By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
It was in 2001 when an email came around the university email. On February 13, her dog gave birth to a litter that was too large for her to handle. A pure-breed Labrador retriever, they tried to breed her with other pure breed labs, but she would have nothing to do with them. A half-breed, half lab and half German shepherd was apparently her dream mate.
I had never had a pet before, but I’ve always wanted a dog, so, of course, I asked if I could have one. All of the male dogs from the litter had been spoken for as hunting dogs, but that was okay. I had heard that female dogs were easier to handle and calmer, so this was my choice. Shortly thereafter, the human had asked if it was okay if my dog had a defect. Apparently, the only dog remaining had two fused toes on her hind paw, but it did not seem to affect her abilities.
I said this was okay. We could be social outcasts together.
Because of the size of the litter, she was weened a little bit early. I put a box on the floor of the back seat with a blanket in it for the new puppy, and headed out to pick her up. I put her in the box, closed the door, and said my goodbyes. Being careful to watch for her so I didn’t accidentally close the door on her, I got in the car, and looked in the box, but…she wasn’t there. I looked for a bit, but didn’t spend much time since I knew she had to be in the cab. A mile down the road, she found her way to the front of the car, and onto my lap, where she peed, laid down, rested her head on my arm and fell asleep.
Yup, apparently I was her human.
I named her “Bella”. Of course, this was before that awful show (or at least before I knew about it) and everybody and their dog (bah dahm bahmp) named their dogs “Bella”. I called her that because, since she was my first pet, she’d be treated like a Southern Belle. Eventually, it was pointed out that, in Italian, “Bella” also meant “Beautiful”, and I certainly thought that she was.
Mostly black (with a little rust red overtone), she had a white patch on her chest that was reminiscent of an angel. She was so sweet; where she went outside to take care of her business, a rabbit built a nest and had a family of her own. Bella had to know they were there, but never once bothered them.
To say that I was living a minimalistic lifestyle would be an understatement. I didn’t even have a bed at the time, but rather slept on the couch. As a puppy small enough to hold in the palm of your hand, she, of course, slept with me. Initially this made me uncomfortable as I feared I would injure her if I rolled over in the night. Eventually she grew to be over a hundred pounds, but always assumed she was a puppy. She would lay by my side, still on the couch, between the couch back and my body. I’m not sure I’ve ever slept so soundly before then, or since.
She was a thief, however. At one point she snatched a fast food cheeseburger from the hands of the woman that was destined to become my ex-wife while we were still dating. Believe me, if you know my ex-wife, you would laugh at this. She, my ex-wife that is, did learn how not to hold her cheeseburgers from that point on.
However, my favorite thieving tale, however, was the insurance salesperson. Two of them, actually, came to the door. He was devilishly handsome, and she was drop dead gorgeous. Of course, she was the one to pitch to me, I’m assuming because I’m a man. She sat on the couch, and before I could sit, Bella took the seat right next to her. I sat on the other side. As she gave her pitch, she was chewing gum. Bella was fascinated by this, and at one point, snatched the gum right out of her mouth. I should feel badly about this, but, honestly, it makes me laugh to this day.
When she was thirteen, I had my heart attack. I called a friend from the hospital, and asked that she take care of Bella for me. My friend picked up the key from me in the hospital, and made it a daily routine to stop in and take care of her. She told me that, every day, Bella would look past her, presumably for me. Eventually, my sister and brother-in-law came, and put Bella in a “puppy motel” so my friend was off of the hook. On being released from the hospital, this same friend helped me to recover and was kind enough to let me do so at her place. Eventually I got a call from the kennel, telling me that Bella was not well, and I had better pick her up.
She was so weak when I got her. Apparently she had not been eating or drinking water, and I don’t think she was even alert enough to realize that we were again reunited. I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t drive, and was lost. I tried to get her water, which she would drink a bit if I held it right to her mouth cupped in my hand. Eventually I added a bit of sugar to see if I could get some calories in her, and she seemed to perk up for about twenty minutes. She couldn’t stand, but her tail wagged furiously as she seemed alert to the point that she realized who I was, but it didn’t last. Another friend took her and me to the vet, who explained to me that her kidneys were failing. With intensive therapy, they explained, they could probably keep her alive for a couple of more days, but she would never be able to go home again. This would have been for my benefit, not hers, so I made the tough decision.
I held her in my arms as they administered the drugs, and she passed on to the other side.