My wife and I were just beginning our life together, basking in those joyous early days of marriage, when we decided to bring home a puppy. We named him Marley and watched with amazement -- and a little dismay -- as our squiggling yellow fur ball quickly morphed into a surging 98-pound tornado that gleefully crashed through our home and lives with destructive force, shredding pillows, gouging walls, and punching out screens as he went. Life would never be the same.
We tried obedience training; Marley was expelled. The vet prescribed sedatives, which only caused our irrepressible Labrador retriever to hop on his hind legs begging for more.
When it was just the three of us, it was almost bearable, but as our family grew, our patience for Marley's antic dwindled. We were ready to give up on him shortly after Jenny delivered our second baby. It had been an arduous pregnancy that included three months of bed rest. We were sleep-deprived and wondering how we would make it through another day. "You find a new home for him, or I will," my defeated bride demanded one dark day after Marley had ripped open the couch.
It was the holidays, the season when many families welcome new pets into their homes. It was a time to celebrate the joy a pet can bring, especially to a family with children. We had always believed a dog was the greatest gift a parent could give a child. Yet here we were, raising the white flag of defeat.
Then the spirit of Christmas intervened. As we decorated the tree, our babies gazing at the twinkling lights, our dog in a rare calm moment asleep at their feet, we knew we couldn't give up. What was Christmas if not a reminder of what really mattered in life: family, commitment, and acceptance of those we love, flaws and all? Marley wasn't last year's out-of-fashion accessory. He was part of the fabric that was us. In the end, we learned to accept Marley for what he was -- an unapologetic bad boy with a heart as boudnless as the sky. And we were happier for it.
When Marley's time finally came, he was 13 -- a near-centenarian in dog years. He still woke each morning with the same mischievous exuberance he'd had since he was a puppy, but not his health was failing: his hips were shot, his hearing gone, and his teeth worn to brown nubs.
On that last day together, waiting for the veterinarian to bring the injection that would set Marley free from his broken body, I knelt on the floor and stroked his fur. I needed to tell him something before he left. I could see clearly now the value that a dog, even an eternally incorrigible one such as ours, brought to a family. Without trying, Marley had led us to the qualities we all need to prosper: loyalty, optimism, unwavering devotion. He had given us the gift of unconditional love. When a family has that, it has it all.
As he drifted away, I pressed my forehead against his and whispered, "Marley, you are a great dog."
John Grogan is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog, now in bookstores.