So far, our Year of Restoration (our annual theme this year) has been an interesting one. While our hope at the start of the year was to experience the completed side of restoration – the smiles, the satisfaction of completed goals, the rekindling of relationships – we instead found ourselves at the beginning of the restorative journey – the breaking part.
One month ago, as of the time I am writing this, Eric and I had to say goodbye to our precious floofy golden retriever, Ramsey. She would have been thirteen this May 4th and we often referred to her as our Star Wars puppy. Of course, we knew she would not live forever. At least, in theory; but, when it came time to actually lose her, it seemed almost impossible. What would the world be like without Ramsey in our lives now that we know a world with her in it?
I remember the first phone call. We had a phone interview with her carefully-researched breeder and I almost cried and thought, we are actually getting our own sweet, golden girl! Ever since the beginning of our marriage, Eric and I wanted a sweet yellow ball of fur to fill our home and this was five years later (it just was not the right timing to do it earlier, for her or us). After getting to know us a little, the breeder invited us to come to her home in North Carolina for a face-to-face meeting. We remember ringing the breeder’s doorbell and smiling at each other when we heard her “guard dogs” alerting her to our presence. Ramsey’s future mom, Nana, met us at the door and then made herself available for rubs and snuggles.
A few months later, Miss Nana gave birth to six little girls and three little boys. A proud mom and her little creations were given colorful collars to tell them apart. Finally, on a blistering hot day in June, we were able to visit again and meet the litter. Have you ever been in a small, enclosed space with nine newborn golden retriever puppies? It is a happy, happy place. We remained in the corner allowing the puppies to come to us, picked them up, and snuggled them. But the pup in the light blue polka dot collar who came to us and rested on us was special. We just did not know it yet.
Based on our lack of experience with dogs (as she was our first), Ramsey’s breeder picked her for us based on characteristics we said we wanted, but also because she was very submissive and likely easier for a first-time dog. We had no idea how much there was to learn, so we were thankful for her sweet (though rambunctious) nature.
On July 1st, 2010, Eric and I put her travel crate in our car and headed back to North Carolina to bring our puppy home. The day before was my last day at my full-time job. I had packed up my cubicle and come home to work on PreEngaged, to be with and train our sweet puppy, and hopefully, to start a family. That was the plan; that was the deep hope. Picking up our Ramsey was the start of a hopeful journey. Our first “baby.”
On the way home, Eric sat in the back seat with her (something he rarely ever did over her lifetime), and she snoozed in his lap for much of the ride home. During that two-and-a-half-hour drive, I was a wellspring of thoughts and emotions. The nervousness of life at home without the schedule of a nine-to-five job; wondering what it would be like to have a small creature who needed me for everything; and, as I looked at her tiny body in the rear-view mirror, I felt pangs of grief at knowing that someday, after falling madly in love with her and spending her lifetime with her, we would have to say goodbye.
When we got home with her, I felt so discombobulated. I remember thinking, If this is what it is like bringing home a puppy, what must it be like bringing home a baby?! In my dazed condition, the first of my actions of puppy parenthood resulted in setting off the fire alarm which scared poor Ramsey half to death. Eric left to run a quick errand to a pet store for a few things we needed, and while he was gone, I managed to burn spaghetti noodles on the stove. When he returned, the alarm was blaring loudly and Ramsey and I were both barricaded in the back room… both crying.
Eric, hearing the alarm, leapt in to assess the situation, turned off the alarm with one push of a button (of course he did), and that night Ramsey and I slept in the only smokeless room in the house (Eric set up as many running fans and open windows we had to air out the smoke overnight). Ramsey slept, but I am not sure I did. Every time she moved, I jumped a little. Is she okay? Do we know what we are doing? Please do not let something happen to this doggie on her first night with us!
She made it through the first night, and so did I. From that day on, she became more and more a part of our hearts and home. She quadrupled in size seemingly overnight. Her golden fibers of love attached themselves to every fabric in the house. Brushing her easily took forty-five minutes, stopping only because my arm got tired. We believe many birds have filled their nests with Ramsey’s offerings of fur.
And, she rocked it in her obedience class. I admit, my heart swelled with pride when she learned the commands quickly. She did a sit/stay almost immediately while all the other doggies struggled to learn. It was not my excellent training skills. She was a very compliant dog and I felt extremely blessed that she was mine. And, not to brag, but she did win the award for learning the most tricks (we still have the prize she won from it).
She also loved a good snack. The food room (i.e., the kitchen) was her favorite room in the house. Many a day I almost tripped over her while I was trying to cook. Eric often would comment that her god was her belly. When I shelled hard-boiled eggs, she stood beside me with the anticipation of Christmas morning on her face. Oh, that smile. My heart misses that sweet, content, warm smile for which golden retrievers are famous.
In addition to a good treat, she loved good friends who brought her good treats. Or, friends who took her to treats. “Aunt” Wobin was the best of pup-sitters and Ramsey loved riding in her vehicle which we affectionately named the Funmobile. The Funmobile was always stocked with hidden treats (buried by her doggy “cousin,” Theseus), and made frequent stops at McDonalds and other food sources.
Drive-thru windows were her favorite. I always wondered what went through her mind when I handed a piece of plastic to the cashier only to receive bags of cheeseburgers and fries in return. Her face would smush between my head and the window whenever we visited the “magical food window,” smelling as much as she could in the limited timeframe she could. I miss her fidgety impatience as she waited for me to finish my part of the ice cream cone.
She loved new people! (And, so you know, “new” means she hadn’t seen you in at least a week.) For the first several years, Ramsey could rarely ever resist the kids across the street. She loved to greet other neighbors as they tried to walk by our house. Her favorite neighbor was Miss Jojo. Miss Jojo gave treats and rubs and they created a special relationship. One of my regrets is how much I worried about Ramsey bothering her because she was elderly. What if she knocks Miss Jojo over?! For years, she said, “It is okay, Heather. I love Ramsey.” I should have taken Ramsey over to visit her a lot more.
One warm day, Miss Jojo was working in her flower bed and I did not realize she was outside until it was too late. Ramsey spotted her, and like a ninja, quickly ran between Miss Jojo’s legs, stopped, and looked up at her with that goofy golden smile. I heard a startled scream and then poor Miss Jojo fell backwards on her rear end. I was mortified, but it was classic Ramsey (and I smile whenever I remember that day).
And when Rebecca Black’s Friday song came out and was popular, Eric had the crazy idea to make a parody of that song in tribute to Ramsey. And, so we did.
And she loved her daddy. Eric and Ramsey had a few games they especially enjoyed. The chase me game was a Ramsey original. She basically walked through the house (the main architecture of our home is circular) and Eric followed. Every few feet, she would look behind her to make sure he was still there. She would pick up the pace. Then he would pick up the pace. The game concluded when either Eric got tired of it or he wore her out. They also played the pup wash game where she would walk between Eric’s legs and he would swish her from side to side (like a car wash). She loved the pup wash. She loved it when Daddy threw her ball over the house and she would run to the backyard, chase it down, and bring it back for another throw. I can still hear her running up the hill with a colorful tennis ball in her mouth.
And, oh, snow. Ramsey loved snow. It is somewhat ironic, because Eric and I do not particularly care for it once it gets to the point where it needs to be shoveled; but, that’s when she loved it most. Cleaning her up after the snow was a chore, so we waited as long as possible before opening the door and revealing her white playground. She dove, rolled, dug, and rested peacefully in the snow (for hours). She was built for it with all her coats. When she finally came inside, she would have hard golf ball-sized chunks of ice stuck to her fur which melted in the tub and down the drain during her warm shower. A warm shower, followed by a good towel rub and a nap. (I can see why she loved it.)
And, I think, my Ramsey loved me too. Sometimes I would wonder since she was so excited to see other people. But, in the little ways, she lived with me day in and day out, and I know she was Mama’s girl. When I found my way to bed for a little afternoon snooze, she tippy tapped her way from the living room into the bedroom beside me. When I tried to have some private time in the bathroom, she pushed the door open with her nose to stare at me. And when I left the house without her, she stood at our storm door and looked absolutely pitiful. She slept at my feet while I worked and jumped to attention whenever I opened a bag of pretzels. She was always there beside me.
The years went by far, far too quickly. And, before we knew it, she lost a little bit of the sparkle in her eye. She did not bounce with as much spirit and energy as she once did. Some mornings, it took all her strength just to stand up. It was clear her joints were bothering her even though she still smiled at me with that golden grin.
After frequent vet visits, intravenous devices, blood panels, medication regimens, and unpleasant diagnoses, we had to have… the hard conversation. How long? How long would we keep putting her aging body through this? Eventually, Eric said softly, “I think it’s time.” I knew he was right. I wanted to believe it was something she could beat, but it was clear her body was shutting down and she was not going to complain – she never complained. She was the best backseat passenger on long trips to where we sometimes wondered if she was even back there. She was going to keep that sweet spirit through all the arthritis, heart problems, and stomach distress.
We called the vet. We made the appointment. And I sobbed like I did the day I lost my dad.
With a few hours left to the appointment, Eric and I sat next to her bed and snuggled her. Then she wanted to go outside and lie in the grass. As she rested in her yard, Eric contacted the neighbors to let them know we were about to say goodbye. Aunt Wobin and Cousin Theseus came over as soon as they heard. Ramsey’s Aunt Vanessa dropped everything and drove an hour to come see her. Before we knew it, neighbors were walking over to give her rubs. Eric and I felt a bittersweet pain knowing there is nothing Ramsey would have wanted more on her last day than to have all this company.
Then, I turned my head and saw Miss Jojo coming down her walkway, holding tightly to her walker. Her daughter said, “Mom wants to say goodbye to Ramsey.” Even as I write this, my eyes fill with tears remembering Ramsey slowly getting up and walking over to love on Miss Jojo once last time.
When the appointment time came, we picked her up, and put her in the backseat. Just like on her first day with us, Eric sat in the backseat and comforted her. The ride to the vet seemed both endless and far too quick. How can this be happening? How can we be here doing this? Eric picked her up and carried her inside. The next hour was one of the hardest we have ever experienced. We did our best to remain strong until the vet whispered, “she’s gone. I’m so sorry.” After that, the flooding tears came again.
The morning after Ramsey crossed rainbow bridge, my friend messaged me this: “I wanted to say that I know that Ramsey’s death brings on a big, nebulous grief… you were expecting her to grow up with your kids.”
She nailed it.
Holding my fur baby as she breathed her last breath was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I have ever been through. Between the feelings of guilt of not providing a better life for her (and she honestly had a very good life), the dread of a quiet house, and the wondering how I was going to leave her there, the same thought kept plaguing me… “She’s all I have.” As I held her and rocked her and sobbed, I just kept thinking: she’s all I have.
Anyone who has ever loved an animal knows that their loss is personal. You feel it in your bones. It is like a part of your heart is gone. You do not expect the grief to rival that of losing a loved one, but I promise you it does. In our case, a sizable portion of our sorrow came with closing the chapter Ramsey began. When we picked her up on July 1, 2010, I was twenty-seven. Though we had not gotten pregnant yet, I felt hopeful for a home full of children. I pictured them playing with Ramsey, the Hallmark Christmas card, quintessential family dog.
When we got married, we had six baby names picked out – three boys and three girls. As the years went by, we kept talking about baby names, but fewer names. Maybe we will have four children. Maybe two children. Maybe God will give us one child. Finally, we stopped talking about them. It hurt too much to keep hoping. But, through all those years, we had our fur baby. She was there with her happy smile (the neighbors called her Happy Dog), and something about the pitter patter of her feet gave us comfort as our friends’ homes grew with multiple little blessings and our home remained the same. I knew we could not hold on to her forever, but while we had her, I appreciated the comfort she brought my childless heart.
We trust this Year of Restoration will come with happiness as well. The smiles will come. We will feel the satisfaction of accomplishing goals, and Lord willing, we will grow closer to friends and family, but we know that God is teaching us more about restoration than just the joy at the end of the journey. He’s also showing us the brokenness which is often necessary before the joy… before the restoring. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5b, ESV)
Lord, we thank you for giving us our sweet girl for almost thirteen years. We thank you for the comfort, joy, and laughs she brought us. We thank you for loving our animals even more than we do. You created our dear girl, and I know you were holding her and us when we had to let her go. Thank you for your hand on our hearts and lives even though our story has not been what we expected. And, we pray for your wisdom and grace as we move forward. We wait anxiously to see what you write in our next chapter. You are the God who makes all things new.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God.” (Luke 12:6, ESV)
“Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.” (Psalm 36:5-6, ESV)