I have always been a dog lover. My parents had a cockapoo when I was born, and when I was in first grade, we got two darling cocker spaniels named Jake and Molly. They each had their own distinct personalities—Jake was a mischief-maker who loved to cuddle and steal snacks from anywhere he could find them, while Molly was more of a pensive pup who liked to keep her distance but loved us all the same. They were so much fun, and they defined the childhood memories that my brother and I share.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, though, when I realized the difference between growing up with a pet and raising a pet to call your own.
I met my now-husband, James, in 2011 and one of the things I loved about him right away was how much he adored his dog, a two-year-old English mastiff named Callie. I loved her immediately, too. After growing up with small dogs, I was totally intrigued by Callie’s size—she was 150 pounds even though she was the runt of her litter—and how her weight had no bearing on the fact that she thought she was a lap dog. She was sweet and smart and loyal and I wanted her to be my best friend.
After a few months of dating, James moved to Dallas, where I live. Callie accompanied him on the multi-hour road trip from Tallahassee. Ever the trooper, she rode shotgun in a moving truck, simply glad to be on the journey. Due to a variety of circumstances, Callie ended up living with me in my one-bedroom loft apartment. I was in heaven having her as my roommate. I know it broke James’s heart to be separated from her but by that point I had staked my claim as her mama so it lessened the blow a bit.
She was sweet and smart and loyal and I wanted her to be my best friend.
We took Callie everywhere—to the park and to dog-friendly restaurants, of course, but to less obvious places, too, like friends’ houses (she was always the life of the party), dog-friendly hotels (our favorite is the Hotel San José in Austin), and my office (a distinctly non-dog-friendly space where I got really good at sneaking her up the back staircase). We threw her a birthday party and included her in family photo shoots and asked her to be our flower dog in our wedding (she said yes, of course). She had sleepovers with many of my friends (you think she’s giving up her space in the bed because a girlfriend is in town visiting?) and she snuggled with our nieces and nephew and just generally made everyone around her really happy. She was our girl, our number one confidant, and our best pal.
This past June, Callie was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. She was only six and a half years old. We were devastated, to say the least. We proceeded with the recommended amputation of her front left leg, where the original tumor was, and she came out of that surgery like a champion. I will never forget picking her up at the cancer specialist’s office just 24 hours after her surgery—unfazed by the cone of shame, she hopped out into the lobby on three legs, so happy to see me as I held out my arms and told her how beautiful she looked.
During the next several months, we returned to the office frequently for chemotherapy and blood work. Callie became the mascot of the office with her sweet personality and desire to cuddle despite her size. We felt grateful that we had the resources to provide her with the care we wanted to give. We know that for some people, dogs (and their illnesses) receive a varying degree of worth, and that is totally okay. But to us Callie was family, our first baby, and we knew that at the end of the day we’d want to look back and know we had done everything we could.
She had a clear lung scan in November, which was a huge relief, but things came crashing down just before New Year’s Eve when Callie lost all feeling in her back legs, as well as her ability to walk. It was a sudden and soul-crushing revelation when we learned that the cancer had reared its fierce and ugly head, spreading tumors throughout her lungs and down her spine. She wasn’t in pain, but it was time to send her to heaven.
We flew home early from a family vacation to spend time with her and say goodbye. I won’t recount those last few hours with you here—it still too painful. But I will say that the family members, friends, and veterinary professionals who rallied around us and reminded us that we were not alone in our suffering lifted us up. When Jake and Molly passed away, I was heartbroken. But there was something acutely different this time around with this beautiful dog that I felt like I had helped raise. It’s easy to start wondering if your grief is a bit silly—we had lost a dog, not a human, after all. But that thought was a lie, and one that made us feel worse for wear. Thanks to our community of pet-loving friends, we were reminded that grieving the loss of a pet is more than okay; it is normal and it is right. Pets are truly family—they show us unconditional love and loyalty and support in ways that many humans never will.
I distinctly remember reading this blog post a few years ago, crying into Callie’s fur and making her promise that she would never leave me (even though I knew she one day would). Blogger Natalie Holbrook beautifully captured a sentiment I now know all too well:
“Puppies are a certain kind of heartbreak, I know that truth intimately. We love them like our children, though it isn’t a fair comparison. When we bring babies into our family, we have every reason to believe that they will survive us. We plan for eighteen years plus the rest of our lives to love them, and barring illness or accidents, we do. But puppies won’t stay for long. Ten years, fifteen at the most. We bring these fur babies into our lives anyway, knowing full well that inevitably, they have to break our heart. We willingly set ourselves up for this great, huge loss. We know the hole they are going to leave behind when they go. We know that puppies will always have to leave us too soon.”
I have tears running down my face as I re-read that quote, and I’m reminded of how true the thought is. The only thing I have to add is that it’s worth it; oh, how it’s worth it to give your heart to a dog and to fully embrace her as a part of your family. The pain of a loss will hurt—for a very long time, maybe always—but the joy that our furry friends bring us truly outweighs that pain a million times over.
We love you, Callie girl, and we always will.
How has your life been touched by a pet?
Images of Callie via Heather Hawkins