I’ve always been partial to redheads. Unfair characterization or not, they have this certain joie de vivre and bring a radiance, big smile and spunkiness to a room. And four-legged or not, my Ellie was no different.
In the end, I gather that I learned more about life in her death than was evident to me up to that point in my own. I also learned more about myself, valuable data about how I approach life. It’s the nature of how she was and how she integrated with me on a day-to-day basis that has made all the difference.
That may be over-dramatizing her impact. Perhaps. Or maybe not. My loss of Ellie was profound. The grieving is still in progress.
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We humans have certainly propelled our canines to the upper echelons in our families. We feed them gourmet food, let them share our beds, send them to spas, insure them and provide unparalleled medical care, while we often neglect our own needs. We attribute many human traits to our pets, but I have read that one of the key differences between our species is the notion of sentimentality. Humans—in particular, the softer New-Age types we nurture these days—are sentimental about everything. Especially death. Dogs, on the other hand, can’t be bothered with that sort of folly and that, in itself, is a lesson to be savored.
I experienced that non-attachment in her, in those last few minutes as I cradled her head and watched her ease into the ultimate dog nap. She wasn’t clawing from the inevitability, but just was being. We mistakenly view non-attachment as disinterest, which is far from the truth. Attachment is being too married to the outcome, instead of enjoying the journey. Dogs don’t get to travel the world or fall in love or express their deepest desires (all whining aside), but as they move from window to sidewalk, from restless dreams to deep stretches, from fetch to foot-warmer, theirs is a journey rich and full.
As I said goodbye to my dear friend, snapping pictures of her in the last bit of time we had together, I had to laugh at what she might have said to me in that moment, if she could speak. In contrast to my own actions, she wasn’t dwelling in the past, trying to capture a perfect moment or every emotion one pixel at a time. She was planted in the now and only looking to the future ... the future that lay just one moment ahead, that is.
Somewhere in our silent exchange was nugget number one: Live life to the fullest.
Ellie never missed a trick (or a treat, for that matter). She was opportunistic and present, fully engaged in what was before her. And if she was before you, she demanded that from you. She never was one to lounge about because she saw life as an adventure to be lived. Her bright eyes were focused intently on a new friend or a bone. And when that got old, she went on to find the next bit of awesomeness. Ellie wasn’t one of those dogs who chased her tail. That’s because to do that, you unnecessarily have to spend some time looking and moving backward. Her sights were out in front, and what was best in her eyes was what was right in front of them.
The second lesson she passed down to me was to be curious and have no fear.
Regrettably, I operate from a place of fear more than I like to admit. I’m afraid of what people will think. I’m
afraid I’ll be hurt. I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble. I’m only a little comforted by the notion that most people live in some neighborhood of the walled Fearville, seldom looking outside.
In her quest to live life to the fullest, Ellie never settled for what was. Frustratingly, this meant that the fragrant garbage was a constant source of exploration. And when a strange sound invaded the night’s quiet, she didn’t waste time trembling or planning an escape or wondering where the closest phone was to call 911. Not her. Instinctively, she leapt into action to figure out what was different. She didn’t assume it was ominous, but instead, welcomed the chance to discover something new. What if I approached all of life’s scary sounds in just that way?
Finally, and most importantly, she taught me the importance of loving unconditionally. I’m far from mastering this, far from scratching the surface, but I have a role model of how I might embrace that value in my own relationships.
This one is difficult to pull off for us mere humans, for it naturally builds on the first two lessons. In order to love freely, you must be present, in the moment, and live without fear of being hurt. Dogs don’t fear rejection because they don’t see themselves reflected in someone else. Lucky for them, they naturally give and receive without shame, without judgment. From this starting point of untainted vulnerability, the possibility of accepting others as they are opens up the probability of accepting their love for you. Just imagine.
For most of my adult life, I struggled with whether I could be a good father. My concerns mostly stem from a dearth of suitable role models in this arena. I have always wondered if I could put aside my selfish tendencies and open my heart. When I think of how I loved that dog, even when she was not so lovable, a picture starts to form for me. For the past 17 years, I manipulated my life around hers. Her schedule dictated my own, sometimes to the detriment of career or missed personal opportunities. I put her primary needs in front of my own. Even in those anguishing months leading to my decision to end her life, I acted with her well-being in the foreground. Perhaps, she was a parenthood testing ground of sorts. I guess time will tell.
Ellie, my red-haired companion, is gone now. And I miss her terribly. I miss our routines. I miss her bold predictability. The photos or her collar and leash laid out on my desk are never comfort enough. When she left my world, though, I felt a certain sense of calm. Maybe I knew she was in a better place. Or maybe I knew I’d be okay because of what she had left with me.