The Sunday before she died was a beautiful and rare sunny early spring day in Portland. We spent the morning in the garden doing the first yard work of the year. Betty, our 10-year-old Pit Bull mix lay in the sun on the porch, soaking up the warmth. For a few days, she hadn’t been eating. But that had happened before. She would become sort of disenchanted with her food for a chunk of time, eating only once every few days. And then, after a week, she would be back to normal. So we didn’t worry too much. She didn’t really seem like herself that afternoon as we walked to the community garden, but my concern dissipated as soon as we got to the garden—Betty’s usual behaviors started back up: barking at people arriving (because of her breed, the mom arriving with her kids made them stay away from her, even though all she wanted was to say hello and lick their hands) and whining when I walked too far away from her. Betty’s whining was sort of a “bane of our existence” kind of thing for most of her 9 years with us. It was, as usual, high-pitched and pathetic, but when she was really anxious (which was often) it would take on a grating, desperate, growling sound. Betty was a worrier and a whiner, but all out of love. She was desperate, always, to be with her people.
She came to us in 2004, a year after my husband and I had married. I was a first year teacher, he was in his second year of law school. Both of us had grown up in families in which we weren’t allowed to have dogs: mine because of allergies and his because of the theory that city dogs didn’t have the best lives. We had both always yearned for a dog and we were finally able to get one. We knew we wanted to adopt a shelter dog and we were drawn to Pits because of their history of being misunderstood, abused, and put down. Betty arrived at our house one sunny Seattle afternoon in the trunk of the car belonging to a man who had been fostering her. She had been rescued from a shelter in Oregon days before she was to be put down and then fostered in Seattle with various families. She was a bundle of nerves and energy—she never held still, not for a moment, and she was absolutely desperate to be loved. We took her for a walk with the foster owner and despite the fact that she pulled us around the block, despite the fact that she whined out of excitement and anxiety the whole time, we decided to keep her overnight to see how we got along.
Betty never left.
She became a part of our family that night and began to teach us the true meanings of love and patience and loyalty. Betty became ours in the instant we took hold of her leash and she loved us immediately and unconditionally.
She loved us as we moved and bought a home, as we started careers and worked hard, as we welcomed two sweet children into our lives, and through countless joys, heartaches, changes, and mistakes. Betty’s patience with us was infinite. She asked very little of us, all those years, but gave us so much in her consistent, adoring companionship.
Our time with Betty wasn’t always easy–we worked hard to train her, calm her, ease her worries, and give her the consistency and routine that gave her peace. In doing so, we learned what it meant to live beyond ourselves, to put someone else’s needs ahead of ours. She helped us learn to be a family, not just a couple.
Our sunny afternoon walk with Betty ended up being our last walk with her. Illness overcame her body over the course of the next 72 hours and she died at the vet’s office early Wednesday morning, just after my husband arrived there with her in the hope that another day of IV fluids and monitoring might reveal the cause of her illness and help her to turn a corner.
The vets performed a necropsy to try and find out what went wrong so quickly. The exact cause is still unclear, but the operation and tests did reveal that she was incredibly ill and that there was nothing we could have done in the moment to save her.
I feel so much pain thinking about her—I want to wallow in it and hold it tight and shout it from the rooftops. I also feel self-conscious. I am aware that there are many who think that grief like this should be reserved for humans, that she was “just a dog,” and that we’ll bounce back easily. But as I type, my throat and stomach tighten, my eyes well up, and my arms ache to hold her soft, muscly body, to pet her velvety ears, and her big, hard, silly head with its one beautiful brown eye (her other eye was removed after glaucoma several years ago). My grief is not silly or indulgent. It isn’t misplaced. And I’ll always feel it, to some degree.
Betty’s patience with us and her unconditional love, acceptance, and loyalty to our family will always be a model for how we want to behave toward one another and maybe, someday, toward another pet. But for now, we are trying to honor the intensity of our experience with Betty. Even the last few days we had with her were intense—they gave us reason to slow down, to focus on her, to center our energy on love.
I cried less today than yesterday. And I feel guilty. I don’t want to forget her or how much pain I feel or how much I love her. I don’t want to ever feel like my life is easier because she doesn’t need feeding or walking or letting out.
We have a beautiful rock to put in our garden in Betty’s honor. And the paw print the vet staff made after she died to hang on our wall. We have some beautiful photos and years and years of memories, including the one of that last sunny day together. We wrote her a thank you note for all she did for us, for all she taught us.
I’ll love that sweet crazy beast forever and ever. There will never be a softer, gentler, whinier friend in my life. I miss you and I love you, sweet Betty Bad Dog.