Dear Heidi

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We fell in love with you from the moment we saw you on that wintry day back in 2000. While all of the other dogs up for adoption were jumping around in their crates and barking, you were just lying there, seemingly in your own world, a beautiful shepherd mix, oblivious to the chaos around you. We knew right away that you were the one who would make our family complete.

Your foster mom told us your story, about the hard life you’d had. Although they found you living as a stray, they were sure you had been owned before, and almost definitely abused by some awful human beings. Somehow you escaped, whether by your own choice or theirs, and ventured out on your own. You were eventually rescued from a cave along the river in Trenton in the middle of winter, skinny and pregnant. We liked to joke that you were the Matt Foley of dogs: “I lived in a cave down by the river!”

WP_000021When we first brought you into our home it was not easy. You still had the mentality of a wild animal, complete with coarse fur and an utter distrust of humans, especially men. You were scared of your own shadow, spending the first few years of your life with your tail between your legs. You refused to go on walks; you would just plop yourself down on the ground and not budge. The first night you slept in our bedroom you peed all over the room. The first day we left you alone in the house we shut you in the laundry room only to come home and discover that you’d eaten your way through the louvered door to get out. We found you sitting on the couch in the living room—you had not touched anything else in the house, you had just wanted out of the laundry room.

I’m sure some people would have considered sending you back during those tough first weeks, but we refused to give up on you, and eventually you rewarded our patience with the 15 happiest years of our lives. You finally warmed up to your mommy and became completely attached to her. It would take me a lot longer to earn your love and trust, a couple of years in fact, but when it finally happened it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

03063034You would never be a completely normal dog; your neuroses followed you for the rest of your life. You would run away in fright at the slightest sound, from the ice maker in our fridge to a car door slamming outside (during the last few years of your life you would go mostly deaf and I swear it was the happiest you’d ever been—no more noises to frighten you). You were terrified of spinning things like ceiling fans and bicycle tires. And crowds of people? Forget about it. There were so many occasions when we’d be out for a walk and something would spook you into flight. You became very adept at doing a Harry Houdini out of your collar (thanks to your big shepherd neck and small terrier head) and then running all the way home.

But you got better with each passing month. Eventually your tail began to wag, your coat softened, and you started to hang out with us more often in the house. Watching you blossom from a basket case into a happy, playful, and loving dog was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Your love and trust was all the more special because we had to earn it. You would never trust many other people in your life, but that was okay, you had us and we had you; we were the perfect match. We loved our neurotic nutcase, and we were the only ones who ever understood you.

P1060123Your name was Heidi but we had so many nicknames for you. You probably thought your name was Smushyface because I called you that so often. Then there was Heidarolla, Little Egg, Baby Girl, Smusharella, Potato, Potato Pancake, Sweet Potato, Sugarloaf, Cinnamon Girl, and dozens more. And of course Heidi-Ho—I used to sing that Blood, Sweat & Tears song to you all the time:

mike and heidi2

Hi-de-ho, hi-de-hi
Gonna get me a piece of the sky
Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll
Singin’ hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

We don’t have children but you were our daughter in every sense of the word. We raised you, loved you, and cared for you for more than 15 years. We watched you grow into an amazing individual. We took you on every vacation. Watching you frolic on the beach was among the happiest of all my vacation memories. We truly had a wonderful life together.

Then in your 15th year we began to notice that you were having trouble with stairs, culminating in the nasty spill you took down our home stairs, which forced us to make the heartbreaking decision to put up a gate and confine you to the first floor. Your right rear paw began to knuckle over when you walked and, shortly after your 16th birthday, you were diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an insidious, ALS-like neurological disease that was slowly paralyzing you and robbing you of your ability to control your bodily functions.

We were devastated, but determined to rally around you. All of our research assured us that you were not in any pain, so we would do our best to care for you and manage the disease. If we had put you to sleep, as some had suggested, we would have missed out on the last six months of your life, and that would have been a sin, because there were still so many happy days ahead. You were not ready to go; you were still the same spunky dog, so full of life. You had always been a fighter and a survivor—you just needed some extra help now. You could still move around the house on your own, but you needed assistance with going to the bathroom to keep you from falling over in the middle of doing your business. Helping you walk outside made me feel even closer to you, and it brought you closer to us, as you instinctively knew that you now needed to depend on us for some more things. We even bought you a doggie wheelchair for longer walks, which I had been hoping to do much more of as the weather warmed.

P1070511I won’t deny that it was sometimes difficult, especially for your mommy, who, as the first one awake in the morning, bore the brunt of cleaning up your accidents and washing you off, but you were more than worth it. You were our baby girl and we would have done anything for you.

We had begun to steel ourselves for the end, especially as it became harder to keep weight on you. We had envisioned a final day of fun where we would take you to the park and feed you all of your favorite foods, burgers galore and cream cheese for dessert. But we weren’t there yet, and neither were you. You still had so much zest for life–how could we ever have lived with ourselves if we had extinguished that light?

We thought you would tell us when you were ready to go, that we would see it in your eyes or your demeanor. Then we would know that it was time to plan your happy final day. But we never got the chance because on May 3rd, 2015, four months shy of your 17th birthday, a sudden attack of bloat stole you from us in an instant. In the end it was not your DM or your heart murmur that took you, but damned bloat—and damn that bloat to hell for making your final day of life so painful. We rushed you to the hospital and they gave you pain meds and made you comfortable. The doctor said they could operate but with your age and all of your medical issues, we knew it was time. We were not going to put you through a surgery that you might not even survive, so we made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

They brought you into the room so we could spend our final moments together as a family. I don’t know how much you were actually there because of the meds you were on, but I choose to believe that you knew we were with you, your pack mates, petting you and kissing you, holding you until it was over.

Staying with you while the doctor ended your suffering was unbelievably traumatic, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I would do it again. There was no way I was going to leave you in the hospital to die with strangers. And I’m so thankful that you did not die alone while we were at work, that you were able to spend your final moments on Earth surrounded by your loved ones.

P1070456We were in shock. We had expected a gradual decline and had hoped for a more peaceful end. We were not prepared to lose you so quickly and so violently. Three days later we’re still in shock. Every time I walk around the house I expect you to be there. I see you out of the corner of my eye, your nose peeking around the corner, your ear popping up from behind the couch. I hear the tags of your collar jingling in the next room. My mind goes on autopilot, one moment thinking I have to put this plate of food up high so Heidi doesn’t get it, another moment walking downstairs to say goodnight, but you’re not there.

I don’t know how this is supposed to work without you. The house is so empty. You moved into our home right after we did. We’ve never really lived here without you. Everywhere I turn there are signs of your presence, from the scratched-up front doorjamb to the gouged-out windowsills in the guest room; from the torn-up area of carpet on the upstairs landing to the nose prints all over the back French doors—and everywhere in between. You made an indelible mark on our lives.

DSC_0958We were so lucky to have you for 15 of your 16 1/2 years on this planet, and incredibly lucky that you lived so far beyond the average lifespan for a dog of your type, but I still feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to let you go, not like that. I miss you so much. I miss your flippy-floppy ears, the way one ear stood up straight while the other went halfway up and then out to the side at a right angle. I miss your nose, petting the bridge as you started to fall asleep. I’ll miss finding that special spot on your neck that gave you so much pleasure. I’ll miss rubbing your belly, rubbing your paws, holding your silky ears in my hands, that white area of your chest. I’ll miss running around the house with you as you pounced on me like a wild animal stalking its prey. I’ll miss how frisky you would get as I left the house in the morning, nipping at me as if to say, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

P1060128And god how I’ll miss the way you’d sometimes rest your head on my lap while I petted you, or when you’d burrow under our legs and stick your head up on the couch cushion, demanding that we pet you. I’ll miss watching you take lawn dives and roll around in the snow. I’ll miss throwing the ball with you and fighting to get it out of your mouth. I’ll miss how excited you got over your nightly cheesy treats, the way you jumped around when I asked you if you wanted to go “bye byes” in the car, how you hid under the bed during thunderstorms. I’ll miss feeding you out of my hand, having you hang out back with me while I grilled, and watching you take almost an entire flight of stairs in a single bound. I’ll miss watching you sleep, all curled up and pretty, or running in your dreams. And I’ll really miss all of your neurotic issues because they made you uniquely you. There will never be another dog like you; they truly broke the mold.

Cape May Point Beach (September 2014)I take comfort in the knowledge that we gave you a great life. I know in my heart that we were meant to be together. I’m not sure what would have happened to you if we hadn’t decided to go to Pet Smart that day, whether you would have clicked with anyone else or whether they would have been willing to put in the work it took to bring you out of your shell. But you rescued us as much as we rescued you, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for bringing more joy into our lives than you can possibly imagine. We learned so much from you. You made us not only better dog parents, but better people. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. You were the best thing that ever happened to us, the best part of us.

I love you, Heidi Girl, and I will never, ever forget you. Rest easy now, my baby.

P1040552

Writer, traveler, photographer, hiker, film/TV addict, amateur chef, casual gamer, and occasional tennis & saxophone player . . . in real life I do web design.

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Posted in Essay, Writing
8 comments on “Dear Heidi
  1. Mom says:

    Just beautiful Michael ❤ writing is such good therapy and healing.

  2. Adrienne says:

    Just beautiful. That sums it up.

  3. Jill says:

    Mike that was beautiful. I lost my first dog Chelsea, a 7 year old Great Dane to bloat, and that was such a very sad time. Much love. Jill

  4. Patti says:

    Michael that was beautiful.. It made me cry. I volunteer at our local Humane Society (a No-kill shelter) and see dogs that are passed over so it really touches my heart to see someone give a “likely unadoptable” dog a chance at life. Such a lucky dog to have the two of you to give her the best life. Thank you for that! And hold onto your memories. I know your mom (a very sweet woman). I am your Aunt Maria’s sister-in-law, Wayne’s sister.

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