Lessons on Burning Brightly

V & Belle at Sparkly Time“Life is no brief candle…. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” ~George Bernard Shaw

[Be forewarned: If you are not a dog person, you may not be interested in this post. Conversely, if you are one, and dislike discussions of losing one, or of pet grief, I won’t be offended if you choose to stay away. My wife stubbornly refused to read or watch Marley and Me for this very reason, so I get it.]

Our Bright Star, Dimmed: Those of you who know me or follow me on Facebook know not only that I had Belle, but that she was a star in my life. My wife and I lost our beautiful girl this past Wednesday. She had recently lost the use of her hind legs to a cancerous tumor on her spine. We took her to the Michigan State University Veterinary Hospital, seeking everything in our power to help her to beat it, but it was not to be. It was left to us to put an end to our stoic girl’s worsening pain.

She may have lost her battle with cancer, but she never lost her spirit. She could not have faded, or slowly withered. She burned brightly, undiminished, right up to the final day, the final moment. Till this last year, even as she slowed her step slightly, she was an eleven year old puppy. Even though it’s difficult for us, I know in my heart it is rightful.

Utterly Unique: This is a difficult post for me to write, on so many levels. But it’s one of the things Belle helped to teach me: I am a writer; I deal with life by writing. About the only thing I’m sure of is that I won’t be able to do her  justice. (Maybe in a novel, but…)

For those who never met her, you need to know she was utterly unique. Some dogs are called sweet or gentle, but not Belle. She’s been called quirky, funny, intense, an exuberantWinter walk, Jan. '12 008 greeter, a hard charger, and more than one observer has remarked that they wished her energy could be bottled for human consumption. She was vocal and bouncy, and at times seemed barely within control, but it was always due to an abundance of enthusiasm—not such a bad thing. When you think about it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if more of us had too much enthusiasm, rather than too little?

We Are Family: We had another black lab before Belle who taught us that Life’s Too Short, and I’ve already written about Maggie, here. Belle was most certainly blessed by Maggie’s sacrifice and life-lessons. Because of Maggie, we no longer left a dog alone all day while we worked our lives away. Because of Maggie, Belle led a pretty stellar life, if I do say so. She walked twice a day through forests and on the beach. I can easily assert that she swam in Lake Michigan on more than half of her days on this earth.

As difficult as Belle was as a puppy (an entire story all its own), she settled in to our lives with absolute symmetry. She was a sentient being in our home, a powerful presence in our lives, and an integral part of the triad of our family. Some dogs are relatively unattached to humans, some are one-man/woman dogs, but not Belle. As my sister put it, she was: “our daughter, sister, and best friend, all wrapped up in one.”

We Are FamilyAs a demonstration of how important our togetherness was to Belle, as we made ready to go out on either of our daily walks, she would literally herd the one of us who seemed to be lagging (which was usually my wife – sorry honey). She would walk behind, nudge, and bark at the laggard until they had their coat, and all three of us were ready to go. Once out on the porch, if one of us lagged even a pace, to pick up a toy or grab a leash, they were scolded and urged forth with a bark or two (even at 7am, much to our neighbors’ chagrin on a summer Saturday morning). If one of us had to stay back from walking, for whatever reason, Belle had to be all but dragged away, with much glancing back—fret written upon her expressive face—until the house was out of sight.

My Writing Partner: Since this is a writing blog, I do want to share the parts of my writing life that involve Belle. Many of you have undoubtedly heard me refer to Belle as my writing partner. This is not just a clever nickname. She was with me at a carpentry jobsite the day I first put pen to paper with an idea for a story. She was with me every day throughout the drafting of the trilogy and through dozens of rewrites. She tilted her head when I asked questions aloud, and followed me around the house when I paced and muttered over a plot point. She was a vital component of every break, every brainstorming walk, every reflective hour sitting on our bench atop the dune.

Canine Writing Lessons: But most importantly, she taught me so much that enhanced the writer that I’ve become. Here are just a few lessons that spring to mind like a lab springs onto the tailgate of a pickup.

*Be patient; Find joy amidst the chaos. Belle was always a handful. When she was a puppy, I fought to find a way to control her—to bend her to my will. She was having none of it. She was so damn smart. She knew entire sentences, let alone words. She knew: come, sit, lay down, stay, fetch (on land or water), drop, heel, halt in place off leash, get in her bed, bring various toys (by name)—and most of those either with hand signals or verbal commands. But if someone came to the door, or met us on the beach, it was all forgotten. No matter what I did, she danced and wiggled, wagged and barked for the first ten minutes of any visit with most anyone—moreso for those she knew and loved. I learned to accept it, and to even smile over it. Over the years we had a noticeable decline in visitors. But what did it matter? We had each other, and who needs visitors who dislike joyful enthusiasm over being seen?

She taught me to be at peace over what I couldn’t control. But also that I could rely on the fact that I worked and had gained mastery when it mattered—in issues of safety or when someone was genuinely afraid of her. She was the living embodiment of my version of the Serenity Prayer (Lord, grant me the patience to accept that which I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.)

*Show up every day—there’s joy to be found in routine. Since Belle’s been gone, we are up and out for our morning walk. It’s as she would’ve wanted it. Indeed, while she was alive, she Belle of the Balldemanded it. We never eat breakfast or have coffee first. We don the appropriate gear and go out into whatever weather. And we fill our lungs with fresh air, and watch the sky turn amber with the dawn. We see deer and hear woodpeckers sounding on hollow trunks. And the day is vital, from the moment we rise. Same for evening. At five pm, if I hadn’t stopped typing, I felt her stare, or heard her not-so-subtle hums: “Um, V, it’s getting to be time to shut it down. And you’d better text Mo to come home.”

She taught me that routine is a useful tool in the writing life. That start times and end times were important to the process.

*A job well-done is a reward in and of itself. Belle’s job, besides being there for me while I wrote, was to fetch. Which fetch toy did not matter. If it was a Frisbee, it had to be caught and brought back, preferably before it hit the ground. If it was a bumper, it had to be brought to shore. If it was a squeaky ball, it had to be subdued and returned to my hand, with as many squeaks as possible in the process. Although she was a phenomenal athlete, and often made leaping catches to the ooos and ahs of onlookers, she did not do her job for the acceptance or admiration of others. If it was just she and I alone on the shore, and she made a great catch, with the surf crashing around her before the Frisbee hit the wash, she pranced and shook it with the same proud zeal as she would’ve if there had been an audience.

She taught me that the effort and practice that lead to success are fulfilling on their own, and meant to be enjoyed—each and every day.

Gratitude and Resonance: Our house feels so damn empty. She is everywhere I look. There are moments when I don’t know how I’ll go on without feeling this intense sense of loss and sadness. But I know I will. We are already laughing over the memories. Not quite as much as we are crying, but that will change. We’re taking it day by day. The well-wishes and condolences of those who knew her, or of her importance to our lives, has been a healing blessing. We are thankful for the love of our friends and family at this difficult time.

Our hearts are broken. And I know there will always be an empty space in mine, carved by her absence. But Belle’s joy continues to resonate. And I know it will go on, for the rest of my days on this earth. And for that I am immensely grateful.

I will share with you one of the last things I said to Belle, in an intensely personal moment. I share in the hopes that it will help to cement her lessons, for me and for my friends. I share in the hopes that her joy will resonate all the stronger. I said: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget. Thank you for being my partner and my friend.” I buried my face in her fur, and she nestled her head against me and sighed, letting me know that she believed me.

The Last Walk

[Photo credit for the shot of the three of us goes to Harrington Photography, Three Oaks, MI]

32 comments on “Lessons on Burning Brightly

  1. I’m so sorry, Vaughn. I know Belle was such an important member of your family. I will miss her too, because I always enjoyed your posts on Facebook and getting to experience through photos her joy for living. All my thoughts and prayers are with you.


  2. mapelba says:

    My condolences, Vaughn. We lost our Porter last year, and we miss him. They make such a difference on our lives. I can’t remember the last time a blog post brought tears to my eyes. I’m really sorry for your loss. I don’t know why we give our hearts to them when we know it is going to end, but we do. I do. I can’t imagine otherwise.

    Best wishes.


  3. I am so sorry for your loss, Vaughn. And, I’m honored that we had a chance to meet Belle last summer. What a gift.


  4. Oh, Vaughn, I’m so sorry for you, for Mo, and for Belle. She had a wonderful life with you, and you’ve sent her off with a beautiful tribute. I know your hearts will heal, and I know you will never forget her. I won’t either — I loved hearing stories about her, and hope you’ll continue to share them.


  5. What a lovely tribute to the Sweet Puppy. You know how sorry I am. And I admire you for being able to write so soon. It is brave. I don’t think I could have so soon after Prince Mabon passed. Time doesn’t heal, it just makes the days without them bearable after a while and helps you find room in your heart for whatever or whoever blesses your life next. My thoughts are with you.


  6. jwthibodeau says:

    Oh, Vaughn. I am so very, very sorry for your family’s loss. It’s very obvious how much you loved Belle, and how much she loved both you and Mo. Sending you much love.


  7. Paul says:

    I remember when you & Maureen were at your wits end w/ this new puppy. I thought you were lucky to have a dog like Maggie – a once-in-a-lifetime companion. When Belle came along – I was sure it was karma kicking you in the ass. But over time – I watched her & both of you become a family. You were expecting a Maggie – but you got something wonderfully different. So now you’ve been twice blessed – karma has been good to you after all.


  8. Oh Vaughn – what a wonderful post. I’ve loved seeing the pictures of your walks with Belle.
    I’m slowly learning a new lesson which I hope you do too when you’re ready. When we lost our black lab cross I waited 5 months before Albert, a black lab / lurcher cross joined us. I put away all of Jasper’s things and bought new for Albert and got cross with myself when I called him Jasper by mistake. Over several months Albert went round the garden digging up toys Jasper must have buried, some of them many years ago. When he came in carrying them proudly I took them away. They were Jasper’s things. When Albert would bounce in wanting cuddles and affection sometimes I’d feel guilty, that I was betraying Jasper if I cuddled up to him. To cut a long story short the lesson I’m learning is – it doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten our old love when we learn to love again. I still miss Jasper every day but knowing him, he wouldn’t mind Albert playing with his toys, although he might have something to say about his chair.


  9. kimbullock says:

    I never met Belle in person, though I felt like I had through you. When I got your message that she was gone, I could hardly believe it, and I got choked up, knowing what you must be going through. I had a relationship like that with Roscoe, a Boston Terrier we had before the children were born. When Sasha came around he took it upon himself to be her protector, guarding her bedroom door and alerting me the moment she stirred in her crib. If she cried and he couldn’t get to her, he howled. If he could, he would nuzzle away her tears. I’ll never be over him, but I can now talk about him without tears.

    Belle was indeed a light. I sometimes pulled up pictures of her if I was having a bad day because the sight of her made me smile. How can anybody be in a bad mood looking at that picture of her with the ball.

    I am so sorry for your loss. You have written a beautiful tribute here. Sending virtual hugs to you and Mo.


  10. writerunboxed1 says:

    Beautiful tribute to Belle, Vaughn. I miss her for you.


  11. deedetarsio says:

    Crying over here, but they are really, really good tears for Belle.


  12. ddfalvo says:

    Keeping this short as it’s difficult typing through tears. Belle brought joy to all of us, through every photo, each story, and the way she embraced life on her terms–and her terms were so simple, but fundamentally essential to a good life: know life = joy, include everyone, don’t waste the opportunity to discover something, and treats are best enjoyed when you work for them (thinking about her saucer and how she patiently worked at getting them out.)

    I am so, so sorry for the pain you and Mo feel, and cried hardest when reading about her role as your writing partner. One day, I hope to read the story that you write with her in it and I know it will bring a smile.

    She will be missed by me, too.


  13. Dear Vaughn,

    So many thoughts and emotions went through my mind and heart reading this. Remembering the pain of losing my own furry souls, especially Zuli’s brother, Jellybean; the pleasure of reading your glorious celebration of Belle’s life and how she changed yours; and a deep sadness for you and Moe and all who knew and loved Belle in person. I feel as if I knew her person, that I walked with her on forest paths or trod in her sandy footsteps on the beach. Each time you shared these moments on Facebook, my friendship with her deepened, and I grew to love her as if we had actually met.

    I had no idea she was so ill and so near the end. All my love to you and Moe.

    And to Belle: May the wild rumpus continue, wherever you are, Miss.


  14. M.L. Swift says:

    Okay brother…

    I saw this on FB with Belle’s picture and guessed what the post may be about, but I had to come check to be sure. Because I am such a dog-lover, I couldn’t get past your first two sentences. They were all I needed to know for now.

    My heart is with you and Mo. I know the grief of losing a pet when I lost my beloved springer spaniel, Panda, in 2007. And now I have two more that are just as dear. Or maybe not…I’m not sure I was able to give my heart away as much after losing Panda…but I do know they’ve seen me through my most awful time and I love them as children.

    If there is anything—anything—I can do, please do not hesitate to let me know. I’ll even fly to Michigan, if need be. Please know that prayers have already been said for you and yours, including Belle.



  15. My heart goes out to you and Mo.
    When I lost my grandmother last year, this verse from an Amanda Palmer song gave me a measure of comfort:
    “No one’s ever lost forever
    They are caught inside your heart
    If you garden them and water them
    They make you what you are.”

    I’ve been giving my Old Girl Precious and the pup Sylvia (whom I firmly believe after reading this post that she and Belle are Kindred Spirits)extra snuggles and took them for a nice, long tromp through the snow today. Precious is a Gentle Spirit and Sylvia is Wild Abandon.

    Thank you for sharing the gift of Belle’s life.

    This is a beautiful tribute to her spirit and your love for her. Sending the both of you virtual hugs.


  16. I’m so sorry for your loss, and for Belle’s struggles. She sounds like a great girl.


  17. Oh dear, I’m so, so sorry. Hugs. Having pets forces us to love defiantly – knowing we’ll have to say goodbye too soon. They remind us that life is short and to savor whatever moments we can, by plunging into a Great Lake, rolling in a dead squirrel, or covering the faces of our loved ones with slobbery kisses.You gave her doggie heaven here on earth and loved her as much as she loved you, and the way every dog should be loved.


  18. I know there are no words to make it better but know that even though she’s gone, she’ll always be with you. I read every beautiful word and felt the love you had for your pup lift off the screen. Sounds like she had a full life and the best family she could have asked for. My heart goes out to you and Mo and I hope all the great memories get you through this tough time.



  19. I’m so sorry, Vaughn. I have Abby, my “soul dog,” 12 and, well, I can relate… this made me cry: “thank you for being my partner and friend.” They always do believe us, don’t they? Take care.


  20. Pat Harris says:

    So, so sad. She was indeed a bright star. We lost our Siberian Husky over 10 years ago and I still miss him. Dogs certainly become a wonderful part of a family and add so much to life. Hope you heal soon from your loss. It’s difficult, I know. Many blessings.


  21. elissa field says:

    So sorry to hear it, Vaughn. The fact she is hard to lose is credit to what a great girl she was. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as it had me calling my boxer, Gracie, to join me on the couch. Their time with us is too brief.


  22. karenrsanderson says:

    I’m so sorry, Vaughn. And yet, so grateful, that you had her in your life. Well done.


  23. Absolutely beautiful testament to an obviously absolutely wonderful dog. I savored every single word you wrote in love and appreciation for Belle. We live with a 12 1/2 year old golden, Henry. He is our ‘3rd chld’ (as our grown children tell us repeatedly) and he has and is teaching us lessons daily. Now, the lessons are mostly on aging, living with pain, and yet still loving life every single moment.
    I wish you and your wife peace and joy, knowing that Belle is always surrounding you in enthusiasm and love.


  24. I’m so sorry, Vaughn. That ache you feel in your heart is it growing to accommodate your beloved Belle’s essence. You’ll always have the lessons and the memories, but when it’s cold it’ll be her warming your heart. Thank you for sharing her story. I know it must have been painful, but I truly hope it also helped. It reduced me to tears, but that’s okay. Her memory deserved a few more tears. Please take care.


  25. More tears, of appreciation for the huge part our four-legged family members play in our lives. Thanks.


  26. Tom Hemingway says:

    I could finally make myself read this Vaughn. Beautiful,Happy,Sad,Inspiring


  27. Jan O'Hara says:

    Good Sir V, I have tears dripping down my face.

    I don’t have anything profound to say. It was obvious to me how much she meant to you and Mo, and with that kind of love, it’s impossible not to be torn up for a while. I’m wishing peace for you and Mo so that you have full access to those memories without the pain. Hugs.


  28. Nicole L. Bates says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. This is such a beautiful tribute to Belle, I just love the picture of all three of you, and the lessons that she taught you. I wish I knew of a way to lessen the pain for you and Mo, I’m sure it will continue to come back at unexpected times for quite a while. Most of all I wish I could have know Belle. Thank you for sharing her through your pictures and stories. Hugs to you both.


  29. Lori Wolfson says:

    So beautifully said. How much richer your life and Mo’s is because of your relationship with Belle.


  30. Ellen says:

    Vaughn – I had to wait to read this until I had some undistracted time – I’m glad I did – your tribute is beautiful! Thank you for sharing! Hugs, Ellen


  31. […] that I am a dog lover. The last time I wrote a canine-connected post here was in February, when I delivered the sad news of the loss of our beloved Belle. I genuinely appreciate the outpouring of heartfelt condolences and support the post initiated. It […]


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