My parents’ dog, a 15-pound Havanese named Chloe, recently turned 9 years old.

9 years means that Chloe is nearing the age of 10, and 10 is a milestone in a dog’s life, since the average life span of a dog is 10-13 years. (though age does vary by breed).

But 10 is less of a milestone for Chloe, and more of a milestone for my family.

In 10 years, as with any family, a lot has happened. My sister got married, my nephew was born, I got engaged, my Dad retired. And this October, it will be 10 years since my brother John died.

We’ve always been dog people, though when Chloe arrived, it had been years since we’d had a dog in the family.

Chelsea the Big Sister

A year before I was born, my Mom took a chance and purchased an Irish setter/black Lab mix from a cart at a farmer’s market in Philadelphia for exactly five dollars. She was a tiny ball of silky black fur who would grow to be 60 pounds. They named her Chelsea.

Chelsea assimilated to the chaos that is life with young children quickly, as me and my two siblings were born. To us, she was another sibling. We put a gold-plated paper crown on her head at our birthday parties, hung a stocking for her at Christmas, and even dressed her up during our games of Pretty Pretty Princess. She was there for us as a friend, but she also watched over us. When I had the chickenpox in second grade, Chelsea was by my side, patiently sitting next to the couch where I lay covered in an afghan watching Disney movies. In middle school, while my sister and I watched Carson Daly interview the latest pop sensation on Total Request Live, Chelsea ran by us and up the stairs with her tail between our legs. We checked around the area where we sat, and then checking in the kitchen, saw that a Wildberry Pop-Tart had sent the toaster into a burst of flames.

Chelsea and I were a year apart. Even in my young age, I knew that dogs didn’t live as long as people, and that with every birthday I celebrated, Chelsea was one year older.

Yet, her black coat never showed a touch of gray, and she continued to chase squirrels in the backyard, even as I neared high school.

The signs of aging for Chelsea came quickly and loudly. The summer before my 8th grade year, we arrived home from Sunday Mass and she didn’t greet us at the door. In a panic, we searched the house, only to find her laying next to sliding glass door in the kitchen, watching the birds outside. She hadn’t heard us. As a family of 5, with three children under the age of 15, we did not make a quiet entrance.

Just before Christmas 1999, she couldn’t stand up to go outside. At nearly 16 years old, Chelsea had outlived her life expectancy, and her body was telling her it was time.

We buried her in the backyard, between the row of tall pine trees and the weathered fence that lined the yard. It was a favorite hiding spot for squirrels.

Emptiness Answered

The house was a bit quieter after Chelsea passed, even with three active children, and there always seemed to be extra crumbs on the kitchen floor. But our lives of lacrosse practices, track meets, and school dances resumed, I started high school, and eventually, life without a dog became the norm.

Fast forward 10 years, and my family was reeling from my brother’s death from suicide. It was a gut-wrenching shock that left an inexplicable sadness when it settled. It also left a weird emptiness in our family that reminded me of the feeling I’d had when Chelsea died, like a chandelier that is missing a lightbulb. It can still light a room, but the room looks a little off, and it’s never as bright as it was.

In the spring after my brother died, we offered to watch my aunt’s dog while she traveled. He was a fluffy white Havanese, a small breed we’d never heard of. His name was Bodie. Bodie quickly assimilated to a routine within the first few days, depending on us for his morning walks, for his 5:30 pm dinner, and for sporadic games of tug-o-war with his stuffed monkey. He sat with us when we were feeling sad and jumped on us when we hugged. When he left, we realized how much we’d become used to having him around. And when he left, there was that weird emptiness feeling again.

After Bodie left, my Mom spent months researching this breed we’d never heard of, and in late spring, traveled to a farm two hours north of us to look at the latest litter of Havanese puppies.

Chloe arrived that Friday, weighing just four pounds.