(Photo by Nathaniel Wilder Photography)
Yesterday marked a week of living without Bella. I loved her fiercely for the decade-and-a-half that she was mine, and it was the steadiest, simplest, easiest, brightest love in my life.
More than simply (simply!) my friend and constant companion, Bella was my sense of home. We moved seven different times together. She came to me from a New Orleans shelter when she was three years old. Within days of getting her, I carted her on a long journey to the Arctic, our first home together, where she loved chasing ground squirrels feverishly and unfettered across a tundra that seemed like it couldn’t end through golden sunsets that stretched late into night.
The 14 years that Bella and I spent together were years of great change and transition for me. My life with her marked the phase in my life where I learned to live on my own terms, learned to follow my own internal guidance systems and trust my wandering, adventuring ways. Bella’s steadfast presence helped me feel safe taking risks, exploring, and changing everything again and again.
A few years ago, we spent a summer living together in a canvas wall tent high up on a mountain, next to a meandering glacier in rural Alaska. One night the temperatures plummeted, and I woke to find us both covered in frost, huddled together in my cot to stay warm. Repeatedly throughout our years, I clung to her. No matter how many transitions I went through or where we were living at the time, Bella was the part of my life that was steady, unwavering. Our daily routines—walks and treats and, in later years, carrying her up and down the stairs each morning and night—were often the most consistent things in my life. And her dependence on me made me, of course, depend on her.
When I first got Bella, she was malnourished and terrified. For our initial days together, I fed her from my hand—something the vet said would help her learn to trust me—and we bonded over small pieces of meat and her timid reaching for it. In her final weeks last month, Bella’s appetite diminished and she lost interest in most food. Trying to coax her along—determined to sustain her and keep her wasting body functioning, desperate for more time with her—I again began offering her food from my hand: meat, again, and donuts. (Yes, she loved donuts.) Often, she wouldn’t eat unless it was directly from my hand. In those moments together, pitiful and intimate and heart-wrenching, we came full circle, relying on each other, sustaining each other.
I have no shortage of love in my life. I have a supportive family, friends who delight me, and a partner who willingly (and unbelievably!) keeps choosing to share his days with me. I’m grateful for all the types of love in my life. But most relationships with people—even the best, loveliest, and healthiest of them—bring with them the need to reckon with compromise, quiet the ego, acknowledge our own dark shadow side, all of which requires effort, sacrifice, even struggle. It’s what makes love hard, a labor—a labor that is of course worth all it requires of us, but a labor nonetheless.
None of this is true with animal loves; that’s what makes animal love so sweet: It’s effortless. With our animal loves, we get to experience love that is pure in joy, total in delight. It’s all the light with none of the dark. It’s what makes animal love a relief.
Bella has been my relief. Loving her was the most natural, instinctual thing I’ve ever done—until the end, when I had to make the grueling, impossible choice of loving her enough to let her go. The endless chase across the tundra with her ended. The long-lingering sunset finally turned to darkness. It was the only time my love with and for her ever felt hard. And now of course this, the moving forward without her, feels like the heaviest labor I’ve known.