Valley Voices

Ruthe Armstrong: It was Bella’s turn to say ‘Gotta go,’ this time

Bella came as a puppy to her owners nine years ago and grew from a puff of fur entertaining her human brothers to a full-grown golden retriever who shared the bed with her parents every night. This week, the family had to say goodbye, as she died from lymphoma.
Bella came as a puppy to her owners nine years ago and grew from a puff of fur entertaining her human brothers to a full-grown golden retriever who shared the bed with her parents every night. This week, the family had to say goodbye, as she died from lymphoma. Courtesy of Ruthe Armstrong

We said goodbye to Bella this week. We knew it was coming soon, so I wrote this March 2:

I’m looking at dog hair floating on the pool. Swirling in the mini currents, from sun to shade and back again. I hear the motor running the filter, a filter that has been clogged many times with Bella’s hair. It’s what happens when you own a golden retriever.

“Own” is the wrong word. She is part of us – our family – a sister to my two boys. She is an adopted daughter for my husband and me. Nine years ago, she joined us, a puff of fur, bright eyes, black nose and a perfect pink tongue.

I sit on the patio floor today and watch her snooze on an old swim towel as the bright warm March sun sinks into us. And I remember. My backyard is full of ghosts. The first months with her, chilly nights when she would signal me with a whimper that nature was calling.

I’d grab the flashlight, and she’d be at the door before me. Little puppy legs running through the damp night grass. Then back to bed – first in a zippered crate, then eventually our bed. Her back pressed against me, making little dream noises. As much as we would complain over the years about sharing our bed with a full-grown golden retriever, I think we both felt a little off when she would abandon us for the much cooler bathroom floor.

Summers became a big blur of swimming, tennis balls, Jimmy Buffett tunes and wet dog. Bella knew she’d have to get permission from us to get in the pool. Oh, the joy when she did! Sometimes in a burst off the side of the pool, others a quick splash down the steps.

The endless games of fetch, then her panic when we would swim underwater. And racing – she loved to race the boys the length of our pool. She was fast. At first, she was winning. Then, as the boys grew and became competitive swimmers, she accepted her losses with a golden’s good nature. She gave out sloppy, happy kisses and a challenge to race again.

Unless Dad was already at the grill. Then she would stand sentry in case any errant piece of meat, salmon, chicken or whatever would find its way to the pool deck. That was an event she could count on, because Dad is a softy.

It’s strangely warm for early March, and even though still damp, Bella has abandoned me for some cool shade. The pool filter shuts off abruptly, almost making me jump. I can now hear Bella softly wheezing and the drone of a lawn mower down the street.

I’m trying to capture each moment with Bella in my mind. There were our early morning walks when we were both younger. Then there was the time ducks thought our pool would be their perfect home until she proudly chased them away.

Then came the skunk. My husband, Warren, works late, and when he comes home, he lets Bella out for the last potty break of the night. One Friday night they were both surprised. She came streaking back to the door in a yellow blur, licking her lips, squinting her eyes and smelling like eau du skunk.

To the computer I ran, reading about tomato juice, baby shampoo and other remedies. Even after a shower of Johnson & Johnson and hydrogen peroxide, there lingered a faint aura of Pepé Le Pew.

Now she smells like chlorine, sun and wet dog. I love it because it reminds me of summer.

It’s a false summer we’re having today, 78 degrees. It will dip down to the 60s next week. And there is a real possibility that this is one of Bella’s last warm days.

The joys of having a golden retriever come with the pain of knowing cancer is always lurking. Our funny, loving, silly girl has lymphoma. Today’s swim, the steak and chicken she takes her pills with, the trips every day to the greenbelt to watch for squirrels, even face-timing with our college boy are part of our farewell gifts to her.

They are so small compared with what she has given us. She’s the first dog that I can say is “my dog.” She’s my shadow. She lies in the kitchen while I cook, follows me everywhere and waits for my homecoming with a concerned look.

When I pick up my keys and say I “gotta go,” she looks crushed, dejected; ears droop as she settles by the fireplace with a groan.

She loves being with me, and I love being with her. It’s that simple.

So now we both wait for the pills to stop working, for the tumors to enlarge and spread even more. She’s going to be the one to “gotta go” this time.

And we all will be crushed. But I know that much love doesn’t really leave. She’s just going to be waiting for us to take our last trip, and probably chasing some heavenly squirrels.

Until then, Bella, Until then.

I miss her already.

Ruthe Armstrong of Fresno is married and the mother of two teenage sons. To mark Bella’s life, she suggests donations to morrisanimalfoundation.org for the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study.

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