In the fall of 2002, I was coming to terms with my chronic illnesses and learning to live with them. I was no longer working outside the house but now had two books published. I spent a lot of hours being tired, sleeping odd hours, dealing with pain, and seeing doctors. I had finished my physical therapy and was spending more and more time alone at home. I still had health anxiety, thought my recollection is that I was able to manage it okay at the time.
Since I was home, hub and I thought it was time to adopt a dog. We thought it would give me company and a reason to do things other than read and write and sleep. Growing up, we’d always had dogs, so living on my own I missed the love and fun of having a dog. Hub and I knew that once we got married we would rescue a dog, but because of my illness, it didn’t work out at that time.
I looked for some time for a dog. This was before the days of petfinder being so popular. The internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is now, so we still had dial-up. I’d be online every day, searching for the dog that would be perfect for us. I had an image in mind–a Bernese Mountain dog–and I sought information on each one that popped up on the listings. I wanted a bigger dog that we could lay on the floor with, rough-house with, hug without worrying about squashing. My parents had a big yellow lab with a giant head and a muscled, round body. She was the kind of frame I was looking for, very similar in stature to a Berner, but Berners have more hair.
We found our girl. I saw the listing one day and I emailed the woman right away. The listing hadn’t been up 24 hours before I contacted the rescue who was caring for her. The woman wasn’t even prepared to take inquiries yet on the female “Bernese/Mix”, but she responded to me pretty quickly.
When we first met our dog, I was surprised at her size. She was tall and hairy, but she was thin. I couldn’t help but compare her to my parents’ English Lab, and they were different in every way. Our girl was thin-chested, with a narrow waist and narrow hips. She was so thin, I worried that we would crush her with a mildly exuberant hug. But when the rescue woman brought our dog into our house, I felt something in my heart shift. Something inside me said she needed us. Her story was sad–like so many in rescue–and I wanted to cry over her background. They thought she was about 3 1/2 years old, but over the years we wondered if her age had been misreported. As she aged, her body filled out somewhat and she seemed to grow taller. Pictures prove this, but we had paperwork from previous owners that said otherwise. As much as I felt I really wanted her, I was disappointed in her physicality. **I figured we would go ahead and adopt a second dog in another year or two, and I’d finally get the big dog I’d wanted.
Our first months with our girl were not great. She had some behavioral issues that impacted us on a day-to-day basis. And since I was still recovering physically, it was a strain for me to care for her every day. One of the issues SP had (one of her many nicknames: Sweet Pea) was preferring to pee in the house instead of outside. So I’d have to take her out every hour to give her a chance to pee, and we’d stand out there for 10-20 minutes, and she would do nothing. Then we’d go in the house and she’d squat right in front of me and pee. For someone in a pretty good amount of pain every day, getting myself out of the house and standing outside (in November, December in Maryland) for 10-20 minutes every freaking hour was really really difficult. And I couldn’t rest when I was in the house because I was always watching to make sure SP wasn’t peeing somewhere. For the first time in my experience with dogs, we had to crate train a dog. As horrible as some people find it, SP actually ended up loving her crate, and over the years she would very often sleep in it with the door open.
After staying with my parents (and SP learning not to pee in the house anymore) and then buying a new home, my relationship with her changed. Besides being the reason I moved around, SP was with me all the time. She was my constant companion, since I was home all the time. If she wasn’t in the room with me, she was laying in the doorway, or in full view of the doorway. At night, she often slept along the side of my bed–you know where you put your feet when you swing your legs over the side of the mattress?–or somewhere next to my side of the bed. I had to get up to feed her at lunchtime, so it was the reason I ate lunch myself every day. I had to let her out into the backyard (thank goodness for our new fenced yard), so it gave me a chance to see the outside world. I loved on her and I talked to her all day. She was what kept me sane when I felt a little crazy (which was often). She accepted me and my limitations while still relying on me to care for her every day. When her thunderstorm fears increased each year, I comforted her when they raged. I would stay up late into the night when the storms came, touching her and talking to her. Even when I couldn’t imagine doing so, I would lumber my painful body to the floor and sit with her as she drooled and shook and panted and trembled…day or night, it didn’t matter to me. I fretted over her anxiety medication, I fretted over the chronic leg issues she had, I fretted over the treats she ate and the food she ate. At one point I was on crutches, unable to put any weight on one knee and little weight on the other, and still I moved myself (on my ass down the stairs when necessary) to make sure she was fed and had outside time while hub was at work. When I was feeling poorly, she stayed nearby to keep me company. When I cried, she came to me and loved me. When I coughed, she always checked on me. She was an integral part of my every day living. I have so many memories of her that I can’t even begin to share them.
We spoiled her rotten, we loved her to no end. We scheduled our lives around her, she was so much a part of our hearts. When she got sick in July 2011, we stopped everything and tended to her. We drove her three hours in a hurricane to get her to an emergency vet for a blood transfusion. I wept in a hotel nearby because it was the first time since we’d had her–9 1/2 years–that she’d been overnight somewhere without us or my parents. A strange facility, strangers around her, IVs in her leg, in a cage alone… If they had allowed me to crawl into the cage with her so I could stay with her, I would have. It was the very worst time in my life to watch her struggle in pain through this fatal illness. It was the look in her eyes that nearly killed me as she wilted from the pain and disease. When we let her go as peacefully and lovingly as possible, surrounded by those who loved her and those she loved, I thought a piece of my heart had just stopped beating. I knew I would never be the same.
My grief was overwhelming. I still heard her in the house. I still felt her fur under my hands. I still reached for her, I still looked for her. We moved shortly thereafter, and despite almost ten years in the house, what upset me the most was leaving her home. We bought the house pretty much because of the beautiful fenced yard that she adored. It was a struggle to leave that house because she was there in every corner. Our new home had never known her… Even so, I spent months seeing visions of her in the new house. At night when I tried to sleep, I heard her collar and the padding of her feet. I heard her ears flap when she shook her head. I looked for her next to the bed; I reached for her at night to pet her as she sauntered by the bed to curl up nearby. I grieved hard and long, seeking support online from a pet loss support website. I ended up seeking therapy for the first time ever as the one year anniversary of her passing approached.
I have loved many in my life, and lost some. I was lucky that I had little loss in my life until I became an adult. Some of the losses were more difficult than others–my grandparents, a dear uncle, a beloved cousin–all to illness, some of them extended in length. I grieved as any would over beloved family, but somehow this was different. This creature who loved me no matter whether I got dressed or not, whether I was fat or not, whether I fed her kibble or grilled chicken, whether I scratched her “just right” or wrong…she was with me nearly 24/7 for 9 1/2 years. She became a part of my being.
The loss still haunts me. It is one of the few times I cried in therapy with either of the therapists I have seen. I went through EMDR with my first therapist in an effort to get beyond the PTSD I had from putting SP to sleep. To a point it was successful, but it has not lessened the grief I feel at her loss. Her picture is still by my bed and I still talk to her. I have a charm on my necklace with her initial on it that hub bought for me. There are days when I feel particularly sad and often that charm will sneak its way out so that I see it in the mirror. I know she still talks to me in her own way, but I still miss her terribly.
We adopted another rescue dog with a sad story. I never thought I would love another dog even though I knew I’d have them in my home and in my life. And the truth is, I will never love another the same way I loved SP, because I am a different person. Our new girl came into our life before I was probably ready, but I think SP knew I needed her. I think SP guided me to her. Our new girl is completely different from SP, much more independent, though needy in her own way. She is a big girl, nearly 100lbs, and as round and large as SP was dainty and princess-like. SP hated the rain and would never deign to step in the mud…our new girl will go out and lay in the dirt, mud, snow…whatever, because she loves to be outside. SP was once an avid toy player, and loved to de-stuff them, or de-squeak them. Our new girl hates toys and shies away from squeakers. SP always had me in view (or hub in view), our new girl is way more independent, and just as likely to sleep on her own in the family room as she might sleep on her dog bed in our bedroom. SP always slept in our bedroom at night, on her bed or in her crate or next to me on the floor.
But our new girl is a good girl. She, too, has some issues…but don’t we all? And she’s spoiled and doted on, and will never want for anything. A friend once told me that when she died, she hoped to come back as one of our dogs because of how well-loved and cared for they are.
I am so thankful for the dogs that have come into my life. From the first one when I was barely of school-age, to the one who went with us from first house to second (and the one I thought would be in my wedding!), to the one I helped my parents pick out after I had left home…to the one who changed my life and my heart. I’m thankful for the ones here with us now, and thankful for the joy and the love and the happiness they bring to us each and every day.
**This would turn out to never happen, because despite SP loving my parents’ dog, she didn’t prefer to share her home with another dog. We tried several times, but the change in SP’s demeanor (non-aggressive) told us it was not a good idea. We ended up making our peace with this decision.