It is the curse of the dog-lover that the life span of “man’s best friend” is so much shorter than man’s.
This weekend we said goodbye to our best girl, Bella, after an 18 month battle with cancer. A golden retriever/Australian shepherd cross, she was a tri-coloured, easygoing and cheerful dynamo who came into being 11 years ago after an exuberant canine Romeo jumped his neighbour’s fence one day and left that gentleman with the eight resultant puppies to re-home.
There were only two pups left when we arrived. The first, shy and retiring, shrank from our inspection. The second wiggled into my hands, licked my nose, and then turned her head to look at my husband, Steve – and two kindred spirits recognized each other. It was love at first sight. $250 later we were the proud owners of a pup with one of the most loving personalities I’ve ever witnessed in a dog. Rarely has my money been so well spent.
Bella’s introduction to our family was a shriek of “OH MY GOD, ARE YOU SERIOUS?” as our five kids, ages three to 13, crowded around the window as Steve got out of the car with his little bundle of joy.
Highly intelligent, Bella trained quickly and never chewed anything in the house, naturally treating all human possessions as off limits. The kids routinely left their snacks on the coffee table and the couch, and not once did Bella touch any of it, or even look at it. She was gentle with the kids and a protective companion, always ready for games or just hanging out.
While Bella was intended as a “family dog” it became apparent very quickly that she had chosen Steve as her alpha and he was her whole world. She certainly paid attention to the rest of us lesser humans, but no matter what we were doing, the sound of Steve’s footsteps when he came up the driveway sent her bolting out of the room to be with her Daddy.
Raised in farm country, Steve pretty much only comes in the house to eat and sleep, so Bella spent most of her time outside. At night he would sit at his campfire with whatever friends had dropped in and Bella would be there, chasing rabbits and Frisbees before eventually curling up at his feet in front of the fire. She came in when Daddy came in.
For years we rented a cottage for our summer holiday and Bella was first in the car. Strangely for her breed, she did not take to water. She chased sticks on the beach, but throw it into Lake Erie and she looked at you like you’d tossed it in front of a moving train. She followed Steve into the water almost up to her shoulders but then paced back and forth if he went out deeper. Other than swimming she was up for anything and was the only one still wide awake and raring to go on the ride home.
The best-mannered dog I ever had, she never barked, growled or snapped at any of us, but she would raise her hackles and bark if anyone came to our door or into our backyard. One night some police officers with a K9 chased a suspect through our back yard while Steve and Bella were quietly sitting in the dark, star-gazing. She launched herself at the police dog, her guttural roar every bit as aggressive as the German Shepherd’s. She wasn’t really a guard dog, but she had no fear about giving both the cop and the K9 the business – how dare they intrude on Daddy Time.
Eighteen months ago we noticed a large rubbery mass growing inside her right cheek. After the operation to remove it the vet told us it would eventually return and she had about a year, and he was right almost to the very day. A second operation removed the new mass but post-op examination revealed a large tumour on her liver. Further surgery on her mouth in light of this discovery would only get Bella few extra months that would likely be filled with pain, which Steve refused to put her through. He felt it was better for her to enjoy as much as possible what healthy time she had left.
Bella continued to eat and play, but by April she was visibly thinner. By the end of May she was a walking skeleton with a new tumour, this one in her jaw, not on her cheek. Yet, incredibly, Bella was still happy; still eating; still spending every minute with Daddy.
The vet told us in June that while incredible she was still alive and pain-free, she now had only a month or two left. Over the last eight weeks her walk slowed, the happy skip disappeared, and she spent most of the day sleeping in our bedroom in the cool, dark basement. I knew her time was up, but Steve was not ready to say goodbye. He had been feeding her a cancer fighting diet since her diagnosis, preparing her meals himself, desperate for a miracle that would not come.
Five days ago Bella started having trouble climbing stairs. The tumour suddenly doubled in size until it was the size of a softball, pulling her face askew. Then she fell and couldn’t get up and we knew we couldn’t ask her to fight any more. The call was made.
Bella’s last morning was filled with visits from our kids, tummy rubs and a sun nap in the back yard with Daddy. She had turkey stew for breakfast, well mashed because we could see, for the first time, she was having trouble swallowing. At 1:30 p.m. Steve took down her leash and she mustered a trot, tail still wagging, and walked with him to our van. He had to lift her in.
In the vet’s backyard, under the shade of a tree, my husband laid his head on Bella’s, telling her what a good girl she was over and over as the vet gave her an anesthetic, followed swiftly by three syringes of a heart-stopping drug. In less than two minutes it was over. Bella was gone.
The unconditional love of a dog is one of life’s most precious gifts. Bella was Steve’s first dog and they were inseparable. Now she’s gone where he can’t follow and we are left with her few possessions and a house empty of her presence, the scamper of her feet running for the back door silenced, the memory of Steve’s last words to his baby as he held her face in his hands:
“’Til I see you again.”