My German shepherd Alec was many things to me: best friend, partner, dependent, roommate, constant companion, apple of my eye, cherished family member, wonder dog and inspiration. Most of all, he was my soul mate. Alec was the love of my life. When he died last year, I wasn’t sure I could go on without him, even if I wanted to. To some that may sound extreme, but Alec and I shared a special bond and had been through an intense journey together.
It is a long story and I have a blog if you want to read more: www.alec-story.com. But here is the extremely truncated version! When Alec was seven years old, a disc ruptured in his back and my hale, hearty and playful friend was suddenly paralyzed and given a poor prognosis that he would ever walk again. After he recuperated from two spinal surgeries, I had him fitted him for a mobility cart (doggie wheelchair), to which he adjusted quickly, and Alec was soon able to go on walks again. I took him swimming to make up for his not being able to run and fetch on land. I learned all I could about caring for a large paraplegic dog. I monitored him closely for signs of depression, but Alec was a happy dog, even with his new physical limitations. To cut to the chase, I did physical therapy with Alec from the start and, amazingly, he beat the odds. One year after he was given that poor prognosis, Alec began walking again. I had started my blog originally to keep friends and family updated, but I soon learned that Alec’s story had given others in similar situations hope that with consistent therapy, patience, time, and love their dogs too might recover, at least partially, from devastating neurological injuries.
Our happy ending was fated to be short-lived, however. After being out of his wheelchair only a year, Alec was diagnosed with a very aggressive and terminal cancer of the blood cells, hemangiosarcoma, which is nearly impossible to detect until it is already too late. But we had already faced down tremendous odds, and I wasn’t going to give up hope. I did everything in my power to save him, but it was not enough. Nothing worked – not chemotherapy, not herbs and holistic supplements, not prayer, not love. Alec died within a few short months.
After all he had been through, I was devastated. He was only nine and seemingly healthy. I thought we had much more time to enjoy our relationship. While close before, our bond had deepened and further blossomed after his paralysis upended our lives. After that, we truly became a team. We trusted each other and worked well together. His well-being had always been paramount to me, but when he became disabled Alec became the center of my world. He was my sunshine. In a very real way I revolved around him. Not in a bad way. In the way that happens when you are a caretaker for a dependent being who has special needs. When he died, I was lost, in every possible meaning of the word. It was as if gravity itself had deserted me. I was drifting through ether, no weight, no compass, no purpose, nobody home, nobody to go home to.
His absence not only left a void where a cherished relationship and our physical closeness had been, but it also threw me into an existential tailspin, from which it was difficult to recover. My entire world view was shaken. I felt unsafe in a fundamental way. I knew life was unfair, or I thought I did. Yet I couldn’t get over how unfair it all was, how after all he had already been through Alec did not deserve to be stricken dead by cancer before he had a chance to become an old lazy shepherd and enjoy some well-deserved, stress-free golden years. Who said life was fair? I chastised myself for being surprised, nay shattered, by this obvious fact of life. Alas, it is one thing to know something intellectually and something else to experience it. I had to struggle mightily with the question of meaning. I am still wrestling with that one. I was a complete and utter wreck. Anyone who has suffered a profound loss will recognize some of these feelings, which only barely begin to sort of hint at the teeny tiny tip of the hulking iceberg that is grief over losing a cherished love one. Just like the iceberg, there are many surprises lurking beneath the surface, ready to sink your already shaky ship. The bottom line is that I was devastated. I had lost dogs before, but they were old. I could not get over the fact that Alec had worked so hard to overcome paralysis only to be struck down by cancer. I had tried so hard to keep him safe and healthy. Despite my best efforts, I failed.
When Alec died, I vowed I would never adopt another dog. The pain of losing him was too great, too total. It was cataclysmic. I felt like I was gone with him – not just a piece, but the whole me. This is the price, they say, for having loved deeply. It was too high. And besides, I had no interest. I didn’t want another dog, ever. I wanted him. I wanted Alec. I railed against the finality of his leaving, of him not coming back. It. Could. Not. Be. It was a thing that could not be. Predictably, this line of thinking did not work out so well for me. But maybe it did after all.
Because I loved him too much to lose him, I decided I wouldn’t. I had to redefine our relationship, and develop some new beliefs to get me through, but ultimately what enabled me to move forward was the idea that he was coming with me even though our relationship had changed. I am in good company. Many of the best grief books, or at least the ones that helped me (for what it’s worth, I was most helped by reading books about losing family members such as a spouse or a child – not pet loss books specifically, though those can be helpful too), conceptualize successful grieving as forging a new relationship with the deceased, one that exists in the absence of his or her physical presence. This spoke to me intuitively. It felt true. When Alec was sick I told him (and myself) repeatedly that our bond could not be broken, that we would stay connected forever and always. I don’t logically know how that could be, but as I am fond of saying, there was a time when we thought we’d fall off the edge of the world and get eaten by sea monsters if we sailed too far out into the great blue ocean. The point being we just don’t know everything. So I don’t have to know how it works to decide to believe in something.
Mythical sea monsters notwithstanding, grief can lead to some interesting places. People will talk about needy dogs finding them when they thought they weren’t ready to adopt, and things like that. My colleague Tom had a stray dog run in front of his car on the highway exit ramp not long after his beloved dog Cassie had died at seven years old – even younger than Alec. He and his wife adopted that lucky dog, who seemed to know exactly which car to hurl himself in front of to ensure the best possible outcome. That didn’t happen to me, but a synchronistic series of events led me to learning about a little German shepherd named Teagan, who had survived horrific abuse at the hands of what many would deem a real monster (as opposed to the mythical sea ones), the type of depraved people ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program staff (god bless them) have to hear about every single day.
Teagan was shot at close range and left for dead in Mississippi. When she was found she was gravely injured, starving, and riddled with parasites. Her front leg was trapped in her collar up to the armpit. With every painful step, the collar cut deeper into her flesh; when she was found, the gash went almost to the bone. Someone most likely deliberately looped her leg through her collar, and then held her down to shoot her. They were probably trying to hit her heart, but they missed. The bullet traveled up her throat and through her jaw, smashing several teeth along the way, before it exited out her eye, which was destroyed and had to be removed. In addition to the gunshot related trauma, she showed obvious signs of neglect. Her legs were crooked and bent, most likely from being kept in a crate that was too small, and her skin was flaking off. Upon rescue, she was severely emaciated and weighed only 15 lbs. Now at a healthy weight of 39 lbs. she is still tiny for a German shepherd. Vets theorized that her growth may have been stunted from early malnutrition and neglect.
Unfortunately, whoever did this to Teagan, a sweet gentle dog who despite everything still loves and trusts people, will never be found. But Teagan was lucky to be found by an animal lover. Although this person could not care for her, and local shelters were reluctant to take her because of the extent of her injuries, little Teagan got lucky for the second time when Janice Wolf of Rocky Ridge Refuge in Arkansas agreed to take her and start the emotional and expensive journey of saving the dog whose life someone tried to extinguish with a bullet.
It was a long road to recovery, and Teagan was at Rocky Ridge Refuge for a year and a half. But now she is healthy and ready for adoption. Oh, did I mention I am adopting her? Yup, me…the same person who swore she would never want another dog after losing Alec. But as it sometimes happens, when I heard Teagan’s story and saw her picture, I just knew: yes, I would adopt this dog. There was no hesitation. I would give her the best home she could ever want. Significantly for me, I know Alec would have loved her.
I was supposed to adopt Teagan last October, but a few days before she was to make the trip from Arkansas to Oregon, she became deathly ill with a resistant infection that stumped the veterinarians. She received different medications and began to recover but no one is sure what was wrong with her. It could be that something was carried in with the bullet, fragments of which still remain inside her body because they could not all be removed. I waited eight months for her to be deemed healthy enough to be adopted and that has day finally arrived…almost! As I type this, Teagan is riding in a special transport van through California on her way to me in Portland, Ore. She was picked up in Arkansas on Saturday and has been traveling across the country for the last five days. She is supposed to arrive tomorrow morning and I could not be more excited to finally meet her!
Because of everything Teagan has been through, and all that I have recently lost, I know people are worried about me. My dad cryptically says only: “good luck.” A colleague said she hopes I don’t get my heart broken. What I didn’t tell her was that my heart is already broken. It broke forever when Alec died. But maybe being broken is not a bad thing. Maybe being broken creates cracks that need to be filled, spaces for more love to seep in. Love that would never have found its way to you had you remained whole, had you not suffered. Another thing I knew (as in, hello…obvious!) but had not experienced firsthand was that we never know how much time we have with our loved ones. Not only that, but we cannot know how long we will be here ourselves. One of my grief books said something that I found interesting. It said that while we may pine for the past and grieve for a future without our loved one in it, the truth is we don’t even know if we will be around for these imagined future events. So true! Today is all we have. And if all I have is one day with Teagan, I am going to try my hardest to make it the very best day of her life. I want every day to be wonderful for her. That’s what Alec did for me. I would like to share that. His presence filled my days with joy and happiness. Loving him made ordinary moments transcendent. Alec showed me the fathomless depth of love I was capable of, a love that strikes me dumb in its enormity, even now as I contemplate it. What a shame if I closed down and never shared my love again. As with compassion, we don’t have finite amounts of love, and Alec left me with so much of it. I love Alec still, so much. Even after his death, my love for him has changed and grown in ways I never could have predicted. He is still very much a part of my world; he is woven into the tapestry of my thoughts and feelings, of my deepest hopes and wishes. He will be there with me and Teagan. I don’t know how I know this. I just know there will be three of us.
It is frustrating to know there are so many animals out there who need homes; all are deserving, whether they have been abused or not. But although I cannot save them all, I can definitely make a big difference in one animal’s life, even as Alec still profoundly influences mine. My relationship with him keeps changing, keeps evolving, and a new chapter is about to begin. Teagan and I start our new lives together tomorrow. And it is going to be a very good day.