We were foster failures. Normally, labeling any endeavor as a failure would be considered a disappointment, but in the topsy-turvy world of saving animals, it is a triumph. And in our case, it didn’t take us long to realize that although we had offered Lola a temporary home, she had stolen our hearts so quickly and completely that we couldn’t possibly imagine letting her go.
We met her one sunny August afternoon after we had been contacted by a Bijon rescue group in desperate need of a family willing to keep her for a few weeks. They had found her in deplorable conditions, filthy and hungry, living in a puppy mill, the kind where innocent animals are viewed as money-making machines until they can no longer reproduce. It is a painful existence for them, and she was among the nameless souls who had never experienced affection or received proper care. After hearing her heartbreaking story, of course, we wanted to help.
I sat on the floor to greet her as she entered our house, tail tucked under, looking confused in this new environment. Her hips were unusually wide, and her belly hung low, swaying as she walked, a remnant of her days as a breeder. I spoke softly to her, trying to give her a moment to understand that she was safe, but as I reached out to pet her, she flinched. It broke my heart. But she was no shrinking violet. Once she spied my husband, she snarled, showing him every one of her pretty little teeth as though somehow, she fully intended to defend herself against this much-larger enemy. We determined that she had probably been abused at the hands of a male keeper, which made her distrustful of all men. Their relationship would take time. But within the hour, she had crept closer to me, curled up a few inches from where I sat and closed her eyes. She had chosen: I was to be her person.
We soon discovered that she had no idea how to live in a house or among people. She had no potty training and the first time we took her out into the grass, she stood cold still as though unsure of what to do. Our other Bijon, Boudreaux, tried to engage her in play, but without proper socialization, she simply didn’t know how to be a dog.
Those first days with us were challenging, but we were determined to help her understand that she was free, that no harm would come to her under our watch. And by the end of the first week, she was following me through the house and sleeping on the floor on my side of the bed. And when it was determined that she was ready to be adopted, we knew that she was ours.
I wish I could tell you that from that moment on, she became the best dog ever, but there were difficulties. She snipped at any male she encountered, even young boys. We learned to keep her away when a repairman showed up or kids came to visit. She became territorial when it came to things like food and later, obsessed with a third rescue Bijon that we added to the family, who became the object of both her affection and her frustration. She had issues, no doubt, but I couldn’t help but admire her indomitable spirit, her strength and determination to survive, even though the odds were overwhelmingly against her. In spite of being occasionally problematic, she was my girl, and I adored her.
But time is a great healer, and age mellowed her. After a while, she no longer felt the need to fight or protect herself. And although it took her a long time to realize that she was safe with both of us, when she did, it was as though a light switch went off in her little head, and she became the most loyal, affectionate dog ever.
She was my muse: I wrote 4 novels with her curled up at my feet. She was my nurse: through every surgery and chemo treatment, she stayed by my side offering comfort and companionship. She was my sidekick: With every step I took, she was right behind me. Her devotion to me was undeniable. We were a team, and she knew it.
I am convinced that one of the great tragedies of this life is that comparatively, our furry companions are only here for a short period of time. Perhaps that’s why they must pack so much into each moment. Undoubtedly, it is hard to watch your dog get old and tired and achy. But they have an uncanny way of letting you know when it is time, when their bodies begin to fail. And because you have promised a lifetime of devoted care, you must let them go, even though the pain of facing that loss is unbearable.
Lola was 17; that’s 119 in human years. She was almost blind and totally deaf. No longer able to do what she once could, she slept most of the day and accepted wearing diapers through the night. But the week before Christmas, something changed. She had been out of sorts for a while, struggling to walk, refusing to eat, even her favorite food (which was chicken, by the way). After several days of witnessing her distress, seeing the pain in her eyes, I made the gut-wrenching decision to let her go. Although I selfishly wanted to keep her with me, I knew I couldn’t allow her to suffer. This was to be my final act of love for her. My heart broke as I held her tight, whispering in her ear as I said goodbye. It was over in a matter of minutes, a peaceful transition from this life into the next. She showed me how to live; she showed me how to die.
It is great mystery to me how dogs can bond so readily with humans, how they trust, even after people have let them down through neglect or abuse. They don't hold grudges and are quick to forgive, to willingly start over again. They simply want to love and be loved in return. Dogs live honest, brave, beautiful lives, unafraid of what tomorrow might bring. We could learn a lot from them.
Lola brought me great affection, joy, and laughter, leaving an indelible paw print on my heart. She never learned fancy tricks, nor did she carry an impressive pedigree, but she didn’t need to. She was perfect just as she was, my once-in-a lifetime dog, and I am going to miss her for the rest of my days. You know, I thought that I was saving her all those many years ago, but in reality, she saved me. And for that, I am mighty grateful.