I'm just back from the most relaxing vacation of my life -- five days with my daughters on a beach in Jamaica.
But that's not what made coming home so hard.
We knew that this time there'd be no barking dog to celebrate our return, no fur ball whirling deliriously at our feet, no overturned trash or shredded newspapers or laundry pulled from the hamper to greet us.
Because two days before we left for Jamaica, we had to put our little dog, Puff, to sleep.
I hate that phrase. I wish he were sleeping. If only that scene -- we're standing in the vet's office, watching Puff's eyes droop and his body twitch, as his life is flushed away by an IV -- were just a dream.
But what I'd hoped was a routine trip to the veterinarian had turned into a weekend stay, then a headlong collision with reality.
"We're not doing very well," our vet said when I called that Monday. He gently suggested that I come see Puff right away -- and bring my three daughters along.
I knew what that meant, though I thought the doctor must be wrong. But when we walked into the examining room, Puff didn't budge. His breathing was slow, his mouth wet from vomit, his eyes empty and unseeing.
And when he heard my voice and didn't wag his tail, I knew my 10-year-old puppy was already gone.
Puff had done well after being diagnosed with diabetes in April. I had chronicled his story here and took heart from the tales that readers shared with me.
My daughters and I learned to arrange our lives around his needs.
There were insulin shots morning and night; half a dozen pills each day, hidden in gourmet treats; carefully measured portions of special meals.
Then one day he woke up blind. A dog who'd spent years entertaining himself by flinging his stuffed toys down the steps, then racing downstairs to retrieve them, was reduced to bumping into walls and stumbling over his water bowl.
It was a blow to his spirit, but he overcame it. He learned to navigate the stairs and make his way out the doggie door.
We took him on long, slow walks through the neighborhood; the familiar smells seemed to do him good. He began napping in sheltered nooks: under the kitchen table while we ate, beneath the desk in my home office while I worked, underneath my bed while I slept.
Then the week before we left for Jamaica, he started vomiting, then wouldn't eat. We plied him with treats, loaded him up with medications. But he was done with life as an invalid.
I've been trying to take the "glass half full" approach. I'm grateful he faded before we left. I couldn't have forgiven myself if he'd died alone, while we were thousands of miles away cavorting on the beach.
My friends remind me of the toll his care took on me. His illness was a ball and chain, and I was never sure if he was really happy. No more running behind him mopping up puddles, narrating my every move so Puff could know where I was.
But that doesn't diminish the pain -- the hurt that keeps ambushing me.
I pass the meat counter in the grocery store and reflexively reach for the giant package of chicken, then remember I have no finicky dog to feed. I get up from the couch and scan the floor so I don't step on the pooch who's supposed to be curled up at my feet.
And I walk around the house talking to myself and expecting to hear jingling tags.
It's hard to explain to people who don't have pets what loving an animal means. There's the cliche about unconditional love. Sure, but that's only part of the story.
As I struggled to let my daughters grow up, Puff also filled my need to nurture something. He let me hold him tight as I was learning to let go. He always needed me.
At 10 pounds, he considered himself my protector. Whenever I walked in the front door, he ran out back through the doggie door and began barking furiously. He was keeping the predators at bay.
Now, for the first time in 20 years, my family doesn't have a dog or two. I intend to make my peace with what that means.
No more loading up on Pet Fresh carpet cleaner. No raiding dinner-mates' plates and filling doggy bags. Eventually, I'll stop being surprised by crumbs on the floor. The dogs always took care of those.
The girls are already imagining our next puppy. But Puff's is a space I don't plan to fill.
The next time my daughters hear baby talk from me, it'll be to a diaper-clad grandchild bouncing on my knee.
Puppies are cute, but they grow up. And worse, they break your heart when they leave.