On a typical gray-skied Ohio Christmas morning in 2000, my world—momentarily—came crashing down. I was twelve years old, the ripe age of dreaming youths on the cusp of teenagerdom. My sisters and I had ravaged the gifts under the tree before the clock struck eight. We were lounging in the family room in our matching Christmas pajamas when the door from the garage to the house opened and closed. A pitter patter of paws announced Louie—the neighbors’ dog—had come to give us holiday cheer.
This chocolate lab—my partner-in-crime, soccer fan, apple picking companion, running mate, sleepover pal, guinea pig friend, and piano enthusiast—was the dog my family had always wanted but could never have. Dad had allergies since he was a young boy. But over time, the family started sneaking Louie into the house, and Dad’s allergies seemed to have taken a back burner. Subsequently, the 115-lb canine had unceremoniously been inducted into our family. When I would return him to the neighbors’ home after our field trips, Louie would often scratch at the back door, staring at our house, watching for my mom’s van or me kicking the soccer ball around.
That Christmas morning, he bounded toward my place on the couch, his tail knocking over anything in its path. He covered my face with kisses while I studied the big red bow around his neck. Attached was an envelope. My sisters and I eyed our parents suspiciously.
“Open it,” Mom said.
I ripped open the letter, which was typed by Louie himself.
“Dear Girls,” I read aloud. “You have been so important to me since I moved here three years ago. With a newborn in the house and another baby on the way, my dad has taken a new job in Philadelphia.”
I stopped reading, a cry somewhere between a sob and a scream creeping up my throat. My seventh grade mind sprinted like a hamster on a wheel. Was this what heartbreak felt like? What about all the memories Louie and I had yet to make? Why on Christmas, of all days, would they choose to tell me I was losing my best friend?
My sisters and I huddled around Louie, smothering him with smooches and bear hugs, drying our tears on his velvety ears.
“Girls,” Mom interrupted. “Keep reading.”
I looked up, my face twisted in pain and confusion. Why would I want to continue reading a tale of my misfortune? But I wiped my waterworks on my shirt sleeve and forced myself to continue.
“The house in Pennsylvania doesn’t have a big yard. And my mom already has her hands full with one baby—can you imagine two?! I won’t get enough attention there, but I always get plenty of attention with you. I was wondering if I could move in with you permanently? My mom and dad are okay with it, and your parents already said yes. So can I be your new brother?”
I was encompassing Louie in the biggest embrace before I even finished the letter. He licked my face in response, as dogs are prone to do.
Everyone receives one gift that stands out among the rest. A lot of people get puppies for Christmas. But Louie wasn’t just a dog. He wasn’t just a gift. Giving Louie to my family on Christmas was an incredibly selfless gesture on the part of our neighbors. Officially welcoming Louie into the Venzel family is my most memorable Christmas moment. This was a Christmas to remember.