By Eric O’Grey
With Mark Dagostino
Read by Mark Dagostino
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 10, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Walking With Peety is for anyone who is ready to make a change in his or her life, and for everyone who knows the joy, love, and hope that dogs can bring. This is more than a tale of mutual rescue. This is an epic story of friendship and strength.
Shadows and Light
When you’re walking alone in a city late at night, the streetlights and glowing neon signs aren’t all that comforting. All that brightness only makes the dark spots darker, casting deep shadows where unseen things can hide.
I suppose there are two ways to counter darkness: carry a big light wherever you go, or don’t walk alone.
I never walked alone.
Peety was right there with me.
That scruffy old dog had taken me on a journey far greater than all of the road trips and adventures I’d managed to treat him to in the five years since we’d found each other. I was fully aware of how Peety had helped me to step onto my new path—the one I hoped to stay on for the rest of my life. I’d helped him step onto a new path, too, which is why it was tough to watch him that night. Even though his tail was wagging and he had that same bright look in his eye, I could tell he was walking a little slower than usual. I didn’t think it was anything serious. To other people it probably looked like he was walking the way any healthy dog might walk. But from the moment we stepped out of our building I could tell he was struggling to keep up the regular pace we’d established over our many previous walks together.
I did the math in my head and realized we’d taken nearly two thousand walks since it all began. We’d walked a minimum of thirty minutes every morning, every evening, and lots of times in between, every day for all those years. That’s a lot of paw prints on pavement.
Statistically, I knew the average life span of a medium-size dog is only ten to thirteen years. I also knew approximately how old Peety was, and I knew that those two numbers had converged. There was just no way I could believe that Peety was old enough to be slowing down, though. He was too joyful, too excited, too loving, and had way too much life in him for me to entertain the idea that he was in his so-called sunset years.
Plus, we were both too blissful to think morose thoughts. Since moving to Seattle, the two of us had been living like kings. Our downtown high-rise corner apartment had sweeping views over the lights of the city, the boats in Puget Sound, and even the Seahawks games down on CenturyLink Field. From way up on the fourteenth floor, Peety could bark at every tiny dog he saw on the sidewalks below, just to let ’em know who was in charge.
Peety had his own balcony up there, complete with a private patch of sod, so he didn’t have to wait to get fresh air or endure long elevator rides to go do his business. A crew of obedient humans showed up every two weeks to clean and replace his little patch of grass in the sky, as if he commanded his own court of loyal subjects.
It was awesome.
Best of all, he had a family. We had a family. My girlfriend Melissa and her kids loved Peety. They loved us both. I mean, what more could a dog want? (Or a man for that matter?) We were happy.
These are the things I kept telling myself while I tried to ignore his slower pace.
“Your dog is so adorable,” an attractive young woman said as we turned the corner.
“Thank you,” I replied. We kept on walking. Peety and I were used to that sort of attention. He was adorable with his patches of black-and-white fur, and knee-high stature. He’d been a babe magnet ever since he’d found his stride. A year or two earlier, I might have stopped and let that woman pet him. It would have made for a great introduction. But Peety and I were both much happier in the steady relationship we were in, that’s for sure.
We decided to head east, away from the brightly lit, more touristy part of Pike Street, and were just about to cross Second Avenue when a panhandler stepped out of the darkness.
There are panhandlers all over downtown Seattle. Some are homeless. Some are college-age kids looking for drug money. Most are harmless. This guy wasn’t. This guy was enormous, and intoxicated, and I could tell right away he was hell-bent on much more than borrowing a little spare change.
“You got money?” he said.
Peety stopped in his tracks, lowered his head, stared at the man, and growled.
“Sorry, man,” I said. “Nothing on me. Come on, boy.”
I tugged on his leash, but Peety wouldn’t budge. He stood there, frozen. The hair on his neck stood up. His low, quiet growl grew deeper and louder.
“Ohhhh, what you think, that dog’s gonna do something? That dog gonna hurt me?” The man raised his voice and stepped at me with a menacing look in his eye that made me stop in my tracks. Peety and I had walked this route a hundred times before without incident. I could not believe this was actually happening. Instinctively, my body tensed up, I squared my stance, and my fist gripped around Peety’s leash, preparing to fight. I was strong, maybe stronger than I’d ever been. I’m pretty sure I could’ve handled myself in a fight. But this man was on something.
“Come on,” he shouted. “I said give me some money!” He reached out to grab me, and Peety barked the most primal, vicious sound I’d ever heard. He jumped from the sidewalk—six full feet in the air—mouth open and lunging for the man’s throat. I jerked on the leash and stopped him about an inch short of his teeth making contact. The panhandler reeled. He nearly fell over and scrambled on all fours before running back into the darkness.
Peety landed and tried to run after him, yanking on the leash, still barking, still holding his ground. I stared into the darkness right along with him, trying to see if the man was still there, trying to see whether he might be stupid enough to come back and face Peety’s wrath.
Once I was convinced it was over, I looked at Peety—my adorable boy—and I laughed. I couldn’t help it. I could not understand where he found the strength and fearlessness to jump so high and protect me like that. He flew through the air like some kind of superdog! The only thing missing was a red cape and goggles.
As I looked back into the darkness, though, it hit me. I got tears in my eyes. I was positive that we had just come very close to the edge of something terrible. It was so unexpected. There had been no warning. Who knows what that man might have done to me? What if he had a knife, or a gun? I mean, that look in his eyes was something a person never wants to see. I took a deep breath and felt grateful that we were OK.
I felt as if I’d absentmindedly stepped off a curb in front of a speeding bus, only to have an angel grab my collar and pull me back from the brink.
I got down on one knee and petted the back of Peety’s neck in long, calming strokes. “Good boy, Peety. Good boy, son,” I said. “It’s OK. It’s OK now.”
When Peety eased his stance, I stood back up. My voice broke when I said to him, “Let’s go home.”
Peety started walking again, only now, instead of walking at my side, he walked out in front of me—on patrol, guarding me like he had way back when this whole journey of ours first started.
I shook my head and wiped my cheeks on my sleeves.
I was sure that dog had just saved my life. For real. Which meant that Peety had now pretty much saved me in as many ways as a man could be saved.
Everywhere we went we would meet people who were touched by the fact that I’d rescued Peety from an animal shelter. People seemed automatically impressed, as if that simple act of kindness somehow indicated that I was a good man. What I wanted to explain to every one of them was, “No. You’ve got it backward. This dog is the one who rescued me.”
It felt odd to cut our walk short that night. We never cut our walks short. But I wanted to get home and tell Melissa what had happened.
She was just as thankful as I was that Peety had come to my rescue.
“What a good boy!” she said, dropping down to the floor to smother him with praise for his good deed. Peety let out a big sigh, as if his heroics were no big deal, but to me, watching those two cuddle was a big deal in and of itself. Melissa was deathly afraid of dogs before she met Peety. One of her kids was afraid of dogs, too.
My life was far from the only one Peety had changed, and I guess I should have known it was only the beginning.
It’s funny. When you look back on moments like that—moments that you didn’t realize were final moments at the time—they wind up holding more significance. But even then, that moment meant so much to me. When I looked in Peety’s eyes, I knew that the two of us shared a bond as deep as any bond could be. So I smiled. And when Peety looked up at me from the warmth of Melissa’s arms, he smiled right back at me. I couldn’t help but fall down to my knees to hug him, too. That got him all riled up. He started licking my face so hard, he pushed me right over and climbed on top of my chest like a puppy. I laughed out loud, and that brought the kids running, and all of a sudden we all wound up in a big Peety pig-pile.
Man. Is there anything better than that?
That look in Peety’s eyes. That trust. That protectiveness. That bond. That love. That unconditional love.
That’s the thing that made all the difference in the world.
That’s the thing that saved me—and I don’t just mean from some angry panhandler.
That look is what saved me from myself.
Airports are the worst.
No, scratch that. Airplanes are the worst.
Oh, who am I kidding? Back then, it all sucked. Everything sucked. My work. My days. My nights. My life. I was miserable.
I was working in a job that wasn’t exactly high on the list of dream jobs you envision when you’re a kid. Astronaut! Cowboy! Rock star! Movie star! Baseball player! Outside Salesman for a Major Appliance Company! Yeah, no. And look, I’m not complaining. I was grateful just to have a job. I’d burned through dozens in the years leading up to that miserable day, and I’d lost one of them in such epic fashion that it required me to escape to the other side of the country. On a bus.
I hated buses, too. But back to the airport: any day I had to go to an airport was the worst day of my life. And this particular day quickly turned into the absolute worst of those very worst days.
Why is it that anywhere you park at the airport is a million-mile walk from where you need to be? I could feel myself tense up the moment I took my bag from the trunk of the rental car and stared at the stretched-out white lines marking the long walk in front of me. I was huffing and puffing before I was halfway to the door, and by the time I made it into the terminal my knees and ankles were pulsating. This despite the fact that I’d alternated doses of Tylenol and Advil every two hours from the moment I woke up just to prepare for the fact that I would have to walk that day at all.
On the escalator, some obnoxious kid (there was always some obnoxious kid) tried to hurry by me, only to find there wasn’t enough room to pass. And instead of being patient, he tried to squish himself past me and the stainless-steel wall of the moving railing and nearly fell over, only to have his parents start yelling, “Tommy, stop! Don’t do that! You’re gonna get hurt! Say ‘excuse me’! Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry,” as they and everyone around them looked in horror at the fat man who took up nearly the entire width of the moving staircase.
Yeah. That was me. I was that guy: the fat guy on his way home from a business trip, sweating through his button-down shirt and making everyone around him uncomfortable.
On this day in 2010, I weighed somewhere between 340 and 360 pounds. The exact number depended on whether you took my weight before or after one of my gargantuan-size meals, and depending on whose scale I stepped on. (The scale in the doctor’s office always put me a good five or ten pounds heavier than I think I actually was. That happens to everyone, right? What’s the deal with that? Are the laws of physics different in doctors’ offices or something?)
I’m five-foot-ten, and my waist was fifty-two inches around. If you don’t have a mental picture of that, picture this: my “love handles” were more like “hate pillows”—they rubbed against both sides of the metal detector as I squeezed my way through airport security.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) didn’t provide benches in most airports back in 2010, and of course this was one of the airports that didn’t have any benches available. Putting shoes back on from a standing position isn’t a problem for most people. But I wasn’t able to touch my feet, let alone tie my shoes, unless I was seated. And no, despite the well-meaning advice of others, loafers didn’t make it easier. Slipping a loafer on required a tall shoehorn, and the TSA didn’t provide those, either.
So I gathered my things and scuffed along the cold tile floor in my socks until I found a bench down the hall, and even then it took all my strength and will to compress my midsection enough to allow me to tie my shoes. That effort alone left me breathless. I had to stay on the bench for a good ten minutes afterward to rest.
When I stood up, the pain and numbness in my feet, legs, and knees radiated into my back. I looked at my boarding pass. I looked up at the gate numbers. I wanted to throw up. Why is my gate always at the farthest end of the terminal?
When I finally made it, there was no place to sit. The gate area was overflowing with passengers. Another full flight. We all realize we’re getting ripped off, right? Treated like cattle? The luxurious side of the flight experience is all but gone. Even skinny people realize that airline seats have become uncomfortably narrow. There wasn’t a seat in the industry that could fit me without my fat spilling over into the seats on either side. If I were lucky enough to get a window or aisle seat, at least I would only press up against one other person. (Though, enduring the pain of the inevitable slam of the beverage cart was no fun for me, either.) I honestly needed two seats in order to fit my whole body, but my employer wasn’t about to pay double for me to travel, and federal courts had ruled that obesity was not a “disability” within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Therefore, neither the airlines nor my employer were required to provide any accommodations to alleviate the suffering of people in my condition.
On this day, on this oversold flight, I was assigned to a middle seat. Of course.
When my group number was called and I was forced to wait in yet another line to eventually board the plane, I leaned one shoulder against the wall of the Jetway in an attempt to alleviate the pressure on my knees. When I got to the plane, I realized it was one of the new models with a super-narrow aisle. I couldn’t fit down the aisle facing forward. So I walked sideways, like a crab, watching the horrified faces of other passengers as I approached their rows. I could see their fear like cartoon thought bubbles above their heads: “Please, God, don’t let that humongous guy be in the seat next to me!”
When I finally reached the unluckiest passengers on the plane—a generously sized white man on the aisle and a slender Korean man against the window—I said, “Pardon me. I’m in the center seat.”
They didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to.
I wedged myself between the armrests of that seat knowing they would leave physical marks and possible bruising on my sides after the four-hour flight. Yet in my mind, I was sure that I was causing those two guys in my row more discomfort than I could possibly feel.
The seat belt wasn’t long enough for me to buckle around my fifty-two-inch waist. They never were. So as always, I reached my right arm up, hoped desperately that my deodorant was still working, and hit the overhead call button to summon a flight attendant.
The nice lady looked and looked and, “Unfortunately,” she said, there were several other large people on our flight that day, and the crew had “apparently” run out of seat belt extenders. I wasn’t allowed to fly without one. They weren’t allowed to take off unless all passengers were buckled in. So she hopped on that old-fashioned-looking phone handset on the cabin wall and called the gate to see if they had any extras.
They didn’t. There were no extra seat belt extensions at the gate. To get one for me, they were going to have to transfer one from another plane.
“How long will this take?” the Korean man asked her.
“We’ll take care of it as quickly as we can,” the flight attendant said.
I thought I couldn’t feel any worse than I already did. Then we sat there, waiting, and waiting. More than thirty minutes passed. Everyone was on board already, and everyone was getting upset. We were well past our departure time when the flight attendant finally came back and told me they’d located a seat belt extender and that we should be on our way shortly.
As soon as she left the Korean man said, quite loudly, “Great. I’m going to miss my connection because you’re so fat!”
I wanted to die. Right there, in that seat, I wished my life would just end.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I couldn’t turn my giant neck around to actually look at him, and I wouldn’t have had the strength to look him in the eye even if I could. I’d been morbidly obese for more than half my life at that point, and I’d learned it was easiest not to respond. It was better that way. So I just said one thing more: “I hope you have a pleasant flight.”
The plane left the gate forty-five minutes late. As ridiculous as it sounds, I did my best to make myself small—to not be seen or heard or felt for the entire four-hour flight. I had to go to the bathroom, but I held it. I didn’t want to make anyone move. I didn’t want to make that walk.
When it was finally all over, I stepped back and let the Korean man exit the plane in front of me. He did so in a huff. I’m sure he missed his flight. I’m sure other people did, too. I’d single-handedly managed to inconvenience an entire plane full of people.
My sides hurt awful from the wedging of the armrests. Every joint in my body hurt as I made the long trek to my car. I collapsed into the driver’s seat and nearly fell asleep in the parking garage from the sheer exhaustion of it all.
At home, I left my suitcase in the trunk. I couldn’t bear the thought of carrying it all the way inside. I was starving. I collapsed on my couch and called Domino’s. I ordered an extra-large meat-lover’s pizza, and because it was the weekend, I ordered a second one to save for lunch the next day. (Less work.)
On that couch, I finished the first pizza. All of it. I was still hungry. “Just one more slice,” I said to myself. Then after that slice went down, I ate another. And another. And another, till all that was left were two empty grease-stained boxes.
I ate both pizzas in one sitting.
An extra-large meat-lover’s pizza is sixteen inches wide. It’s not meant to be eaten by one person, or even two people. It’s a party-size pizza. The ingredients in just one of them add up to somewhere around five thousand calories. That means I consumed around ten thousand calories in a single sitting. Not that I knew these nutrition facts at the time. I didn’t pay attention to those sorts of things. I was hungry, so I ate.
Oh, and that two-extra-large-pizzas-in-one-sitting thing? It wasn’t my first time. In fact, it had become my Friday-night routine. I always said I would eat one and save one. I always wound up eating them both. It was one of a million routines that made me feel ashamed and depressed every time it happened—but I didn’t know how to stop. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. I beat myself up over everything I did. I didn’t know how to get better.
I’d already spent twenty-five years trying every diet and diet product I’d ever seen advertised on TV and in magazines. I’d even tried some not-commercially-available diet products that nearly did me in. Not a single one of them had worked. Sure, I dropped some weight at first. I dropped a good forty pounds using some of those gimmicks and fad diets, and I felt better for a few weeks, or even a few months. But eventually, I would cheat. I’d get sick of the lousy prepackaged food. I’d miss a meeting. Whatever it was, I would backslide. I’d feel miserable after doing that, and then I’d just give up. The diet would end and I’d go right back to my Standard American Diet of greasy fast food and home delivery.
In a matter of weeks, the weight always came back—and then some.
I know I’m not alone in this. I know half of America has had the same experience. I just did it to the extreme.
When I was finally done eating that night of the terrible flight, I got up to go to bed. That’s when I caught a glimpse of the pile of dirty underwear in the spare bedroom, and I realized just how broken I really was.
My discarded underwear had piled up high enough that I could see the top of the mound over the edge of the spare bed. I did the math in my head and estimated there was more than a thousand pairs in there. I had given up on doing laundry long ago. It was just too big of an ordeal to get to the coin washers in my building. So I had a cleaning service pick up and deliver my laundry instead, and rather than go through the hassle of washing and reusing my underwear, I decided to order new underwear and socks every few weeks from Amazon. I had new ones delivered to my door, just like my pizzas. I threw the dirty ones in the spare bedroom, where I couldn’t see them, and where I knew no one else would see them, either.
No one ever came to my apartment. I’d stopped going to other people’s homes, too. I had basically given up on maintaining any friendships at all. It was just too much for me. Everything outside of my apartment was too much for me. I’d set myself up so I could do most of my work from home, on the phone and on the computer. Personal sales calls and business travel were just about the only reasons I ever stepped foot into the outside world, and I only did that because I had to.
About a year before then, I’d dragged myself to a company-mandated physical, where after looking at my blood work the doctor strongly suggested that I buy a cemetery plot.
“What?” I said.
“If you don’t get your weight under control, you’re going to need one in the next five years.”
Who does he think he is? I thought. I was angry at him for being so rude. I walked out vowing to find another doctor.
Still, a blunt doctor’s words can be powerful. I absolutely took his words to heart. But not in a good way. Not in a motivational way. In more of a fatalistic way.
It struck me that night that I’d already blown through one fifth of the life I had left. Nothing had gotten better in that year. In fact, everything was worse. Everything.
I hadn’t been on a date in fifteen years. The pile of underwear looked like something out of a movie, like something some person who had lost his mind had piled up while they turned into a recluse and slipped away from reality.
Is that what I was now? A crazy person? A recluse?
How did I let this happen?
I had type 2 diabetes, and it was out of control. I had read all the warnings. I knew that if I didn’t get it under control, I’d go blind or lose a limb. And yet nothing I did seemed to help. Part of the reason I had to work so hard was to earn enough money to pay for my medication. Even with insurance, it cost me up to a thousand dollars in co-payments every month for the prescription medications I needed just to survive. I needed medicine to help with my insulin levels, and to fight my high blood pressure and deadly cholesterol levels. I needed more prescriptions to help me sleep, prescriptions for anxiety and depression, and even more medications just to counter the side effects of the other medications. And none of them made me feel better. None of them. I felt miserable. All the time.
The blunt doctor referred me to a bariatric surgeon—a guy who wanted to cut me open and remove a large portion of my stomach just to get my eating under control. The surgery sounded barbaric to me. And yet, I had gone through the whole pre-prep process and told them to go ahead and schedule me in. It was scheduled to happen a month from that very day. That’s how desperate I was.
I didn’t want that surgery. I couldn’t do that to my body. It seemed grotesque. How could I allow someone to cut out my insides to try to stop something that was all my fault in the first place? How did this all happen? Why can’t I stop eating? Are they really going to cut me open and remove part of my stomach?
I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t.
I knew what I wanted. I knew what needed to happen. I didn’t own a gun. I wasn’t taking any pills that seemed strong enough to do the job. Perhaps I could just stand in front of a train. I didn’t know how to do it, but after the day I’d had, I knew it had to be done. I just wished I had followed my doctor’s advice and gone ahead and purchased a plot at the local cemetery.
I didn’t even do that right, I thought.
Every single part of my body ached in flu-like pain as I collapsed into bed. My stomach churned from all the grease and fat and cheese. The physical agony of it was more than I could take. I turned off the light, and with tears in my eyes I did something I had never done before.
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- Oct 10, 2017
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