I’m glad it hurts. I’m glad my heart is splitting open as a familiar presence takes hold, for the depth of this pain is a true reflection of the love she’s shown me for over 14 years. Even now, as I carry her from the truck into the vet, she finds the strength to lift her once strong head to lick my tears she can sense but no longer see. She is just that special, and I almost let myself miss out on her.
I didn’t want her at first. I was disappointed upon arriving at the humane society with my three tiny boys in tow. The “Rottweiler mix” I’d come to see was definitely nothing like a Rottweiler. She was just another black lab mix, and on top of that – she was a she.
I’d never had a female dog before and I was not convinced I wanted one now.
But it didn’t matter what I thought, for she was already clambering over my kids’ laps. They were already hugging her and making up names. She even has the same birthday as me, 30 years apart. I grumbled in irritation.
My husband grew up loving a black lab named Cindy. I knew he would be pleased with this puppy. She had all that puppy cuteness going on, and he’d already been so patient with me after my last adoption mishap.
“Diablo” the German Shepherd had come with his name, a sketchy background, and a slew of issues. He was also fiercely committed to his quest to destroy every single cat on the planet. He bonded with me instantly and would let no man, child, door, window or wall between us without a fight. Our precious cat Wayne hid in terror, every moment consumed with escaping those jaws of death I had brought home.
Our windows and walls grew scratched and battered and our doors became Diablo’s enemies, as they kept him from killing Wayne. Our kitchen table was peed on when Diablo used it as a staging ground for an assault on the bay window momentarily separating me from him.
Weeks of a professional trainer coming to our home depleted our meager checking account faster than Diablo depleted our sanity and my confidence in my canine nurturing skills. With three toddlers on the ground and one on the way, the trainer told me to leash myself to Diablo at all times, so I could anchor the 97 lbs. of troubled frenzy in a manner that would comfort him. Finally, I conceded defeat. Diablo found a home with a catless man who spent his days hiking, and we reclaimed our home. Wayne eventually came out of hiding.
I wouldn’t have blamed my husband for refusing to consider another dog, but he simply “suggested” I find a puppy next time. He was smitten with Cassie long before I was, as she was sweet and gentle and house trained instantly. Her patience with the boys was unwavering. Her love for me was without stipulations, and I began to fall for her. That love was then put to the test.
Cassie was just 10 months old the first time she almost died…
She’d been crossing our seldom traveled street alone when a large van drove right on over her and sped off. Our neighbor saw her dragging herself across our yard and came to get me. Our credit rating, barely breathing as it was, took a hefty blow to pay for her surgery and recovery. I realized I didn’t even care. I was used to being poor. I was also used to having Cassie by my side, and wanted to keep her there more than I wanted to build our credit. She pulled through with a confident grace, and I loved her a little harder.
The next time Cassie almost died was about a year later…
I was loading the four boys into the van for a trip to the grocery store. Cassie ran outside with me. As I fetched our last child, Cassie was back on the porch, breathing hard. Whatever was wrong was not immediately visible.
When I peeked under her and saw her insides falling out, I didn’t even stop to think. Swooping her into my arms, I called for my son and deposited both in the van. Another credit card was maxed out for another surgery to repair the damage from a branch she’d caught herself on in our woods. We nursed her and our credit again and she toughed it out with the same stoicism she’d shown last time.
Right on schedule, about a year later, she did it again…
This time we had no idea what was wrong; she’d simply collapsed in our yard and we couldn’t get her up. Several vets, a few nights in intensive care, and another annihilated credit card later, we had her home. She had a feeding tube and was weaker than I’d ever seen her, barely recovered from a burst aneurysm in her lung.
We’d finally figured out she’d injured herself when she was playing with Lou and the leaf blower. She loved to attack it and had gotten her mouth over it, blowing out her cheeks in what we thought was a hysterical picture but later learned was a deadly force of air into her lungs.
This third time around, Cassie did not recover as swiftly.
She lay still in our ground floor bedroom, struggling each time I fed her through the tube. Brief relief arrived when I was able to remove that tube so she could eat on her own, but she could still barely stand and soon refused to eat. Her labored breathing was painful to hear, and one Saturday morning Lou and I, with tears in our eyes, agreed it was time to let her go.
As if she knew what we were saying, Cassie scraped her nails into our floor, pulling herself over to her food dish. We watched in joyful disbelief as she somewhat defiantly swallowed a mouthful of food while holding our gaze. The ensuing recovery was remarkable. We both
crossed our fingers, hoping this would be the last time we had to worry about her – and our credit.
A year and a half later, in 2005, we had four boys. They were ages 6, 5, 3, and 1. Lou had spent huge chunks of time away for his military duties and was now in Iraq on his first deployment. I had spent huge chunks of time struggling to care for our children alone while also working as a real estate agent.
Cassie, mercifully, seemed to be done almost dying, and had firmly embedded herself into my heart. She was snoozing gently in bed with me as I anxiously watched the computer screen for any blip signaling Lou was messaging me. I’d been up all night, sick with fear, and she’d been right by my side.
By the time the footsteps thundered up my front steps, and the doorbell exploded through the silence, Cassie had fallen asleep. She didn’t get up when I launched out of bed to run to the door. But she was with me the rest of that day and every day for almost 12 years since those soldiers informed me my husband Lt. Louis Allen had been killed.
The dog Lou and I invested so much in saving all those times, now invested herself into watching over me.
While she adored and enjoyed the boys, I was the one she fretted over. She was right there with me as I paced the driveway all night long for months. She was there each day, playing with the kids, going on walks with us, curling up in my bed, and loving me through my pain. She forgave me every time I told her to “Go lay down,” instead of throwing a ball for her.
She let me lean on her each time my heart was broken. She spun her tail around in happy circles every single time I walked into the house, and became alpha dog to our growing pack of new four-legged family members.
I’ve always been an emotional person. Grief took this trait, put in in a blender, added a gazillion ounces of crazy, and turned me loose into the world. I did everything more intensely; I loved harder and I hurt more.
Three and a half years of an agonizing court martial process ripped me open faster than I could heal.
New wounds on top of old. New pain on top of still-fresh pain. I was exhausted, and terrified, and lonely, and I couldn’t make any of it stop. No one understood me no matter how hard they tried. No one was there in the middle of the night as my children lay sleeping and I sobbed over a bottle of wine- except Cassie.
She wasn’t in my face. She wasn’t barking or jumping for attention. Rather, she quietly stood watch over my misery, occasionally laying her head on my knee, or licking my tears away, or rolling over for a belly rub. She loved me through my mistakes and my triumphs. She loved me through new homes and hurtful relationships.
She caused me plenty of trouble at times, leading the pack on unauthorized excursions that united many of my neighbors with the local Animal Control Officer, periodically costing me hundreds of dollars in fines and adding heaping amounts of stress. She’d come limping up the driveway, each year a little further behind the pack, holding her hind leg higher aloft. She’d be crippled for days after but still try to sneak away the first chance she got. She made me insane, and I loved her a little harder.
Cassie has always been Royalty in our family.
She alone has exclusive canine rights to my sacred sunroom. Just like this room with its wooden beams and warm couch is my sanctuary from the chaos in our home, its Cassie’s escape from the pack. She barks to be let in when she’s had enough mingling with the Commoners. She stares me down for her special stash of treats, or simply opens the drawer and helps herself. She snarls in outrage from her comfy cushion if any other four-legged being dares intrude upon our exclusive hideaway. For years, she shares this space with me, and I love her a little harder.
Over time her body began to change. Her topline bent this way and that, like a meandering river. Her sides bulged just a little with small tumors. Then they bulged a little more, and then they bulged a lot. Her once ebony coat welcomed in grey. Her beautiful brown eyes receded into a cloudy blue. She could no longer play a longstanding favorite game, “Find it.”
Cassie cracked us up playing this game. I’d show her a treat or a ball, shoo her out of our sunroom, and hide it. “Find it!” was so much fun. She’d sniff here and there, flip the rug over, open up drawers, even push the couch aside to find her treasure. Tail spinning, eyes sparkling, she’d prance around with her prize as she celebrated her success. Then she’d drop it to the ground and “Woo-woo” bark at me to play again, hopping up and down in charming assertiveness.
She can’t play “Find it” anymore. Her sense of smell has vanished, along with much of her sight and hearing. So I improvise, showing her a treat as she lies in bed, tucking it under her arm, and telling her to “Find it.” We celebrate together when she shifts her elbow to reveal the treat. I pat her head while she chews it, neither of us ready to acknowledge her decline.
“Cassie is going to live forever,” is my mantra. I repeat this regularly, as if by voicing it I can make it so.
It’s a nuisance catering to her growing demands. I feed the other dogs and the cats in their rooms, then carry Cassie’s special food in her special dishes to her special place. She overlooks my irritation as always, both smug in her command of my heart, and accustomed to my moods. And I love her a little harder.
She used to sleep in my room every night. When she began struggling with the stairs, I’d help her. Sometimes I’d slip out of the sunroom after she slept, only to be awakened by her stumbling up the steps. I’d have to jump up and help her with the climb. In the morning I’d support her as she navigated her way down. It was a hassle with everything else I had to deal with, but I loved her a little harder.
Eventually she stopped making the effort to climb up the stairs, spending the night in the sunroom instead. I told myself it was a relief to not worry about her going up and down.
Some part of me realized she was slipping away. I wasn’t ready to face it though. I got angry, and I got scared. I distanced myself from her, hoping it would tear me up less if I started letting her go on my own terms. But she wouldn’t let me go. Not yet. She doubled down on her presence in my life.
She grew more vocal when I ignored her, “Woo-Wooing” her trademark command at me until I complied with that particular request. I resented her for making me love her when I knew I was going to lose her.
And she loved me a little harder.
It took me a few days to realize she’d had a stroke. There was so much going on in our home, and she was stoic as always. But the head tilt was suddenly permanent. Her wobbly gait turned to a slanted one and then she needed to be held up or carried. I had to carry her on her mostly paralyzed left side, or she’d flail in my arms. I could no longer pretend I wasn’t going to lose her.
The last night, I spent in the sunroom with her. I lay on a beanbag next to her bed, holding her paw in my hand. The kids had finals in school. They kissed her goodbye and pulled upon their well-developed coping skills to take care of their responsibilities in spite of their grief. In my own stupor, I failed to make it clear to two of my kids that today was the day. They left for school knowing it was soon but not quite so soon.
Cassie stayed with me through catastrophic loss, crushing betrayal and heartache, and back into life with renewed strength. Her companionship and unwavering loyalty carried me through 12 years of uncertainty into the strongest point in my life.
For over two years she has gotten to know the man who stands with me now, and seems almost relieved to hand over the reins to him. She shows him the same strong, assured affection she shows me. Sometimes I think they talk about me when I’m not there, and imagine the advice she’d give him if she could. Now he whispers his own goodbye into her ear as he stays behind to prepare her resting place, so I don’t have to.
Fourteen years of life and love and heartache and change have come down to these last few moments.
The vet’s office is familiar to her. I’d had to bring her here for sedation to have her nails trimmed, since they were so thick and the quicks were so long. She was used to being dropped off here and picked up later, even though she made it amply clear that she disapproved of the process. But today was different.
I have to carry her in today. As I lean over to lift her, she pulls her head back and licks my tears. I totally lose it, and can barely walk, crippled more with the weight of my pain than with her in my arms. I’m nauseous, half blinded by the tears I am helpless to stop flowing down my face. She is trembling in my arms. I squeeze her tighter, remembering she needs a snugger hold since the stroke that disabled her.
She leans on me as we take her weight. I lay her on the quilt from home, spread on the floor. I lay behind her, wrapping her in my arms. I nod to our vet, covering her eyes, telling her what a good girl she is.
She passes with a merciful ease, leaving me in an instant. I talk to her all the way home, my hand on her leg peeking out from the quilt. And I love her harder.
I will never stop missing Cassie, or forget these lessons she taught me:
- It is possible to overcome physical pain with grace and strength.
- Never underestimate the power of unconditional love.
- There is always time to be silly.
- You don’t have to be the biggest dog to lead the pack.
- Uncommon strength can lie behind a common appearance.
- Everyone needs help sometimes.
- Adventure is always worth the consequences.
- Personal peace is worth defending.
- Life is meant to be loved, right up until the very last moment.
- Grief must never surpass gratefulness.