An hour before her death, I reached for the skillet, then prepared for Cici — our 12-pound mixed breed — the best fried egg this side of Heaven. She gobbled it up with such gusto that I offered her my egg too.

Then, the kids’ eggs.

“But…” my five-year-old protested, not yet understanding the gravity of it all.

“Shh,” I said, placing her plate on the floor “there will be other eggs for you.”

Endowed with more lives than any cat, Cici’s specialty was defying death. Four years ago, when she was diagnosed with diabetes, we figured she had months. The following year, when the vet discovered the tumor, we shrank that timeline to weeks.

But since death didn’t jibe with Cici’s life plan, she ignored it into submission. She had more important things to attend to, like pulling on her leash, scattering the squirrels, and solidifying her reputation as a postal worker’s miniature nightmare. She never met a stuffed animal she didn’t intend to make love to, nor did she ever receive a dog treat that she wouldn’t rather hide than eat. But by late March, our leash-pulling, squirrel-scattering, treat-hoarding, love monster seemed to have expended every last drop of borrowed time.

Three days before she died, Cici sniffed her way to the dryer vent on the side of the house and dug herself a hole. Then, she laid down in it. She’d never been much of a hole-digger, so this took me by surprise. She’d been blind for years — one of the ravages of diabetes — but when she looked up at me with those cataract eyes, her message couldn’t have been clearer.

A good dog knows when to stay. A great dog knows when to go.

• • •

In the six months leading up to Cici’s death, I slept beside her on the living room floor. Perhaps this is the sort of thing one ought not to announce in the local paper. But by then, her bladder had lost some of its lasting power, and rather than ask her to endure the indignity of a doggie diaper, it seemed easiest just to be nuzzled awake. Which she was glad to do, every morning at 4 a.m. sharp. Together, we’d roam the backyard in search of the best place to pee. It was a decision she never made lightly or quickly.

“What about over here?” I’d try, pointing her toward the river birch. She’d give it a sniff, politely decline, then expand her search toward more distant trees.

During our last backyard roaming — once all business had been attended to — Cici and I sat on the deck steps and peered out into the dark. For a time I said nothing.

And then: “Remember Chicago?”

Cici turned toward the sound of my voice.

How could either of us have forgotten her finest hour? The night we were stuck in Chicago traffic with an inconsolable three-month-old baby in the back. The car was so small, and our bodies were so big, that neither my wife nor I could wrench ourselves into the backseat to comfort him.

Sighing, Cici took matters into her own hands, dragging her small body over the console and past the luggage and positioning herself squarely atop our screaming boy. He was so smitten by the prospect of a dog lapping his face that his screams soon turned to silence, eventually giving way to snores.

My wife and I knew not what to make of the miracle we’d witnessed. But we knew Cici had earned everything and more for the rest of her days.

Cici pressed her fur against me in the dark, rousing me from my memory. I pressed a hand to the head of the dog who was still there.

“Ready to go inside?” I asked. She rose, steadily.

{span}• {/span}{span}• {/span}{span}•{/span}

Grief strikes hardest when you least expect it: the squeak of the screen door, the clink of the dish, the thunk of the mail slot closing. Just this morning, muscle memory prompted me to slip a piece of bacon beneath the table, only this time, there was no one to receive it.

Yesterday, when leaving the shower, I was startled to find Cici’s name scrawled in the mirror fog. Was it a sign? I wondered. Some otherworldly message? It was not; it was just my eight-year-old’s way of trying to call his dog back to him.

I wish it were that easy. But, of course, death never is. Yet this heaviness, this gutting, is the price we pay for love. And we must learn to pay it. To love less, and to hurt less, that would be the true tragedy.

No doubt about it, I miss my 4 a.m. nuzzler. But what I miss more are the people she allowed us to be. With Cici, we couldn’t help but be helpers. And we couldn’t help but be selfless too. For the last four years of Cici’s life, her insulin shot was something we scheduled our evenings around. Come 7 p.m., either my wife or I would return home to give Cici her shot. Sure, we missed a few social engagements now and again, but I’m not sure we really missed them.

With every loss there is the instinct to live harder, and faster, and more fiercely. But as Cici taught me throughout our 4 a.m. backyard adventures, perhaps we ought only to live better, instead. Savoring each smell and each view for as long as our nose and eyes can manage. And when our last day comes, may we go out feasting. And may we leave something better behind.

Hours after we lost our girl, my family and I gathered round the table for lunch. At our feet, we discovered one of Cici’s heart-shaped dog treats.

Maybe, I thought, she was saving it for later.

Or maybe, she was leaving it for us.