"Mom, there's something wrong with Tippy. She's licking everything and she looks tired." My heart sank when my 12-year-old said these words to me.
Tippy is our 8-year-old flat coated retriever mix. She is huge, but quite possibly the most loving, wonderful dog a parent could wish for. Being a big breed and a dog, I know her life span is not long. And, as her beard gets whiter and whiter, I am more acutely aware that we are destined for some sadness in the very near future.
I looked at Tippy and my son was right, she didn’t look like herself. She was lethargic. Her eyes were showing red. And then there was that little matter of wetness on her neck. I reached out to touch her where she was wet, she whimpered, and I felt a very large lump. Oh no. Please not now.
Both of the boys were watching me as I drew my hand back after feeling her neck. I must remain composed, I thought to myself. But I was worried. Not to mention it was almost 5 o'clock, and I knew my vet wouldn't be open for much longer.
"Well," I said, "I'm not sure what’s going on but I think I need to have the doctor check her out." This statement led to small gasps from the kids and for my older son, who had been picked out by TIppy all those years ago at the Nebraska Humane Society, he placed his head in his hands and started to shake his head.
My heart was pounding as I called the vet. I couldn't go through this again. Not now. Not in the summer when the kids would be home to feel the absence of our favorite pet. Please, I thought as I drove my sweet dog to the vet, please let her come home with me.
Luckily, our Tippy had what is called a hot spot. In her case it was acute (that means huge and very raw and oozy). But it was not life threatening. And with antibiotics, an Elizabethan collar and two other prescriptions for pain and swelling, she would return to her normal self (hopefully) within a week or so.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Let these furry friends into our lives, let them steal our hearts, let them eventually break our hearts? Well, I'll tell you. It's because we love. It's because some of us are animal lovers and we think that animals bring a fullness and completeness to our lives.
I don't remember a time in my life that I have not had animals. As a kid, we had dogs and a myriad of cats (and, a few hamsters, guinea pigs and fish as well.) I can remember being a kid nestling my head into the side of my dog, Mitzi, not being able to tell where her beautiful red fur ended and my matching hair began. She could look right through me and feel every emotion that needed to be tended to. My sisters and I witnessed the miracle of birth late one night as she introduced five of the sweetest wiggly little puppies into the world.
I had cats that would give us "gifts." Probably one of the most memorable gifts was that of waking up one morning my first night home from college and my old cat was snuggled up next to me on one side and a dead mouse on the other side of me. Eww, that was a little too thoughtful.
When I was first married, I brought to our relationship two cats. Eventually, we adopted a couple of dogs. These were our first children. We learned to care for something other than ourselves and to sacrifice time and money for their well-being. And then we had real kids.
Our first set of animals were already getting old when we had our first son. We were initially a little worried about one of the dogs, a half-German Shepard. He gave us no reason to be worried, but as a first time parent, I just didn't know. That worry proved to be short-lived as he became our son's nurse maid--sleeping no farther than 3 feet away from his boy at any given time. Almost every picture of my son as a baby has Scout somewhere in the picture.
And then, as animals do, they got old. And we started losing them. Explaining to a three-year old why things die was terrible. You have to remain calm, positive, and understanding all while wrestling with all the crazy emotions of losing something you love. (I do have to say that Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant helped all of us through each of the losses.)
Over time, we replaced the dogs with new Humane Society additions. We replaced the cats with new kittens. And now we have our animal family that consists of two very large dogs and a couple of very funny, comedic cats.
The kids play with the dogs. They snuggle with them. They receive comfort and love from them when nothing else will calm them. They make us laugh and occasionally make us a little angry. The dogs wait anxiously for the boys to come home from school or outings and greet them with happiness and excitement--every time. And the cats? Well, they put up with the kids by accepting occasional belly rubs and a scratch behind the ears. Overall, we are one big happy family.
But, I know it's going to come again. If not this time, someday. Someday we will have our hearts ripped out and stomped on. Someday, we will wonder about why we are given things to only lose them. And in the case of our animals, I think it's to teach us about unconditional love, how to care for and about something, to understand that life does continue after a loss and that as humans we have the capacity to frame happy memories and feelings in our heads.
And though sometimes I feel like I am the only one who notices when the food bowl is empty or the cat box needs to be cleaned or fur on what sometimes seems to be everything, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Now, that's true love.