My parents and I have shared our lives with dogs for about twenty years. We have lost dogs to car accidents, cancer, disease, and old age. The collective of their lives shaped my compassion, patience, and joy into an authentic life.
Spencer was a chow behemoth mix with a subtle but wise personality and a deformed tail. He lived with my parents since he was a very small puppy and was completely terrified of balloons. Luralee was a fluff of black and white personality that sashayed into my life some years after. She was acquired through a series of miss-steps. She had a terrible case of separation anxiety and charmed everyone with her speckled legs. Spencer had lost his best friend some years earlier and was showing some age. Luralee was a pandora's box of youth and tough life experiences. I never seemed to bond with Luralee. She was anxious, needy and overly demanding; even bossy at times.
I needed to have some surgery and reluctantly sent this hodgepodge of a dog to live with my parents. It didn't take long for her to bond to them. She became a happy, calm and balanced dog to my surprise. Spencer appreciated her company and Luralee drew in all of his knowledge and wisdom. They spent the next year together learning from one another and keeping each other company as my parents worked long hours. I slowly recovered and quickly realized separating Luralee from my parents and Spencer would be difficult. We created a custody arrangement; she spent more than half her time in their home. I would become more of a dog sitter to her, which was completely okay with me.
Feeling the void and losing some physical ability led me to get a service dog. I worked hard to understand Sherman's needs, his two hundred commands, and the proper etiquette to being his handler. We spent barely two years in my community building his reputation and the proper expectations for a service dog. Sherman was a show stopper but to me, he was my best friend. One day I found a lump on Sherman's neck. Not long after he had two, then three. I knew in my heart what this meant. I sat on the steps of my then home and told him "I don't know what the lumps mean but whatever they are; I'll be with you through it all". Cancer in dogs is difficult to treat without a significant amount of money and time. I had neither and within weeks Sherman was diagnosed and the decision was made to put him down. I served him until the end.
Sherman's death was completely hollowing. However, what followed was a series of strange interactions with the people who's lives he had impacted and that I had never meaningfully remembered. My dentist, therapist, the cashiers at several stores, the mail lady, neighbors, my physical therapist, all remembered Sherman as if he was the human and I was the sidekick. I spent countless hours picking them up from their tears as I explained his death and each time I was baffled by their reaction. After all, he was my dog and where was I when he formed all these friendships? I am still stopped and asked, "aren't you the lady with Sherman?". I had always viewed myself as the lady with the dog but Sherman flipped this perspective entirely. He was the dog with the lady. How could I ball myself into a mess and close my heart? In his four short years, he changed the corner of my world without trying. To honor his service to in enhancing my life, I decided to love again but I did so with a limping heart.
The decision to get a puppy was not easy. To be perfectly honest I do not care for puppies. I am more practical and the thought of training a puppy was not appealing to me. However; Goldendoodles are not a breed you find at any local shelter. I had no choice but to submit and start with a puppy. In comes Sullivan or Sully as he is affectionally known. Named after a Disney character Sullivan was a timid and suspicious little white ball of fluff with oversized ears. He and I grew into a set very quickly and I bonded with him in a new way. He did not replace Sherman. He extended my capacity to love beyond him. Almost a continuation of his work but in a new way. I think Sherman would be proud of that.
Sullivan was just a peanut when he met the collective. Spencer and Luralee were still lingering in the spaces of my life. Naturally, I slowly introduced him to the big dogs. He saw them as new giant friends to romp and play with. They were less amused and often looked for an exit when he would approach with a bow and bark.
Spencer was especially less patient with this new puppy. Spencer could barely get around by this time and was the happiest when napping quietly. It was clear Spencer was not going to jump or play. One morning he barely sat up at all and my dad knew. Spencer was going to need to be put down. I had just moved into a new farmhouse and my mother was helping me which meant Luralee was in tow. My father called to say he was taking him to the vet. The time had come and we could not meet him there. I permitted my father to bury him on the farm. When we arrived home; my father was gently lowering him into a grave he had dug out by hand with tears in his eyes. Luralee none the wiser was just happy to see my father.
I was sad for my parents and I whole heartily felt their pain. I also felt terrible for not being there to support him and say goodbye to my old friend. My father saw this responsibility through but his heart was crushed. I was crushed for him. Because my parents worked and Luralee was now alone; Luralee had to come live with me. Sullivan was thrilled to have a full-time friend and I was happy to have her.
At first, Luralee seemed unfazed by the loss of Spencer. She never really got to say goodbye. Honestly, we had barely considered her. Our focus was on Spencer and my father's grief. As the weeks went by; her joyful and exuberant demands changed. As if a flower had ceased to bloom, or the shine of a car had dulled; she had slowed. She was happy but never as happy. She showed joy but not as much. She began to show grays around her eyes and her pace came with caution. She had come to realize her friend was gone. It took her about three months to accept Spencer was not coming back. Her mentor and friend vanished. She was grieving deeply and solemnly. I didn't realize how gaping her loss was. How could I have missed it? How could I not realize her deep grief? Why didn't I make her a priority in this family loss? I just didn't know.
Sullivan grew and grew as she slowed and slowed. His puppy nature was countered by her long naps. She lost her vision and began to have problems standing or walking long distances. Sullivan adapted to her abilities. He spent hours licking her face when she wasn't feeling well, licking her sores when she had the cone of shame on, and playing easy games she could do. They often had secret meetings and invited no one. Lauralee's steps were measured but she still enjoyed being boss. She leisurely plowed into his dog bowl and ate some of his kibble every morning and by the extension of her powers, she ate all of hers as well. The dog beds belonged to her unless otherwise posted and treats were taste-tested by her first for security. Sullivan never protested and often looked to me for suggestions. In any case, she brought him great joy and stability. To her, he was kind and came with benefits. I was watching the love unfold with the knowledge this would not last. I knew she would have to leave us soon and this time I was not going to overlook Sullivan's grief, or my parents, or my own.
I sat with Luralee and slowly pet her head " Luralee I know you're in pain. You don't have to stay. Sullivan and I will be okay. Mom and Dad will be okay and you will go to a place where it doesn't hurt to walk and treats grow on trees. Just tell me when you're ready, I'll take it from there." Early one morning she was ready. I had prepared for this. I had all my bases covered. Everyone would be there, Sullivan included and we would say goodbye together. I picked a tree to place her next too. It bloomed pink in the spring. We would stick together as a family. I was already considering getting another puppy to help Sullivan cope with the loss and we would all get through it like champions; right?
We stood next to her. I made sure I said her name till her eyes closed and just like that she was gone. Sullivan sniffed her and we cried together just as I had prepared.
Sullivan spent the next few days leaving a few bits in his bowl in case she came back. I posted about our grief and loss. I clung to Sullivan's side and reassured him we would be okay. The flood of recommendations came through my phone "your going to get Sullivan another dog right? maybe you should get a cat! Have you thought about getting an older dog for him? Like Luralee?". Of course, we were getting another dog. Sullivan couldn't be alone. He needs a replacement. But there would never be another Luralee. There would never be another Spencer. There would never be another Sherman. How could I try to buy out his grief?
I realized he needed time to grieve. We all did. As much as I wanted to avoid it; it was unavoidable. I needed to love him through it and perhaps more importantly; he needed to love me through it. Because one day in the hopefully distant future; I would need to find the courage to pick a tree and leave a space for love to grow.
Dogs grieve. We grieve and the loss of a friend like a dog is unique. It's an unavoidable part of sharing our lives with them and life without a dog seems to like the flowers without a bloom. Without Spencer we would of probably of given up on Luralee, without Luralee, Spencer would have missed out on passing on his wisdom, without Luralee we would of missed out on her heart stealing thievery, without Sherman my eyes would have been half-open in my world and without Sullivan I don't think I could walk by any pink trees without sadness.
Each dog has shaped and reshaped my ability to love and the courage to love again.