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 adopt 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, the Saturday after my 50th birthday.
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.