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When I divorced my first husband, we had to determine custody of our three dogs. I took one, he took two. Although imbalanced in numbers, it was fair enough because I took along “my girl”. Chelsea was a strapping 65 pound German Shorthair Pointer that I bought on my birthday. I used to say that if she were a human, she would have been a supermodel. She had beautiful features and a personality, from which, she communicated just by her movement, she was top dog. Chelsea could be equally aloof or loving, depending on how it best served her.
Beginning with my divorce, my life went through many transitions and Chelsea accompanied me on the journey. She took me through singlehood, remarriage, and the early stages of motherhood. Sometimes, when it seemed too rapid a change for me to know who I was, I looked at her to remind myself of the one stable that had not changed. She sat in the car in the parking lot of Barnes and Noble while I wrote my dissertation in the coffee shop. She greeted me warmly when I picked her up from the kennel on the weekends I went to Chicago for school. She waited patiently to lick the tears off my face following a disastrous bad date or a relationship woe.
I like to say she picked my current husband for me. She was so calm in his presence and clearly seemed to love him at first sight. And next came motherhood for me. Well, first came pregnancy and it was not a delicious experience for any of us. I was physically miserable and one night in my 7th month, my husband and I went out to dinner leaving Chelsea at home. We returned to find that, her activity earlier in the day had included eating rabbit poop in the back yard. How would we know this one might wonder? By the piles of black vomit on the beige carpet spread all throughout our house. All the while I cleaned the stain and the stench, I decided it was time for Chelsea to go back and live with my ex-husband. I was soon to be a mother of real children, and no longer needed this kind of “crap”- both figuratively and literally from a dog. And thus, I voted her off the island in my new world.
At least I did for a while. But I missed her. I missed her a lot. And I began commuting 25 miles each way to the home of my ex-husband for visitation weekends. They stretched in to longer periods of time. I continued to pay for her care. Once she tussled with a porcupine. The minute I picked her up from my ex- I realized her nose didn’t look right. A minor surgery later produced the quill that was lodged in her nose. I was still her momma.
But like her owner, she was starting to age. Since I did not see her every day the changes were probably more obvious for me than, they were for my ex-husband. He asked me to take her while he was going out of town. He dropped her off on his way to the airport. Almost immediately upon her arrival, I realized she did not seem like herself. That evening I watched her get very confused, backing herself into a closet as if she couldn’t figure out what to do next. She refused to eat a hot dog. Within a day I realized she was in really bad shape. I spoke to the vet. I called my ex-husband. I let him know that it was time for her to be put to sleep. He told me he had seen it coming, but didn’t feel like he could follow through. Chelsea had Huntington’s disease which is kind of like human Alzheimer’s. She could get worse, but not better.
The next morning I got up prepared to take her in. My oldest child was now five. He had grown up with Chelsea. My youngest, just barely two could pet her, but wasn’t all that attached to her. They interrupted their morning to say goodbye only at my request.
I took her through the Burger King drive through along the way. It’s a ritual we had done together many mornings before. She had no interest in the food. I thanked her for removing any shred of doubt I had, about whether or not, I was doing the right thing, at the right time. She may have been a supermodel, but she always loved to eat. When she refused again, I knew.
We arrived at the vet’s office. They administered the drugs while I held her in my arms. I pet her velvet ears and told her how much I loved her. She didn’t resist a bit. I held her until her beautiful coat turned cold. And then I left her body behind. She was done with it, and so was I.
I cried a lot. And then I cried some more. And then a little more after that. I held my children close, and I still cried. That first night I was lying with my 2 year old son Andrew helping him to get to sleep. The room was dark and I was fighting back my tears. I did not want to upset him and I knew he was too young to understand. Or so I thought. Without any provocation or explanation from me he simply said “It’s Chelsea”. Startled I asked “what?” I thought he was trying to comfort me. But he wasn’t looking at me. It’s as if he was looking at something else and he replied “It’s Chelsea, and she’s kissing you”. Andrew has always been a uniquely spiritual child.
Over the next few days my tears ebbed and flowed. I anticipated a certain amount of grieving, but I felt far more than I thought reasonable considering I now had “real children”. And I began to question why I still felt so much attachment to her. She used to be “my girl”. She was the closest thing I had to children, but she had been replaced in my world. Why hadn’t I moved on?
And then it hit me. The problem wasn’t in trying to compare if loving a dog child is as legitimate as loving a human child. The problem was in my failure to see how different they are in terms of what they bring to our lives and the role they play. I realized that although I love my children more than breath itself, they are primarily takers. The gift of our children is their ability to take from us the love we have to provide for them. Of course, they provide love back to us. But that love is developed out of the loving relationship we provide through caring for them. We love them unconditionally at first sight.
Dogs on the other hand-and I can’t speak for cats because I’ve never had one, are primarily givers. Yes, we give them food, shelter and love. They don’t care if our hair isn’t combed, if we brought home dinner from a place they like. They don’t care if we are in a good mood or how much money we make. They are ready to give us love to whatever degree we will accept it from them. And in those times when we aren’t, they will back away and patiently wait for the next opportunity. Their gift is their ability to give us whatever we will take from them. They love us unconditionally at first sight.
That realization allowed me to stop telling myself to move on from missing her, because I had it covered elsewhere. The truth is that with two beautiful boys of my own, I still didn’t have it covered. I now had other beautiful gifts in my world, for which I was grateful, but I didn’t have that one with the velvet ears any longer.
It’s been said that heaven is a place where every dog you have ever loved is waiting to greet you. I believe my girl and a few others are waiting there for me. I believe God gives us these precious creatures to remind us of what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. And while they don’t live as long as humans, I also believe he creates so many of them, so we don’t have to be without this symbol unless we choose to be.
About 2 years after Chelsea moved to the great beyond, we got our dog Snickers. She is no Chelsea! But then, Chelsea was no Snickers. Our family dog is something amazing in her own right. She loves each of us in our own unique way. Snickers, too, is starting to age, and I can’t imagine how I will manage that inevitable day of saying goodbye when it comes. And the anticipation is exacerbated by the realization, that she will probably be my last big dog, if not my last dog. I am getting older as well, and don’t really have the energy to manage 75 lbs. of romping muscle. I can’t imagine not having a dog in my life and so I’ll have to make that call when the time comes.
For now, I try not to figure that out. Today, I try to just make sure I spend as much time as I can rubbing her belly and ears and feeding her forbidden ice cream. And most of all, I try to take in all of the love she has to give me and not compare it to anything else or anyone else. In the moments I am with her, I am hers, all hers. And whether it is 2 minutes or ten, it is the occasion to experience being truly loved for the mere price of showing up. It is as pure of a love as a human can experience, diluted only by the presence of a little slobber.