My old yellow lab turned 15 over the summer, and died a few weeks later. We’re now a 2-dog family, and the household has a different rhythm. It’s much more calm and quiet.
Bessie didn’t go about the business of aging in a dignified way. Nothing about my old girl was dignified. She was stubborn and single-minded, deaf when it suited her and vocally insistent when it was chow time. She had pongy breath and an arthritic gait.
She also didn’t have a mean bone in her body and never looked for trouble with other dogs or with people. With small children, she was surprisingly sweet and gentle, as though she was suddenly aware that her 70 pounds of bullish strength was almost inappropriate. In the presence of these ankle-biters, she restrained her exuberance and stepped about them carefully. At such times, she was an elephant in a tutu…larger than life yet temporarily dainty.
Bessie came to us when she was six, the victim of a divorce and a disrupted household that no longer had time for her. She’d been well trained and loved while it was convenient.
Her adjustment to our home took time. We endured several weeks of heartbreaking separation anxiety. She wanted her old family, the comfort of familiar surroundings and the many cookies and snacks we offered couldn’t change that. Gradually, though, Bessie became our dog and an unflappable member of our pack. She willingly licked dinner plates (we have a dishwasher, OK?) and trotted with us through the mountains. She happily rode in the old Bronco when we went exploring, and she slid effortlessly through the water in our small pond.
Our dogs have always been an unruly bunch and Bessie’s obvious training was a novelty to us. She came when called, stayed off the furniture, kept all four paws on the ground, and lay down on the spot when asked to do so. But we’re not so much into rules and good behavior in our home. We live in a very rural area with ample elbow room, surrounded by millions of acres of public land. Being unleashed isn’t a novelty for our pack, it’s a lifestyle.
Gradually, Bessie began to ignore commands. If you called to her, she’d look at you and then look away, fixing her gaze on something in the distance, something much more interesting. She’d lift her nose into the breeze, catch a scent of something deliciously putrid – and trot off in search of the prize. Since her gradual non-compliance was mitigated by her sweetness, we didn’t much care. We overlooked this new penchant to selectively ignore commands, finding this benign mutiny more endearing than annoying. We surmised that her true personality was emerging now that she didn’t live under the pressure of constant obedience. In fact, it really didn’t take long at all for her to completely eschew all learned commands and to let us know that nowadays, nobody was the boss of Bessie.
We simply shrugged our shoulders, figuring that acquiescing to her demands was easier than re-training our bull-headed lab. So we appeased her with cookies. Lots of cookies.
Despite Bessie’s refusal to listen to us, she was a happy, stout gal with a perpetual canine smile on her lips. (And be assured that dogs do smile.) She permitted a succession of younger dogs to chew on her legs and snout and tail, and she was good-natured when these mutts ran over the top of her during wild games of get the tennis ball. And she showed solid leadership traits when she lead the younger mutts into the hills to find rotting deer carcasses. These rancid snacks disgusted us, but even as we chased after Bess, deer entrails hanging from her chops, she seemed to be infused with so much sassy that despite our rage, we had to laugh.
As Bessie aged, her hearing went south and her substantial arthritis affected her knees and joints. If the pack was going for an evening stroll and she didn’t feel up to it, she’d walk us to the edge of the property, find a place in the shade, and settle down to wait for our return. We could see her slowing down and we truly knew our time with her was dwindling.
Bess was fragile that final season, and she whiled away her last months enjoying sweet summer breezes and cool green grass. An hour napping in the shade of a giant Ponderosa pine was nothing but joy and contentment and it didn’t matter that her hourglass was running out of sand. Her now was good; it was joyful.
Life without her is different and in many respects, easier. We have two dogs that pay attention to us and are more focused on tennis balls than raiding the bird feeder. They are athletic and healthy and don’t need a myriad of supplements to get them through the day. But the pack has changed, of this there is no doubt.
Our Bessie has indeed left the room.
Rest well, good girl.