Mookie and I walked from our home in Northern Liberties to Old City, stopping at Fourth and Florist Streets, just below the Ben Franklin Bridge. He knew the intersection well. He immediately sat down and stared west, toward the underground tunnel that opens at that spot, where he knew the sound of the PATCO train would start to rumble any second.
As the moment approached, he got jittery, his front paws going up and down. He was ready to run. I kept whispering to him, “Where’s the train? Where’s the train?”
I can’t remember if anyone strolled past us that day, but people often did, as this was a regular stop in our walking route. They’d try to engage my fluffy black-and-white Shih Tzu, but Mookie ignored them. In fact, when the train took too long to arrive, he’d start barking at the tracks, the anticipation just too much.
On that day, when the train emerged, we sprinted down the street, as usual, running below the tracks as it cha-chunked overhead toward New Jersey. I could barely keep up as my little man pulled on his leash, yapping with excitement.
By the time we got to Third Street, the train was in the distance, I was out of breath, and Mookie was totally amped up. But as we made our way toward Race Street, he started wobbling.
He slowed down, walked counterclockwise twice, and then collapsed on the concrete. I thought he was dead.
I dropped to the ground and tried to rouse him. For a few seconds, he didn’t move. His body was limp. And then he woke with the piercing howl of a dog who didn’t know what was happening to him. He involuntarily peed, but then started coming back to life.
Within a few seconds, he was back on his feet, shaking off the incident like he shook off snow. He wanted to keep walking, but I carried him all the way back to the home I shared with my then-girlfriend.
That night, a cardiologist at the emergency veterinary hospital told us that Mookie had mitral valve disease. There was no cure, only pills that would buy him time. His days of chasing trains were over. No more running after Frisbees. No more long walks. He would be lucky if he lived another six months.
I remember saying that I had just bought a new box of Greenies, Mookie’s favorite treats. The doctor said he would not need another box.
We were devastated. Mookie was 9 years old.
Prior to his diagnosis, Mookie had been my frequent public companion, and I was often good-naturedly ridiculed: What 6-foot-tall man dotes on a 13-pound ball of fur? Well, after his diagnosis, my doting got even more ridiculous.
I took Mookie everywhere with me: restaurants, friends’ houses, the hair salon — even Temple University, where I was a journalism professor. He’d sleep at my feet, behind the podium, while I taught. Sometimes, he’d wake and roam the lecture hall, and I’d hear shrieks of surprise and giggles when people saw his funny Ewok face.
When I was invited to lecture off campus, I’d get permission to bring him with me. Mook was a guest at Arcadia, St. Joe’s, and a few other colleges. He accompanied me to radio interviews and a bunch of concerts — indoors and outdoors.
The pills seemed to hold off further episodes, but we still had to check his pulse and respiration daily. We diligently recorded his numbers in a notebook. We had to be vigilant.
We filled the notebook, then another, for the next seven years. Mookie resumed chasing trains, running after Frisbees, and pulling me on walks. But I remained fearful of losing him at any moment, so I was never that far from him.
In May 2018, I accepted a position as an associate dean at Temple’s Japan campus. I had always wanted to move to Japan, where my mother was born and half of my family still lived. My girlfriend and I were no longer together, and I was excited to bring Mookie with me to Sasebo, my family’s hometown, to meet my Japanese uncles, aunts, and cousins.
It takes six months to clear pets for entry to Japan, but my job began sooner than that. So I temporarily left Mookie with my ex and headed overseas. After two months, I briefly visited Philadelphia, ostensibly for work, but really to see my pup.
When it was finally time to bring Mookie to Japan, my ex called me, worried. Mook’s health had deteriorated, she said. The 16-hour journey would be too much for him. So I left my boy in Philly and returned every two or three months to see him. Each time, I thought it might be the last. It was heartbreaking.
Last August, my ex texted: Mookie’s end was near. I flew in to say goodbye. He died in my arms the next day.
Six months later, I’m still not over his death. But I’m comforted that my fear of losing him made me take him places he never would have experienced otherwise. His life was a constant adventure, and he helped me see both new and mundane places with fresh eyes.
To honor Mookie, I’ve created an endowed scholarship in his name: the Mookie Miller Fund for Adventure in Education. It will allow qualified students in Temple’s Klein College of Media and Communication to expand their horizons through travel abroad — to take adventures that my little man was never able to. The first recipient will be named this spring.
My ex also established a fund that honors Mookie at Penn Vet. Their cardiology team will explore better ways to diagnose and treat mitral valve disease, which impacts 70% of dogs over the age of 10. The research will benefit humans, too, as the disease is common in people.
My dog meant the world to me — he was my constant companion, full of unconditional love. I am thrilled that, because of him, students will get to travel and discover what means the world to them, in Mookie’s name.