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Typing these words is taking serious effort because the truth is, I’m hurting so badly at the loss of my beloved dog, Cardinal. We said goodbye to him last week, and even though I knew this day was coming (he’d been sick for several months prior), actually losing him was tougher than I could imagine.

He was my faithful companion for almost nine years. I had always wanted a dog, but the minute I laid eyes on Cardinal at an adoption event, I knew there was something special about him. He walked right over to me and licked me. His handler asked if I wanted to take him for a walk, and instantly I knew I’d be taking him home with me. But first, there was the matter of convincing my-then fiancé who was less than thrilled about the prospect of becoming a dog owner. “But his name is Cardinal! It’s a sign!” My ex was a St. Louis Cardinals fan and Cardinal was so dang sweet. Just like that, I had a dog. And he was perfect.

In the months to come, my relationship began to unravel. I think Cardinal had been a last-ditch effort to patch things up, but for me, it only highlighted our differences. Freshly single, I packed up Cardinal and all of my belongings and moved to my very own apartment on the eastside. It would be the first time I was living alone, but I still had Cardinal by my side so I wasn’t truly alone. That first night in my new apartment, I didn’t have any furniture yet. Just an air mattress, a wine glass, and a box of macaroons from Bottega Louie. But I had Cardinal, and I remember staring into his eyes and thinking as long as I had him, I’d be fine.

And we were. That first year I had Cardinal I survived a broken engagement, moving across town, a hit-and-run car accident that left me broke, sexual harassment and assault, a cancer scare, and the prospect of being unemployed for the first time in several years. I also wrote several pilots, started working at my-then dream job, got into an amazing networking program, and lived life on my terms for the first time. It really was the best and worst of times, and Cardinal was there for every high and every low. When I would get home at night, he would greet me at the door, tail wagging and jumping into the air like he had springs in his feet. And when I was down, Cardinal would lay on the bathroom floor with me, letting me cry into his fur. As several friends have remarked this past week, he was in the trenches with me. But no matter how down or reckless I got, Cardinal still loved me unconditionally. It was the greatest gift of all.

Several people came into our lives during that time, but no one stuck. And I was perfectly fine being single. Cardinal was the only one I liked to cuddle with anyway. Then on New Year’s Eve 2013, Nate met Cardinal and they both instantly fell in love with each other. Much in the same way I knew my previous relationship wouldn’t last because of Cardinal, I now knew this one would. Nate and Cardinal’s connection was instantaneous, and it made me love both of them even more. Less than six months after dating, Nate and I moved in together and the three of us felt like a family.

We tried to give Cardinal the best life possible. He was such an easy-going and loving dog that it made it easy to do that. Whenever possible, we would take him with us — that included work, vacation, even running errands. Cardinal was content as long as we were all together. Unfortunately I couldn’t leave him outside when I ran to get a cup of coffee, and the times I did, he would bark and cry so loud that inevitably someone would remark, “Man, he really missed you!” when I would return.

In the past week since he’s passed, I’ve spent countless hours looking at pictures of him and recounting all of our happy (and not so happy) times. He will forever be tied into such a momentous time in my life. That’s why his death has been so hard. He’s been such a source of comfort and stability for the past several years. I keep expecting to see him when I get home at night, and I fight the urge to say hello to him in the morning. When Cardinal first got sick, I warned my husband that I would be a little lost without him when he passed. And that’s exactly how I feel: a little lonely and a lot lost. But life goes on. Despite my grief, I still have a job to do and a son to raise. It’s hard, and it’s a lot harder without my sweet pup who shepherded me into adulthood.

There’s a lot more I want to say about Cardinal and how much he meant to me. And maybe some day I will. But for now, a piece of my heart is missing and I can’t believe he’s gone.

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