This story starts and ends with love. Love came to me this time in the shape of a silly little clown of a dog who threw his whole heart at me so thoroughly and so completely it seemed I could never catch up. I am a horse trainer and certainly no expert on love. Further, I have found through the years that I am often surprised by it.
It is tricky to understand love and all of the forms it finds you in. So many versions. A multitude of songs, poems and sonnets, all lamenting or celebrating the possible variances within this four letter word. What it does to you. For you. Love that hits you, sudden and sure, like an arrow to the heart. Love that sinks in slowly and surrounds you with quiet certainty. Love that builds over time gaining a surprisingly strong and yet equally fragile hold. Love that floats like a mist on a foggy morning not really noticed until it passes. Gratefully I have experienced love in many of it’s variations and sadly it’s counter measure of heartbreak as well.
Life without love, in one of it’s forms, is an empty existence indeed. Love can give you the strength to move mountains or render you helpless and weak. Allowing for love can be perilous, for it means taking your heart out of it’s comfort zone, often testing it’s limits.
I do know one thing that both life and love have taught me. Love should be sought. Fought for. Cultivated and treasured. Love should not be ignored. When you are sad or brokenhearted and think you cannot love again, find your strength because you can. Loving, and being loved are the best gifts you could ever hope to give or to receive.
There are so many layers, dimensions and facets of love still unexplored and waiting for those brave enough to search for it or let it find them on its own. There is more than enough love for everyone and some get more than their share. Love can be hard to let go of and it is devastating to be without. Love makes us human.
This is a story about being the recipient of one such love. It is the story of Stewie.
When i was young i wanted a dog but was never given permission to have one of my own. Undeterred I befriended all the neighbor dogs, got to know them, garnered walking rights to many and for years I had access to enough dogs to make me feel like I was a lucky dog owner myself.
There was Moses and jojo two black labs, and max a grumpy, scruffy mix of some sort. Jason the addle brained border collie. Prince and Brandy a beautiful pair of collies. There was a reserved but wonderful Timber wolf named Sam who trusted no one but me making me feel special right when I needed to feel just that, and then, there was Bear.
Bear was my first love, a stray, rescued by me from our neighbors pool where a pack of idiotic boys had thrown her and were not letting her out seeing how long she could swim without going under. I heard, then saw, the racket and uninvited ran into the Muellers yard stopping only long enough to punch the oldest of their sons in the face with all the fury an incensed twelve year old could muster.
I jumped into the pool and pulled what looked like a half grown female terrior retriever mix onto their deck.
I warned those boys never to touch or come near my dog again and brought my new friend home. I knew all the dogs in our area and I had never seen her before. She was instantly mine. When I called my father at work to tell him I had a dog he said no but I was insistent. I told him I would live in the school yard with her or down by the river if I had to but she was my dog and if she could not stay then I would not. He relented.
Bear was my best friend for years. Hers is another story but I learned about the kind of love a person and a pet can share and i have not been without a dog for almost all of my adult life because of what she gave me.
Love changed it’s shape over the years and introduced itself to me in many forms. I never really searched for love but I learned not to fear letting it find me however it may.
I am an adult now. Husband, four children ( they sure taught me about love) a multitude of horses and of course always dogs. I am a horse trainer which means many of my best friends are now horses. I love them too. Some more than others but I love horses in general and I love what I do. I relish the process of figuring their problems out, getting them on my side and bringing out their potential however hidden it may be. I understand horses. Often much more than I understand the people associated with them but getting to work with the first makes dealing with the second acceptable and sometimes surprisingly worthwhile.
Years went by. A few seasons ago I was in Wellington Florida for the winter dressage circuit. Business was good. I had some quality horses to work with and to show which gave me cause to escape the worst of the Chicago winter. All of the horses were working to their capacity lending me towards a general feeling of being happy, focused and content. Our work group had dinner one evening with some friends of ours. Cathy Morelli, a respected and admired dressage trainer, who had done much for my daughter Kassie while preparing her for the Young Rider World Cup joined us along with her husband Frank.
After dinner at a sushi place where I was the only one who would not eat sushi the kids spotted a puppy boutique just across the parking lot in a little strip mall. They dashed ahead of us so they could go see the puppies. Us adults lagged behind but did make our way into the ridiculous puppy trap that had been artfully designed with all manner of very small breed puppies, set up in baby cribs complete with colored bumper pads and toys.
Each crib held between one and three tiny little puppies and they were cute cute cute. Some were little fur balls that squeaked like toys themselves and some were chiuhuaha or mixes of that variety and the kids made their way from one bed to the next cooing and gushing over all of them.
I had never been drawn to silly little dogs. Never had one so couldn’t say why. They just didn’t appeal to me like regular dogs did. Anything that had the word toy in front of it’s breed name didn’t seem real I guess. Every pup here was definitely a toy something or other. Don’t get me wrong they were cute. Really cute. I wandered idly among the pens looking at all of the pups and then one caught my eye.
I mean really caught my eye. Like he was trying to on purpose. He singled me out with an intensity that belied his fluffy little self and he made direct eye contact with me and acted like he was my dog and thank god I was back to get him because he had been waiting too long. I actually looked behind and beside me to see who he really was communicating with because it couldn’t be me. I didn’t know this dog but I have had enough dogs to know what they act like when you have been away and are just returning home to them.
That is how he was. Happy to see me but like he knew me and that he already was my dog. He kept his button eyes on me and tried to sit his little puppy self up as if to beg or something but he lost his balance and toppled over. He twisted in the air so he could keep looking at me and tried again, doing his charming best to get my attention. I took the bait and walked over to him and he was ecstatic. He acted like a kid that was being picked up from the babysitters and was ready to go home. There were other people walking around the store as well as a few of the folks that worked there but this little guys gaze never wavered from me for an instant. It was disconcerting how focused he was but I was not shopping for a dog and if I had been I would not be looking here.
I reached into his little bed and petted him and he squirmed under my hand still looking up at me as if to say let’s go, come on, I’m with you now.
One of the pet keepers told me I could not pet the dogs in the pens but could make a “holding appointment” if I wanted. That broke the spell. I gave the pup a last little pat and then wandered out of the store to wait for our group. I looked back at him as I exited and his eyes were still following me. Weird.
I called my husband that night just to check in as usual but found myself mentioning the pup. That silly little dog acted like he knew me and that he was my dog already I told him. He laughed and said if I wanted to go back and get him I had his blessing but I put him off instantly. I don’t want a silly little dog I told him firmly I’m not that kind of person. He was just so determined to get my attention that’s all.
I was back at the show the next day but my thoughts kept wandering back to that pup for some reason. I know dogs and he acted like he already was my dog. That had never happened to me before and it sat heavy in my sub conscience willing me to act on it. I made a call to the pet store to see what time they closed and when we finished up at the show I swung by with one of the working students to ease my mind.
I walked in and headed to the crib I had petted him in the night before but he was gone.
There were two different pups in there and I felt a small pang of disappointment but pushed it aside. Someone must have spoken for him and I tried to feel relief that I didn’t have to wonder about him anymore. As I turned to head out a dancing fur ball caught my eye. It was him. In another crib and he was delighted I was back and more clear in his actions of attachment today than he had been the night before. My person is here he mimed as he wagged and jumped and grinned at me with happy abandonment.
I went to him and picked him up and he got quiet in my hands and looked right up into my eyes and into my heart as no dog before had done prior and that was it. There was pure devotion in that gaze and also a look of absolute satisfaction and contentment. I looked into his happy little face and realized that I was now a silly little dog person and I never even saw it coming.
Even the clerk at the store noticed how attached the pup seemed to me. She informed me he was a toy poodle shit zu mix as we finished up the paperwork and then he was mine. I left the store wondering just what kind of spell this little imp had cast on me. On the drive back to our Florida residence which would be our first home together my new little friend seemed surprisingly settled and content. Considering the fact that he was just a youngster, was leaving his home such as it was and heading into unknown territories, he was remarkably unperturbed. He sat quietly on my lap leaning sideways against my chest and every minute or two he would look up and search my face with his eyes. When I looked down at him he was staring right at me and he looked so dang happy that he made me smile. I started calling him Stu pup and then little Stewie and it stuck. Stewie he was.
I found myself surprised by my new friend both immediately and then continuously. He was not silly or aimless or frivolous at all. Stewie dove happily into my life knowing his purpose and his job and he seemed to need little guidance from me as far as any actual dog training went. His self imposed and full time business was the devotion business and he was amazingly good at it. He still remains the best example of pure devotion that I have ever witnessed much less been lucky enough to be the recipient of.
Keeping me happy with him seemed to be his number one priority and that never changed. He listened to everything I said with rapt focus as if there might be a test later that he needed to ace in order to keep his station in life. He figured out the house breaking thing as if he had read a book on that as well as any other mundane incidental dog training maneuvers. that puppy training stuff was for all the moron dogs that came before him. Stewie never actually needed any of the pint sized leashes or harnesses he ended up with because he did not want me out of his sight and if rules didnt call for them the self imposed invisible string he kept tied to my heart would have kept him with me always. Wherever I was, that is where he wanted to be. All day, every day.
I had to buy him a little doggie jail to stay in while I was working horses because he was much too small to be roaming loose around our huge horse training operation or at any of the horse shows I brought him to, but the beginnings and the endings of my days were all his.
He got very good at sitting up in that begging position he had tried at our first meeting and he would sit that way in his cage for minutes at a time. If he heard my voice as I went by the tacking area throughout my work day he would jump to attention like a little soldier only his stance was that begging position. If I even glanced his way he made these ridiculously funny squirrel noises while sitting up on his haunches, all the time searching for eye contact and it was hard not to get sidetracked into bailing him out for a few moments. Sometimes when I was teaching I would let him sit on my lap(his favorite place in the world) and he relished sharing my work time with obvious gratitude. He snuggled happily in his perch while looking smugly at everyone who passed like he was the onliest cat to ever get a canary.
He also learned to fetch as well as any retriever I had known. He liked those mini tennis balls the best and he had all manner of ways of getting me to throw that ball for him. Inside, outside, wherever, he would run as fast and far as I could throw that ball and it took him no time to learn to put that ball into my hand for the next throw to keep the game going.
He started each night sleeping right on top of me with one of his many fluffy chew toys between his paws but by morning he had worked his way between my husband and myself with his three and a half pound body under the covers and his little head beside mine on the pillow. He would half open his eyes and blink sleepily at me when he first heard me move in the morning but he always waited in the bed until he was sure I was done sleeping before jumping up and escorting me down the stairs to get coffee started. I think he would have liked to sleep in a bit in the mornings but since I was an early riser he almost willingly became one too.
He sat on my lap as I drank my morning cup of coffee and then played with some of his many squeaky toys as I got ready for work. Because work meant jail for him I left him at the house with my husband who usually came to the barn later and that gave him a little more time out of his cage each day. My husband had a dignified standard poodle named anouk and my daughter Jess had a St Bernard and a cocker spaniel. We also had an older jack russel named Louie and he was a typical jack in that he would never have been caught dead with his heart dangling out for all to see like Stewies was. But while louie was a fighter by nature he mostly ignored stewie seeing him as the harmless little sap that he was. All the dogs tolerated more than liked him but stewie did not mind. His interests were me, toys, me, fun, and then family, in that order.
Stewie ended up with a lot of stuff. He loved his toys so much that I always browsed when I was out for something to add to his collection. He had a basket in the room that they were supposed to stay in but of course they were always scattered everywhere. He also had clothes. I did it. I bought them, dressed him and he loved it. That is what surprised me most. He loved his little shirts and sweaters. No kidding. When I got one of his minute pieces of apparel out he would sit up in his little begging position and almost help to put it on. If I did not keep his clothes bag zippered he would rummage around in there dragging one sweater or shirt or another over to me while I worked on my computer or iPad. Of course he ended up with Halloween costumes, Santa suits, team clothing from our dressage training operation, little football jerseys you name it he probably had it.
So here I was a grown woman, dressing and playing with this pint sized pet and loving every minute of it. Surprising where life brings us isn’t it?
Of course he also had to go to the groomers because other than a bath or a brushing I was not a skilled dog groomer. Horses, no problem. I could turn out a show ready horse with the best of them but not so with the dogs. If I had tried to give Stewie a haircut he would have looked like he got stuck in a box fan.
So he went. Didn’t like it much, at least that is what Jessie said when she dropped him off once a month for his treatment. Maybe that is why he tried to escape. Jess called me in a panic one morning saying that she had brought the dogs to the groomers and had brought the bigger ones in first and when she went back to her car to get Stewie he had jumped out of her grasp and run off through a field. She had been calling him to no avail and was worried.
I was on a horse and Kim was teaching but we cut out of there within a minute and drove dangerously fast to get to the small neighborhood where our groomer lived. Their house was at the end of a cul de sac with woods hay fields and one small horse farm surrounding them. By the time we arrived a make shift posse had been gathered including the groomer and her daughter and we split up and started looking. I headed out into the field where Jessie had seen him run. I knew Stewie was the last creature I could imagine staying intact for long in this combination of open and then wooded environment. Hawks, coyotes….. I was on the verge of crying and slightly sick with worry but also determined to find my little friend and I ran zig zag through the field calling his name repeatedly but had no luck. I found some houses across the field and stopped at each to see if maybe the residents had seen or taken Stewie in but came up blank.
Worry gnawed at me a little sharper as I picked up the pace and cut a different path back to the groomers. My phone was silent in my pocket meaning no one else had found him either. When I got back to my starting point I started up the road stopping to knock on each door to describe my little friend. No one had seen him but some empathetic souls joined in our search. By the time I had reached the end of the road I was starting to despair. I could not bear to think we might not find him, that seemed too absurd. I sat on a rock and cried for a few moments indulging in an almost suffocating melancholy and then as I stood to start searching again my phone rang. It was my husband Kim. He told me he thought he had seen Stewie but he had run away from and not towards the people looking for him and he wanted me to come quick. I did.
When I got to where he was with his end of the search party he pointed to where he thought he had seen him last and instructed everyone else to be quiet. I went into the grassy area and looked around. Nothing. Called his name. Still nothing. Called again and then I saw a little black head above the grass and I knew it was him. As I got closer I noticed he was up in his little begging stance, soaked and shivering and crying like I had never heard him before. When he was sure it was me he jumped up into my arms burrowed under my chin and cried a different cry that was full of gratitude and relief. I cried too. I realized with a scary certainty that I was not ready to be without my little Stewie and I cancelled his grooming appointment and brought him on home. He spent the rest of the day with me in my teaching chair where he eventually got over his trauma.
I realized then just how much I did love that silly little dog. He had worked his way into my heart with his constant presence and never ending devotion and as he settled in my lap that evening to watch a movie with me I picked him up, kissed him on top of his fluffy little head and told him just that.
For the next year and a half Stewie came everywhere with me. Florida for winter season, all horse shows, dressage at Devon, dressage by the Bay you name it Stewie saw it as part of the family. He had his KYB Stewie team shirts in four or five different colors and soon even some of the judges and officials started recognizing him and asking about him. He didn’t care about where we went as long as he got to be with me. He had his little bag with all of his shirts and toys, food and accessories and he was willing to travel wherever, whenever.
Constant routine. Days that start the same and end predictably are not any kind of assurance that you can actually count on. You might think you can because you are clever, or hard working or ahead of the game and you might get lucky. Or you might not. I don’t know what else to say about that. You do not get to control or manage what life might hand you before the fact. You get to deal with it after. There is so much that goes on in the world we all live in but what do we really care about? We mostly care about what affects us. Our lives, our emotions, our security.
Jessie called me one afternoon while I sat teaching a lesson. I don’t often answer my phone during lessons but for some reason I did.
I think Stewie might be dead were the strangled words I heard first. My mouth spoke on it’s own. What? How can that be? Isn’t he in his cage? He is up in the backyard she said and then I was running. Her guys met me in the gator as i ran towards the house and drove me to Jess who had Stewie in her arms. I took him from her and knew he was gone. She was talking about the neighbors dogs…..he had gone under their fence…..how one of the lesson students had brought him up to the house…….. I stopped hearing.
He was gone. Just gone. His little body felt almost alive but he was not in it and I started walking with him in my arms trying to sort things out in my head as my heart crashed in my chest and my lungs worked to get air. My legs walked towards the pond and then stopped and I sank down with my little friend in my arms and sobbed. I made noises of sadness that were upsetting to all who tried to gather and hover around but I could not stop them and I could not acknowledge the hands or hugs that tried to be of comfort. I got back to my feet and headed to the pond with Stewie in my arms.
I am a Christian. I believe in god and I do believe miracles can happen. I wanted one bad. I begged god to give Stewie another chance. Make him like the little mouse in the Green mile or the jack Russell in the movie Michael. Just let him breath I prayed. He deserves it. Please I begged silently. Even in my moment of grief I realized and acknowledged all the loss on a far grander scale that occurred every minute somewhere, the world over, but still I wanted my tragedy to rewind itself. I wanted my little dog to breath. I wanted him back. He can be hurt I pleaded silently I don’t care I will take care of him. Please. Please. Please. I applied a fierce moment of intense concentration and willed my friend to come back to me. He did not.
Stewie did not breath. I sat with him. I don’t know exactly how long. Long enough to realize that this would not be a story of miracles and salvation. This would be a story of loss. Sadness loomed ahead of me like a dark tunnel with no lights and no doors. I stepped into the tunnel when i acknowledged to myself that Stewie was indeed gone.
I carried him up to the house. Kim was digging a spot for him beside other pets we had lost.
My youngest, Hudi, had gotten his little bed out of his cage and brought his bag of toys. I placed him in the soft little bed he had waited for me every day in and placed some of his favorite toys in with him. I buried him myself and retired to my room to cry in peace.
Everyone understood and everyone didn’t. I have had pets, animals I loved, I have had loss and heartache before. This was worse in so many ways.
I felt wrecked inside. Was it because he was so young? Was it because he should not have been out of his cage without my consent and the whole thing should have been prevented? Was it the terrible way he must have died even if it was quick? Was it that i never had a chance to prevent, protect or save my little friend. Maybe all of that.
A constant stream of love and devotion that had been pointed my way for years was now horribly gone and I could never replace it. There was that too.
Sadness is exhausting. Stewie was still everywhere I looked. He was on the side of my bath tub dropping his toys in the water so I would play with him even as I soaked in the tub. He was at my feet as I ate knowing I would give him some of my dinner or breakfast or whatever I had. He was gathering a rock a day to sneak into the car a d then up to our room to add to his collection under the bed. He was waiting for me in his cage. He was waiting and loving and devoted. Only he was not. He was gone.
I am still sad. Crying now as I type. I do not want to remember stewie with sadness. I want to remember him with happiness and I am sure I will in time. Stewie deserved more time. He deserved a happy ending. He was the best dog I ever knew and I know it was because he gave everything he had to give every day. He loved me as I was without question or judgement. He was devoted.
You found me once Stu. I will keep my heart open, maybe you will be able to find me again.
I never really liked silly little dogs, couldn’t say why…. I sure did love one though.