Hadn’t been out of the University of Pittsburgh for a year when my roommate in a terribly low-grade, poorly located “townhouse” decided he wanted a golden retriever. He grew up with them.
So, the search began for a female golden retriever. For two guys – one a hardcore gambler (him), and the other an unmotivated, wannabe journalist (me) – it was a difficult search. Pure-bred dogs cost big bucks, something neither of us had.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, news broke. A female golden retriever living next door to the house where my future brother-in-law was living was impregnated by a roaming farm dog. The result?
A litter of mixed-breed puppies that looked a lot like golden retrievers. Since they weren’t pure-bred, the puppies were being given away.
Up for adoption was a male puppy. I informed my roommate.
He hoped for a female but quickly agreed to take on the responsibilities. This dog was coming to Dormont, where we moved after an epic stay in South Oakland.
Neither of us knew what we were getting into, but Marley, a 7-pound butterball of cuteness was sharing our place. Strangers swooned over him. Some going as far as saying he needed to be on television.
Yep, Marley (named for my love of Bob Marley after the original suggestion of Bob – Bob Marley, Bob Weir, Bob Dylan – was shot down) was adorable, friendly and a picturesque puppy.
He was also an incredible handful with a voracious appetite.
Marley got into everything – garbage, cakes, empty beer bottles (he loved beer), food, the fridge. He’d stick his face into the bathtub during a shower and try to drink water. He’d stop to visit every person walking by, as he was certain every human found him impossibly adorable and wanted to pet him. He ate furniture and shoes. He stole food and beer from people at parties. It took nearly a full year to house train him.
Marley also quickly attached himself to me.
It happened one sunny afternoon at a nearby park, where he once ran at a toddler, tackled him to the ground and proceeded to lick his face in glee. Marley was tiny and the grass was tall. He was unsure of my whereabouts, but when he found me, he couldn’t have been happier.
From that point onward, we were running partners.
Marley followed me everywhere. When he didn’t follow me, he was watching me. An incredible friendship was in its initial stages.
And to think, I almost gave up on him.
Marley was so ornery and exuded so much energy, I didn’t think I’d handle the important tasks of raising him. There were moments I was convinced I needed to help find Marley another owner.
But then that growing, adorable, wild man would look at me, and I knew I couldn’t.
Over time, Marley became a constant companion. We were a tag team, like the Rock and Roll Express, the Midnight Express or the Road Warriors, It was tough picturing one without the other. I’d walk or run him 3-5 times each day. I’d take him everywhere I could. He’d go hours without going inside the house while I was at work.
We moved all over the place – Dormont, South Side, South Park, Bethel Park, Dormont (again) and, finally, the Westwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Marley always adjusted quickly.
He forced me to be responsible when I wasn’t ready. Those extra drinks I’d normally have with friends, well, the dog hadn’t been out since 8 p.m. Had to get home.
Without Marley, I doubt I’d be the family man I am now. Sure, I’m not perfect. But neither was Marley, and we needed to learn from each other.
Marley, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1998, slowly aged until he hit 12, when his hips began to weaken. He hung tough for a couple more years until he couldn’t go anymore. I knew it was time. He knew it was time. Everyone else knew it was time.
But June 27, 2012, remains the toughest day of my life.
Walking into the vet that evening, Marley said hello to another dog. We went to a room where they left us alone. I sobbed. I apologized for not being a better owner. I told him how much I loved him and how vital he was. I thanked him for being a great friend and incredible with Anna, who was three when Marley died. When an assistant entered the room for payment information, I got up. Marley shot up with one last burst of energy. I’m convinced he knew what was happening, and there was no way he wanted to left alone. Don’t worry. I didn’t leave. We had one last thing to do together.
He wasn’t perfect, but perfect dogs don’t have as much personality. And Marley had the latter in bunches.
There’s some funny parallels to the movie “Marley and Me.” I’m a newspaper man, just like John Grogan. I owned a golden retriever named Marley, and he was named for Bob Marley. (And no, my Marley was around long before the book became a household read.) My friends often said if my life were a movie, Owen Wilson would star in the lead role. The lead male in “Marley and Me”? You guessed it.
There’s so many stories about Marley, but he’ll never be immortalized on the silver screen or in a novel. It’s already been done.
He’d be 17 today, and I still miss him. Anna does too. She talks about him regularly though I’m not certain how she remembers him.
I know I’ll never forget him, from how he rough-housed with friends to how he sat with his head in my wife’s lap while she was fighting off going into labor during the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over Arizona to his last meal – a meatball hoagie.
Happy birthday, old friend. Long may you run.