Well-Being//

My Dog Bella Taught Me to Savor Life

I've derived so many important lessons from my pet.

Yagi Studio/ Getty Images
Yagi Studio/ Getty Images

My beautiful, strong, crazy, dog is turning 10 soon (on May 4). I’ve already cried about this so many times I’ve lost count. It’s been happening lately any time someone asks me her age, whenever I allow myself to look closely enough to notice that her eyes are getting a little foggy, or when she’s so exhausted after a walk that she goes straight to her bed and collapses with a loud thump. There’s something about a dog’s age reaching double digits that feels ominous. It’s a brutal reminder that our time with them has a foreseeable end date.

If I’m being honest, I’ve been denying the inevitability of my sweet Bella’s death for her entire life. I’ve never been able to fathom it — that she would be gone some day. I’ve refused to tolerate any conversation about her greying face or lower energy level. Any time my mind wandered to the thought that our time together is finite, I closed that door immediately. I didn’t want to go there. But these days, with the number 10 looming on the horizon, no matter how desperately I keep working to keep that door closed, it remains flung wide open. I’ve found this to be both exquisitely painful and remarkably beautiful.

I got my sweet Bella just before my 25th birthday. It was not the happiest time of my life; I had just suffered more than one significant loss, and I was deep in the hole of graduate school, the most emotionally numbed out I had ever been. Looking back, although I was in the midst of a successful academic career, it was a dark time. Then came Bella. The first time I held her, I felt the most full-body yes I’ve ever experienced. When I found out that she had been adopted and then returned, it was over — I knew with absolute certainty that we were meant for one another. This tiny puppy was an absolute maniac. She tore around the house, destroyed things, and almost always refused to listen to me. She ran directly into traffic on numerous occasions, and would run so far away from home that a vehicle was required to find her on more than one occasion. She dug up holes in the lawn, dug up the couches, and dug up the carpet. And I loved her so immediately and deeply that it surprised even me. Her happy face and boundless energy filled my heart in a way that I hadn’t even realized I needed. 

That crazy pup helped me shift in a way that I had never anticipated. I spent fewer hours locked away in my office at the university, and more time outside. Every time she destroyed something I valued (once she even went so far as to jump up excitedly and break my tooth in half), I learned to be more patient and compassionate. We grew together, Bella and I, and we have continued to grow together. She has been with me through happy times, and more importantly, through the hardest times of my life. In the early years, I was still struggling to find the path in life that would bring me enough meaning to sustain me, failing over and over. Each time, I would pick myself up, and we would start over together, both of us feeling out of sorts but finding a way forward. Throughout every loss and painful moment, Bella has been there. Dogs have this way of being so absolutely present in the moment. Their presence is so consistent. In this life, where change is one of the only things we’re ever guaranteed, it is a rare and precious gift.

The last few years have been more settled. Bella and I have lived together, just the two of us on our own, with me finally on the right path, and she in the golden years of her life. Even still, her warm little body and wet nose comfort me when I feel sad, and her calm stare helps to steady me when I feel anxious. As I write this, she has her chin on my legs, staring at me with wise and almost human eyes. She’s trained to give a kiss on command — she will actually bump her thin little dog lips against yours in exchange for a treat (a trick taught to her by an ex-boyfriend, for which I will be forever grateful). She enjoys sleeping on the couch while I use her body as a pillow, or tucked into the L-shape that I sometimes form with my legs for her to snuggle into. She’s still an absolute maniac at the dog park, and remains the happiest creature I’ve ever known. She has been the same Bella every day that she’s been mine, yet she has always found a way to be exactly what I needed. And it is almost certain that I am going to outlive her. 

The moments that I manage to briefly accept this fact bring with them a feeling of sadness so deep, it feels as though my insides have been scooped out. And that is what I’ve been avoiding: acceptance that she is, in fact, incredibly grey now — it has even spread into the inside of her soft little ears. She doesn’t run as fast or as long. She almost always needs a boost to get into the car. 

But even the deep and painful hurt that comes with this has its meaning, I’ve found. It’s led me to work harder to be aware of the subtle aspects of life with Bella. I take time when I get home to notice the warm feeling I get when her happy face greets me at the door. When I’m on the couch, I intentionally take breaks from whatever I’m reading to stop and notice the feeling of her warm body snuggled in next to me, the consistency of her breathing as her giant chest moves slowly up and down. I feel less annoyed by the loud snores that somehow travel all the way between rooms and through closed doors during the night. Sometimes I just lie there and listen to them for a few moments. I’ve been making frequent attempts to somehow capture her spirit more securely in my memory.

Death is such a torturous topic for us, as humans. We don’t like to think about it. We don’t want to acknowledge that our loved ones (animal or human) will leave us one day, or that we will leave them. Yet I can’t help but wonder how differently we might approach our lives and our relationships if we were all more able to acknowledge the reality that we only have each other for a limited amount of time. Would we spend more time with loved ones? Would we consider “obligatory” get-togethers as moments to be grateful for? Would we live our lives being more present with one another, and notice the subtle things about people that we will want to cherish one day? 

If life lasted forever, none of us would be likely to do these things, would we? We wouldn’t need to; we’d always have another day. When we can find a way to accept the inevitability of loss, we’re granted an opportunity to cherish those we love, and to do our best to remain present and grateful when they’re with us. I am certain that one day, this reminder will be the most precious and final gift my sweet Bella gives to me.

If you enjoyed this piece, please check out my site: heartsatthehelm.com

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