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Takeaways from losing my best friend

Our beloved boy Matty passed away on Saturday at 12 years old

Mattingly Smith on back of couch
Smith Family

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch a second of Celtics-Suns. Sorry if you came here looking for the usual day-after analysis and clips and the like. I just didn’t have it in me.

After a long battle with cancer, our 12-year-old Golden Retriever Mattingly took a rapid turn for the worse on Thursday into Friday. After a Hail Mary trip to the vet, it was determined that there wasn’t anything to be done. We could just make him comfortable and try to enjoy whatever time we have left.

That time proved to be shorter than any of us ever could have imagined.

After getting home from the vet, Matty went to one of his favorite spots in our family room and that was kind of that. He refused to eat or drink. We forced a couple of pills down in an attempt to stimulate his appetite, but that didn’t work.

If you’ve ever had a Golden, when they won’t eat, you know it’s time to make that almost impossible phone call.

If you’ve had a pet, you know what comes next. Tears, guilt, grief and pain suffice as a description. If you’ve been there, you know it’s nowhere to dwell.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about some lessons my guy Mattingly taught me. And along the way, fill you in on the best 12-plus years of my life.

Matty and Bernie Smith
Smith Family

In October of 2009, my wife and I got the terrible news that our amazing rescue dog Daisy had cancer and wasn’t likely to make it more than a few more weeks. In early-November she was gone. She was my first dog and she was incredible. When we found her at the shelter, it was love in an instant. When she came over and put her head in my wife’s lap, we knew our family of two was expanding to three.

When Daisy passed, we knew we had a baby on the way. We had also just purchased our first home; the same one we live in today. After debating what to do, we decided to “just go see” some puppies that had recently been born. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows “just go see” never actually ends in just going to see.

We wanted to know our next dog’s history from the start, so we decided to go with a breeder vs adopting. We’ve adopted again since and we will continue to do so, but this time we wanted to know everything about our new addition.

Within seconds of meeting the mom, we knew we were getting a Golden Retriever. When the dad came out, there was no other way to describe him but regal. But as soon as his owner gave him a command to relax, he turned into this lovable tornado of golden fluff. We were hooked.

Now, it was decision time. We wanted a boy, because the idea of getting another girl was too painful. Then, in our eminent brilliance, my wife and I looked at each other at the same time and said “Should we get two?”

Matty and Bernie Smith Cuddling
Smith Family

Just a few days before Christmas 2009, Mattingly and Bernie came home for the first time. We were warned over and over that “They’ll bond to each other and not you.”, but that never really happened. Oh, they loved each other. They were brothers from the same litter and very much partners in crime.

They got really good at one distracting us while the other caused mischief. Put a stop to that, and they’d just switch places. Let’s just say we didn’t get back the deposit from our rental home by the time the puppies were done.

But the boys loved us too. Bernie was my wife’s dog. Matty was my dog. Nights were spent playing and cuddling, while the boys repeatedly sniffed over my wife’s expanding belly.

From the day we brought the dogs home, the next five months were a whirlwind. We had everything you go through with puppies, and in January we moved to our new home. In March, both my wife and I started new jobs. And in May, our daughter was born.

That’s ripping the band-aid off in a major way and not a path I recommend to anyone else.

Our thought process on getting both of the boys seemed logical. When our daughter was born and we got busy, they’d have each other.

It doesn’t really work that way.

Instead, our family of four grew to a family of five. Your heart doesn’t get full of love. It just expands to let more in.

Matty and baby Bean
Smith Family

Let me tell you, the boys were great with our baby. That’s part of why we went with Golden Retrievers. They are known for their great disposition with kids.

As our daughter grew, the boys grew with her. Walks around the neighborhood, trips to vet or to PetSmart were a circus, but in the most wonderful way.

Matty and Bernie Smith Older
Smith Family

In the summer of 2019, our guy Bernie started breathing heavily, sometimes after very little activity. After getting him all the tests, they discovered his heart sac was retaining fluid. He was drained, a surgery was done to correct it and everything seemed fine for a few months. In November of that year, it all started again. This time, it was determined he had cancer in his heart and lungs and that was causing the fluid buildup.

Bernie had his heart sac drained a couple more times. Each time we were told “It’s just to make him comfortable for the couple of weeks he has left.”

Bernie hung in there until January of 2020. We like to think he got a glimpse of what 2020 was going to be like and decided “Nah. I’m good.”

The loss of Bernie hit our little family hard. Our daughter had never been through that before and her 9-year-old heart was broken. My wife was similarly crushed, as Bernie was her dog. She picked him out, I picked out Matty and off we went.

We had the doctor come to the house to help Bernie pass on and Matty was a typical Golden ball of energy. There are no strangers for a Golden Retriever, only friends they haven’t met yet.

As Bernie slipped away, an uncommon calmness came over Matty. He laid next to his brother and snuggled in one last time. Together from the beginning until the end.

In the coming days, we showered Matty with love. He was ok, but a little lost. His lifelong companion was gone and as much as we tried, it just wasn’t the same. It was time to get him a friend.

Matty and Carli Smith
Smith Family

Here came Carli. Carli is an Irish Golden Doodle. Her dad is an Irish Setter-Poodle mix and her mom is a Golden Retriever-Poodle mix.

Matty wasn’t sure of Carli at first and his regular look was “I’m 11. I’m too old for this.” But he was wrong. She got him moving and playing. It was then clear to us that Bernie had been sicker than we thought for longer than we thought, because Matty clearly had plenty of play left in him.

Carli was supposed to be our daughter’s dog, but she bonded to my wife. So, this past summer, we added Tatum to the mix.

Matty and Tatum Smith
Smith Family

Matty and Tatum didn’t bond quite as much as Tatum and Carli did. Matty couldn’t play the way Tatum wanted him to, but that was OK with Matty. He was ready for a break.

Over the last few months, we noticed Matty was starting to slow down. But he was still eating, still getting up on the couch for his multi-times a day snuggles and cuddles. Everything was just a little slower.

Matty would still make his way from room to room around the house. If you’ve seen me in an episode of NBA Front Office Show on YouTube, it’s likely this is a familiar view from my background:

Matty Smith in the recliner
Smith Family

You see, Matty was my dog. My first dog that was truly my dog. Daisy was very attached to both my wife and I equally. Bernie was my wife’s dog. Carli became my wife’s dog. Tatum is our daughter’s dog.

From the moment we met, Matty was my dog.

Matty and Keith Smith
Smith Family

Wherever I was in the house, Matty was usually pretty close by. As basketball became my job, late nights came with it. Matty was my constant companion, usually snuggled into my side while I watched games and tapped away on my laptop.

From the time they were out of their crates, Matty and Bernie’s bedroom at night was our master bathroom. After the last game of the night, he and I would make our way to bedroom. I’d get him settle in the bathroom and then tuck myself in. After Bernie passed, we thought Matty might want a bed vs just the floor. He enjoyed his oversized pillow.

Matty Smith bed pillow
Smith Family

On Thursday morning, everything was normal. The dogs, led by Tatum (he’s always up first), got us up and we fed them breakfast. All three ate and we all went about our day. My wife had a rare day off, so she hung out with the three dogs for most of the day. Matty alternated between snuggling on the couch and napping in the hall outside of our home office where I was working.

Thursday night, dinner came and went as normal. We hustled our daughter off to soccer practice and everything seemed fine. There wasn’t anything even remotely concerning, beyond hoping would we make it to practice in time.

If you’ve had Golden Retrievers, or even Golden mixes, you know they are chowhounds. To combat the dogs getting us up at some ungodly hour each morning, we started a routine when Matty and Bernie were puppies of “second dinner”. It was a small amount of food to tide them over until a more reasonable time of the morning. Around 9:30 or 10:00 PM, one of the dogs would start staring us down, letting us know it was time for “second dinner” and then time for bed. After feeling their eyes bore through us for a while, we’d acquiesce and say “Time for bed”.

This time, for the first time ever, Matty didn’t even flinch from his spot on the couch. His hearing has been going, so we thought maybe he didn’t hear the call to action. Whether he did or didn’t, we’ll never know, but even telling him up close didn’t stir him.

I bought his food over to him on the couch and he ate, albeit slowly. Weird, but more of a “Let’s keep an eye on this.” We snuggled for a while after and then I got him to go out one last time before bed. He came in and laid in the kitchen and I went to the bedroom.

He was in the same spot when we got up on Friday morning. We roused him enough to get him to go out. He didn’t really want his breakfast, but he wasn’t about to let Carli or Tatum have it either.

That was the last time he really ate.

Matty lives for treats or any kind of human food he can get. He was quite the thief in his younger days. Nothing on a counter was safe for long if he caught a whiff of it.

We tried to tempt him to no avail and knew it was time to get to the vet. After a long afternoon of x-rays and tests, the vet told us the bad news.

In mid-2019, we found a growth on Matty’s leg. It was fairly small, and at the time seemed nothing to worry about.

I’m going to pause here to say: If you find a growth on your dog, it’s something to worry about.

The vet checked it back then and the tests came back non-malignant. But that’s never a guarantee. By the time we got it checked again, the growth was malignant and too large to remove. Our options were to let it play out or to amputate his leg.

By the time we got to this point, Matty was about 11-and-a-half years old. He was still active and getting around fine. After several trips to various specialists, we decided to let him live out his life with all four legs and full mobility.

Back to Friday…The tests showed the cancer, or a different one, had spread to his lungs. In the span of less than a day, Matty had gone from normal to a shell of himself.

As our wonderful vet explained, he had probably been hurting for a long time. But the disposition of a Golden Retriever is to please and to not be a bother to their people. In effect, even when they are hurting, they remain stoic.

The vet encouraged us that we didn’t miss any signs and that there was really nothing we could have done different. Cancer remains the number one cause of death for Golden Retrievers and by the time you know it’s there, it’s probably everywhere.

They sent us home with some meds and special food to try to keep him comfortable.

None of it worked. On Saturday, December 11, our boy Matty peacefully passed away in our home surrounded by his human and dog family.

Keith and Matty Smith Last Picture
Smith Family

I already miss him more than I ever could have imagined. I wanted more time with him, but quality is always better than quantity. Or at least that’s what they say.

All of our dogs have taught me something. Daisy taught me that beings are worth saving. And if you give someone a second chance, they’ll pay it back in greater ways than you could ever expect.

Bernie taught me the benefit of just being present and enjoying life. And that when everything is going wrong, there’s nothing a hug can’t fix.

But Matty taught me more than any other. Matty taught me to hang in with your family. They are there at the start and they’ll be there at the end.

Matty taught me to care and to love for something beyond myself. More importantly, to love and care hard. And that’s even more true as life changes. Caring about things beyond yourself is how you connect with the world.

Matty taught me courage to adapt. For the first 10 years of his life, he always had Bernie. We were told when Bernie passed that it was likely Matty would go soon after. Matty was around for almost two more years, and helped teach two puppies along the way.

The way Matty would patiently deal with Carli and Tatum taught me the value of kindness. He’d occasionally put them in their places, but never in such a way that they feared or disliked him. There was a love there, even if a firm hand was needed at times.

Most of all, Matty taught me that everything will work out as it’s supposed to. Have your heart broken, get two puppies, a new house, a new job and a kid in really short period of time? It all worked out. Better than any of us ever could have hoped for!

When I was deciding if I should leave the Walt Disney Company after nearly 20 years to write about basketball full-time, I talked to my wife about it endlessly. Who did I talk to second-most? Matty. He never really offered advice or warning. At least not in the way of words. He’d patiently listen, lay across my lap like a 70-pound furry weighted blanket and put his nose in my face. I believe it was his way of saying “It’ll all be ok, no matter what you decide.”

Right at the end, when we got home from the vet on Friday, I was sitting on the floor petting Matty. He let out a sigh, but not one of long contentment, like he usually would. He looked me in the eyes, sighed a ragged little sigh and closed his eyes. We always ask that our pets give us a sign. Matty had told me his goodbye in that moment. But he was also saying “It’ll all be ok.”

Is any of this applicable to the Boston Celtics in any way? I don’t know. I know the Celtics are having a disappointing season. But I don’t let that ruin things for me. Because in the end, it’ll all be ok. We just have to hang in there through the rough parts.

I miss you Big Guy. Our Moo-Man. My Best Boy. My Matty.

Matty Smith nesting on couch
Smith Family

(Author’s Note: I’m a writer and writers often write to grieve. Thanks for indulging me. Takeaways will return on Tuesday.)