Once upon a time, about 9 years ago, my husband and I adopted a dog. Our first anniversary was coming up and I had told him that the only thing I wanted as a present, the only think I would accept, was a dog. I didn’t want a fancy designer dog or a purebred that costs thousands of dollars. I wanted a rescue dog. He was sort of against getting a dog for whatever reasons, but I craved having an animal I could call my own. We both decided we wanted a big dog. First, because we both grew up with small dogs and we knew that when adopting, it’s much easier and quicker to get a bigger dog. Also, my husband learned early on (a trait that still drives him crazy) is that once I get something in my head I HAVE to accomplish it 5 minutes ago. I make lists and cross off my chores for the day. I hate having things hang over my head, it stresses me out too much. And if it’s something that’s not work-related, well then I really have to go, have it now. So, after announcing what I wanted, I grabbed his car keys, placed them in his palm and said, “Let’s go!”
“Whoa, whoa. Let’s think about this for a while,” he said.
“What is there to think about. There are so many dogs that need a home. Let’s go check them out.” (I was hoping my enthusiasm was wearing on him.)
“How much does it cost? Where will the dog sleep? Who will take her for walks? What about when we’re not home?”
I laughed at all this and at this point he knew if we did not go right this instant, that I would be bugging him all day. Okay, I admit, I’m a little impulsive, but we had a house, we had a yard, we both had full-time jobs and could afford the $100 rescue fee and the food, toys, crate, etc.
“Let’s not over-think things. Let’s just do it,” I said with conviction.
He rolled his eyes at me and started walking toward the garage, in mock defeat. We drove to the animal shelter. There were so many dogs. I had never been to one before and I was completely overwhelmed. Dog after dog after dog in cages, looking lonely and lost. Immediately I started crying. T looked alarmed and asked if I was okay.
“Yes!” I said unconvincingly.
“I knew you’d get sad. You always get sad at stuff like this,” he said.
“Stuff like this? Yes, I do get said at looking at all these dogs without a home. They look scared and lonely.”
Sometimes feelings really overwhelm me and kind of take over. I suddenly felt lonely and sad. I felt like the dogs did, somehow. But, I would not let this deter me. We were here to rescue a dog. It wouldn’t do me any good to stand here and cry. Instead, we started walking around. Many of the dogs barked at us, so it was extremely loud. There was a run out back where you could meet with individual dogs. I saw Lola and wanted to meet her. She was huge, but I loved the name. We took her outside, and she kind of hid in the corner. Then she pooped in the corner. Then she sat in it. Clearly this dog had issues.
We looked at several more, and they all acted afraid of us. It’s not hard to figure out why – most of these dogs were abused or neglected or hadn’t had human contact in a long time. Again, sad stuff. I was feeling a bit defeated, thinking we wouldn’t find our dog today. We had both agreed on getting a female dog, just because of the fact that we both grew up with female dogs. Each cage, which mostly had 2 dogs in them, had a tag posted for each dog stating the dog’s breed (most were lab/unknown), it’s age (a total guess) and it’s gender. As we were walking down another aisle of dogs, a black dog came up and started wagging its tail at us and stared at us with big brown eyes.
“Oh, too bad its a male,” I said after looking at its tag.
“Wait, I am pretty sure that’s a girl. I don’t see any, um….” T explained.
The volunteer laughed and said he was right, that this dog had been tagged incorrectly. We then asked if we could take her outside.
As soon as we took her to the run, she came alive. First she came up to me, sniffed my neck then licked my face. I giggled in delight. Then she ran up to T and did the same thing. She was sweet and loving and joyful. We didn’t find her, she found us.
The volunteer explained that black dogs are always the hardest to find homes for because for some reason there is a bias – some people see them as intimidating. This was the sweetest-looking 1-year-old, 70 pound lab/whatever I’d ever seen. I looked at T.
“So, it’s her then, huh?”
He shook his head yes.
We had to fill out paperwork and pay the $100. They would do a background check on us, but said all should be fine and we could come back tomorrow to pick her up. That would give us time to dog-proof the house and buy her food, toys, a bed and a crate. As we were wrapping things up, I looked back and there she was, lying down with her chin on the floor, brown eyes looking up at me, heartbroken. I ran back over to her cage, (which got the other dogs in an uproar) but she just kept laying on the floor, pouting.
“We’re coming back for you tomorrow, sweetie, don’t worry. I promise.”
By the time we picked her up the next day, I had decided on the name Gracie. I always loved that name and it seemed (and was) so fitting for her.
Gracie had a lot of energy and loved when we took her on runs with us. She was full of a certain zest for life and absolutely loved people. Our neighbors fell in love with her instantly. Not that she wasn’t naughty sometimes. She ate a whole loaf of bread once (wrapping and all), a whole pan of brownies, a stick of butter and ran around with a whole jar of peanut butter in her mouth. But, she was our baby. I usually arrived home first from school and she greeted me like I was a rock star. I would just lay and hug her for a few minutes – and she’d let me. Then, she had to go on a walk. Still, when T came home she was just as excited to see him.
We had our son a year later and she was the most gentle beast. She maybe sniffed him once and then just left him alone. She seemed to understand the sacred time between mother and baby. She’d get up with me for 3:00 a.m. feedings and lay at my feet. If our son started crying she’d kind of pace around until she knew he was okay.
I had a bad Chrohn’s flare once and Gracie laid faithfully beside me. Just having her warm body to lean against helped a little with the pain. Some things to know about Gracie is that she was loyal, she loved to have her belly rubbed, give kisses and chase squirrels. She wasn’t a complicated girl.
Two summers ago my son and I were visiting family in Chicago. T had called me on the second day saying that Gracie had been throwing up so he took her to the vet. They took a couple of blood samples and the vet thought she had an infection in her liver, but that she could be treated with antibiotics. She’d be home by the time we got home in 3 days. The next day T called at 4:30 a.m. He told me the vet had called and things had become markedly worse. She couldn’t walk, had no control of her bodily functions and the liver tests were not improving. She was suffering and we had to make a decision. We both knew what the decision had to be, but I wasn’t going to let my Gracie go until I saw her one last time.
I explained to my son that Gracie was sick and we needed to go home. That 4 hour trek seemed like 400 hours. It was the hardest and most painful drive. When we got home, we dropped out little guy off at grandma’s and T and I drove together to the vet. We were silent. He grabbed my hand and held it and I let him. Our marriage was quickly crumbling, but Gracie was one of the best decisions we’d ever made together. I knew he was hurting as much as I was. Once we parked and got out of the car we held each other for a little while. No one but us understood what we were going through. If you’ve lost a pet, you understand. They are family, and she was so magical and beautiful. The truth is she rescued us.
We went in and the doctor came and talked to us. Her liver was failing and nothing could be done about it. With tears running down my cheeks I croaked out, “What would you do if she were your dog?”
The vet kindly held my hand and said in almost a whisper, “It’s time, Jill. It’s time for her to leave us.”
We could have chosen to leave, but we both wanted to be by Gracie’s side while she was put to sleep. They wheeled her in on a gurney. Her eyes were open, but her pupils were huge, rimmed with a thin line of brown. I kissed her on her mouth. She didn’t kiss me back – that was the first time she hadn’t.
The vet explained she would get two shots. The first shot would relax her and put her to sleep. The second one would stop her heart. I honestly don’t know how vets do their job. However, if an animal is suffering, it is cruel to let it continue.
Right after the first shot, Gracie closed her eyes. The vet paused. I think she wanted to give us one last moment. I leaned down and whispered, “Goodbye, Gracie girl. I love you so much. Thank you for everything you gave us. We’ll see each other again.”
I looked at T, and he gave me a half smile, as tears ran down this face. The vet gave the last injection. Everything went still.
“She’s gone. She’s in peace,” she said.
Losing Gracie was the biggest loss I’ve ever had so far. Truly, losing a pet is just as traumatic as losing a human loved one. Losing her symbolized the last chapter in our marriage, also. The thin strings holding it together were severed that day. Now, we had nothing left in common. I will give T credit where it’s due – he loved that dog. Unfortunately he treated her better than he treated our son and me.
Gracie taught me quite a few things. She was big and black and had large teeth, but she was the worst guard dog. She loved absolutely everyone and wouldn’t hurt a flea (maybe a squirrel, but she never caught one of those). Wouldn’t it be grand to be known as someone who loved everyone and wouldn’t hurt anyone? I would love to have that as my legacy. I still have some work to do.
If she was ever in a bad mood or sick, you never knew it. She always returned your kisses and waited for a pat on the head or for her belly to be rubbed. In other words, she didn’t ask for a whole lot, but she gave a whole lot to everyone in her presence. It was pure unconditional love. She just wanted our company. How about working on that, Jill? I don’t need things, I just need to be around people who love me.
She taught me that being in the moment brings peace. She would amaze me when I’d watch her laying in the grass for hours, eyes fixated on a bird or a leaf or a cloud. She was happy just feeling the warm breeze. No worrying, just living. Just being.
Lastly, she taught me that at times, even though we don’t want to, we have to let go. For whatever reason, her liver failed and it was her time to go. Six years was hardly long enough to have her in our lives, but we were damn lucky to have that time with her. Maybe she’s chasing those squirrels in heaven. I didn’t have a choice, so I let go as gracefully as I could.
Here is a poem I wrote for her shortly after she left us. I talk to her sometimes still. I hope she can hear me.
The first buds of spring break through the frozen ground
Still, it’s not as perfect as you, oh you
You are every color, every line ever drawn
Consider this your canticle
Maybe if I sing it loud enough you will hear
And you will break through, too, untethered
With your heart beating, ruby red and boundless