“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 exuberant 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.”
As 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 demanded 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.
[Photo credit for the shot of the three of us goes to Harrington Photography, Three Oaks, MI]