“My little dog, a heartbeat at my feet” –Edith Wharton
The first night of her passing, I desperately wished that I had a favorite toy or blanket to hold onto. We rescued her in 2011 after she had been callously dumped at a kill-shelter and deemed “vicious” (and therefore unadoptable). She was living in fear. Her feet had never known a ground other than rusty wire cages. She was heavily infested with fleas (to the point of having lost all of her fur). She had burn marks on her back end- guessed to be a type of torture method used in cruel breeding practices. She weighed just 5 lbs and her eyes were dim and hopeless. She wouldn’t allow shelter volunteers near her- she would growl and lunge towards them, terrified for her life. Her nipples hung low from more than a decade of constant breeding. She was significantly underweight and dehydrated. Most of all, she was terrified.
I primarily fostered cats, but when the shelter volunteer reached out and sent me the photo of the elderly, terrified Chihuahua (who desperately needed rescue along with her suspected daughter, dumped at the shelter with her) my intuition told me I needed to save them, to foster them- to give them a chance. I was never a “small dog person” having shared my home in the past with large breed dogs such as Rottweiler mixes and the like. But there is a powerful force at play when you listen to your gut. And in this instance (I am so grateful) I listened to mine.
We named her Grandma, as she was estimated to be 12-15 years old at the time of rescue. Her daughter was estimated to be around 5 years old and after she was given the medical care she needed, spayed and fully vetted she was adopted to an incredibly loving home where she was given the name Charlotte.
Grandma, on the other hand, had several serious issues. Life-threatening issues. Grandma’s mouth full of teeth were each hanging by a thread- some of them hanging by less than that. Her gums were filled with pus and she was in significant pain. She needed dental surgery and all but 3 teeth removed immediately. She also needed to be spayed. The day she was spayed, our veterinarian called us to let us know if the spay had taken place even one day later, Grandma would have died. But we had it done just in time. No one knew, but when they opened Grandma up for her spay surgery, it was discovered that she had pyometria- which most likely was caused by being bred in filthy conditions for more than a decade of life. Grandma miraculously survived and made a full recovery from her surgeries, all the while, we grew a strong bond. She ran in the grass for the first time, played with other dogs for the first time- and I mean, really played! She flipped her toys in the air and growled with feistiness, as if she were a young puppy just discovering life. Grandma, having lived her entire life in a crate, was not potty trained. But she followed the lead of my two resident dogs and caught on fairly quickly. Her eyes had a light that communicated her immense happiness to be alive and to be here.
Knowing her story, her age and her struggles with life-saving surgeries- and the strength of our bond that only continued to grow- we decided to officially adopt her (as if there were ever any question!). She fit like a glove. She got along great with our other two dogs and slept next to me in bed every night. She came to work with me, she went for car rides, we went on daily walks, lots of hikes in the woods and she had all of the spunk and energy of a young adult. Her hair grew in, and in time she reached a healthy, ideal weight of 9 lbs. Her burn marks went away and her happiness was palpable. She attached herself to me and I smiled and laughed more than I had in years.
In my personal life, I had suffered a debilitating sexual assault in 2008 and had been unable to cope with the ramifications surrounding the incident. I refused to speak about it and struggled to move forward. But when Grandma entered my life, things began to change. Grandma always wanted to be with me, sitting on my lap, snuggling, going for walks- you name it. She was right there by my side. And never in my life had I felt the loyalty of another living being in this strength. I had wonderful people in my life and I had shared my home with many special animals over the years, but there was something different about Grandma. Despite all that I had endured in my personal life, I knew Grandma would not abandon me emotionally. I knew I could just be me and I was accepted. There was something huge in that realization- and it was the start of my journey of emotional transformation.
Everything in our lives, everything that surrounds us is a mirror of ourselves. Realizing this now I am in awe at the gravity of its truth. And as for the Grandma and me, we healed each other.
We had three wonderful years. I find myself wishing for one more day, one more walk, one more ride in the car…but I know that would only leave me wishing for another. I miss her dearly. She passed on August 6th and I feel lost without her. The month before she passed I began to feel a transformation in myself. I began to feel healed from the past trauma. I was able to let it go and move forward. I was living again. I was laughing again. My relationships had grown stronger and I had learned to trust- a gift I never expected would come.
Looking back now, I realize the many lessons Grandma taught me- and continues to teach me even in her absence. She taught me that it’s okay to be an adult and play- in fact it makes life so much more fun! She taught me that connection is real. She taught me that our eyes truly are the gateway to the soul. Grandma taught me that it’s important to really listen when someone you love is talking to you, and she taught me that it’s okay to look silly when you’re excited. The important thing is to be excited each and every time you see the ones you love– never feel embarrassed to express your love- because you never know how many of those moments you’ll have. She taught me that if you make known what you want in life (persistence!) that you will get it. She taught me to laugh. She taught me to never give up hope because you never know what might be around the next bend. She taught me that connection is what makes life worth living. She taught me to not be afraid of showing my teeth (it’s okay to growl if something bothers you)- speak up! She taught me the meaning of unconditional love. And perhaps most of all, Grandma taught me to put the ones you connect with in life first. If you have someone who loves you and you love them back you are incredibly lucky and blessed.
As Grandma made a full recovery of her own and thrived, I began following her lead. Many times, talking about her in conversations served as an ice-breaker (given her unique name and her story). She went on beach vacations and even spent time in New York City with me walking through the hustle and bustle of it all. We were there for each other through our transformations.
Every day of her life, since rescue, was filled with happiness, laughter and love. During her final week she continued to have the same spunk she’s carried with her since rescue. But at night she would insist on sleeping pressed tightly against me, her head on my pillow. My intuition told me her time was nearing and I tried my best to stay up for as long as I could each night giving her belly rubs and telling her how much I loved her. The day she passed, her breathing had quickly become strained. Her heart was giving out from old age. Her eyes told me she was ready for my help and we called our veterinarian. I held her in a blanket on my lap and before we left our street, from my lap- cradled in my arms, Grandma glanced up at me one last time and then quickly buried her head in the crook of my arm as I felt her leave. And just like that, she was gone.
Now I find myself wishing I had a favorite toy or blanket of hers to treasure. But then I was reminded that she didn’t have a favorite of those things because I was her favorite thing. And what more could you ask for? To be the favorite element of her life. It was me and that is certainly the greatest gift of all.
I believe that often animals find us at the right times. We may not recognize it in the moment, but something else is at play. Two days after Grandma’s passing, still a wreck in her absence, I received a message to call my own Grandma (my human Grandma). It sounded urgent. I did my best to muster up the strength to talk through my own pain (and tears) – and made the call to my Grandma. While not divulging the conversation in its totality, the talk we had that night was the most personal, meaningful conversation we had ever had. She told me that she (not knowing about Grandma’s passing) had an overwhelming urge to speak with me this week. I was humbled by her words and a special promise she asked me to make to her. Throughout the conversation she repeatedly thanked me for calling her and told me how happy it made her to feel near me. It’s a feeling and a conversation I will never forget.
When I woke up the next morning the Native American saying, “There are more things unseen and unknown than known and seen” played on repeat in my head.
The pain of the loss of a loved one is universal. Our vulnerability allows us to connect through this pain. Please share your stories on our Facebook page (in the comments section beneath the correlating post) or in the comments below. *When has an animal found their way to you and you later realized (or currently realize) that you are helping each other? Share your stories here. Through sharing our stories of connection with special pets- we can help each other to enhance the bonds we have in all aspects of our life- and we can help those who are grieving the loss of a much loved pet.
*NOTE: “Grandma’s Journey”- the story of Grandma’s rescue is shared in “The Dog Did What?” Chicken Soup for the Soul book, to be released on August 19th (2014). Autographed copies of the book will also be available at our annual Advocates 4 Animals SPAY IT FORWARD Silent Auction/Dinner Fundraiser event, October 11th from 6-9PM. More details here.