Here I sit in my room at the ashram, listing to the Cure’s original of “Lovesong.” Love. The Bain of my existence, the feeling and people I’d do just about anything for, the thing that seems to break me most.
I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who still – even after 38 years and a ton of heartache – believes in the power of romantic love, of unconditional love, of blissful love. I’m loyal and dedicated, and I’ll do just about anything for those I love: even when it hurts, even when it doesn’t feel quite right, even when they don’t feel the same way, even when I shouldn’t. That, I guess, is the power and beauty and pain on unconditional love. It hasn’t happened too often in my life, but I’m old enough to know just how rare and special it is when you feel that way.
I’m living in an ashram in Indore, India, taking respite, thinking about my next steps in life, and along the way, I enrolled in a course to become a certified yoga instructor and therapist. I started writing this on day 22, with just one week to go. About five or six days before, I received a call from home. Nilla, my 14-year old dog who was in pretty good health when I left Tucson over a month ago, suffered a stroke. My good friends and roommates were hoping she’d make a recovery or that the effects would be temporary, but a few days later, it was clear that she was not improving. It was totally reasonable that she might – when I had her to the vet last summer, she was in such good health that they thought they’d see her for another rabies shot in three years, and she always was a powerhouse, so it was totally plausible she’d pull through somehow. This was the dog who would somehow find a way to meet me on the third pitch of a rock climb when she was younger because her separation anxiety made her waiting for us to get off the crag impossible; this was the dog who somehow survived major drama from dog fights and all kinds of other craziness… so, yeah, even though she was old, she always seemed to have some energy left in reserve. But this time, it was not to be.
We made the decision to put her down, and three days ago my good friend, two roommates and ex-boyfriend took her to the vet. Nilla had an awesome fan club of people who loved her by her side when she passed on to the other side. Truly, my pooch had more people who loved her by her side than most people who die. I couldn’t be anything but happy about that.
Nilla taught me a lot about love – lessons I’ll carry with me for years to come.
Nilla was my beautiful, fiercely loyal, codependent, mischievous, needy, energetic golden retriever / yellow lab mix. She truly loved me unconditionally. Painfully so at times, and was relentless about it. I adopted Nilla in 1999. About a year before that, I had adopted Clover – a golden/shepherd mix who I loved with all my heart. She was so smart and intuitive – she was “people smart.” Truth be told, I adopted Nilla because I allowed other people to talk me into the fact that Clover must be lonely at home with me at work all day, and that it was “sad” and “neglectful” that she was home all by herself. Clover actually seemed really happy, and we shared a close bond. She was born with severe hip dysplasia, but just seemed to adapt. She was my dog. But as my work days lengthened, I started to internalize these criticisms and decided that she probably did need another playmate, so I adopted Nilla. I know now that Clover didn’t need a playmate; Nilla did! This was the first lesson I learned: never adopt a pet assuming the one you already have is lonely. Those are your emotions speaking, not theirs. In fact, don’t adopt or purchase anything because other people want you to do so… houses, cars, clothing, pets, the list goes on and on. We’re so impressioned by others, even subtly so, but in the end we are the ones that live with the ramifications.
Looking back, I didn’t have the same bond with Nilla – she was a great, energetic puppy, but she was in every sense of the word a “doggie.” Yes, Clover was people smart, Nilla was doggie smart. Clover was a person with fur, Nilla was the dog.
From the moment I got Nilla, she was obsessed with all things “dog” – chasing birds (and killing and eating them as a puppy), playing ball, going for walks, riding in the car, and doing things dogs do. She was a classic “bull in a china shop” in the house for her first 5 years, and the stories I could tell would make the dog in “Marley and Me” seem like a well-behaved guide-dog. Trust me, every day was a new epic adventure in domestic disaster relief that refined my project management skills.
Nilla really loved Clover, and really took to her “big sister,” following her everywhere. That’s a nice way of saying she bugged the bejesus out of her. I could see the look in Clover’s eyes sometimes, “Mom, what did you do?” Things were great for about the first year between the two of them. The first real challenge with Nilla came after her spaying: she would “leak,” especially when she slept, and wake up in a pool of urine. The vet said that in a small percentage of dogs it’s a side effect of spaying – makes sense if you think of post-menopausal women and their loss of bladder control. Back then, the only drugs on the market always caused cancer, so the vets were reluctant to put a puppy on them. So we trained Nilla to hold her bladder as best as we could, and it worked… for about the first 10 years or so of her life. Here I was, though, in a situation now where I had two dogs with medical issues, and both were still young – it was as if the universe was sending me a message for not listening to my gut.
Then by the time Nilla was about a year and a half old, another dynamic surfaced: she started fighting Clover for dominance. At first, the fights weren’t that frequent, and I thought maybe it was something she’d just out grow or they would figure out. I had no idea that female dogs could behave this way, at least not until people mentioned it to me after I had already adopted the both of them. You know the saying “The things that you own start owning you?” Well, I was quickly learning this.
I was living with a boyfriend at the time, and that transitioned into a friendship. When our lease ended, he moved out and I bought my first house. He loved Nilla and wanted to take her with him. I, of course, being young and totally living by the principle my parents raised me to follow about taking responsibility for my own actions, refused to give him “my” dog. I adopted her, and I felt she was my responsibility. And I felt bad giving him a dog with medical issues, even if he wanted her. This is the second lesson I learned… and lived with for more than a decade: when someone really wants something you have, and when the universe opens a door to solve a problem by giving that something to that someone, it’s a sign to let it go and give what that person sees as a gift to them. I didn’t see it as possessiveness at the time; I thought I was upholding my responsibilities. In hindsight, she probably should have gone to live with Clay; she very well might have had a better life (even though she did have a pretty good one anyway!).
I moved, and as the girls got older, the fighting got more intense – so intense that I put a moratorium on going to the vet because the bills were outrageous. After one of their fights, I literally sat them down and talked to them about how I loved them very much but I refused to go to the vet any longer… and god help me but if one of them killed the other, they were both going to greener pastures. I really had a hard time; they were kids fighting over mom’s attention – seriously! The fights would always start over Nilla’s jealousy related to food, toys or my attention. Clover never started the fights, and she would be so traumatized after every fight. There I would be, in my yard, crying my eyes out, washing mud and saliva and blood off of both of my dogs, trying to keep them separated so that the fights wouldn’t continue, suturing wounds and cleaning out abscesses, wondering what the hell I did to deserve this. My intentions were good: to give a few puppies who would otherwise have been destroyed a good home, and to share my love and resources with them. I had always loved animals and just couldn’t believe I was faced with this. I felt so helpless and trapped by it all. Clover seemed so sad, and really didn’t want to be around Nilla. Nilla would just want more attention from me and Clover despite fighting us. It was so sad, and my heart broke every day over this. I found out about a high-end dog trainer in Tucson who had trained with Cesar Milan, “The Dog Whisperer,” and figured if anyone could help me it was her. So I enrolled the girls and me in doggy school – which seriously cost me about as much as a semester at the UofA back then.
Certainly some of the issue was them, and some was me. Clover was so easy to train that I didn’t realize how deficient I was in dog training skills until everything I knew to do seemed not to work with Nilla. I learned a lot in doggie school – about my dogs, pack behavior and myself. I had one dog who didn’t like other dogs, one dog who wasn’t a fan of certain people, two dogs with different medical issues and two dogs that wanted to be pack leader. I had to keep the peace as best as I could.
It wasn’t easy – it was a constant truce at best. Nilla still loved Clover and was totally oblivious to the dynamic with and her impact on Clover, even when she was terrible to her. Clover tolerated her, I think out of love for me. And I felt trapped. I had to show Nilla more love, show both that Clover was top dog, and that I was the pack leader. I’m pretty sure, though, that none of us was as happy as we could have been. But at the time I felt like I didn’t have any real good options – after all, who would want a dog with medical issues, or a dog that fought with other dogs? I still felt really responsible, not only for the situation but for the both of them, and I didn’t want to risk giving them to someone I didn’t know or a shelter that would surely euthanize either of them for different reasons.
There were a lot of great times, too – trips to Yellowstone and the Tetons, California and Utah, and throughout the great state of Arizona in my ’71 VW bus… we would camp together, and they were good travel mates – they never got in a fight when we were on the road. So in many ways it was easy to keep them, because they were my girls, my family.
And about ten years ago, Nilla caught a burglar at my ex-boyfriend’s house and as a result ended up nominated to be ASPCA’s national Dog of the Year Award. How classic and awesome was it that my misbehaved problem-child was up for an award for putting her energy to good use!
Five years ago, Clover died suddenly from a condition none of us anticipated. That was really difficult. Since then, it’s been just Nilla and me. She was much happier without another dog around and with 100%, and I settled into being with her. I loved her, but I did feel guilty that perhaps I shortchanged Clover out of a happier life, ironically, because I had thought years before that I was doing something for her.
Maybe that’s another lesson I’ve learned – don’t do something assuming it will make another happy.
Owning my two dogs, and managing their behavior and lives, got to be another job… like seriously if I quantified it, project managing this situation and caring for them the way all animal owners do probably took the equivalent of a part-time job. Despite the dog training and all my efforts, I always sensed that this situation would not fully resolve itself until both of my dogs had passed on because no matter how much I loved them, our relationships, history, emotions and responses to one another were shaped by all that had transpired.
So here’s another life lesson I learned: to admit when an issue is too big for me to handle, or is just not winnable, and make a decision much, much sooner to change it no matter how difficult it is, because it won’t get significantly better otherwise and it won’t resolve itself. Sticking with things out of loyalty or obligation or responsibility, while noble and certainly what many of us are taught to do, are the wrong reasons to do things.
The next two years were pretty good. As Nilla got a little older, her incontinence got worse, and I decided she would need to become and outside dog. People judged me about this, some people thought I was cruel to do that. But I could no longer handle sopping up urine off my floors multiple times a day, nor was I willing to risk ruining the old wood floors of my historic home that I had completely renovated due to this. And I still didn’t think it was right to give my dog a medicine I knew would cause cancer, so I felt like this was the best option. My yard had shade, a big kiddie pool for her, and a huge shed/guest house. Short of air conditioning, my dog had more than most people on earth. And as my old neighborhood grew livelier with new bars and establishments opening, she provided visible protection from potential intruders. She really was good that way. And I was done listening to people tell me how I should handle my dogs – frankly, that’s some of what got me into this mess. She didn’t love it at first, but grew accustomed to it. It made our dynamic and relationship a lot better; though we spent less time together, our relationship was positive about 95% of the time now, and the time we spent together was better.
Nilla was the dog that if left to her own devices, would run the Boston Marathon every day and then expect a jog, to play ball, and go swimming at night. She had so much energy! Most dogs calm down by about 5 years old – Nilla seriously had the energy of a puppy until she was about 11 or 12; only in the last few years did she settle down like most adult dogs do. And she constantly wanted attention – petting, playing, and full focus from her people. She was the kind of dog that constantly made me feel like I failed her – like no matter how much I gave, it was never enough. She was loving and needy to a fault. I felt like I could never succeed with her, no matter how hard I tried and how much I loved.
She made me see those dynamics in myself, and I started to worry that – in some of my relationships – I was Nilla. I would give and give and give, and no matter what I gave it wasn’t enough for the other person. And those situations never resulted in getting the kind of love I wanted or needed in return. Watching her was a reminder to me not to be so needy of love and attention that I turn others away; or, perhaps, not to be Nilla – not to be with others who can’t give the love I need and yet still expect it from them.
In the last six months, just about everything in my life has changed: I sold my house, moved into another house I owned and with roommates (the first people I’ve lived with in more than 13 years), left my job, became a sole proprietor in my business, and had a one of the most significant relationships of my life end. Nilla was with me through all of those things. She was the last remaining anchor of my old life. She had been with me for 14 years, for more than a third of my life, and through most of my young adulthood. Her passing solidifies a changing of the tide in my life, of an era past.
Nilla went deaf in the past year, and started losing a little of her sight. But even as an elderly dog, she was still mischievous, jealous and did anything for love and attention. My new roommate took to her right away. Who wouldn’t? She was really sweet and loving and he loved the attention she gave him. It couldn’t’ have come at a better time – I was exhausted with my life and from all the change, even though I had wanted most of the change. There were days when it didn’t seem like I had the energy to fill her food bowl let alone do everything else I need to do as a dog-mom. Nilla had new love in her life – two people who adored her, walked her and played with her, and I will always be grateful for that and for their friendship. Even as an old dog, she was still getting into trouble to vie for a never-ending need for attention – most recently she figured out how to pull the screen door off of my new sliding patio door and would do this every night when she saw me in my bedroom – wanting in while I slept and while the cat probably taunted her from inside the door. In fact, it was so recent that I just had the door replaced two days before I left for India.
When I left for my summer abroad, I made sure to say goodbye to her in a special way. I went outside to pet her and kissed her and told her that I loved her. I let her know she was in good hands, and that I’d be back in a few months. I purchased new toys and treats and food for the summer, and a few weeks after I left, we bought her a new kiddie pool. She was old, but I really didn’t think she’d pass away while I was gone.
Nilla’s love taught me many things, in addition to the lessons I mentioned above. She taught me to see the silly side of life, to have fun in the moment, to be gentler, and to keep seeking. She reminded me that persistence pays, but too much is annoying. She was a 14-year lesson in having patience, and that is not my greatest virtue! She taught me to spend time focusing on the ones who show you they love you, rather than passing them by seeking something better elsewhere. And now, I’m learning to be dog-free for a while, which is really the best place for me to be at this time in my life.
Now, I just need to remember to listen. 😉
I can see her now, frolicking in the fields over Rainbow Bridge with Clover, nibbling at her ear to play. And Clover is happy, too. Only this time, she just barks at her. No biting, no fighting.
“You were both very good girls. Mommy loves you both very much. Have fun together, and watch out for each other, OK?” Mwah.