....but I've been something of a basket case the past week. Monday night, for the fourth time in less than three years, a member of my animal family died - barely two days after we confirmed a possible diagnosis of lymphoma. His name was Harley, a 120-pound Arctic wolf/German shepherd hybrid with one brown eye, one blue eye, the heart of a lion and the disposition of a lamb. (Harley, below right, with Cowboy: a 70-pound shepherd mix).
Harley was 11, and had been with his "daddy,'' Jake, since he was 6 months old - after he'd flunked out of guard-dog school in Maryland.
I met him in early 2003, when Jake and I started dating. I'd never seen a creature that huge outside a horse corral or a zoo cage. With his full coat in winter, he looked like a grizzly bear (and felt like hugging my grandmother in her mink).
But we're certain that Harley knew how enormous he was - how menacing his obvious wolfishness might seem to strangers - because he adopted an attitude of placid acceptance, humility and endless patience. If the canine race ever had a Buddha, it was Harley.
A couple of years ago, we took him to a dog parade on Miami Beach and probably 300 people laid hands on him. At some point, he'd had enough. He didn't growl or snap; he just gave us a look like, "Enough, already,'' and lay down.
To walk down the street with Harley was to make no forward progress to speak of, because he literally stopped traffic. The questions and comments were always the same: He looks like a wolf! He has two different-color eyes! How much does he weigh? How much does he EAT? Jake kept a sign in his truck that he'd hold up to gawkers, when Harley was riding in bed: Yes, he is a wolf.
As far as I know, Harley only did one naughty thing in his entire life: snatching a couple of sirloin steaks off a kitchen counter as a youngster. Jake swears that he understood the tone of disappointment in his voice when he said, "Oh Harley,'' and never misbehaved again.
Harley was a dog of simple needs: soft grass to lie in on cool nights; chilly tile to sprawl on on hot days. He loved nothing more than riding in the pickup, barking "Look at me" to the world. Running, jumping, playing - it all demanded too much ambition and energy.
Heaven to Harley was lying in one place and getting a tummy rub - though in his youth, he was known to chase cows in the Maryland pastures and hop on the picnic table to howl at the noontime fire siren.
(He had a whole repertoire of howling songs. Among his favorites: Santana's Black Magic Woman, Garth Brooks's Thunder Rolls, and Bonnie Raitt's Let's Give 'Em Something to Talk About. You could hear him across the street).
We called him the King, because he expected to be served. He ate lying down, and began each meal with a ritual: licking the inside of the bowl from the top down to the food, round and round, then languidly munching until only a few kibbles remained. These, he expected to be hand fed - and we were only too happy to oblige.
Two weeks ago, he stopped eating. We tried the usual people-food inducements like cheese and roast chicken, but he just turned away. This happens sometimes with dogs - they get upset stomachs like we do - so we weren't concerned at first. Then it became obvious that this was more than just a tummy ache. Blood tests showed an abnormally high white-cell count and irregularities in liver enzymes. He had swollen lymph nodes and fever.
We tried a prescribed drug regimen, but he got worse. Saturday, the blood-cancer diagnosis was confirmed, and by Monday, it was clear that we couldn't let him get any sicker. As wrenching as that decision is, it's part of the bargain that we, as a species, made with Harley's wolf ancestors when we brought them into our caves thousands of years ago.
Drenched with our tears, Harley left this world on Monday evening, in the compassionate care of Dr. Jitka Markova at Hollywood Animal Hospital. He died on his left side, his blue right eye meeting ours for the last time, in peace.
He was the Big Good Wolf, and there will never be another like him.