**Note: This blog was weeks in the making… I’d write a little bit and then it got too hard and I’d stop. This is why the time frame is a bit off and I dip between past and present tense. I was going to edit it, but… again… too hard. So, I left it in its raw format. Oh, and fair warning, it’s long. **
Ellie came to our family 13 years ago, when I was newly married and sick with grief and never, ever, ever, ever wanted another dog.
At that point in my life, putting my 14-year-old lab down was the worst thing I’d ever been through. Even now, after years of challenges – losing a home, surgeries, medical scares, sitting with my children in hospitals – putting Spanky down still ranks up there with one of the most awful experiences of my life.
While I was still in the thick of mourning, Kyle came home late from work. I was annoyed. Even on a great day, I’d be annoyed. But, this day especially… I wasn’t sleeping, my heart was broken and I just wanted to crawl under the covers. I couldn’t believe he could be so insensitive as to be late. But, when he got out of the car, with a goofy grin and this little golden fuzzball tucked up under his arm, a portion of my heart smiled again.
I never picked Ellie out. Never saw her litter or met her parents. Never researched her breed or questioned her breeder. But, when Kyle handed me that little puppy, he handed me a best friend. Since that moment, Ellie has been loved every day – every minute – of her life.
From the beginning, Ellie seemed to understand that her job was to absorb the grief I’d been carrying. She was kind and gentle and earnest. Even as a playful puppy, she had a peaceful demeanor. It’s amazing how much dogs can communicate without words. She helped me get through that dark time and countless dark times after that… just by being there.
Ellie’s lifelong mission has been to make us happy. She just always wanted to do what we needed her to do. As soon as she figured out what that was, she did it every time. Without fail.
Throughout her life, she has only ever had two vices, which I’ve allowed because, when you have a dog that good, you allow them some foibles.
- She digs. Ellie digs for the pure love of digging. She doesn’t bury anything. She doesn’t dig up anything. She just loves throwing dirt around. If you know Goldens… you know they smile. And, Ellie smiles her biggest and brightest when elbow-deep in fresh dirt. Even better is when she’s exhausted herself digging and can then wallow and nap in her efforts. (She requires lots of bathing and my floors require lots of mopping.)
- She loves dirty laundry… especially socks. (The stinkier the better.) As a puppy, she would steal them, hoard them, hide them and then roll in them when she thought we weren’t looking. When that got old, she’d “show” you her prize. She’d prance in front of you with her sock, her tail wagging her whole body. Then she’d come rub it on you, drag it across your legs, jump up beside you and hold it in your face. But, oh… if you tried to grab it, she’d dash off with it. We lost soooo many socks that first year.
Quick story: One day, when she was still quite young, we had company over. After greeting everyone (see: bathing them in kisses), she ran off to our room. I kinda figured she’d come back with a sock since she always had one or two hidden under the bed for special occasions. But, she had bigger ideas than that.
A minute later, Ellie came running back in the room… proud as a peach… with my lingerie.
What ensued was several horrifying minutes (for us) and pure joy for our puppy. I kept better tabs on my lingerie from then on.
Here’s a fun fact about Ellie: She is completely housebroken and has been since her first week of life with us. She’s just so good about it. But, whenever I bring a baby home from the hospital, she poops on the floor. Just once. Every time. We don’t know why.
Is it excitement? Is it confusion? Is it a peaceful protest?
The world may never know.
My favorite thing is to make Kyle clean up those “welcome home” presents because Kyle has a powerful gag reflex and I have a sick sense of humor. (Oh, and I’ve just had a baby so… trump card!)
Despite her unusual habit, Ellie adores each one of our babies from the moment they come home. I’d often find her sleeping by the crib of whoever was the newest in our family. And… my goodness… she loves baby toes. Ellie would sometimes sit at the base of our baby swing, her head swaying with its rhythm, just doing her darndest to lick those little toes as they swung by.
Oh, and high chairs. I can’t forget that Ellie loves a baby in a high chair. For obvious reasons.
When Gabi was just a few weeks old and Ellie was just over a year, we had to evacuate for a hurricane. Since she was a baby puppy, Ellie has always gotten very car sick. Within the first 30 minutes of any car ride, Ellie loses her lunch… even if she didn’t have any lunch or any dinner. It always amazed me how much she could still throw up even with Dramamine! She’s mostly outgrown it, but it was really awful in her younger years.
Anyway, we were evacuating in Kyle’s little Dodge Stratus. I was in the back seat with our newborn so I could watch her and feed her, if need be. Ellie sat in the front seat and… I don’t know… probably fifteen minutes into our trip, she vomited in the cup holder. Our four-hour drive to high ground ended up being 14 hours because of evacuation traffic. During that time, Ellie threw up countless times into that cup holder. Each time, Kyle would sweat and dry heave and complain under his breath. I’ve never laughed so much in my life.
We lost our home in that hurricane and spent a year technically homeless – bouncing around to different family members’ homes with our newborn. We lost a lot in that storm. Everyone did. While we were trying to pick up the pieces, Ellie stayed with my sister in Arizona. We drove her halfway and yes… she was sick during most of it. I ached for her during that short time we were separated.
As soon as we got a home, we brought Ellie back. We just picked up where we left off. Gabi was starting to walk by that point and she would hold Ellie’s tail as she’d take those first shaky steps around the house.
Over time, all of our babies have taken those early unsure, wobbly steps gripping some piece of Ellie. It’s been a rite of passage. Looking back, I think she must have wanted it that way. She sure positioned herself to be at the right place, at the right time.
Life with Ellie has been amazing. We never have to worry if she’ll do the right thing, if she’ll behave in public, if she’ll walk nicely on a leash, if she’ll warmly welcome our guests – whether person or creature. When she was around two, she received her AKC Canine Good Citizen certification and she’s been an ambassador with several different groups to teach about pet care and safety, as well as do therapy work with children.
I’ve seen little kids who are deeply fearful of dogs warm up with Ellie. You can’t not love her.
I was always happy to share Ellie, but, she’s primarily been our therapy dog. That puppy has put in overtime in our home, keeping us all afloat at our lowest moments.
Ellie has loved my babies as much – or, if I’m being honest, sometimes better – than me. Never barks. Never bites. Never loses patience. (Whereas, I lose my patience all the time.) She loves to play with them, though she doesn’t fetch anymore or have much interest in toys. She allows them to dress her up. Smother her in blankets. Use her as a pillow when they’re watching movies. She welcomes them to dig with her, loves it when they play in the mud. (Gosh, she loves it when they’re naughty. I swear, she encourages them!) She still licks their toes and looks for dropped crumbs of whatever they’re eating. If they put a leash on her, she’ll trot along wherever they take her and, when her joints aren’t too creaky, she’ll do her tricks over and over and over, even though they never give her treats. She does it just for the sheer joy of hearing them giggle and clap.
It’s always been a policy that Ellie didn’t sleep in our bed. That’s the same policy we have with our kids. But, in both situations, rules have been broken.
Ellie sleeps with me whenever Kyle goes out of town. I need someone to fill his space in the bed. I need someone next to me who would also do whatever it takes to protect my babies. I’ve always known that — at the end of the day and as sweet as she is — Ellie would happily give her life to protect any one of us.
Happily. Like she does everything.
I’ve seen her in action only once when the kids were playing in my parents yard. Ellie and I were casually watching them when my uncle (who’s tall with a big beard) kinda popped up out of nowhere. It was the only time I’ve seen her growl or snap at anyone. She stopped the minute I said her name reassuringly, but I’m convinced she would’ve defended those babies to the utter end if I needed her to. I never forgot that and it made me feel safe.
I could go on forever about this puppy. And, I probably will for a long time. But, here comes the hard part…
Ellie is sick. And she’s not getting better.
We found a bump on her back earlier in the year. It wasn’t very big or remarkable. Just a bump. As an old dog, Ellie is full of bumps and weird smells and white fur. She’s earned the right to be a funny-smelling, bumpy old lady. Plus, the vet said bumps here and there aren’t a big deal in an older dog.
But, over time we noticed that Ellie’s also been doing some other weird things. Barking and crying a lot – especially for a dog that has spent her life never doing much of either. She would be ravenous for water, even when she had a fresh bowl sitting right by her. She’d throw up occasionally – no rhyme or reason why. Her stools weren’t normal. Her diet’s been off and she’s been eating odd things that aren’t food. She’s been extremely lethargic, like even more so than usual. I would have to force her to get up and come inside because once she laid down somewhere, she never wanted to move.
Again, we talked to the vet and there were a lot of possibilities as to why… dogs throw up sometimes, she may have eaten something that’s upsetting her stomach, she could be anxious, her vision is getting bad, her hearing is getting bad… She’s just getting confused more often… Everything was always summed up with: she’s getting older.
Until, finally, this Easter, we found that the small bump on her back wasn’t a bump anymore. It was a mass – a large, grapefruit-sized, weepy, puss-filled mass. Almost overnight it’d gone from nothing to definitely something.
We took her right in to the vet. They frowned and scratched their heads. They did a biopsy. Did some more frowning. And, eventually said – inconclusive. They couldn’t tell if it was cancer or not.
Inconclusive is a terrible word, you know. Not quite relief. Not quite dread. Just worry.
When you have an older dog, you have to be proactive, but conservative. So, we did the less invasive route of treating it like a skin infection. She was on handfuls of medications. And, after some time passed, it had gotten much, much better! We thought we were home free…
… Until, it came back weeks later.
So, we treated it again.
It got better, then came back again.
So, we tried again.
But, each time it came back, it was worse than before and she’d exhibit new symptoms.
She also started growing new bumps. Two on her head, one by her eye. With less fur on her head, we could see them more clearly… and they were getting bigger every day.
Our final options were to either do surgery or put her down. The catch is there’s no guarantee that she’ll wake up from the surgery. In fact, the odds aren’t great that she will. (Her whole life, Ellie’s had trouble with anesthesia and pain medication.)
And, then there’s the question of what surgery would do. Would it buy us a year? A few months? And, what would that time look like? Could she still play? Could she still dig? Would she still enjoy being around the kids? Would the other symptoms go away? Would we eventually need to operate on the new bumps?
It’s been a slippery slope of miserable considerations. Either choice has felt unbearable.
Privately, Kyle and I have debated what to do… prayed about what to do… cried about what to do… stayed up late talking about what to do… We’ve changed our minds a dozen times. Made decisions, then made other decisions.
There are no easy choices.
I finally stopped praying that Ellie would get better and started praying that I would know when we should stop trying to fix her.
When you start changing your prayers… That’s when you kinda know. Even if you don’t want to know.
The confirmation I was looking for came sooner than expected.
Last Sunday, we let Ellie out before we left for church. She wasn’t acting right… there’s no real way to describe it… She just seemed off… like she was there but not there at the same time. And, then she got sick… all over the yard. And, then she laid down and wouldn’t get up.
I hate that the kids saw it because it terrified them. We rustled them into the car while Kyle went back to try to get Ellie moving again and see what was going on. In the car, Gabi kept crying, “Are we putting her down? Are you guys thinking of putting her down? Please, tell me we’re not putting her down…”
I couldn’t answer her. I could only cry.
And, so they cried. And, we all cried all the way to church. We could only stay for a little bit before we had to come back. No one could stop crying.
After weeks of not knowing, Kyle and I finally knew what we should do. It was an awful, awful realization. But, we can’t watch her suffer. We can’t put her through anymore pain.
We had an honest conversation with the kids. It was as heartbreaking as I thought it might be. They understand, but it doesn’t make it easier.
These babies haven’t lived a day of their lives without that puppy. They haven’t spent a day wondering where she was. They haven’t had a morning when she wasn’t thrilled to see them. They haven’t spent a night without her watching over our house. They haven’t spent a minute outside in the backyard without her dancing at their feet, begging them to let her go, too.
They are broken over this. We are all broken over this.
This is our family member. This was our “firstborn in the wilderness,” as we often joke. This is my baby. This is our baby.
Ellie is a selfless creature. But, now, loving her is requiring us to be selfless. And, I hate it. Because, I want so badly to put this off. I want so badly to fix it. I want so badly to throw every dollar I have at this problem and pray it’s enough to make it go away. But, I love her. So much. And, loving her means that I know it’s time to say goodbye.
Yesterday, my dad came over to visit with the kids. He knows this is hard for all of us. He’s been through it himself…
During the visit, Holland asked my dad if he had a dad.
My dad said, “Yes, I do! He lives in heaven.”
And, Holland said, “He does? Does he like dogs?”
You see, since Sunday, Holland’s been looking for someone who will take care of Ellie in heaven.
My dad assured him that his daddy does love dogs – very much – and, he’d be happy to take care of Ellie for us. I’m holding out hope that he will.
Those are the things that kill you. That shatter you into a million pieces. Feeling that grief yourself, but then watching your kids hurt…
It’s. The. Worst.
I’ve worried that sharing this with the world will turn off others off from owning a dog. So, I just want to end this by saying that, no matter how bad it hurts, the joy Ellie’s given us over the years has far, far exceeded this pain.
Ellie has been worth it.