This story was written years ago for my Cocker Spaniel, Brandy Noel. In honor of National Dog Day, I dedicate this story to Brandy, to my Dexter, and to all the dogs everywhere who touch our hearts and our lives every day. Make every day a National Dog Day – hug them, cherish them, and love them.
I never could have imagined walking into an animal shelter that crisp Sunday, December morning and leaving with a life coach, mentor, confidant, and role model, especially one in the guise of a four-pound, barely-there, runt of a Cocker Spaniel.
I remember telling the shelter volunteer, “I have no idea what brought me here, but it’s as if my car just drove itself into your parking lot this morning.”
“We hear that kind of thing a lot around here, ma’am, more times than I can count,” she informed me.
“Well, I’m just here to look,” I replied.
“Remember, you don’t pick one of them, they pick one of you,” her voice bellowed and trailed off as she went to answer the phone.
Having no idea what she meant, I opened the worn door, upon which a sign was posted, “Entrance only, no way out.” I felt like I did when I stood in line for the roller coaster as a kid: are these butterflies in my stomach a good thing or a bad thing, what if I change my mind once it starts, did I make a mistake thinking I could do this?
The moment our eyes locked amidst the barking and chaos, I recalled the words on the sign “no way out.” Her eyes fixated on mine while all the other dogs barked or paced, trembled and pleaded to be released from their cages. My girl said, “It’s about time you got here lady, you’ve been waiting for me all your life.”
Maybe you know this look, the gaze that refuses to let go the first time your eyes meet. Miss Independent simply sat there, annoyed to have been in a cage at all, tiny squeak toy and pellets of dog food strewn about, soiled newspaper beneath (clearly not an environment to which she was meant to become accustomed).
And it all happened so very fast, those next few moments. Swiftly and without a fear in the world, I signaled for the kennel attendant. Certainly this is what the gal at the front desk meant . . . I didn’t pick one of them, she picked me.
Our bond was one described in good “puppy how-to” books. I hesitated in wanting to get too close to my new friend, for like everything in life, nothing good lasts forever, right? She needed me, and that was a very scary concept. But she loved me at 6 AM with disheveled hair, greeted me with Cocker piddles at the site of my return from work at 5 PM, and most importantly, in loving me, time was meaningless.
I dubbed her Brandy Noel . . . the Brandy for her brassy color and the Noel because I believe some divine intervention brought us together that near-to-Christmas Sunday morning.
As days passed into months, and this puppy grew into a little lady, I decided that if my canine friend could accept me without restraint, then why shouldn’t I do the same and pass it on?
Passing It On
We began visiting the elderly who lived in nursing homes and retirement communities. Brandy brightened their lives, as she did mine, with her presence. We met folks who were lonely and isolated, whose families lived far away or who simply had no time for them. People who would not speak to caregivers, spoke to Brandy with such sincerity and gratitude, that I ended up receiving more than I ever gave.
I came to love Lillian like a second mother during our visits to one of the retirement communities. When her memory began to fail and she started having problems with the little things in life that so many of us take for granted, I worried that Brandy’s presence could cause unnecessary stress. When Lillian began to stop recognizing certain people in her life, I feared the same would happen with Brandy and she might be startled or scared.
I decided to make one last visit and let Brandy say her good-byes. Brandy’s demeanor changed as soon as we entered Lillian’s apartment. She gingerly walked over to Lillian, lay at her feet and rolled onto her back in true cocker fashion. Lillian, who at this point was chair-bound, leaned forward and rubbed Brandy’s belly. Clearly, Brandy’s presence brought light to an otherwise shadowy life. In that moment, Lillian’s memory was clear. Laughter and love are universal, I thought to myself, time cannot steal those.
Evan, Lillian’s husband of forty-five years, helplessly watched as his wife’s memory waxed and waned, a darkness clouding over his heart. We continued our visits, and Brandy would spend time with Evan, getting him to laugh, tossing a tennis ball for the endless cycle of canwedoit–canwedoit–huh-huh–onemoretime that Retriever and Spaniel owners know so well.
For a little while, with those cocker eyes pleading with him for one more tennis ball toss, Evan could forget. Brandy couldn’t stop what time was doing, but she did teach us all to live in the here and now.
The path of Alzheimer’s disease is one of broken sidewalks and unexpected dark holes. Lillian’s declining health and failing memory eventually took a toll on the love of her life. Over the course of several months, Evan’s own physical well-being suffered. He was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular disorder, the onset of which was rapid and without warning.
Soon, it became apparent that Lillian and Evan would need more care than their home environment could provide. Evan’s physicians recommended a hospice care center for him and the hospice staff came to know and love Brandy. Evan was so proud of this little dog and looked forward to tossing her a tennis ball, even into his final days.
On what would be her last visit to the hospice ward, Brandy curled up next to Evan on his bed, as he was no longer lucid and slowly slipping from this world. She stayed by his side, as if she sensed a change. That evening, an hour after we left his bedside, Evan passed away. Alzheimer’s disease insulated Lillian from experiencing this devastating loss.
Lillian moved in with us at our home, and we cared for her around-the-clock, Cocker Spaniel by our side. The visiting nurses and aides were always greeted by a bundle of energy, as Brandy would stay near them when they tended to Lillian. Ever the protector, she was looking out for her special friend.
Less than two month’s after Evan’s death, Brandy was with Lillian in her final moments and provided comfort to those of us who grieved. Prior to slipping into a coma, Lillian gently stroked Brandy’s back. Just as Lillian was granted a life reprieve of not grieving her husband, we realized Evan was granted the same. These two souls were now forever reunited, and during their final days on earth, a little Cocker Spaniel sensed the good-bye and never left their side.
Onward We Go
Today, we visit the cemetery where Lillian and Evan were laid to rest. The once reddened muzzle of my furry soul mate has now turned to snow, as the months have turned into years. Brandy is spunky, a two-time cancer survivor, and shows very few signs of slowing down with age. As we approach the headstone, Brandy wags her tail in a fluttering fashion. I wonder if she is saying hello, telling Lillian and Evan we are all okay here on earth. Or, perhaps she simply caught the scent of a rabbit or other small game in the area.
Fourteen years of love thus far, and I am thankful for each day she walks this path of life with me. Fourteen years since that cold, December Sunday morning in which she has taught me that while we as humans may delay, time will not and that the only way out is to truly live in the moment.
Since writing this story in the summer of 2008, I would lose my Brandy Noel on October 11, 2008, just one week before her 15th birthday. We had to let our little girl go, and my entire heart went with her. I wrote about her for the Oldies But Goodies Cocker Spaniel Rescue site, and every time I see her image with the other dogs at the Rainbow Bridge, the all too familiar hollow hurt in my stomach returns. I will carry the pain of losing her for as long as I live. She has inspired me in oh so many ways, and I will forever know that her love is the basis for so much I do.
So today and always, hug your dog, say a prayer or give pause for thought to the dog whom you have loved and lost. For many of us, the loss of dogs is the constant reminder of how short life truly is.
Celebrate life today, and celebrate dogs always. Love never ends.
“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them.
And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart.
If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog,
and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”