My dog died last night. She was old and not in the best health. She was on borrowed time, as they say, and probably didn't have the best quality of life for awhile. But when the inevitable happens it still hurts - a lot. She was my girl. She was one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs that some people are just lucky enough to have come into their lives.
I got Baillan when I was a 21-year-old college student. She was one of those dogs that was just meant to be. I actually got my first dog as an adult when I was 20 years old -a young Golden Retriever called Haley. But Haley died in a horrible accident late at night on June 5th when she was only a year old. I never thought I'd get another dog, but while at work one night only a week after her death I was thumbing through the Classifieds and came across an ad for Labrador Retriever puppies. There were about 15-20 ad's for lab puppies, but this one stood out to me.
When I called and spoke to the woman she was very nice and told me all about the large litter of puppies. When I asked her about the mother of the pup's, she started crying. Apologizing she told me that the mother dog had died in her sleep late at night on June 5th. When I told her what happened to me on June 5th we both ended up crying. We both felt profound loss for each other. I asked her when the puppies were born. She said about 8 weeks prior, April 17, 1995. I remember my heart feeling like it sank into my stomach. "Are you kidding?" I asked. She was still teary, but confused by my question and said no, she was not. I told her that a year ago to the day, April 17, 1994, I had been in a very serious hit-and-run accident where I was riding my bicycle and was hit by a car. I suffered a short-term amnesia from the incident, but that date is forever etched in my mind as one of the most horrible dates of my life. I don't believe in fate, but it's the closest thing I've ever experienced.
The next morning I drove a very long drive on a very rainy day to the other side of town to see the puppies. I remember wearing cream jeans and a purple shirt and carrying a blue and white polka-dotted umbrella - a very odd combination for me. It's funny because I can't tell you what I was wearing at any other point in my life, but I remember that day so vividly.
When I got to the house the owner had a photo album of the puppies with the mother on a table along with AKC paperwork and a framed photo of the mother. I thumbed through the album quickly and looked immediately at all the puppies playing on the patio. There were black, brown and yellow puppies and they were muddy and messy and quite lost without their mother. I went out there to play with them and was immediately attacked by 11 muddy puppies who were crawling up my legs and chewing on my hair and trying to lick my face. I saw a very fat yellow puppy with a pink nose sleeping on its back in the middle of the fracas - her legs were flopped very awkwardly straight back and her pink belly was huge. I thought it was hilarious that she was sleeping with all the yipping and squeaking and paws everywhere. The owner explained that the pink nose is called a "dudley" - a genetic defect, meaning that she could never be a show dog.
I knew I had found my puppy. I laid down $350 that I had borrowed from my mother on the table and went home with her. I left my umbrella at the woman's house in my excitement to leave. My cream jeans were literally black with muddy paw prints and I had to throw them away when I got home. My heart was pounding. I drove home in the pouring rain with this fat yellow lump curled up on my lap fast asleep. I remember smelling her sweet milky puppy breath and feeling her chest raising and falling on my lap as she slept. That's how I ended up with Baillan.
When I was 21 I lived alone in a crappy duplex in a not-so-nice neighborhood next to my university. I think my parents were quite happy that I had bought a dog - a big one at that. When I was a kid in England, I grew up with a yellow lab called Lady, so having another yellow lab just felt right to me. She was a great dog. She was easily housebroken. She ate everything she could get her lips around. She was never vicious and always had a low, slow, waggy tail.
I had a boring summer job that year working in the janitorial office at the university. I just hung out behind a big old wooden desk and answered the phone. I read magazines, spoke to the janitors, waited for the phone to ring and went home. When I got Baillan I couldn't bear to leave her at home alone so I'd sneak her into work and stash her in the leg space under the desk. I only worked a few hours a day a couple of days a week so sneaking her in through the back door and letting her sleep under my desk worked out great. Sure, the janitors eventually busted me, but she was so sweet that they never told a soul she was under there.
I did all the things a responsible pet owner should do. We went to puppy school. We went to Advanced Obedience school. We even took a 45-minute drive to go to a pre-competition obedience class, but we eventually quit. To pass this class the dogs needed to do the "long sit-stay," which meant you'd tell your dog to sit and then walk 20-feet away and turn your back and wait 5 long minutes before turning back around and walking back to your dog. The dog is supposed to stay statue-still during this event, anxiously awaiting your return. Baillan always ended up falling asleep and laying down. She would start to snore and distract the other dogs. So, we quit that class because staying awake wasn't her specialty.
She suffered with a bit of a weight problem throughout her entire life. She was one of those dogs that literally could and would eat anything if she thought it might be food. She was absolutely attached to her plastic blue dog bowl. When she was young we often went for walks with her carrying the dog bowl in her mouth the entire time. She'd leave the house with it, go on the walk with it, set it down while she did her business, pick it back up, and carry it home.
When she was over 90 lbs once, a vet suggested mixing green beans in with her food so she felt like she was eating more, but wouldn’t gain weight from it. We ended up going through so many green beans that I had to order restaurant sized cans from the local grocery store. The manager would see me coming and say "hey - we got in some big green bean cans for your dog!" We eventually gave up that diet, but she developed a love of green beans.
She had a few close calls in her life including eating roach motels and half a bottle of Advil, both which required me to induce vomiting and rush her to the vet. One time my dad and my husband were assembling something in the living room and my dad had a handful of tiny screws and saw Baillan's bowl laying in the middle of the floor. He tossed the screws into the bowl so he wouldn't lose them. Dad turned around to get the screws and Baillan had already licked the bowl clean.
When she was about three I noticed her hips seemed to be bothering her. I saved up my money and got her hips x-rayed by the vet. He called me in quite solemnly to give me the bad news. I remember him saying that he's been a vet since before I was born and that Baillan's hip x-rays were some of the worst he had ever seen. He said if she didn't get a double hip replacement that I could expect her hips to worsen until she eventually became lame. This would drastically decrease her life expectancy. I shouldn't expect a dog with hip dysplasia this bad to live to more than about age 5 or 6. But, his final encouraging words were "Dogs will do what dogs want to do - just let her be and she might surprise you."
Like a good Lab she loved swimming and it was the best thing for her hips. She loved to swim, to bring back a stick, to walk in the woods and just to sleep upside-down on her back just like she was the day we first met. She just kept on trucking day after day and the years went by and Baillan kept persevering. As the years passed I moved house two more times, got married, had two children, lost my grandfather and my father and the one constant in my life was Baillan. That never changed.
She was diagnosed with a possible stomach cancer over a year ago after she threw up blood a couple of times. The vet said she might not live more than a few weeks or months, but that since she was eating and greeting me at the door that she probably wasn't in too much pain to go on. So she went on…In the end she couldn't see very well. Her legs often gave out and she'd collapse on our wood floors. She couldn't hear a thing. But her nose was as sharp as the day she was born and could sniff out the tiniest morsel of food even though she couldn't see it. No matter what, every morning she'd greet me and lay with us as the boys played in the playroom. She always ate, always went outside to do her business and if she woke up to hear us coming home, she always greeted me at the door with the thump of her low, slow, yellow waggy tail on the wall.
So here we are now almost 14 years after I brought her home. I have an empty dog bed under the window, a scratched up faded blue bowl in the kitchen, a dirty tattered dog collar in the laundry room and white clumps of dog hair under the dining room table. After Baillan passed away last night after what appeared to be a massive heart attack, the emergency vet pushed her paw into a flat coaster-sized piece of clay for us to keep as a memento. They imprinted her name on it and embellished it with a tiny red heart. It's sitting here next to my computer now.
What really hurts is the empty spot in my heart. When I came home today my husband's dog greeted us, but there was no low, slow, yellow waggy tail thumping on the wall this time. That will be very hard to get used to.