We picked up Stella, a black labrador retriever, at a carpooling lot off the highway. She came from Tennessee, in need of a home after a burglar shot her owner dead. The transport driver handed the leash to Zac and the adoption papers to me.
“Here’s your dog”, he said unceremoniously, but with a little smile, as if he knew what we were in for.
Stella pulled Zac to the grassy edge of the lot, took a much needed bathroom break, then eagerly hopped into the back of our car. Exhausted from a long, scary trip, she curled up, closed her soft brown eyes, and went to sleep. We gazed at her for several moments, this dog we had just met, but was now ours.
“It will be so sad when this dog dies”, Zac said.
Over the next ten years, we would learn why humans love dogs, and why this dog, in particular, is easy to love. Stella is the kind of dog that turns non-dog people into dog people.
Like many rescue dogs, Stella initially struggled with separation anxiety. Usually quiet and non-destructive, Stella’s anxiety would, on occasion, get the best of her. One day, Zac came home to his favorite windbreaker shredded into tiny strips. In three separate incidents, she busted through screens when we left her with relatives. It took years for Stella’s fear of abandoment to subside, but it never really went away. To this day, she follows me around the house.
We have learned a lot from Stella. A walk in any weather is better than no walk. Never walk when you can run. Always stop to smell the pine boughs. If you corner a goose, befriend it, don’t eat it. A dog’s favorite bed is sacred.
We have also learned a lot about Stella. She is supremely gentle. Stella greets guests with a touch of her head. She greets me and Zac with a nose to nose “hello”. When I use the hair dryer late in the day, a sure sign we’re going out for the evening, Stella lightly bumps her nose against the back of my leg, saying “I’d like you to stay home with me.”
She is fearless in the face of human danger. Once, while on a hike, a girl screamed from a nearby field. Stella ran toward the sound, pulling me with her. The teenage girl was merely fooling around, but had she been in trouble, Stella wanted to be there, if only to bring comfort.
Stella has an uncanny ability to pick out strangers who need a moment with her. One day, on one of our many walks, she picked out a young man working on a neighbor’s house. He had his back to us as we approached. Stella yanked the leash out of my hands. Ignoring the man’s coworkers, she ran to him. He knelt down on the ground next to her. They had a moment.
Our girl is about 14 now, and it shows. The past two years have been a long decline into old age. Recently, her afflictions have increased and intensified, and we’ve changed our lives in response. We take turns handling the midday and midnight bathroom breaks. We spot her as she descends the stairs. On her worst days, Zac carries her up and downstairs. “Dad’s taxi service”, we call it.
Aching joints, digestive problems, and hearing and vision loss have changed Stella. Yet, in many ways, she is the same dog we brought home ten years ago. On good days, she begs for food like a monster and bends us to her will. On bad days she remains kind and charming.
I’ve made the final call to our veterinarian, hoping I haven’t done so too soon or too late. I think we have chosen exactly the right time. Stella is ailing and every week is a little worse, but I don’t believe she is suffering needlessly. She seems content, even grateful, during these final days.
So we’ll say goodbye to you now, sweet Stella, when your pain is not yet too much to bear. It will be so sad when you die, as Zac predicted all those years ago. But we’ll find solace knowing the pain comes with the privilege of caring for you.