was walkie to set you barking and dancing by the garage door. You got so excited on our walks, sometimes I thought you’d pull me off my feet.

Then there were the car rides. Sometimes I’d ask you if you wanted to ride in the car, just to see how happy it made you, even if I had nowhere particular to go. You were always first in the car door, pushing your way past me into the front seat. You were quite a sight, with your big head out the window and lazy tongue hanging out. When you sneezed on the window from the cold air blowing up your nose, I’d cringe and make a mental note to buy some Windex. And there was all that dog hair you left on the upholstery.

What I wouldn’t give to hear your “achoo” on one of those rides now.

During the winter, I remember us going into the back yard to play our version of canine football. I took off my hat and threw it like a Frisbee across the frozen yard. Then the race was on. It was too hard to catch you, but I always managed to get in a few good tackles. Thanks for letting me win a few. You were a good sport.

Korby loved to romp in the snow, chasing a football or any other object (hat, mitten, etc.)

One of my favorite games inside the house was when you came over to me with one of those worn out yellow tennis balls in your mouth. Being as coy and you could, you dropped the ball in front of me, but as soon as I made a move for it, you snatched it back. It was really funny how you loosened your grip on the ball just enough to let me think I could get it away, then clamped down on it when I tried. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard as when I rolled the ball down the hall and you chased it so hard you slid on your rear into the kitchen table. Whenever you got frustrated with the game, you took the ball between your paws and pulled the fur off it with your teeth. You gave us an impressive collection of bald tennis balls.

“You were not just my dog, or my pet. You were a part of me.”

You were always a great ally, Korb. I remember that year between college graduation and my first full-time job, when things got so frustrating I sometimes ended up in tears. But you were always there to lick my face and let me know things would be all right. And last Christmas Day, when Sue got called off to war with the Army Reserve, you knew I was upset and stayed by my side all weekend. Thanks for being so supportive.

You gave us plenty to smile about on Christmas mornings. We were all busy with our exchange of gifts, but you wouldn’t stand to play second fiddle to a bunch of wrapped packages. It became a Christmas ritual to watch you dive into the discarded wrapping paper, throw it in the air, then catch it in your mouth before tearing it to bits. Thanks to you, the living room looked like the wake of a paper tornado. I tried to save two or three stick-on bows, because I knew how much you loved pulling them apart. By the end of the morning, you usually found your gift, just by the smell of the rawhide emanating from under the wrapper. I still have a picture of you struggling to carry the 3-foot-long bone we gave you one year.

Korby helping cousin Laura with one of her gifts in the early 1980s.

One of my most vivid memories of you was from dinner time. It seemed that when it came to food, you had no idea you were a dog. Every day was the same story. Your bowl of food was put down at 4:30, but you preferred to wait until 5, when we sat around the dinner table. Like a professional panhandler, you made the rounds. You knew I was a soft touch. I figured that was why you always slid your nose into the crook of my arm and pushed your way in until your face was practically on my plate. I always gave in and slipped you a scrap of meat or a few vegetables. I could never figure out why you loved peas and carrots so much, but that came in handy for both of us. When you didn’t get what you wanted, did you have to knock your bowl of food over onto the floor? Oh well, just part of your strategy, huh?

What I wouldn’t give now to see you make that mess again.

I hope you don’t think we didn’t notice the one night you put your big paws on the kitchen table while we were in the other room and stole half the pizza. And Mom figured out real fast the time you plundered an entire ham from the counter. You probably figured you were doing Mom and Dad a favor the nights they had bridge club, by moving from one snack dish to the next, cleaning out the contents.

After I moved to another city with my job, coming home to visit you was a special treat. You made me feel so important when I came through the door. You grabbed a shoe and headed for the hills, and the chase was on until I tackled you. I always thought I was winning when I caught you, but now I realize that’s what you wanted in the first place. But I got my revenge when I’d take a dog biscuit, put it in my mouth and get down on all fours. You had a hard time getting the bone away from me. Well, at least until you threw your 100-pound frame on my back and knocked me over.

Korby wasn’t so fond of wearing someone else’s ski goggles.

After roughhousing for a while, I liked to lay down next to you and give you a big bear hug. You looked so peaceful as I scratched your ears and petted you. I’ll never forget the feeling of your smooth golden fur or the softness of your floppy ears. Your eyes would drift shut and your breathing grow deep. Then, just as you fell asleep, your paws would wiggle as if you were running. I used to wonder if you dreamed about running in a big, open field. I’ll bet that’s where you are now.

You always broke my heart when Sunday afternoon came and I had to pack up to go home. As I would gather my belongings, you looked up from the couch with big puppy eyes that seemed to say, “Aw, c’mon, don’t leave!” You got me to stay that one time when you grabbed my wrist in your mouth and pulled me back in the door.

Now that you’re gone, I wish I had stayed more back then.

Every time I called home, I got a sense of security and homesickness alike when I heard your bark in the background. Barking was one of your passions. It didn’t matter if it was a squirrel or bird in the back yard, or a common housefly on the sliding glass door that was your window to the world. You let out a resonating “woof!” that jolted anyone within 20 feet and shook the rafters. Just when we thought your eyes might be getting bad, you proved us wrong by barking at someone walking two blocks away.

When your fur started graying, I got a twinge of concern, and for a moment I was afraid you were getting old. But those thoughts always vanished in the face of your still-playful nature.

But last spring, I caught myself again worrying when you gained a lot of weight and had to be put on special medication to flush a buildup of water from your body. You got better for a while, as I was sure you’d be with us for years to come. And even though you were losing weight, I told myself you’d be fine.

Korby in his younger days, with David, who would be there for Korb in the end.

Then came one Friday I was home for a visit. You looked tired as you staggered over to greet me for a moment, then laid back down to nap. When I sat down to eat my lunch, you struggled and almost fell over trying to get up to come get your share. But after that second piece of pepperoni from my pizza you perked up. And again in the face of evidence that you were slowly leaving us, I believed you were fine. I hugged and kissed you extra long before heading home that day.

But the next day, when our brother David was up to see you, you didn’t get up at all. Even your favorite word walkie wasn’t of interest. You didn’t know it then, but Mom and Dad were worried. They had talked about having Dr. Sartori come over during the week and put you to sleep while they were away. They didn’t want to see you go. But David said no, if it was your time, he wanted to be with you.

So David, God bless him, took you outside for a short walk, then put you in his car. I picture the two of you as you drove down all the side streets on the way to the vet’s office. You even had your head out the window, just like old times.

The vet was not surprised to see you. We later found out you had cancer growing in you that caused you to lose weight and age so fast. When the vet came into the waiting room, you slumped to the floor, just like you always did when you didn’t want to go somewhere. You were vintage Korby, right to the end. It was so hard for David as he held you in his arms while the doctor gave you a shot. He could feel you relax as your worldly troubles slipped away.

One of Korby’s favorite spots: his side of the couch. Mom’s feet are in the shot.

But just as your pain was ending, Korb, ours was just starting. Tears flow from me every time I think of you. It’s going to be so hard to go into that house and not hear the click of your nails on the floor, or see that shoe or pair of underwear dangling from your mouth.

But writing this, I finally understand my powerful reaction to your death. You were not just my dog, or my pet, but a part of me. You knew me so well. Your selfless nature and affection did more for me that you probably ever could understand. Until I met my wife, you were my very best friend, whom I grew desperately close to. Even when I got married, you didn’t hold it against me. Thanks for that.

I know that I’ll always shed a few tears when I look at your picture or think about you. But I’ll also smile, because I know you’re somewhere much better now.

I can’t say goodbye to you, Korb. It would hurt too much. So keep that shoe handy. I’ll chase you again someday.

Love,

Your pal, Joe

©2021 The Hanneman Archive

Korby sprawls out on the grass for cousins Kyle Hanneman (son of Tom & Nancy) and Emily Olson (daughter of Jane & Charlie Olson).

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to My Golden Retriever Pal, Korby”

  1. You wrote a beautiful tribute to Korby, Joe. Our animal companions leave a large hole behind when they go. Korby will get some daffodils planted here for him this fall.

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    1. Thank you for the kind words, and the daffodils! I’ve had four dogs since I wrote that piece in summer 1991. I wrote similar tributes to two of them, Mr. Puggles and Madison. I hope to have my current companion, Mickey, with me for a long while. She’s a rat terrier/Jack Russell mix.

      Liked by 1 person

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