Today, grief, like rogue waves, hits me with an unpredictable force
And kicks me to the sandy bottom of my soul.
I know, as with every loss before this, that these waves will calm,
And will become gentle breakers that ease me into the sea
Of my memories of Bella.
She was a tough little cookie when she got here. Straight off the streets of Oakland, she was finding the Wine Country not exactly her cup of tea. They called her Roxie and she showed up complete with relics from her previous life: a long and deep scrape tattooed onto her left side. A gimpy leg. They hadn’t treated her well, not well at all, in the construction yard where she was born and lived for her first twelve weeks.
She stood quite a distance from us, refusing to even look when we called to her from our back steps. Her escort, our neighbor from down the street, tried to coax her to respond, but she stubbornly looked away from her, too.
I decided I’d better make the first move, not let her attitude interfere with my instincts to go hold her. I approached her slowly, sensing her about to bolt, and cooed softly as I walked toward her standing under our magnificent Mimosa tree.
“Hey, girl. Hey, Roxie. It’s okay. We are just here to see if you’d like to stay. Let’s check it out together, sweetheart…” I said in my softest tones.
Her left ear lifted toward me and she turned her full muzzle into my view. A bandit mask, beautiful black and gold, and above it soft, scared, blackish-brown eyes beseeched me to go away. Her right ear stayed down, giving her a funny lopsided vulnerability. I dropped down into the dirt under the tree right beside her. She leaned against my body with her full weight and that is the moment I fell in hard “in like” with her.
She had big paws to fill. Only months earlier, our beloved boy, Boris, had bolted during the godawful racket of the July 4th fireworks and had been killed by a car. We were bereft, feeling as we had about him, our first post-children leaving the house doggie. He was big and brave and beautiful, magnificent really. This homely shy little girl-dog did not compare. We weren’t really ready to love again, but here she was, a rescue pup.
The next few weeks allowed us to get to know each other. She was clearly afraid of men, any man, so most of the caretaking at first fell to me, not John. The construction workers must have been careless or mean, or both, so she leapt out of the way at the sound of any feet coming toward her. She was always hungry, living as she had with her mother and several little brothers and sisters, dependent on the largesse of strangers walking by the construction yard and shoving bits of fast food through the fence at the brood. After a couple of weeks of steady meals, her ribs disappeared, and never made themselves known again.
She didn’t seem like a Roxie. Once her fear dissipated, she had no attitude whatsoever, only a kind and shy demeanor, dignified for her young age. We wanted to think she would ultimately turn less discombobulated-looking, owning as she did a round Rottweiler body with a thick neck and huge shoulders, tiny little Heeler legs and delicate feet, and a pin-head with those lopsided ears topping the whole mess. So we renamed her Bella, hoping that would eventually come true.
Bella always greeted us with a wagging tail and a big grin on her masked face, often when we had only been in the other room for a second. But she didn’t like to be alone. One day, when we were both at work, she almost strangled herself with the venetian blinds’ cord hanging by the back of the couch where she perched while we were gone, looking longingly for us out the picture window at the front of our house. Luckily our neighbor spotted her, broke into the house through a bedroom window, and rescued her. Otherwise, this story would be much shorter.
We were getting closer as the weeks wore out, but as in all relationships, there was one moment when the bond was sealed. At six months, we had Bella spayed. The experience caused her great anxiety and much discomfort. After the operation, she slept on our bed, creeping up to my pillow to softly lay her head on my neck and moan through the night. I held her and comforted her and explained that we women had to bear such things, but that it too would pass. She understood and eventually settled down enough to sleep peacefully right next to my head.
One time, soon after that, in a fit of exhaustion and misplaced anger, I took off for a few days, ran away from home. Bella was newly recovering from her spaying and I didn’t want to leave her so I tossed her in the car along with my suitcase and shitty attitude. We drove for about 3 hours. I grabbed a jug of wine and a pack of cigarettes (my first in a few years – the cigs, not the wine) on the way to checking into a motel. Lying through my teeth about not having a pet and being a non-smoker, I slunk into my room. As darkness fell, I grabbed my smokes and my dog out of the car, poured the wine into a plastic water bottle and walked for miles with Bella, smoking and sipping and carrying on a one-way conversation, with Bella ignoring my slurs (both kinds). That was the beginning of my habit for the next ten years, telling my confidante everything negative. I told her things that no one else has ever heard. She never once betrayed my confidences. Now, that is a best friend.
As though we had a sign like they used to have during the depression, a white cross by the backdoor to let hobos know that there was a handout inside the door, our house seemed for awhile to be a magnet for strays. A little kittie, Fishkin, had wandered into our yard and stayed. Fishkin easily became accustomed to our newcomer, Bella. Then Molly, a Huskie-Shepherd mix showed up too, when Bella was about 9 months old. The two became fast friends, more like mother and daughter, really. And soon after that the grandbabies started coming, with Bella acting her maternal self with them as well. She warned them gently if they became too rough or too physically affectionate, and submitted docilely to everything else. She taught them how to please her, and please her, they did, filling her dog bowls with food and water, giving her treats, rubbing her ears, and straddling her rotund body with baby hugs.
The only time Bella showed any impatience with anyone had to do with food. She loved it, didn’t want anyone interfering with regular snacks, and looked forward to her special treats, especially ribs. This little doggie loved barbequed ribs. John cooked ribs, ribs and more ribs for those girls, Bella and Molly. Even when they were fed outside, they dragged those damn rib bones, stripped bare, into the house and arranged them in crop circles at every opportunity. You would think they would want to bury them, but no. They liked making them public works of art all across our living room area rug. More than one dinner guest was grossed out by this ritual.
One time John’s dear friend, Roscoe, a chef par excellence and former owner of Roscoe’s Tacos and Downright Dogs in Altadena, CA, came for a cookout at our house. John barbequed the fish and veggies on “our” Weber and then carefully placed the ribs on “the dog’s” Weber. Roscoe had a hissy. He said, “Man, where I come from, those ribs are much finer eating than that nasty fish you’re cooking.” He snatched the ribs off the grill, marinated them with his special BBQ sauce and put them back on for the humans. Bella gave him a stink look, even when he shared the bare bones with her after he finished the delicious rib meat. The dogs never talked to him again.
We sometimes referred to Bella as “Bette”. She had a walk just like Bette Midler, little mincing steps topped by a big chest and a great voice. She would prance through the house early mornings, her toenails clip, clipping along, getting ready to sing for her early morning Milkbone. Her butt swayed and her chest jutted out and you could almost hear, “Some say looooove, it is a hunger….” coming from her doggie lips.
Bella had two ways of letting you know how much she loved you, her wide gummy grin and/or her beating tail whenever you crossed into her view. That is, if you were the good guy. If you were the bad guy, watch out. Her deep chested bark could scare the crap out of the toughest man, but the growl was reserved for the truly evil. Her post at our front doorstep, a lookout onto the mean streets of Napa, gave her the opportunity to hone her astute powers of character judgment, which she exercised with considerable vehemence. New releases from the State Hospital, meth freaks, all delivery people except for Doug, the regular postman, and any snotty nose purebred dogs that happened by got a sample of her brand of “Whoop-ass” should they make the mistake of crossing in front of our house. The rickety white picket fence was all that stood between the bad guy and her, and you got the feeling that she would knock it down if need be, should any of those creeps get any closer. She always made me feel very safe, even in the middle of the night with John out of town and all the sounds of an old house conspiring to bring back my childhood fear of the dark.
She was a hunter, my girl, but not a chaser. She and Molly spent endless hours out by the river in the deep grass, sniffing for rabbits. Bella had a little white cotton ball on the end of her tail, which while hunting she held high in the air, waving it like a flag for Molly to follow. Bella would find the rabbits and Molly would chase them. Bella mincing like Bette Midler as fast as she could behind Molly…for a yard or two, the two dogs ran. Then Bella would lie down and wait for a panting Molly to return to her, mostly without any prey, to begin the chase again. After, they would both wander down to the river, wade in up to their bellies (about 5 inches of water for Bella, a foot, for Molly) and lick at the water for minutes at a time. Soaking wet, stinking like a sewer, they would climb into the dog bowl of John’s car and return home, victorious.
Bella’s bed, also known as our living room couch, was a constant embarrassment when guests came for a visit. But we didn’t have the heart to chase her off it. Febreeze stock rose every time we had company, we sprayed so much of it. At night, sitting by her, sharing her bed, staring into the fireplace together, was a pleasure I will never forget. Worth every stinking moment.
She also loved to “hop” onto our bed in the mornings while John and I shared coffee and the paper before starting our days. And by “hop” I mean, her putting her front paws up onto the bed and John or I lifting her fat ass the rest of the way. She would scooch up on her belly, like a gorilla soldier in a foxhole, position herself right next to my legs, flop over and stretch out, every bit of her back touching some part of my body. Calmly she accepted my absent minded stroking while I sipped and read. Her favorite moment was when I bent over to speak to her and she could sniff my morning breath, apparently a fragrance that reminded her of some of the better butts had had smelled.
She would stay up there on the bed as long as we did, sometimes for hours on a Sunday morning. She had the biggest bladder of any sentient being I have ever known, could go longer between pees than between meals. So lounging for hours was no problem. In the later years, in order for her to get down from our high bed, we brought in a hassock as a stepstool and she learned to maneuver these gymnastics quite well. She looked like a seal slipping into the water as she exited the bed, and often landed with a splash on the carpet below.
It was gradual at first. She hunted less, had a harder time getting up on her bed, ate more and more, and “hunted” only very occasionally, then not at all. She got fatter and more lethargic, but not any less loving. Last Fall, a minor bladder infection led to tests and we finally discovered that she had an autoimmune disease that could only be treated by massive doses of steroids. Like a miracle, they made her much more limber and able to walk more freely for a while. She could get in the car and go, walk around the block with us, go up and down the front steps at will. She “hopped” up on the bed a time or two, and we felt the old pleasure of having our big girls singing for a bone, and resting by our feet while we read the paper in bed.
But the dark side of the steroids surfaced too soon: ravenous appetite, insatiable, really, followed by more weight gain, a thinning of her fur and skin. Lethargy set back in and she spent her days at the top of the front steps, gazing out onto the street she had known all her life, lifting her voice or tail depending upon who walked by. She watched out for us as best she could, and greeted us with the banging tail, even though now her brow was furrowed more often than not.
The last few months, she followed us around the house and flopped down nearby wherever we landed. Her soft brown eyes implored us for food, drink, loving rubs, attention. She was restless at night as we slept. I would wake to hear her pat, patting around the house, her ummph as she landed, her nails scrabbling as she tried to arise again. Sometimes, at night, I felt like I had when the kids were teenagers, listening as I slept for them to return home, felt like something was not quite right, that all was not well in this world. But, unlike those nights when the kids did get in and I could settle down, there was no relief for me or Bella.
Then, the pressure sores began to appear and we tried one more time to take her to the vet and attempt to heal them. That’s when she went on strike. She was not getting in that goddam car one more time and she adamantly refused to get down off the porch to go. So smart, she had long ago figured out what a car ride meant and she wasn’t having any of it. She had been tested, poked, prodded, treated and weighed quite enough, thank you. So, the vet ordered more medicine, told us that it “might” work, but to consider Bella on hospice care and to let us know when she had had enough.
“When she is having more bad days than good,” he said to my tearful question of how we would know. “She’ll know and she’ll tell you.”
That day came very quickly. The sores did not respond, kept growing and deepening. Bella had a frown more hours than not, she clung more to me, especially, and she had a very hard time getting up and down the front steps.
Sadly, we set the day for Sunday, June 3, and agreed to Bella’s veterinarian coming to the house to administer her compassionate ending. Bella woke that morning and went with me down the steps and out to the yard to do her business. She came back up the steps and I gave her water and chicken broth for breakfast, which she slurped nosily. Then we made the phone call to confirm the time, 3:00 p.m. I think Bella must have heard the call because at that point, I saw my girl give up trying to please us by walking around and smiling and beating her tail. Instead, she lay on her side on the front porch, turned away from the street, and accepted me just sitting beside her.
We stayed like that all day, with neighbors coming by to say their farewells, and her favorite human babysitter, Roberta, keeping us company. Even Zoe, her next-door neighbor dog girlfriend came by to sniff and pay her respects to Bella. John made her a last supper, stew meat and hamburger with a fried egg on top. We helped her sit up and she gulped it down, giving John a look of gratitude and love as she finished it and rolled back over.
I told her everything in those hours, some things out loud, but most telepathically, everything that I had ever experienced or felt with her and about her. I told her about what a faithful friend she had been, how her lesson of unconditional love had been an inspiration to me and how I would try to emulate that. I told her of the pleasure she had given me, of the fun we had had together. I reminded her of our trips and our confidences. I told her that it was “all good”, that now she needed to rest, now she could go, for now it was alright. I wept and I smiled as I petted her quill-like fur and stroked her round belly. I ached with missing her already.
Those last moments were beautiful. The vet and assistant quietly set up the I.V. John and I sat by Bella as I held her in my arms. John sat in front of her and murmured soft words of assurance and love into her lifted ear. She tensed a little as they inserted the needle, then relaxed into my arms. Her breathing slowed, her eyes softened even more than usually and then went dim. No fear, no pain. Complete acceptance and then peace. A last lesson.
She softly slipped away, to where I know not, but surely to a place where her sterling qualities of unconditional loving, fierce protection and complete acceptance are always treasured.
Go in peace, my beloved Bella
May 25, 2002- June 3, 2012