Our first encounter with grief as a family was in 2008, when we lost Comet.
Comet, our male German shepherd, was our steadfast guardian, watching over Cole as a baby as if he were his own, and keeping us all in line and behaving. We sobbed all weekend, feeling like our hearts would never heal.
A few mornings later, as I headed to my car after dropping Cole off at day care, a parent stopped me in the parking lot. “My daughter said Cole was really saddened and that you had a death recently?” she asked.
I nodded. “We did, we lost Comet.”
“Our German shepherd.”
The woman burst out laughing. “Oh, it was just a dog. I thought it was family.”
Just a dog. Those words stung and I know sadly, that’s how a lot of people feel. It’s just a dog.
To us, it’s the family we got to choose, rescue, save.
It’s not just a dog, but our friends, companions, our closest, most trusted confidantes.
That grief first found us all those years ago, nearly devastated us in 2013, and now has found us again. Our Ava passed away suddenly this past week, surrounded by us, on the new bed she got for Christmas. I say suddenly, but truthfully, my sweet girl had been sick for a while.
It was a combination of things really. She had systemic lupus, and it is a chronic and unpredictable disease. We tried everything we could to help treat her. She was on several medicines, some which were as problematic as the disease, holistic treatments, and a special diet.
We made sure her environment was stable as we found erratic changes could cause a flare.
After two years of what we thought was a manageable and stable condition, she suddenly started showing some drastic changes this summer.
“She’s acting like a much older dog,” Lamar commented one day.
I agreed. She was.
But she was still her sweet, loving self, so I thought she was just having a few rough days. Those rough days strung together to weeks, then months.
We took her to the vet and hoped she’d get better, but it seemed to go from one extreme to the other. Nothing seemed to help but still we hoped.
We hoped this was just a rough little patch and she’d be fine.
We hoped that the next medicine would help her and do the trick. We hoped she would bounce back and be OK.
And more than anything, we hoped she’d be here with us a lot longer than she was. There’s never enough time, and there’s always the guilt that we could have done something different, done something more, or just loved her a little harder.
The week before she passed had been one of those rough ones. Just two days before, she had seemed so fragile and she didn’t want to eat, lying on her bed in our bedroom. I noticed she looked so thin, but we wondered if it was maybe just because she wasn’t as bloated as she had been.
“I’ll make you some rice broth, girl,” I told her and she perked up. She drank the broth up greedily and seemed to get some energy. “I’m making you some chicken, too.”
Her big vocabulary understood what I was saying. She ate that day; she ate real well in fact, and it gave me hope that she was going to be fine and was just having a flare. The next day, she was slow to wake up again but she got up around 11 a.m.
“Venus got to where she took a bit to get going in the morning,” I said to Lamar. He nodded.
Difference was, Venus was 14, and Ava was only 7.
She tried to get in Lamar’s lap later, with us laughing that she wasn’t a lap dog. She tried to run in the backyard but her gait was slower, a bit more clumsy.
That evening, she seemed to fade awfully fast. She didn’t even want her warmed chicken with pumpkin. She turned away from broth. The next morning, we knew the inevitable but held on to hope.
We surrounded her and loved on her, praising her and thanking her for being our friend and in our lives as she took her last breath. The last words she heard was that she was the best girl of all and that we loved her so much.
“Wait for me at the Bridge, Ava,” I said sobbing. “Wait for me.”
My tiny cabin suddenly feels so big and empty.
My morning routine is off, as I always greeted her with an ear scratch as I headed out of the bedroom to get coffee. Now, my heart aches seeing the little tray that held her assorted medicines and supplements she had to take each day sitting by the coffee maker.
The fridge is full of her meals I made for her, that she didn’t get to eat.
When I was walking through the store the other day, I found myself wondering if I needed to get anything for her — it made me stop suddenly to blink back tears.
Our days had been consumed with making her food, getting her food, making sure she had exercise, Lamar cleaning her sometimes 20 times a day, making sure she was comfortable, that now, we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We’d do it all over again, though, if it meant she was here.
Somehow she had pretended the whole time that she was OK because she was wanting to soak up every little bit of us she could.
One of her vets had even said that a few months ago. “She must be hurting but she is putting up a great front. She is acting like she is fine.” We thought that was just with that one episode but now, we realize she was meaning Ava was in pain in general. She never indicated she was in pain, not to us anyway.
I suppose if love could have healed her, both our love for her and hers for us, she would still be here healthy and whole.
But, it wasn’t enough. Nothing was.
To those who haven’t had the love of a fine dog, the best dog, the goodest girl ever, it may be ‘just a dog,’ but to us, she was a big part of our family. And she’s left a void that may never be filled.
Sudie Crouch is an award-winning humor columnist residing in the North Georgia Mountains. Her recently published book, ‘Mama Said: A Collection of Wit, Wisdom, and Deep-Fried Humor’ is available in paperback and Kindle download on Amazon.