My dear Isabel died suddenly of congestive heart failure, a disease common to Cavaliers, on January 15th. She was ten and a half and had been with my husband, daughter and I since she was 10 weeks old. She lived her whole life in Arlington, in the Turkey Hill neighborhood, where she had many friends, canine and human. She lived an exemplary life, quietly guiding me every day in how I should live- – just by being herself.
She was everything I wish I were: patient, kind, gentle, and above all, unfailingly generous. A specialist in open-hearted love, she could not be left out of any embrace– If family members hugged, she came over and pawed our legs until she was invited to join the circle. She welcomed every foster dog we had, even when they took her special stuff and her favorite sleeping spots. She let our Pomeranian Jasper make all the choices, always accommodating him, and did the same for me, too. I would set the agenda, and she always, always seemed pleased to follow it, with joy. (Me, I’m more like Jasper – I want people to follow my agenda and I can get fussy and loud when they don’t.)
For 10 and a half years, every single day of my life, Isabel brought joy and love, overflowing. There was never a down day, a hard day, or even a mixed day. There was not even a mixed moment. Isabel never chewed a shoe, had an accident (unless ill), made a mess, or got grumpy. Secretly, she learned how to retrieve my socks from the hamper without tipping it, and I would find her after my day at work in her special chair in the sun room, sleeping with just one of my socks. She didn’t chew it or slobber on it. She simply kept it by her. It melted my heart, every time, to know she went to such trouble to have something of me near. She always greeted me joyously, tail awag, with a stuffed chipmunk or squirrel toy in her mouth. How I loved that greeting – her soft face, smiling around a fat chipmunk, as happy and proud as if she’d caught it herself.
We shared a love of the woods, Isabel and I. Unlike other family members, I did not have to coax or convince her to take to the woods with me. We shared hundreds of hikes at the Fells, many runs there (until recent years), and she hiked seven 4000-footers in the White Mountains with me, when she was 8 and 9 years old. People were amazed to see her small self atop these tall, tall mountains, and she inspired at least two families to start hiking with their Cavaliers. One November we hiked in unexpected snow to the top of Mt. Pierce. In the whiteout conditions I was desperate to get off the summit, but sweet little Isabel, despite being covered in and nearly immobilized by ice balls, was rolling in the snow in 40 mile per hour gusts with great pleasure, as if in her back yard. Last winter, when I tried a supposedly “solo” hike, I cheated. Isabel was there with me on Mt. Watatic, and I was anything but alone. We shared great joy on mountain summits, where she, like me, preferred to sit quietly and gaze out at the horizon.
I could feel and see her excitement when she was on the trails. She might drag on the sidewalk, but take her to the woods, and like me, she’d light up. I knew how important it was to allow her to express her nature and run free, and accepted as a reasonable price the many times I went crashing through the trees after her when she was young and quick, and would chase squirrels with no thought of where she might end up.
She mellowed in recent years, and we could amble together at Arlington Great Meadows without any worries of her getting lost or chasing critters too far. She had slowed, and it was clear her hiking days were over. I struggled against that reality for some months, but found an acceptance of our new pace and life together. Every Saturday and Sunday, at the Reservoir and Great Meadows, we made our quiet meandering loops, stopping to sniff (Isabel) and look (me). I relished those walks as high points in my week, rain or shine, cold or hot. She didn’t really like rain, but she would go out in it, for me. She didn’t really love running – walking was more her speed – but she would run, for me. In fact, Isabel is the reason I found running again, after a period where fear of injury had side-lined me. She loved her food –how she loved her food, and her nightly greenies!– and she tended to put on weight. So I started running with her, just a mile or so at first, to keep her trim, though at her peak she once ran 15 miles with me. If not for Isabel, I never would have run the Boston Marathon.
We played ball every day, a special game only we shared. I wanted her to run more, to keep in shape, but Isabel needed a little motivation to run. So every time she ran for her ball and brought it back to me, I gave her a treat. We played this treat-and-ball game at Stratton or Turkey Hill morning and night, every day. In the early years, the ball kept her focused so she didn’t lose herself running for bunnies. More recently, she tended to run for the ball, but walk it back. Always, though, our game – perhaps 20 throws a day, for 10 years – was our special connection, something just for us, though she would play the game with neighborhood kids if I asked her to. Shy and unassertive around other dogs, she would never protect her ball. In fact, she would drop it if they came near. So I protected it for her, though I see now – funny it never occurred to me before – that perhaps she didn’t think it needed protecting. Perhaps it was only I that was afraid it would be taken, while she was happy to give it away. That was Isabel.
Isabel started out extroverted (at least with people), and became a certified therapy dog when she was still a puppy. She was happy on our therapy dog visits to nursing homes for many years, and lifted many a spirit in those days with her large expressive eyes and incredible sweetness and gentleness. Then at some point, she became more introverted, and I struggled with whether she was going along, again, for me. Isabel was that kind of dog. You had to watch out, because she would do all kinds of things if you asked her to, out of love, out of generosity. That was Isabel. I know, because that’s not my nature, and seeing it in her, I valued and cherished it, every day.
Isabel was super smart, though she played that very low key. She learned any cue in minutes. Her favorite: the “where’s skunky” game – where she found enormous satisfaction in waiting for me to hide her toy in another room, and then find run and find it – for a treat, of course. She did agility in the backyard, learning the equipment with ease. And she loved solving her swedish Nina Ottoson puzzles, filled, as they were, with yummy treats.
Though stunningly beautiful, Isabel was easy for some to overlook. Dark, shaggy, retiring, and quiet, people often passed over her and focused on perky Jasper. But Isabel didn’t mind. She seemed to prefer when people didn’t fuss over her. She was a peace-maker, and she didn’t need the spotlight. She quietly shared her pure, unalloyed love with her family and her band of buddies: Andy, Penny, Nellie, Leo, Hannah, Rupert, and her newer friends Aiden, Marley, and Mr. Pudge and Coco Chanel. She had a soft spot for Rambo, too; how she loved the boys.
Of everything that has happened or will happen in my life, the chance to share 10 years of it with Isabel will always be one of the very very best things that my life has offered, or can offer. She was a best friend, faithful and loving companion, a trusted partner, and an inspiration to me to be my best self. I am deeply grateful for my time with her. And in the end, though she left me much too soon, Isabel found a way in her parting to give me one more enormous gift—I didn’t have to choose when she left me.
That was Isabel.
I want to extend a special thanks to A-DOG for making this memorial possible, and particularly to President Sue Doctrow, whose offer to post a piece about Isabel has helped me so much with healing. I also want to thank A-Dog member Ellen Kravitz, for her compassionate support in wrestling to the ground the many “what-ifs” involved in Isabel’s last days. It is in times of crisis, as well as joy and celebration, that we can see so clearly the incomparable solace of community and connection. I so appreciate the role A-DOG plays in Arlington, bringing local dogs and their people together and providing support in good times and hard times, too. Thank you.
Heart Dog (1/14/14)
Ten years ago
You came to snuggle under covers at my chest
A puppy’s sweet heart–
Beating against mine
I came to call you my heart dog
Joined so tight – almost as if we were sharing
one beating orb
And then last night, on our walk
When you could not take another step
I carried you against my chest
Your heart —
Beating against mine
As big as the sun —
Love its only language
the doctor says,
Is too big for you
Too big, perhaps,
for this world
I carry you, arms aching
Breaking against yours.