I was once blessed to be loved completely and totally by a brown-eyed, bear-faced, honey-headed dog named Chelsea. She was a husky mix of dubious parentage and our unlikely love story began before I actually became her dog mom. When she died, I was so broken-hearted that I wrote a tribute to her that served to connect me with many others who loved their animals as fiercely as I loved mine.

I loved Chelsea and she loved me. It’s as plain as that. Before we go any further, let me explain that while Chelsea was a family pet, she was my dog – or I was hers – the line between who owned who blurred between us a long time ago. Back then, I was a military wife and I first met Chelsea when our newest next door neighbors moved into our four-plex at Andrews Air Force Base. They walked outside to help their dog inspect the new yard just as I was watering my flowers. Since our homes were adjacent, I went over to the fence to say hello before I realized they had a dog with them.

Chelsea trotted out at me with a loud “woo-woo-woof” and I flinched.

Then, I took stock of this dog, roughly 60 pounds of apricot and white fur – looking mostly like a husky mix of some kind and I said “now don’t do that or I won’t give you any treats.”

She wagged her tail, sheepishly smiling (those who love dogs know what I’m describing). “Sorry,” she seemed to say. “Won’t happen again.”

And it never did. In fact, that introduction began a two-year odyssey highlighted by treats across the fence and walking Chelsea to help the neighbors, who were new parents. During those years I considered adopting other dogs. Each time, it didn’t feel right.

Then one day the neighbors asked if I would adopt Chelsea. When she came to me, I needed her so much. Her love, exuberance and beautiful, bushy apricot and white wagging tail – I needed all of her and she gave her love joyfully. At the time, my husband was stationed in Central America for a year and I was flat out lonely.

I and Love and YOU, and that makes ALL the difference.

In my experiences with animals, I’ve learned that they come into our lives for three key reasons—to love us, to comfort us and to inspire us. And when it’s their time to leave us, it happens for two reasons: In some cases they have fulfilled their purpose as we have learned the lesson(s) that were given to our animals to teach us. In others, they must leave us so we will grieve them and make the changes we must in order to fulfill our purpose on this planet.

Not everyone learns their key life lessons from animals. Sometimes it’s from our kids, our parents or another person close to us. Other times those lessons are learned when we make horrible or just plain dumb mistakes. However, I think that often the gentlest teachers are those silent animal companions we know. Their simple acceptance of we humans speaks in far greater volumes than silly words can ever express. When we come into this world we are a blank slate. When we leave, the only things we take with us are the experiences from knowing others.

This is a tribute that marked a time when I made a shift from the person I was to the person I was to become. Loving Chelsea meant that much to me. These type of sentinel experiences help us love more generously, more freely and with fewer conditions attached to it. Thank heavens for these blessings. They are just too perfect.

Back then, Chelsea turned our house into a home for two – she and I. My work hours were long and she got bored, as well as needed a potty break. So, one day, out of desperation, I left her in the back yard for the day. She took it upon herself to go find friends. Thankfully, another “dog” person found her. Sharri had two shelties and, after learning our story, offered to “dog sit” Chelsea during the day while I worked. We became lifelong friends as Chelsea played gleefully with her two dogs.

A few months later, my husband received a new assignment. Moving from D.C. to Puget Sound with a big dog proved a major ordeal. I gained not just a little confidence from caring for Chelsea and keeping her best interests at heart. And, she returned my love by sharing her joy and making me laugh. As soon as we ‘landed’ in Gig Harbor I found a house and embarked on a less-than-well-planned remodel (aren’t they always?). In the tenth week without a kitchen, we returned from yet another dinner out to find Chelsea sitting on the roof of our house! The guest bedroom window opens onto a low roof and there sat Chelsea, smiling and wagging her tail. We laughed for days and it lightened our load.

When I became the executive director of our local Chamber of Commerce, Chelsea became our office mascot. I learned that Chelsea had a great memory for directions when, after her daily walks through town with our neighbor’s daughter, she decided to visit me on her own, escaping and going AWOL from the back yard.

I looked up from my desk to see Chelsea on the landing above my window, looking down at me, wagging her tail as if saying “See, I can find you.” After that, she joined me at the office on quiet days.

Our Chamber volunteers and staff laughed at Chelsea’s three ways of greeting folks. Most common “Welcome to the Chelsea Petting Place,” the slightly standoffish “State
Your Purpose” and on two occasions, the “Be Gone Bad Spirit.” Chelsea was a great judge of character and she taught me to trust my instincts about people.

Since she was now a public figure, keeping Chelsea pretty was a priority. It was then I met Nancy, who at the time owned a business called Pet-To-The-Vet. She helped me keep those promises. Nancy took Chelsea to her monthly “spa days” of grooming at the Purdy Prison Pet Partnership Program. They took such good care of Chelsea on her monthly ‘spa days,’ she trotted out of the house without a backward glance.

When I became pregnant, Chelsea knew long before I did. One night late, I woke to find her sniffing me from head to toe. Putting it together, I bought a pregnancy test, which of course was positive. Chelsea walked with me almost every morning for three years. Until my fifth month of pregnancy, we motored at a jog. After that, she politely slowed her pace and became very protective. Fellow joggers and dog walkers were greeted on Chelsea’s sliding scale, but mostly to “Be Gone Bad Spirit”.

When Samuel was born he had to remain in the hospital for an extra week. Chelsea patiently waited it out until we were all settled in at home. For the first month, it was simply too perfect. Our new family took walks up and down the hills of Gig Harbor. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny. We were getting to know Samuel and loving each other more and more each day.

The nights were long and Chelsea, as always, followed me closely. This time, it was into the baby’s room for feeding, changing and to help our new one get off to sleep. She rested patiently, waiting for me to be awake enough each morning to feed her and let her out for a potty break. My husband was overseas most of the time and it was just me and my “nanny”, Chelsea.

That’s why it surprised me so much when she pressed for my attention at the bedside one morning. When I finally rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I saw that half her face was slack. My veterinarian, Dr. Lisa, said that I shouldn’t use the “T” word (tumor). I hoped she was right. After a couple weeks, Chelsea seemed okay, albeit slower. She was herself but just at ¾-time.

The first week of January, it hit again. This time, she couldn’t keep her equilibrium. Then, she lost her peripheral vision. I met with Dr. Lisa and agreed it was probably a tumor – deadly. What was I going to do?

Dr. Lisa told me to make Chelsea comfortable. When it was time, I would know. The words of Kahlil Gibran stayed in my head, from his essay on Joy and Sorrow in his book, The Prophet. He wrote that our sorrow and joy are equal to one another; that our capacity for joy is equal to the sorrow we know in life.

I experienced it in what I felt was a two-to-one ratio. For the immense joy she brought to my life, I felt double the sorrow at knowing she would soon be leaving me.

As it turned out, we had three more weeks. Chelsea and I and the baby took our last walk together on a Sunday—her last good day. It was sunny and mild. On Monday, it rained and Chelsea woke up blind. After the baby’s three AM feeding, I coaxed Chelsea downstairs for water and a potty break. By Thursday, I knew it was time. Chelsea whimpered quietly and laid her head in my lap as if asking me to take the pain away. It was more than I could bear.

It was on a Saturday morning and Nancy came to the house early to help wait out the inevitable. I fed the baby at noon, and then he went blissfully off to sleep for nearly three hours.

I lay a throw on the floor and sat on it with my back resting against the sofa. Next, I asked Chelsea to come sit by my side. After pacing all morning, she surprised me by settling in beside me. When Dr. Lisa arrived, she quickly set up and injected Chelsea with the anesthetic. Chelsea helped me through so much in our three years together; it was my turn—to help her die, as comfortably as possible, with dignity, without fear.

“Meet me in my dreams and we’ll play again, like we used to,” I said. She died with her head in my lap and with me looking into her eyes. Dr. Lisa helped me snip a bit of her fur and we loaded Chelsea into her car. Then, she was gone from my life.

It was terrible loss for me. Yet, it was a wonderful gift to give this dog that gave so much to my life.

Three days later, in my early morning sleep, I heard panting at my bedside again. It startled me so much I called out “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea!” She leapt in one motion on top of the bed with grace and muscle. She pranced around and tussled the sheets. We embraced. My hands ran through her long fur and I breathed in her clean, fresh scent. She was Super Chelsea, with flecks of gold on the tips of her fur.

I love you. I love you back. Joy, joy, joy, joy. Wiggle, squirm, laugh, smile, pant.

Then I woke up.

I hope to see you again in my dreams Chelsea. Thank you for showing me you are well, safe and happy. I miss you every day. It was too perfect between us.

I thank you for reading my tribute to this wonderful dog. Some people would say “Geez, she was just a dog.” But, I suspect you understand my grief and the need to tell you how much I loved her. Loving then Losing Chelsea broke my heart wide open. Yet, as I knit myself back together, I discovered that my heart was bigger with greater capacity to listen and love. That’s when the stories of others transformed by animals began telling themselves. I would be sitting beside someone in a meeting, in a waiting room, on an airplane and they would just tumble out.

Oh, I finally figured it out. I’m supposed to write these down. Duh!

Reading more, you will find other stories of people whose lives were fundamentally transformed by the animals they loved and who loved them unconditionally in return. Maybe you had a pet that you loved especially, or whom you enjoy, every day.

Whatever the reason finds you reading this, I hope you are encouraged and inspired. I hope that this love transforms your heart, making it bigger, increasing your own capacity for joy, kindness, and of course, love.

The Hunt...

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight.

When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"

"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.

"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.

"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveler asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept pets."

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"

"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."

"How about my friend here?" the traveler gestured to the dog.

"There should be a bowl by the pump."

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveler filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.

"What do you call this place?" the traveler asked.

"This is Heaven," he answered.

"Well, that's confusing," the traveler said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."

"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope that's hell."

"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"

"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."

And as the closing narration of this episode of The Twilight Zone so aptly observes...

"Travelers to unknown regions would be well advised to take along the family dog. He could just save you from entering the wrong gate. At least, it happened that way once-- in a mountainous area of the Twilight Zone."

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