I woke this morning to the sounds of labored breaths and nails on the hardwood. Opening my eyes, she was standing next to the bed looking at me, warm chocolate eyes in a head colored like a wave-soaked beach. My old girl, still beautiful. It was her coloring that drew me to her 13 years ago. Of the seven puppies romping around a farm pen in rural Ohio, she had the lightest coloring and a brown nose. She reminded me of the beach and our love of the water. We named her Sandbar.
But if her looks attracted me, it was her personality that made me love her. Even on that first day, while her littermates were running around the pen jumping and playing with each other, she was over in the corner by herself. She was timid and nervous and hesitant. Years later I would learn that those were all red flags of behavioral challenges, but on that sunny spring day all I saw was a puppy that needed a pack. I knew I wanted us to be that pack.
Even so, those early days were awkward. It took her time to believe in us, days of romping around the backyard with our toddling daughter and taking walks with my patient husband. We got through puppy training and the sleepless nights. To be honest, I don’t remember the moment when it became clear that she knew she was ours, when she knew that my husband was her alpha and that we were her pack. I just know it happened and I know the hundreds of moments since when she has proved it to me.
There was the time when my daughter was watching tv and she plopped down on Sandy like a couch. There was the time when my young son decided he wanted to taste dog food and we rushed in just as he had grabbed a huge handful of food right under her mouth. There was the time when, quarantined without us, she lost 10 pounds due to the stress. There were the countless times when she walked the kids to the bus, or when she did the ‘yoyo dog’ jump at the back door because she was so damned excited to get back into the house to be with us she couldn’t contain herself. Every time we leave she looks disappointed and every time we come home she acts like she has won the lottery. I’ve told people that she is never truly relaxed until her pack is together with her.
As she has aged, it has been harder on all of us. She wants to be with us, but there are so many places she cannot go. She can no longer climb the stairs to sleep near our bed or join us when we take a walk around the block. Climbing into the boat would be completely impossible. The heart is willing, but the body just doesn’t have the strength. Yesterday, we had her with us at my brother-in-law’s house and she lost her footing and fell into the pool. A lifelong swimmer, our lab couldn’t climb out of the steps without help and in her panic she hurt her already weak back legs.
As we helped her dry off and settle down, I looked around at the faces of our extended family. Their eyes were full of compassion and understanding. They could see her in a way we couldn’t — they could see a life lovingly lived approaching its end. Unburdened by our fear, loss, grief and guilt they could see it clearly. And looking at their eyes, watching their reactions, I could see it myself.
So this morning, when she managed to climb up the stairs on her own, come to me restless in pain and look at me with her warm loving eyes, I climbed out of bed. I grabbed a pillow and layed down next to her on the floor. I ran my hand down her still smooth fur and said quietly, “Who’s my good girl? Aren’t you my good girl. Mama loves you.” I repeated it over and over until her eyes closed, her breathing slowed and her foot stopped twitching. Until she knew she was loved.
And so did I.