Two months ago I wrote the article “To Become Whole Again” about 3 dogs rescued from a puppy mill by Almost Home Dog Rescue. When I wrote the article, I was caring for my 12 year old pit bull mix, Roxy, who had been diagnosed with bone cancer. She was nearing the end of her time with us and she passed peacefully in our home with her family surrounding her on July 17th, 2014.
It seems fitting to begin Kira’s story with Roxy because she is the road that led us to Kira. They have absolutely not one thing in common. Roxy was as opposite from Kira as two dogs could possibly be, but it was Roxy’s death that ultimately set the course for Kira’s life.
Roxy spent 9 months of her early life in a shelter. I don’t know by what miracle she survived that long – a black pit bull mix in an urban shelter – and I can only guess that she must have captured a shelter worker’s heart. The day I first met her, I took her into the “meet and greet” room and she sat down beside me, laid her head on my knee, and stared up into my face. She spent the next 11 years being as loved and spoiled as a dog can be. She played ball, removed stuffing and squeakers from countless toys, hunted rabbits, moles, groundhogs, and mice, went on walks in the woods, camping trips, slept beside me on her own pillow, and bounced out of bed every single morning excited for a new adventure.
She had a phenomenal spirit of joy, enthusiasm, determination, persistence, strength, and utter fearlessness. But more than anything else she was the embodiment of love, loyalty, and devotion. Throughout her whole life, she never took her eyes off her family, protecting us and watching over us always. She was my very best friend.
Roxy’s death left a huge hole in my heart and in our lives. I wrote this to friends the day after losing her:
I keep thinking of the quote “And can it be that in a world so full and busy the loss of one creature makes a void so wide and deep that nothing but the width and depth of eternity can fill it up!” The house is so empty and quiet without Roxy. Even when she was sick, she had such a bright spirit and love for life that she filled every space with her presence. Obi and I are different from her, we are quiet and contemplative, and we are lost without her… Obi searches the house and yard for her over and over. It’s hard to know what he thinks. Maybe its just his way of missing her…
She was a pit bull, the embodiment of strength and courage and devotion. She took care of us and watched over us through so many losses. She kissed our faces and laid close to us when we cried. She never took her eyes off her family. She kept us safe, protected us, and comforted us.
I knew when she got cancer that it was my turn to be brave and strong for her. She was probably in more pain than I will ever realize. She fell twice on her last day and seemed bewildered that her body had failed her. She didn’t know how to not be strong. I talked to so many people who had experience with bone cancer and all talked about the excruciating pain – in people and dogs; the kind of pain that breaks your spirit and makes the end merciful. My one hope was that I would spare Roxy that pain and she would never encounter the thing that her fearless, indomitable spirit could not overcome.
In the end, she was tired, but not broken. That was our small victory over cancer. The disease didn’t take her life – we are all born and we all die one day. The disease tried to take away months of joy by making us live each day in fear and anticipation of the end. We didn’t let that happen. We embraced joy and love and life every single day – including the last. So in some respects at least, I think Roxy beat cancer. She lived and died on her own terms, made her own rules, and faced every day with enthusiasm, fearlessness, and joy.
But she left an emptiness the size of her huge spirit and we struggle to know how to live in that void. She was, in many ways, the energy around which everyone in the house moved. She didn’t adapt to fit the world around her, she shaped the world to fit her, and the routine of our house is very much “Roxy shaped.” I am so thankful for all of the family and friends who have offered comfort and support and prayers and understanding. I know that grief takes time and we will find our way. But right now, our hearts just ache for our sweet girl. “We carry on, coming and going, into the inconceivable. This is how we live in faith…”
The other dog in our home is Obi (Kenobi. yes, Star Wars) who is a 7 year old lab/shepherd mix and as sweet and gentle a dog as you could ever meet. He had lived with Roxy since he was a puppy and took all his cues from her. We were both so terribly lost and alone without her. Within a few days, I knew that he needed a companion and I needed another dog to fill the time and emptiness that suddenly opened up before us, especially after so many months of my days being structured around caring for a dog with a terrible, all consuming disease.
The one thing I knew with absolute certainty was that there would never be another Roxy and that I could not try, consciously or unconsciously, to find something like her in another dog. I needed to mourn the unique loss of her and that was going to take a very long time…. but we also were not a one dog home and we needed another dog. I contacted friends in rescue and spent hours looking through dogs online. We took a pregnant lab mix as a foster for a few days, but she was too much for Obi. We did meet and greets with all the calmest dogs at local shelters. All of them frightened Obi.
I began to fully recognize the challenge of finding a dog that would not overshadow Obi. He had lived his entire life in Roxy’s shadow, being bullied and bossed around (and still worshiping the ground she walked on), but now he deserved a chance to shine. Obi won’t push for attention or time or food or anything at all, so I wanted him to live his senior years with a dog he didn’t have to defer to. That is when a friend with Almost Home Collie Rescue mentioned Kira and Skye, the puppy mill dogs.
My first reaction was that I didn’t have the emotional energy. I knew the challenges those dogs faced and how much they needed. I wanted an easy dog. A dog that I could take out with Obi for walks in the park and visits to grandma’s house. A dog I could go to obedience classes with and maybe even do some therapy dog work with. The puppy mill dogs were hardly even able to walk in their own yards without experiencing abject terror. It was too much. I had poured myself into Roxy’s care for months. I had nothing left to give. I thought more about it. Maybe what I needed to heal, was to help heal the hurts of someone else…
When my dad died, I read a book called Making Loss Matter, by David Wolpe, and three quotes from that book came to me in the next days:
1) “Despair, said Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, is the greatest sin. Despair is the collapse of hope. To despair is to believe that God’s world is ultimately bleak and dark. Loss is a constant temptation to despair. Faith is, if not the antidote, at least the counteragent….The central concern of faith is not how to escape death but how to sanctify life.”
2) “The blessing we seek in life is not to live without pain. It is to live so that our pain has meaning….Loss is arbitrary; our valor in living, and our determination to make sense of life, is wisdom.”
3) “We love, even though we know that the beloved cannot live forever. We create, although we realize that all creation will decay. To be fully human is to stand before death, not ignoring it but not allowing it to undermine the meaning of the time we are given…. There were orchestras in Auschwitz. The musicians knew death intimately. Still they created beauty amid destruction because they knew that to believe in the possibility of wonder, of music, of radiance, was what kept them human.”
Adopting Kira or Skye would be an act of faith. A way to make sense of suffering. A way to affirm and sanctify life. To believe in the possibility of wonder and beauty, even in the midst of my own loss and the terrible suffering that had defined the lives of the puppy mill dogs. It would be life sanctifying. I called and said I wanted to meet the dogs.