The night before we brought her home, I couldn’t sleep. The same giddy excitement as when I was a child on Christmas Eve radiated through my body: eyes wouldn’t close, brain wouldn’t turn off. I lay there visualizing the snuggles, the unconditional love, everything I expected to accompany a true maternal bond. And she didn’t disappoint; as soon as my sweet girl was in my arms, I felt like a new, better version of myself.
I suppose now is a good time to mention I’m talking about a dog.
Yeah, I’m that crazy dog lady. I almost wrote “I was that crazy dog lady,” but even with the addition of three human babies, I’m still cuckoo for canines. Mad for mutts! Dizzy for dogs! Okay, I’ll stop now.
Anyway, it didn’t take long to convince my then-boyfriend we should adopt one of our friend’s three half black Lab, half German Shepherd puppies. Never having had pets growing up, I was surprised (and incredibly grateful!) the man would even consider bringing a furbaby into his home–we weren’t engaged, I didn’t live there, yet his generous heart was open to this adorably huge responsibility.
We picked up Bella Bea (also known as Bells, Bellsbea, B.) the next morning and from that moment forward, she was my girl. She followed me eve.ry.where, and I was thrilled to have her as my companion. Her fierce loyalty always made me feel safe, and even though her ferocious barks and Shepherd attributes were intimidating, there was never a more gentle dog. I quickly learned Bella was an outdoors snob much like myself; rain, mud, and snow? We’ll pass. In the winter, she would sit against the heating vent snuggled under a blanket with me, our skin growing drier by the hour. In the warmer weather, she’d sit on the porch with me, avoiding bugs and dirt like a champ. What kind of dog does that? Don’t they all dig and welcome the mess?! Not my dog. And I loved that about her.
I also learned she had zero time for anyone else. Once, a friend brought her new puppy over and after an obligatory butt-sniff, Bella stole away upstairs which I’m pretty sure is the canine equivalent of the middle finger. She simply tolerated other humans, though occasionally did seem to sincerely enjoy her “Dad,” the kind soul who opened his home both of us. (I sure did move in right after we got Bells!) He took her for long runs in the park, threw Frisbee for her, and tried to score points by inviting her to sleep at the bottom of our bed. Still, she faithfully remained mine.
Bells didn’t even appear angry when I accidentally left a wrapped chocolate bar under the Christmas tree, she ate it, and the result was an entire evening of steadfast efforts to induce her vomiting. As my finally-fiancé and I sat outside in the freezing December air, pouring hydrogen peroxide down her throat, Bella still loved me.
Bella didn’t even hold it against me when I did the unthinkable and rescued a dog from Hurricane Katrina, forcing her to share her home, food, me. Though I admit Bella didn’t make it easy for Hurricane, the oh-so-creative name my soon-to-be-husband insisted we give our new dog.
Bella didn’t go near Hurricane for almost a month, understandably pissed that her carefree grazing days were over. Any morsel of food anywhere would send Hurricane into orbit. She literally inhaled her own food, sprinted laps around the house, and then made a play for Bella’s food. This did not go over well. Bella tried to reiterate Hurricane’s position in the pecking order several times, only to find her sister was none too bright. Every day was the same thing: Hurricane throwing her sloppy face into Bella’s pristine food bowl. Finally, Bella realized she had no choice but to adapt: her days of slow indulgence were over. Still, she loved me.
Nor did she mind when my now-husband and I worked long hours and would sometimes extend Fridays to include a Happy Hour. Bella even loved me when car seats took her spot in our car…
The night we brought our son home from the hospital, we introduced him to the dogs. Hurricane, bless her sweet, dumb heart, barely realized another living thing was among us. But Bella was curious, and came forward to sniff our bundle. We spoke softly to her, scratching her bum like she likes, and then she howled. My initial thought? This dog may eat my baby! Never before had I heard that sound from her, and I would never hear it again. Whether her one-time howl was a friendly heads up that she was head bitch in charge, or she was welcoming him to the pact, from that night forward, Bella was always apathetic toward our son. She couldn’t have cared less about him or, eventually, our daughters!
She also didn’t judge me or my husband for being huge morons when it came time to name everyone. We had named our son Brady and our first daughter Ella (I know, right?!). When we would confuse the two (which happened at least once an hour), we’d end up combining both names and calling out for Bella. She eventually got used to it and, I’m almost certain, learned to roll her eyes.
I brought three little humans into our house, ones who consumed most of my time and made me snap at Bella for barking while they were napping–still, she loved me. She quietly accepted the changes, continuing her tradition of following me around. Into the nursery at all hours to change and feed the babies we went. Into the back yard to teach a kid how to throw a ball. To the swimming pool deck where she made it very clear she was not impressed with the loud splashing of budding swimmers. And my sweet furry faced friend continued our favorite tradition of laying on my feet whenever I sat down.
The day she collapsed and her bowels gave out, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. She wasn’t “that old,” and although signs of her decline were certainly visible, I whispered “it’s not time” as she was wheeled into the vet’s office strapped to a gurney. Ever the obedient dog, Bella obliged and somehow got a second wind; she walked out of the office that day, stunning all of us.
We were gifted another two years with her; it was borrowed time and we knew it. More vet visits than usual, twice daily medication, failing eyesight, hearing, and hind legs, but it was more with her and for that, we were grateful. I bought runners to cover our hardwood floors so she didn’t slip. I bought an under-the-belly harness to help her up and down steps. She barely barked any more because she couldn’t hear the pint-size intruders riding their bikes on the road in front of our house; I felt very guilty for ever snapping at her about the barking. She began to stumble. Steps were so hard for her, but they didn’t stop her from following me up to bed every night.
She couldn’t jump up on our bed any more, but every night my sweet girl was right beside me, in her bed, always at arm’s length. Still, she loved me.
Then she started losing feeling in her hind quarters. The vet said it was progressive nerve damage–she couldn’t feel when she had to go to the bathroom. We came to anticipate returning home to accidents whenever we’d been away for even a short time, but the accidents began to happen when we were there, too. Now, Bella walks through the kitchen leaving a trail of mess behind her. It’s super fun when we’re hosting friends. Those of you who aren’t fellow crazy dog people won’t understand this next sentence, but I’m telling you: Bella is mortified every time she messes in the house. She’s embarrassed and panicked every time it happens. Sometimes I get angry, but I mostly reason that constant clean-up duty is just a part of our lives now.
The coughing started about six months ago. I noticed she was eating less because food triggered more coughing. Bella was eventually diagnosed with megaesophagus, which means her esophagus isn’t working properly. Food and water get stuck in the dog’s throat instead of passing through to her belly. Once again, I found work-around’s: I fed her smaller portions at a time. I fed her from my hand. I pet her while she ate, hoping it would calm her and she wouldn’t cough it up. These things worked, but only for a while. She began to lose weight. She now paces and coughs throughout the night. Neither of us have slept soundly or for an entire night in months. Every night, it’s the same thing: cough, choke, vomit, poop. I’m the nocturnal dog nurse, tending to her as best I can.
I don’t deserve a pat on the back for that; I don’t always do this with a grateful heart. I am exceptionally sleep-deprived and often lose my temper with everyone in the house. Bella has always understood a frustrated sigh or agitated body language, and actually leaves the room when I run out of patience. It’s not my finest moment, but I just can’t help myself. I love my girl, but I can no longer pretend things aren’t getting more and more difficult for both of us.
She is sick and not getting any better. The ugly runners, harnesses, medication, extra love–none of it is helping any more. I am slow admitting it because I reason that all she really wants is me, and here I am. Other pet owners tend to ease the ache of loss with dreams of their dogs crossing the rainbow bridge happily chasing their favorite ball. But I am my dog’s favorite ball. Still, she loves me.
But it’s time to love her more than I ever have.
Remembering the excitement I felt the night before we brought her home is such a harsh juxtaposition of what I’m feeling today, as we prepare for tomorrow’s final goodbye. We were very lucky to have Bella for almost 15 years. She is the very reason I like dogs more than most people. I only pray she understands I made this decision because I love her. Keeping her around would just be selfish.