When I was in college, about to turn 21, I hit a bit of a low. It was the first time I’d lived away from my parents (two years of jr. college, then off to university). I had a roommate, an apartment, no job and too much freedom. My first semester, by my family’s standards, was unacceptable. To be fair, I was pulling B’s and the occasional C for grades…but my parents weren’t having it. At Christmas, they gave me the ultimatum – do better, or you are coming home.
I won’t sugar coat it. Yes, I was spending more time worrying about partying with my friends than I was about studying or class. But there was a bigger issue in the mix. I was desperately home sick. I never thought I would be THAT person, but as it turned out – I was. I missed everything about my small little town and my parents and the fact I was SOMEONE there. At college, I was another of the 1 million dark haired, brown eyed faces that dotted the campus. I unhealthy filled the void with late nights, bad food, no sleep, boys with questionable motives and hours of tv. It was a pretty sad life.
As my birthday approached, my mom asked me what I wanted that year. Two years previously, they had gotten a dog, Nick. He was an English Springer Spaniel and was the first dog that was “allowed” to be inside. He’d become the light of everyone’s life at home. I told mom, “I want a dog.”
Of course, where I lived at the time didn’t allow pets. But, my roommie and I were making plans for a move to a pet friendly house the next semester. My mom said ok, but we’d wait and get the new pup over the summer, since there was no way I could take him back to school with me right then.
Spring break arrived and I was planning to head home for the week. My mom called me at 7 am that Saturday, demanding to know when I was coming home. I thought this was incredibly odd. I mean, it’s Saturday. My plans were to slowly pack up and make my way 4 hours south that day. What was the rush?
Aggravated, I got all my crap together and set out. At the time, I was driving a 1981 Dodge Ram truck that was a gas guzzler and had marginal AC capabilities, at best. Spring in GA can be brutally hot and that day was no exception.
Long story short, I made it home that afternoon to discover that my mom, unbeknownst to me, had bought me a puppy. She came out with this little fluffy with a big red bow. I can still remember every moment of that day…meeting little Huckleberry.
I spent the week in puppy heaven, but soon it was time to head back to school. But, that week changed me. No longer did I care about pulling an all-nighter at the local bar or the band parties at the frat houses on Miledge Street. I would finish class on Fridays and shoot south, so I could spend the weekend with my little pup.
Spring semester finished, and I spent the summer at home…mostly working and teaching my little pup the basics. When classes started back up in the fall, everything centered around the puppy. I structured my days to have time to come home and walk him at lunch and I spent most evenings cuddled up with him watching tv or studying. The weekends were spent at the dog park or hiking.
That little dog changed me. It gave me purpose and structure at time I needed it the most. It gave me a reason to get up in the am and a reason not to be out too late. It taught me a tremendous amount of responsibility, which is just what a kid off to college needs. Somehow, my mom knew that little dog was just what I needed to get me through what I was going through.
I had little Huckleberry for almost 14 years, until he passed away from cancer.
Flash forward to last Christmas. We (my husband and I) were down at my parents’ house in FL for the holidays. I had been talking about getting another dog (we already had two at the time). One specifically to use as a hunting dog for hawking. As luck would have it, I made contact with a breeder and a littler of pups was born Christmas eve. I remember showing my mom the puppy pictures while we were cooking Christmas dinner. My mom, who had a soft spot in her heart for puppies, said, “Pick out a puppy and it will be your birthday present.”.
For those that have not purchased a puppy from a reputable breeder, it’s a lot like adopting a child. I spent several weeks trying to secure a puppy. At one point, it appeared that all the pups were spoken for from that litter, but in January, I finally put a deposit down on a dog. We set a date to pick the new fluff up Mid-March.
I remember talking to mom about the puppy and sending her pictures, pictures of the parents and updates from the breeder. She was so very excited to meet the newest furry member of the family.
Then, in February – I got a call one evening from my dad. Mom was in the hospital. We rushed down. I will never forget hearing the words, “Stage Four Lung Cancer”. It seemed like time stopped that day…like I was in some spinning, Alice in Wonderland drug induced state. “This cannot be happening,” kept running through my mind. The doctors had little information to offer, but everyone knows the outlook for a stage four lung cancer diagnosis.
Mom started immunotherapy treatments a few weeks later. Every doctors visit, ever turn in her journey, was fraught with obstacles. A blood clot led to her having to take blood thinner, which complicated her having a chemo port put in, which delayed treatment. I cringed every time the phone rang, expecting the worst news.
Mom wasn’t the same after the first hospital stay. She was tired and had problems catching her breath. The cancer treatment quickly took its toll on her energy level. Our conversations on the phone were shorter and shorter. But she always asked me, “What’s going on with the puppy?”.
At that point, I had all but called and cancelled with the breeder. I mean, the LAST THING I need at this point was to jet off and bring a puppy into the chaos of my life. I told Mom that I didn’t think it was a good idea to go forward with the puppy and she point-blank told me, “Go get that dog. Don’t you even think of coming back down here without that puppy.” Mom always spoke her mind, that’s for sure.
Flash forward a few more weeks. Puppy arrives and we are settling in when we get another call from Dad. Mom is back in hospital with complications from the cancer treatment. Again, we rush south. Seventy-two hours from the time I got that call from Dad, Mom was gone. Just like that. Gone.
I can’t begin to describe to you the feelings I felt. I still can’t put into words how I feel today. It’s like experiencing every emotion at once, and you don’t know how to interpret any of it. Your system is shocked beyond comprehension. The days immediately following her passing were a blur, filled with paperwork, arrangements, memories and sadness.
I spent that next week with Dad. We sat on the porch pretty much all day, every day that week – Just talking about everything that happened and trying to make some sort of sense of it all. Trying to figure out how to even think about moving forward from it. As we sat and talked, the dogs played around the yard and occasionally, the puppy would do something silly and we both just had to laugh. The puppy fell in the fish pond, twice, trying to catch fish. He zoomed around the yard, chasing the other pups until they all collapsed from exhaustion. Dad and I both found ourselves laughing. It was really the first time we’d laughed since February, since mom first got sick. It was the first time we’d allowed our self to feel anything other than terror or dread.
Having the puppy there that weekend helped us remember that its ok to still be alive. I remember feeling so guilty leaving the hospital for the last time. Death is so simple. Living and living on through the passing of someone is beyond complicated. Every emotion you feel, you question if its right or wrong or appropriate. You wrestle with guilt simply because you feel tired or hungry. Living becomes an emotional liability, because someone you love is gone – why should you get to have any joy in your life right now? The puppy gave us an excuse to forget, just for a moment, and feel just a little bit alive. The puppy forced me to get up every morning and take him out, to keep up with him and to make sure all his needs were met. It gave me an excuse to not feel guilty that I was still here.
My mom never got to meet the puppy. That fact may seem trivial at this point, but to me it has a much deeper, sadder tone. Just like when I needed something in my life to help me cope all those years ago in college, mom’s last gift to me was this little puppy that has helped me not be overwhelmed and consumed in grief. I can’t dwell in my sorrow all the time. I can’t curl up in a ball and cry all day. I can’t lay in bed and curse and scream and sob. This little dog forces me to be better. He even gives me something to laugh and smile about at a time where there just seems no joy can be found.
Mom got me Kohle as a hunting partner, but with the events that have happened these past few weeks, he’s become so much more. Having him in my life is not only a reminder of my mom’s generosity, but also of how she always knew just what I needed and when I needed it most.