Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.
—Agnes Sligh Turnbull
Whatever life threw at us each year, come Christmas our family had one constant tradition: our dog Pepper opened our presents for us. When our beloved Black Lab mix had been a gangly adolescent puppy, we had only given her unbreakable gifts to unwrap—things like pajamas and steering wheel covers. She proved to be so careful that we soon gave her any gift that wasn’t edible. Every time, Pepper found the seam in the wrapping paper with her snout and held the present down gingerly with her forepaws. Her front teeth pried up the lip of paper with the utmost care. Then she removed every inch of wrapping paper before stepping back to lie in the midst of our gathering. She never bit or scratched the gifts themselves.
Friends and relatives who joined our family celebrations never believed Pepper could be so delicate until they witnessed her talents. Watching our sweet dog unwrap gifts always warmed the holiday, which was often a little bittersweet because college, studying abroad, or work commitments often kept my two sisters and me away.
One year, everyone made it home for a Christmas together. I was back from Ireland, Kaci flew in from Arizona, and Kara visited from college. Mom’s jubilance kept her busy baking cookies for us all. Our Christmas season should have been perfect.
It couldn’t feel perfect, though, because Pepper’s health was deteriorating. Her life had already been longer than we expected—she was fourteen—and yet her mind was still sharp. Her enthusiasm for life made us feel better. But her body could not keep up with her spirit. She’d already shown the usual signs of deafness and stiffness. That year, her hips and back legs started giving out on her. We knew we would soon have to make a difficult decision.
It was likely Pepper’s last Christmas, so we decided to make sure she enjoyed it. On Christmas Eve, we gathered around the tree to open an early present. We each took a turn and then called Pepper to open one more. But her tangled legs could not navigate the boxes and shredded wrapping paper on the floor. She stumbled over the obstacles, and soon she disappeared into the next room. She crumpled back to the floor, as out of the way as she could get.
We were heartbroken. Could Pepper even participate in her last Christmas?
Pepper stayed on the periphery of all our holiday activities. Throughout the day, we gave gifts but did not feel very giving. We shared stories over cinnamon rolls that tasted bland. We played games by the tree whose twinkles had dimmed.
That evening, Kaci said what we’d all been thinking: “I wish Pepper could have helped open presents this year.”
We all put down our mugs of spiced tea. “Maybe she still could,” Kara said.
“But there’s none left,” Mom reminded her.
Kara jumped up and left the room. We heard her opening drawers and cabinets in the kitchen. She returned with a box of dog biscuits, scissors, and a roll of tape.
“Hand me that green paper,” Kara told me, pointing at a large sheet at my feet. She cut a small section from the paper and wrapped a single dog treat in it. She held it up as if she had just struck gold. “Now there’s a present for her!”
I knelt on the floor next to Kara and wrapped another dog treat. Kaci and Mom joined in, too. Soon, we had four elegantly wrapped dog biscuits in a row on the floor. We cleared the floor of discarded wrapping paper. We tucked our legs under us as we perched out of the way on the furniture.
“Go get Pepper,” we urged Mom. We all bounced like eager children.
Mom went into the next room. “You want to open a present, girl?” she coaxed. In a moment, Pepper stuck her head into the room. Her ears were fully perked with anticipation and curiosity.
She skidded on stilted legs to the row of presents. She sniffed all four in order, and looked back and forth between them. She’d never had such a wide choice of gifts before.
Soon, Pepper selected her first Christmas gift. She nimbly turned the present with her forepaw, just like she was a spry young dog once more. She tugged every last scrap of paper off the dog treat before she chewed it with her customary grace.
Our family swelled with glee.
Pepper licked the last crumb from the floor. She eyed the remaining three presents, then turned to Mom as if asking, “May I please open another?”
“Go ahead, girl!” Mom encouraged.
For the next few minutes, Pepper opened each of her Christmas presents. While she did, she reminded us of the sheer joy of being together. Our family felt whole—not because we were in the same room, city, or country, but because our love bonded us together.
In the new year, Pepper let us know it was time to call the veterinarian. Her passing, while tearful, was peaceful. In its own way, her passing was also a celebration of life, because she gave my family so much love and laughter.
Long after I forgot each of my presents, I still cherish Pepper’s final Christmas gift. She taught me that no matter where we each spend the holidays, and no matter what the passing year brings, the smallest act of heartfelt giving can unite our family through our love. For me, that knowledge is the longest-lasting gift of all.