Dogs have a way of wrapping themselves around our hearts. With their unbridled love for their people and the way they live their lives with boundless joy, they show us how to live. When they leave us, especially sooner than they should, they leave our hearts and our houses emptier than before they entered our lives.
I know this because our sweet Stella crossed the rainbow bridge a month ago. I’ve mourned her passing every day since. I still imagine her everywhere. When I pass her favorite swimming hole on my walks, when I get up in the morning and when I come home. I miss her greeting me as though I’d been gone forever. I miss her hugs, her heavy breathing when she hugged me, like she couldn’t get enough of the scent of her people. I miss her chasing after squirrels and rabbits and deer, except for a buck that wanted to make friends. I miss her beautiful athleticism, her silliness, and her happiness when she knew she’d pleased her family.
We adopted Stella during the Great Recession, a time when so much in our lives was changing–kids going to college, returning home to wait for jobs, and then leaving home for good, job losses and changes, and health challenges. We were lucky to have her during all that upheaval. She kept us grounded and reminded us that everything would be okay if we approached life the way she did. She loved us unconditionally through it all, gave our lives structure and purpose, and drew our focus away from our problems and sorrows.
Our days revolved around caring for her: potty time, breakfast, water, potty again, naps, walks, begging, car rides, more naps, potty time, chuck-it sessions, swimming in the river, more naps, potty time, supper, naps, potty time, bedtime. Though she ate the same thing day after day, she loved her food. Greenies were her drug of choice, followed closely by sweet stems of tall grass in summer and deer candy. She loved her family, swimming, lying in the sunshine, sleeping by the fire in winter, running in the snow, going for walks, playing Chuck It, and presents: opening them at Christmas and wrapping them for Christmas!
As much as she loved some things, however, she hated others: rabbits, chipmunks, coyotes (which she growled at but kept her distance from), rotten things, and dead things. She wouldn’t have dreamed of rolling in disgusting, smelly things. She loved to be clean and sleep in a Tide-washed bed and freshly laundered collar. When I put her fluffy bed in her crate, she often tried to get in with me she was so excited. A more fastidious dog I’ve never met!
Before I found Stella, I was looking for a yellow, male Labrador, but her picture popped up on Petfinder.com. She was a silver Lab, and her name then was Misty. Ironically, my beloved childhood dog, a miniature schnauzer, was also named Misty, so I took that as a sign that she was meant for us.
Stella was spayed, had learned basic obedience skills, and could ring a bell to go outside. Why in the world would anyone surrender her? In her picture on the website, what tugged at my heart was that she looked scared and disoriented. She was. She didn’t understand why she was in that shelter. When we went to visit her, we found out her previous owners had given her up on her birthday. We took her home that day, before we had a bed, bowl, food, toys or anything else dog related. We stopped at Petco on the way home and bought what we needed.
Despite having a nice bed, Stella made it her habit to sit next to me beside the sofa when I was reading or grading papers. Eventually, I put two blankets on the floor for her, each one given to her by her Grandma, Bruce’s mom. Stella’s favorite was a green and gold crocheted blanket. Stella was born here, so I guess deep in her heart she was a Packer fan. Speaking of her grandma, she loved Bruce’s mom Joslyn to death! Joslyn used to come to our house, open the door, and yell, “Hello!” When Stella heard that, she abandoned whatever she was doing and ran to the door to see Grandma!
When Stella first came to us, we had to break some of her bad habits. She was a jumper, and when people came over, she’d jump in excitement and nip at their faces. She also made herself at home on the furniture; dogs aren’t allowed to do that at our house. Once, shortly after we brought her home, I found her lying between my pillow and Bruce’s on our bed–with her butt on my pillow! She also didn’t walk well on a leash, and when we walked her, she tried to chase cars.
My husband deserves the credit for teaching her to behave in the early days because he spent every day with her while he was laid off and the kids and I were at school. They walked for hours in all sorts of weather. We taught her to chase balls (which wasn’t hard since she was a retriever.) She swam in the river, patrolled the yard, barked for hours at each corner of the yard to claim her territory, and learned that our home was her home and that we were her family.
She had so much ENERGY! Once when we let her out to do her business, she saw some deer and chased them all through the woods surrounding our house. We called and called, but she was having too much fun to heed our voices. As she chased them, distant barks reached echoed through the woods. When she tired of the game a couple of hours later, she came home, muddy and exhausted, but happy, her tongue lolling out of her mouth.
She loved water, swimming in the river behind our house, and diving for rocks. I don’t know how she managed to hold her breath, but she stayed underwater until she found a rock she wanted to bring us to throw. After working in the yard in summer, my husband and I often took her to the river to swim, while we cooled off in our swimsuits. Our favorite spot has big boulders for us to sit on and that Stella sat on when she was tired.
Although Stella loved water, she didn’t care for a bath. Until it was over. She adored her towel, and seeing the towel made her frisky, especially when she was a puppy. Once when I was drying her off, she bit down on one end of the towel, snatched it from my hands, and took off running around the yard. When my husband saw her heading straight for him, he jumped onto a big boulder in our yard. She banked off the rock, and headed straight back toward me at full speed. It was like that scene in Peanuts when Snoopy grabbed Linus’s blanket and charged around with it. My husband and I laughed so hard, we were crying. Stella loved it! She loved when we were happy, and we loved seeing the big smile on her face and her wagging tail.
Now that some time has passed my memories of our sweet Stella bring me more comfort than pain. I miss her every day, and occasionally I’m blindsided by grief, but that just proves what a great dog she was. She had a big heart, but even such a strong dog couldn’t kick cancer. As much as we wanted her to be with us forever, we have to learn to live without her. Nothing replaces a dog when it comes time for them to leave. Losing their companionship unconditional love is difficult to bear, and no matter when it happens, it happens far too soon.
When we said goodbye to Prairie Dawn, our chocolate Lab, I thought my heart would break in two. I waited three years to find another dog because I thought no dog could possibly be as wonderful as Prairie Dawn had been. I was wrong. When we said goodbye to Stella, she took a good chunk of all our hearts with her. I’m not sure I can have another dog; it’s too hard to say goodbye. Besides, I’m positive no other dog could be as sweet and loving as Stella was.
When we adopted her, we gave her a second chance at being part of a family. She came to us when we needed her, and what she gave us was her great big, energetic heart and all the love and joy and sweetness it held. For ten years, our family was lucky to have her and to learn the lessons in loving that only a dog can teach. Sail on, my silver girl. We love you, forever and ever.