Leave No Dog Behind: A Christmas “Tail” of Love

Christmas was always a special time of year for me, filled with extra meaning since I was born on Christmas Day and my little girl came into my life for Christmas, 1993.

Since Brandy Noel, I smiled more, laughed more, and I rejoiced in things I never knew existed. This dog made my lesser parts feel that whole. I knew in my heart that if my dog had this much unconditional love to share with me, she would certainly be willing to give some to others.

Cocker Spaniel, Brandy Noel

It was then I discovered precious forgotten souls: elderly citizens living in nursing homes and high-rise communities who sadly, especially at the holidays, do not often receive much company. Although I never had her certified as a pet therapy dog, she was always well-behaved, gentle and kind enough to interact with people.

Time stops for no one, the saying goes. One of the folks this 25-pound cocker befriended was a 78-year-old lady living in a high rise near my then apartment. The path that this lady walked daily was with Alzheimer’s disease. Her declining health and failing memory had little effect on the love in her heart.

I introduced these two unlikely life forces slowly: One a rambunctious attention-seeking wiggle-butt and the other, a frail but devoted wife and mother of two encumbered by a disease that defined her body but not her spirit. Lil and Brandy became fast friends. Over time, she trusted me enough to know that if she saw Brandy with me, I must be “okay” to associate with as well.

Lillian loved listening to Christmas carols, petting her fur-legged friend, and eventually trusting us enough to help decorate her tree. I’m not sure who had more fun: Brandy stealing tinsel from the box, Lillian helping to hang the family ornaments or me, laughing so hard the hours slipped quickly away.

And slip they did. Lillian eventually was unable to care for herself. Despite in-home care and nearly round-the-clock treatment, it was unsafe to be in the home environment. She moved in with her daughter where we continued our visits. Within 60 days, Lillian’s health spiraled downward, but Brandy Noel continued her visits. Prior to slipping into a coma, Brandy lay gently by her side where Lillian continued to pat the back of her unlikely friend. In her final days on Earth, a Cocker Spaniel sensed her departing yet never left her side. Brandy was by her when she slipped away.

Brandy and I visited the cemetery and continued to do so for years, with Brandy’s wagging tail as she approached the grave site of Lillian and her husband. I often wondered if she was saying hello or merely catching the scent of a rabbit passing through. Either way, I took comfort in that wag with each visit.

I watched the hands of time etch themselves across my little girl as well; her once reddened muzzle turn to snow and the slowing of her gait. Her illness came sudden, which might just be a blessing. I won’t go into great detail about the final moments except that I was there and it was peaceful. She went from little snores of cocker life, to the ceasing of breathing and the passing of her sick weak body, as her spirit moved on.

She is definitely in heaven, the heaven that is a mere breath away, and she has come to me in my dreams, in the stars, and has given me very unique signs that she is amongst us. But the day to day living and not having her here, the routines we shared, the love and bond of physical closeness, especially as the holidays approach, I miss those the most.

So as the skies darken earlier and my mind wanders to Lillian and Brandy, I picture them together: A pair united so briefly, whose candle now burns eternal. I take comfort in the stars as the skies darken earlier, a bright reminder that they are shining even if oh-so -far away.

I was one of those people, by the way, who said “never again. I cannot get this close to an animal like this.” He sits at my feet daily and his name is Dexter, by the way. My never again. Thankfully I think with my heart and then ask my brain to double check my work. I could never not love this way again.