I didn’t want to be the one to make the decision. I hoped my husband, David, would make it for us. But as we sat on the sofa with Nilla, our sleeping, thirteen year old golden retriever, neither of us was ready to say goodbye. A few minutes later, she woke up and looked at me. I knew that she had made the decision for us. She was ready to die.
I adopted Nilla on a warm, sunny Ohio day. At eight weeks old, I took her from the only home she had ever known: a forested plot of land where deer roamed and brooks babbled. She was small for a golden; the runt of the litter, who nearly died after eating part of the cord that held open her crate door.
She was spirited and perfectly hewn. The color of a Nilla wafer. When I carried her to the car, she nuzzled my neck, and I whispered in her ear, “I love you already, sweet girl. I love you already.”
At the time, I was married to my first husband. Even though we both loved her, there was an unspoken understanding that Nilla was my girl. She was underfoot much of her early life, listening to my every word, and looking at me longingly through the window when I left for work.
When my husband and l divorced, all I took with me were my clothes, my books, and Nilla. On the day we moved, I cried as I drove Nilla to our new home. From the backseat, Nilla leaned forward and laid her head on my shoulder. Somehow she knew we were now on our own.
Even though the divorce was my decision, I had difficulty adjusting. I was alone and lonely. My mother had died of cancer years before. She left me, at twenty-four years old, with not much but a handful of bills and my nine year old brother to raise. My brother was now a freshman in college, which meant that I was an empty nester at thirty-two years old.
It seemed that Nilla was the only thing I had left.
Nilla and I spent the next couple of years regrouping. We went on long walks. She listened to me complain about my awful dates and unfulfilling career. On quiet weekends, we cuddled on the couch, ate Chinese food, and watched “Sex and the City.” And every night, she’d curl up in the curve of my stomach and snore.
Every now and then when I was racked with guilt that Nilla wasn’t getting to be a normal dog, I took her to the dog park. Instead of playing with the other dogs, she preferred to sit with me on the dirty, splintered picnic table, her head resting on my lap.
After a while, things became brighter and easier. Nilla taught me that with enough time, love, and comfort, life could make sense again. While we were still alone, the loneliness that made me feel empty was gone. Nilla had comforted me more than a dog, a friend, or a child. She was all of those things. She was my world, clothed in fur.
When Nilla was eight years old, I met David, who would become my second husband. On our first date, he told me about his golden retriever, who had been his closest companion during a trying time, died unexpectedly while in a kennel. Even though it had happened years before, his anguish was still palpable. That’s when we fell in love: when we found another person who had been brought back to life by the love of a dog.
David grew to love Nilla as I did, and Nilla got the human dad that I had wanted for her. Life was happy again. And even though Nilla could relax now and just be a dog, she thrived in her role as my emotional companion.
When Nilla was twelve, her left eye began to protrude from the socket. Several doctors came to the same conclusion. Nilla had a tumor, and her eye would have to be removed.
I worried about Nilla’s ability to function without her eye. The doctor told me that Nilla had gone blind in the affected eye months ago and that the surgery would therefore have no impact on her vision. I hated myself when I thought of all the years that I couldn’t adjust to anything without her. Now she had adjusted to going partially blind, and I hadn’t even noticed.
Six months after she had her eye removed, Nilla fell backward down the stairs and shook uncontrollably on the floor. David and I rushed her to the vet, worried that she had suffered a stroke. The doctor said that the tumor had grown back, and she wouldn’t have long to live.
In the days that followed, Nilla, my usual happy foodie, refused every morsel I gave her, including steak, chicken, and cookies. With every untouched meal, my heart broke a little more.
A week later, Nilla had given up on water too. Time was closing in on us. David and I laid with Nilla in the grass and spoke of the happier times we spent together running with her on the beach and swimming in the pool.
When the afternoon sun became too hot, we took Nilla inside and sat with her on the sofa. She laid her white face on my lap. For all the times she had comforted me, I wanted to make this better for her. The only way I knew I could do that was to say goodbye. David called the vet and asked if she would come to our house and put Nilla down later that day.
While we waited for the vet to arrive, I lied face to face with Nilla on the sofa. As the tears flowed over my cheeks and into her fur, she gazed at me lovingly through her one dimly lit eye. Over the years, she never said a word to make me feel better. Her calmness, her Godliness was my solace. Even as she lay dying, she was comforting me, assuring me that I would be okay without her. She bonded us together one last time with a grace that was all her own.
Nilla was gone by sunset. David carried her body to the vet’s car and laid it on the seat. As I watched the car disappear into the horizon, I sobbed from a place so deep inside me, I couldn’t feel the bottom.
I was emotionally adrift for a week. The emptiness Nilla left swallowed me whole. I looked for her everywhere, and sadness crushed me each morning when I remembered that she was gone.
Wanting to ease my pain about Nilla, David suggested that we get a puppy. While I appreciated his concern, I couldn’t bring myself to love another puppy. The pain of losing Nilla made me fearful of losing another one, and I wasn’t sure I could love another puppy as I had loved Nilla.
A month later, David and I went on vacation to St. Martin. While at a beach bar, an island dog approached us and sat at my feet. His lean, muscular body told me that he was homeless, or more appropriately, ownerless. Being with him made me smile; and after enjoying a few drinks on the French side of the island, I decided to name my new furry friend Henri.
When we walked to dinner, Henri joined us. Slightly in the lead, he guided us down the moonlit beach. I assumed he was hungry and wanted a meal. I had his number, I thought – be cute and courteous to the tourists and get free food.
When the burger that I had ordered Henri arrived, I put a piece of it on the ground. He didn’t even sniff it. He left the burger, untouched, while he stayed at my feet. Turns out Henri didn’t want anything from me, but somehow he knew that I needed something from him.
After we finished dinner, David and I walked down the beach with Henri in tow. When we got to our boat, I kneeled down to give Henri a hug goodbye. Before I could reach him, he saw another island dog in the distance and ran. Just like that, he was gone.
As I lay in bed that night, I thought about Nilla and everything she had taught me. She was so full of grace and love. She was a beacon of light and an anchor when my world seemed dark and empty. She taught me that no matter what emotional imposition we put on a dog, they aren’t meant to stay with us.
That’s the thing about dogs. They aren’t ours to keep. They are respites of unconditional love, lent to us by God when we need them, whether that be for minutes or years.
Three months after Nilla died, I found myself at the same kennel where I first fell in love with her. I picked up a female puppy, who, as the universe would have it, was Nilla’s niece. Her eyelashes were just as blonde and her fur just as perfectly hewn.
When she nuzzled my neck on the way to the car, I whispered in her ear, “I love you already, sweet girl. I love you already.”
Then I turned my tear-streaked face to the sky and smiled.
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