Lessons in unconditional love

It is often said that people resemble their pets over time. I don’t think I really looked like my dogs; however, they were all adorable, gorgeous creatures, so maybe there’s some truth to that maxim.

Seven years ago, I came out of my marriage with all three of our dogs. I left the bird and rabbit behind, to a great deal of guilt, but the rabbit always bit me and the bird wasn’t much of a cuddler. Ironically, my ex claimed to be divorcing me because I didn’t want children. When pressed to give up my dogs, though, I went full mama grizzly. Those were my children, and I would wrestle a rival bear to protect them. There was no way I was leaving the dogs behind, and fortunately, my ex was willing to trade them for a hockey jersey and signed art print. I would have traded every possession, a kidney and a lung to keep the dogs.

They are all gone now. Over the last five years I had to say goodbye to each of them; the last one crossed the rainbow bridge just a month ago. I spent so many hours providing medical care to sick dogs that it shocked my system when I had no one left to dictate my daily schedule. It felt freeing, and yet enormously empty at the same time.

My dogs were not just companions. To some, they were “just dogs”—property devoid of feeling and emotion and not worthy of the devotion I gave them. I could not, and would not, give up on them. Whether it was cancer, heart disease, arthritis or kidney disease, I never stopped looking for a cure. I never stopped trying to make them feel better for just a little longer. I would want someone to do that for me. Any parent would do that for their children. I didn’t mind spending my entire divorce settlement on them. I borrowed money for their treatment. I lived on credit with my vet. I suspended my student loans. I found a way. Because there was no trip, no date, no pair of shoes that was more important than surgery, or $450 medicine, or weekly laser treatments. I can honestly say they would not have had a better life with anyone else, and I can look myself in the mirror and know there wasn’t anything else I could have done for them. That knowledge helps heal the void.

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Reflections. That is what I settled on when I thought of the lessons I learned from my dogs. They were like mirrors, showing me the life lesson I needed at critical points while I rebounded from my divorce and rebuilt my life.

Nick was my handsome, fearless protector. There were moments after my marriage ended when I felt hopeless. I admit one day I contemplated ending it all because of the realization that I was stripped of money, a home, a business, and had been living in an illusion for nearly a decade. All I had worked for and believed in was ripped from me. Everything except for the dogs. The one thought that yanked me back from the brink was that Nick needed me. He was a big, flashy 75 pound fawn boxer. I’m pretty sure he was a show dog before he was dumped in a shelter for being a little “overzealous” with cats. He was my shadow, who lived and breathed every moment to protect me. He only cared about me. And I knew that without me he would die of a broken heart, without a doubt. I was that valuable to him.

When I would feel a little lost, at the first drop of a tear, Nick would climb up on me and burrow his head into my chest to comfort me. He knew when I was feeling most vulnerable, and it was his job to keep me safe. I never felt alone with him, mostly because he was so big and would crush me when he tried to cuddle. He let me know I was never alone, even guarding the door when I was in the bathroom.

About two years after my divorce, I lost him to lung cancer and heart disease. I struggled longer than I probably should have keeping him going. But I couldn’t let go of my protector. The morning I knew the time had come to say goodbye, I showered while waiting for the vet’s office to open. When I came out, I checked on him, and with one last gasp he was gone. My protector spared me the pain of that decision. He left on his terms, always putting me first. Nick showed me there is such a thing as loyalty, and there are men out there who will guard my heart if I just trust them.

Now Inga….Inga was a crazy girl. The runt of her litter, she was the first dog I had. She was 4 years younger than Nick and we bought her from a breeder as an 8-week old puppy. My mother and sister each had Inga’s half-sisters. But she wasn’t like the other pups, and needed someone to look past her flaws as she was not “show quality.” Inga was built like an awkward baby deer, all legs and skinny as a rail. She had personality in excess. Curious about everything and everyone around her, and occasionally scared by what she found, like pots and pans. Bubbly, kissy, playful, defiant and unconventional. She was part human, part boxer. And she could bring the attitude in spades. I had never before seen a dog look at a person with a disdainful “what is wrong with you?” look until Inga.

Inga couldn’t help but make you smile and laugh. Unless you lacked a soul—and there were a few of those—she would win you over with her charm and ability to be silly. Inga reminded me to laugh at myself again. Life was meant to be laughed at and not taken so seriously. And that is what healed my pain from my divorce and losing my rock, Nick. Writing, telling jokes, making others laugh. Making myself laugh. Reminding myself of that gift I was born with. Inga brought out the real me.

Trini always stayed in the background. She was brought home as a foster dog, who was supposed to be a three-legged white boxer in an Ohio kill shelter. We asked the rescue to save her, and the volunteer found out she was really a pitbull mix with heartworms. We took her anyway, because we were her last chance. By the time she finished her heartworm treatment, she had won over the hearts of Inga and Nick, as well as mine. Trini was always the serious one, and even a bit wary of trusting strangers. But she was so happy to be spared from the gas chamber she would greet every day with a smile. At the first crack of dawn, her one paw would flop on the bed and there she was kissing you and wagging her tail. It was aggravating at 5:30 am, but then it would sink it that she was just so damn happy for another day. Life was meant to be enjoyed, and appreciated, and Trini made sure I knew that. She was a survivor in every sense, and that made her a little hesitant. She took time to warm up to you, measuring you and whether you were trustworthy. Once you passed her test, she was all in for belly rubs. She was given up on so many times. But she survived a leg amputation (probably from being hit by a car), stays of execution, heartworms and the dangerous treatment, severe arthritis and then kidney disease. She kept on going, despite the odds and being counted out. When Nick and Inga were gone, she continued on, slowing down but not giving up. The lesson from Trini was that I didn’t need anyone else. I could survive on my own, no matter what obstacles showed up on my path.

The steps I took to rebuild my life and care for my furry children came with a price though. When Trini was gone and I had time to process the loss, I realized I was fine being alone. I had taken the time over the years to figure out who I am and what my future would look like, but in the process I had shut down and shut everyone out emotionally. It is time to stop being serious and have fun again, because that’s what Inga would tell me. And I need to trust and open up and be vulnerable again, because Nick would want me to not be alone.

My children taught me so much, but it is up to me to put all the lessons together. That is why they came into my life—to help me figure it all out. I owe it to them to always remember.

Je me souviens, mes chiens.

2 thoughts on “Lessons in unconditional love

  1. Sweet snarkless piece. A little rescue Maltese that ended up with me due to an emergency taught me more about love & life than anyone before. I miss the little punk.

    Like

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