A few days ago my husband, son and I said goodbye to our beloved, arthritic Lab named Belle, who had been part of our family for 13 ½ years. In tears, we sat on the antiseptic tile floor in the vet’s office caressing her as she was relieved of her suffering. And ours, too, actually. I am undone with grief and gratitude – more grief for now, but I trust the gratitude will win out eventually.
I needed Belle. I needed her to choose me, to come be where I was, to persistently push her nose under my hand so I would pat her. I needed her to greet me at the end of a long day and wait patiently until then for me to give her the after-supper snack she expected, even it was 9 pm. I needed Belle to watch with me for the dawn through long sleepless nights. To alert me to some disturbance outside, which was mostly squirrels or rabbits or another dog, but twice was a disturbing someone who had no business in my back yard.
I needed Belle to thump her tail in affirmation of my simple existence in her world, and to whine at the window for me when she was too lame to venture along on a walk. I needed her to lie on the floor on my side of the bed during illnesses, knowing somehow that her jostling would be uncomfortable for me if she were in her normal place in the bed. I needed her to cry for our son when he was away at college or away during a painful stretch, because I was crying, too. I needed her to play in the snow with me. I needed her to listen to my deep theological musings, which were mostly about the mysteries of faith and love.
Big baby Belle also needed us to rescue and adopt her from the puppy shelter in the first place. She needed us to provide safety for her, first with a long run that she wore bare, then with a fence that allowed her to wear herself out romping across the back of our acre. Belle needed us to treat her distressing seizures with trips to the doggie ER, the daily meds, the rescue syringe that would intervene quickly, and the dog sitters who stayed with her overnight when we were away so that someone would always be close.
She needed us to see that she was injured and nurse her through a long recovery from surgery for a torn ACL. She needed us to prevent the pesky puppy we kept for our daughter’s family that summer from hurting her or driving her crazy. (The pup just drove me crazy, instead.) Belle needed us to buy her a bench when it was hard for her to jump onto our high bed, and then to take it away when it wasn’t safe for her to attempt the leap even with that boost. She needed us to scatter throw rugs across the bare floors so she could get traction when she wanted to get up.
She needed us to comfort her when she was terrified of thunderstorms or fireworks and never to fuss at her for chewing a door facing in an attempt to get into her safe place if we failed to leave the closet door ajar. She needed us to spend a small fortune every month to provide the array of medicines that kept her comfortable and regularly have her beloved vet assess that she wasn’t in pain.
Belle needed us to teach our toddler grandsons to respect her space and not pull her ears or tail or drape themselves over her swayed back. “Belle grumpy! Space!” was one of their earliest phrases. She needed us to orchestrate a complicated dance of gates and designated pathways and escorted children and a safety zone for her the last several times our little guys visited. She loved being with her people, except recently when there were too many of them in her house.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Belle began to decline. She got increasingly snarly the last couple of years. She bit me badly once (needing stitches) toward the end of a two-week stretch last summer when the little boys were here. In recent months she got protective of her food or her space or even herself somehow. She would unpredictably snarl and even snap occasionally if you simply looked too long at her, much less if you bent over to scratch her ears when that normally favored gesture didn’t suit her somehow. She seemed confused at times and couldn’t recover if we inadvertently startled her. We started saying, “Hey, Miss Belle!” anytime we went near her.
The last few weeks she was the strong sentry of her hallway outside the bedroom doors. She would lunge, snarling and snapping at times, if you tried to walk past her. We thought she couldn’t see or hear us, but then she’d half open one eye or twitch an ear, so I knew she was aware. Something inside her, unpredictable and incomprehensible, would judge if she would grant admittance to her corridor, and the verdict was always a crap shoot.
Because of all the joint and pain meds she kept onboard, Belle’s issue was probably canine dementia more than pain, according to the vet who cared for her (and us). He said something had likely broken in her brain and she clearly was not herself. He affirmed that while I wasn’t seeing the signs I expected – that she still enjoyed her food, could make it outside to do her business, and would eventually manage to get herself to wherever I was – that the significant change in her temperament told us it was time.
As I’ve been washed with grief this week, I’ve also realized that the best relationships are like the one I was graced to have with Belle. Each person needs the other and adjusts the relationship when one person’s needs are more pressing during a particular season. Each values and affirms the other and communicates that love fiercely and often. Each has the other’s best interest at heart and unselfishly does what the other one needs, especially the things she can’t do for herself.
Belle’s people were with her when she slipped away, and many others were with us in spirit. The sorrow is only for those who are left behind. Like any dear loved one, Belle is always with us even if her physical presence is gone. Just this morning, I’m sure I heard the jingle of her dog tags and thought I sensed the weight of her leaning against my legs as I write. “Hey, Miss Belle!” I’m glad you are truly resting in peace.
Marnie C. Ferree