Chollie was a gift meant to ease grief. That’s one of the first things I learned about my friend Gail Sheehy’s Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. After losing her Tibetan Spaniel in 2007 and her husband Clay Felker in 2008, Gail welcomed Chollie into her life at just the right moment. After two sad and lonely years, she had a companion again.
Gail and I met in 2015, when I became her part-time assistant. But we soon realized we were fast friends despite our 60-year age difference. We both agreed we spent more time with one another than with any other person in our lives.
In early 2020, Gail confided in me that she worried about how she would go on without Chollie. He was 11 and she was 83. Chollie was certainly slowing down and entering his golden years. At the same time, Gail showed no signs of slowing down. She was an unstoppable force who many times had more stamina than Chollie and me combined.
But by late summer, I was devastated by the shocking news that Gail had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. It was Chollie who was left behind, scratching at the screen doors of her Sag Harbor home when the ambulance took her away that early morning in August.
For that balmy, final week of summer, both of us were devastated by grief — Chollie still in the Hamptons. Me in Brooklyn.
The Friday of Labor Day Weekend, still in disbelief, I drove from Brooklyn to Sag Harbor for Gail’s small funeral. Afterward, I stopped by her small Sag Harbor house. We had just enjoyed wine on the patio two weeks prior. We were all so happy and alive and together.
My head pounding, my black dress much too warm for the 90-degree weather, I stuffed Chollie’s belongings into a tote bag and put on his leash and harness. Gail’s family and I agreed he would come home with me after the funeral. I walked him from the patio to the yard and out the front gate one last time. Chollie was a gift meant to ease grief.
I returned home from Sag Harbor with a hurting heart and an 11-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel on my lap.
A Sky-Sized Hole
In 2010, just days after bringing puppy Chollie home, Gail called her audiologist. “You won’t believe this—the dog ate my hearing aid!” she told him.
He laughed, not the least surprised. “Oh, it happens all the time. Puppies have a thing for ear wax.”
That was the first of many adventures Gail and Chollie shared. Despite his mischief, she never thought twice about her love for Chollie. In an email from that same time period she wrote: “It had taken me three years of bereavement to be ready to accept another dog into my life. Sky, my Tibetan Spaniel, had been with me for 18 years. He died a year before I lost my husband of 24 years. They left a sky-sized hole in my heart.”
Gail made many tepid attempts to find a breeder of the same rare breed she had lost, but the puppies she visited didn’t look or act exactly like Sky. “It was only in retrospect that I realized I wanted not just my dog back, I wanted my old life back,” she wrote.
Gail was the first person I told when my beloved 16-year-old Pug passed away in June 2018. She knew too well the heartbreak of losing a pet. But she also knew the joy that came after. For her, that joy came in the form of Chollie.
Just like Gail, I lost an important dog followed by an important person. Now, the dog that helped her grieve was helping me grieve her.
What’s In A Name?
With a dog named Chollie, I often get asked twice about pronunciation. “Like, Charlie, with an accent?” people ask. Exactly.
Chollie was named after “Cholly Knickerbocker,” a pseudonym used by a series of society columnists from 1891 to 1964. The pseudonym was a play on how upper-class New Yorkers pronounced “Charlie.”
I often forget that Gail is known around the world as a journalist and author. Many know her for her groundbreaking book, Passages. But to me, she was just Gail. We both loved to write, we both loved dogs, and we both enjoyed prosecco year-round. But unlike me, Gail was a famous writer, admired most for her anthropological work on important life changes.
Gail wrote often about Chollie. In the early days of first bringing Chollie home in 2010, she described him lovingly as “someone to sleep with who doesn’t expect his laundry done too.”
The month she died, she published what would be her final piece in AARP Magazine — about her relationship with Chollie. “I am not isolated with my dog, as many friends worry,” Gail wrote. “I am buoyant with health and motivation because of my dog’s companionship.”
My New Normal
Our first few days together, Chollie followed me around everywhere as if he worried I might disappear at any moment. I quickly learned his extensive routine — two medicines for his congestive heart failure with breakfast and dinner. Eye medication for his dry eyes. Daily brushing and ear care.
I also learned his quirks. Chollie cleans his face off on the couch after every meal. He snores most of the night. Steak is his favorite food to beg for. He wakes up at 7 a.m. sharp but proceeds to sleep most of the day. Sometimes he has the energy of a puppy. But after walking a mile or so, he will sometimes refuse to go any farther (good thing I kept my Pug’s old stroller).
After a month, I realized we were both healing. Nothing had changed overnight, but looking back weeks, I could see we had both grown in small ways. I also realized I had fallen completely in love with him, and with the breed. He was the perfect package — both a lap dog and a playful companion.
There are moments I forget that I can’t call Gail and talk to her for hours. There are moments I long to spend an evening strolling Central Park with her and Chollie. There are also moments I forget that Chollie was once hers.
It’s a complicated thing, to love an older dog, or an older person. I now feel the fear that Gail did at the beginning of 2020 — how much longer do we have together?
Summer was Gail’s favorite time of year. She would always describe her long Hamptons summers with romance. She and her partner Robert would take two folding chairs down to the water’s edge to watch the sun refuse to set. Out from the car would jump Chollie, chasing the birds and running right up to the lapping salt water.
The pandemic stole so much time away from Gail and me. In early March, we decided to move our nightly work sessions to daily phone calls. By August, we hadn’t seen each other in-person in more than five months. A week before she died, we met up on her Sag Harbor patio, masked and distanced. We talked until midnight. We looked up at the crystal-clear stars.
“I sit here and try to soak up this moment and remember it forever,” Gail told me that night. “There’s only one month of the year when the water is warm enough to put your feet into, when you can eat seafood outside, when you can appreciate the ocean mist like this.”
We said goodbye one final time, without hugging.
It brings me comfort to know Chollie was there with her every day of the pandemic. And to know he was there with her on her final day.
Keeping Memories Alive
Gail used to tell me about those early days with Chollie, after she drove 12 hours roundtrip to bring him home. At night, she would tell him bedtime stories about Sky, and of her husband, Clay, to keep their memories alive.
Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I listen to Chollie’s snores and wrap my fingers through the long, curly hair on his ears. I close my eyes and think back to the first time I went over to Gail’s Upper West Side apartment.
We took the elevator up five floors, stepped out, and opened her apartment door wide. There waiting was the most perfect tri-colored spaniel. I smiled and looked at Gail but she was looking at him, her eyes full of pride and adoration.
“You’re OK with dogs, right?”