"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Thursday, April 30, 2020

There's a Dog-Shaped Hole in My Quarantine

I love to see my friends’ dog posts and pictures on Facebook and Instagram, especially now because the pups are so glad to have their people home all the time. I crack up at memes of happy dogs and pissed off cats, and I’m tickled when pets walk through the frame during Zoom interviews on the news.

I commented to a friend the other day how blessed she is to have her two beautiful retrievers during this season of staying at home and how it sucks to be dogless. “Write about it?” she suggested, because she is wise and knows that writing is healing.

Anne Lamott once said that when we are sick, the dogs are the nurses. She also wrote, “Dogs are the closest we come to knowing the divine love of God on this side of eternity.”

I could never say it any better than that, and my words could never do my girl justice, but here is my story.

I miss our Bella, a spunky, yellow lab mix who was game for anything as long as she was with us. No matter how many pets you have and love, there is just The One. The One who forever owns your heart. For me, that was Bella. My husband and I still talk about her every day, recalling the many nicknames we’d given her and the silly things we’d say to her in ridiculous tones of voice.

She was dumped at a friend’s farm in rural Missouri when she was about a year old. We raised her along with our teens in the suburbs, where there was plenty of green grass and no shortage of bunnies and squirrels to chase. I lost track of how many times she escaped the yard.

When you have a dog for 11 years, you’re bound to go through a lot together. And we did. One of my nearest and dearest says dogs are our secret keepers. Bella saw me at my best and at my worst. She heard me laugh and yell and cry. She was a good listener, my companion on more hot, sweaty, fury-purging walks than I can count.

When my mom moved in with us after an accident and surgery, Bella would hop down the stairs next to her, carefully, one at a time, every morning to make sure she didn’t fall -- a nurse. We sometimes called her Mary Poppins, because she was “practically perfect in every way.” She was a great hostess, too, and even got along with the cats. 

When Bella was 6, we moved to Los Angeles, where she easily settled into her new life of going to the beach and hiking. We dubbed her the Malibu Mountain Mutt. She was finally cured of her habit of running off the day she chased a squirrel over the gate in our yard and down into Topanga Canyon. I thought we’d lost her for sure that time. I worried she’d have a run in with a rattle snake. When she finally emerged, she was shaking and filthy, exhausted from scrambling her way back up the hill, and she never took off like that again, although, in LA, mostly lizards became the new squirrel. 

On an April Saturday two years ago, there was something off about Bella’s gait. She was slow, almost mopey, not her usually jaunty, tail-wagging self, the one a man on a trail once called "happy pants." The vet put her on pain meds. With little improvement, a couple of days later, he took X-rays, which showed nothing. By then Bella was clearly uncomfortable and a bit stoned by medication. I spent two nights with her lying on the floor next to her bed. 

On Thursday our doc referred us to a neurologist at the emergency vet. By the time we got there, Bella could barely stand up. They kept her overnight to give her IV pain relief and planned an MRI for the morning. We left with a sense of dread but smiled that evening when they sent us pics of Bella all tucked into her crib, draped in a Dora the Explorer blanket.

She had an inoperative tumor on her spine, just below the neck. It was aggressive, they said.

She had seemed fine a week ago. It all happened so damned fast.

We drove to the animal hospital to talk with the neurologist.

“We could try some radiation,” the vet said. “It might give her another week or two.”

That would’ve been for us, though, not for Bella.

“No, let’s not do that,” we said, and the doctor nodded and sighed in relieved agreement.

A tech put us in a large exam room and brought our girl to us. We sat on the floor next to her and she somehow managed to maneuver her head into my lap. We talked to her and told her how much we loved her and thanked her for bringing so much joy to our lives. John chanted a silly ditty he often sang to her. After an hour or so, the vet came in with the needles and the medicines that would end her suffering. It was peaceful and mercifully quick. It was also one the saddest things I’ve ever experienced.

Even with the firm belief we were doing right by her and the boundless gratitude I had – still have – for her, this was a loss that was stunningly painful and still is.

I’ve been with others when they died. My dad. Our pony, Max. Some cats. There was always a moment when their spirit was clearly gone, that what was left was just a shell and not their essence. It was literally the life force leaving them and leaving me. That day with Bella, even in her last breath, I never had the sense that she was really gone. Her spirit didn’t vanish into the ether like the others. I have no idea what that means. I know she would have loved this new home in Colorado, though.

I am sobbing. The tissues are wadded up on my desk. I am still grieving. I suspect my sorrow over losing Bella is entwined with other losses, other grief. Some are stories for another day. 

Grief is not linear. It is not rational. It kept me from saying anything about her death publicly for the last two years because I couldn’t face putting it out there on Facebook in black and white. I couldn’t stand the reality of it. I still can’t, but I think it’s time. It’s a secret I no longer want to keep.


  1. Mary, this was a very moving, lovely post. I still grieve for my pets. Thank you for sharing about grief and the path to healing. Telling stories about our loved pet helps to lock in our love and memories.

  2. Bob Kroll10:32 AM

    Mary, what a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to Bella. As a veterinary neurologist and having had a similar experience of having to say goodbye to that one very special companion, I have been on both sides. None of it is easy. It took me more than 2 years for the truly painful part of grieving to gradually subside. Now, more than 20 years later, I can tell you that the happy memories persist. And I am comforted by the thought that there are many people who share the ‘secret knowledge’ of what that love of a truly special dog can be.


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