Of dogs and men.

Lulu

It was Ella, and not I, who first fell in love with Bernard. It happened this way:

We were walking along the snowy trail next to the Snake River, in January, a few months after we met. Bernard was throwing sticks for Ella to retrieve. She was a puppy, full of energy and mischief. She raced down to the water’s edge and back up to us, over and over again. Occasionally the stick went into the water, and she would leap with joy into the icy stream.

Then, in a blink, she got stuck beneath the ledge of ice, trapped, with the current sweeping her under. Bernard flew down the hill, grabbed Ella’s collar and flung her up on the bank. She was his from that moment on. She would sit, adoringly, by his feet. Hers was an allegiance of admiration, affection and respect. She deemed him a man worth loving. She encouraged me to follow suit; she worked to bring out the best in him, to show me what stuff he was made of.

I would learn, over time, that Ella was not alone, that dogs in general fell hard and fast for the tall man in the yellow hat. A dog that wouldn’t warm up to Bernard was a dog to avoid, with haste.

When we began life together in earnest, sharing the same roof and address, Bernard and I quickly agreed to adopting a second four-legged companion, a playmate for Ella and a dog of Bernard’s very own. I invested myself in Ella; Bernard did the same with Magoo. We went to the dog park, we took pictures with Santa to raise money for the Humane Society. We bought chew toys and watched Westminster and guffawed our way through Best in Show.

These were our easy, shallow days. We were untried, untested by what life held ahead. The births of our children. Career upheaval. My mother’s death. An endless, pounding stream of house projects matched with limited resources of time, energy and money. We had petty disagreements over deep-seated beliefs and heated arguments over division of labor.

The more decisive I was in wading through these events the more deliberative Bernard became. I went faster; he went slower. We dug into our lanes, using words like always and never and mine and yours. I worked days; he worked nights. We made few decisions in concert.

When the last of our original dogs died, I insisted on replacing them quickly. I felt safer in a house with dogs, especially at night when Bernard was at work. Bernard, on the other hand, wanted to hold off. The right dog would come to us, if we took our time. He had in his mind finding a Cane Corso mastiff, an Italian breed, smaller than English or Neopolitans. I called a veterinarian friend and then a couple of rescue groups; all were unanimous in their veto of the idea. Corsicans can be tricky, usually not recommended for homes with children. We should stick to Labs, that was their consensus.

I found a pair of chocolate Labs, two-ish years old, that the rescue group was trying to place together. I wanted to take them; Bernard was uncertain. I prevailed. I was tired of waiting for perfect, weary of believing in miracles. I simply wanted good enough; any more was too much to expect. We trudged on, opening the door to a third dog along the way. We were all dog-paddling anyway.

And then Bernard found Lulu, or perhaps it was she who found him.

Lulu was a byproduct of Bernard’s slow, methodical, natural gardening. I wanted crape myrtles in our front yard, to replace the 100-year-old oaks we’d had to cut down. Because I am decisive and impatient, I wanted to go to the nursery and buy crape myrtles. Because he is careful and nurturing, Bernard instead cultivated crape myrtles from volunteer seedlings. He had six or eight of them lined up in pots by the front door, watering and pruning them, waiting until they were big enough to transplant.

He picked the straightest, tallest ones; he dug out the entire sidewalk median and filled it with compost and mulch; he measured and re-measured, then planted. It took all day.

Having spent so long raising the trees, he did not want to throw out the extras and instead decided to give them to a friend who lives in the country, near a state park. I don’t know that I was charitable about any of this; I had dinner to cook, children to feed. I was snippy and short-tempered when he got home, half listening when he said he had something to show me. It was a picture of a dog.

Driving to Bobby’s house, Bernard looked out the car window to see a full-grown Cane Corso standing alone in the middle of the field. He asked Bobby’s wife, an experienced dog rescuer, about the dog and learned that she’d been in that same field for about a month, that she would not let any human near her. They had gotten close enough to see that she’d recently had a litter of puppies, and their guess was that a breeder had dumped her. This type of drop-off was apparently a common and frequent occurrence.

You know the next part without my telling it. You know that she came, a bit reluctantly, to Bernard, who agreed only to foster her for heartworm treatment. He spent an hour trying to coax her into his car. You know that fostering was a false premise, that in the end I agreed we would keep her – a ridiculous, insane, spontaneous decision. But the odds of finding her were incalculable, perhaps even miraculous. Never turn away from a miracle.

Lulu became our family project. She was very thin and a little spooked. The children agreed to take turns feeding her. We all took turns walking her, stroking her soft ears, drawing her out of her shell. The other dogs took to her immediately; she became the leader of their pack.

Every few days Bernard would attempt to lure Lulu out for a ride, to ease her fear of cars. He used peanut butter treats and bits of roast beef. He crawled in the back seat and talked to her, gently tugging at her leash, letting her inch forward when she was ready. What he had lacked in patience with our children and other dogs, he mustered for Lulu; and his patience grew. The edge wore off his crankiness, and mine.

Over time, Lulu gained weight and filled out her magnificent frame. Her silver coat sparkled in the sun. She was clever and quickly learned our routines. She guarded Bernard while he slept during the day and looked appropriately intimidating when walking with me after nightfall. She let the children bathe her with cold water from the hose. She loved ice cubes and tennis balls and sunshine. She rarely barked, except when the other dogs egged her on. She nudged my arm when she needed to go out and sat patiently waiting for her leash. She slept at my feet on Saturday mornings during my writing time. She accompanied Bernard whenever a car ride was an option.

We joked about whose dog she was, Bernard’s or mine, each of us laying claim to her loyalty. In truth she was our first real family dog, the one who belonged equally to all of us, together. She was a puppy, maybe two years old, when she arrived. She was still puppy-ish two years later when she left, unexpectedly, just yesterday. It looked at first like indigestion, a quick vomit of the previous night’s dinner; but it was followed soon after by collapse of her limbs and the kind of labored breath I recognized from sitting with my mother in her final minutes. Start to finish, it was over in less than an hour, a short, excruciating eternity. I held Lulu’s big head in my lap. She let out a single, long, mournful howl before she died. I howled with her. I am still howling. I want her back.

It is absurd, I know, to grieve over a dog. Relative to hurricanes and economic instability and terrorism and heroin abuse, having or losing a dog is immaterial. In the grand scheme of life, it is nothing.

But we had a dog we loved deeply, richly, as a family. She brought out the best in all of us. In the grand scheme of life, that is everything.

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    It is indeed. So sorry.

  2. jgroeber says:

    I am so very sorry for your loss. My husband, always the strong man, was telling our kids about his dog Wendell today. He told of her death (after his junior year of college, the day she played in the field in front of the summer place we bought twenty years later) and as he finished he burst into tears so fresh and strange and strong, my youngest began laughing and my oldest started weeping. Dogs do that.
    If you’ve never read Kelly in Repeat, and you have a spare minute, you might want to. She just wrote about losing their family dog in the form of a children’s book, and it both warmed and tore at my heart, like this. http://kellyinrepeat.com/2015/08/18/greta-and-the-angels/
    Wishing you peace.

  3. Margaret says:

    love love love. love you, love lulu, love your writing, love your family, love your whole grand story. love.

  4. Melanie White says:

    I am so very sorry. I just could not believe the “ending.” Read it over and over before accepting.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  5. I’m so sorry. A few years ago “the best dog” passed. That’s a family story. I was lucky enough to be home — that was a year of constant travel — for her last weekend. Today, five dogs have us. I still miss “the best dog” terribly. There is nothing absurd in grieving for a dog.

  6. Fred says:

    So sorry for your loss. I don’t think it’s absurd to grieve the loss of a dog. For us, dogs have defined periods in our family’s life and they become part of the fabric of our present and our past. We grieved at the passing of each one. So sorry for you and your family.

  7. Lisa Campbell says:

    Oh my gosh Jen what a story. I am reading this at my desk at work with tears in my eyes. I completely understand. your heartbreak. I am so sorry.

  8. Having howled and bawled over losing my beloved dogs, I’ve come to realize that grieving over them has allowed me to grieve over other losses and the burdens of the world. I don’t have to be strong for anyone and can just let it out. Peace to you and your family, and may Lulu forever be in your hearts.

  9. Karen Bisso says:

    Beautifully written Jennifer. I’m so sorry and I know your pain all too well.

  10. jgroeber says:

    You are such a woman of schedule, that you were missed this weekend. Hope all is well with you and yours and it’s just the tumult of back-to-school that has you busy. Or better yet, you’re on some grand adventure- A book tour? A (no-kill) safari? A mysterious trip on the Orient Express (do people still do that?) Be well, my dear.

  11. I am so glad I saved this one and so very sad to read it. Such a wonderful love story… about Bernard as much as it is about Lulu. It touches me in such big ways.

    It’s also the first time ever, that I’ve read your wonderful words and disagree with you… NO, NO, NO! Grieving for our dogs is not immaterial. It is so real and true. My beloved Luke is on his way downhill, too fast for me to say… without crying. As I sit here in Denver, waiting to leave my youngest at college, missing my grandbaby in Israel, it is still the loss of Luke that hurts the most right now. I’m so very sorry for your loss. It just isn’t fair, that we love them so much, they love us so well, and then we have to lose them… it just sucks. Personally, I think grieving the loss of our dogs is one of the biggest griefs. Not THE biggest, perhaps, but for some it is… for me, it’s huge. Love and hugs, Jennifer. xox

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