She loved me more than any furry friend I’ve ever had. And I loved her back just as much. She got into my heart so deep that the devastation of losing her feels unbearable.
Eve and I are grateful to have had Elsa in our lives for the past 3-plus years. We alternate between talking about the joyful memories we have of her and sobbing in each other’s arms over our loss. Over time, our sadness will subside and our gratitude will grow. I just know it will.
Writing this essay about Elsa is partly my own grief therapy. I want others to know about the beautiful relationship that we all had with her.
This is Elsa’s story.
We first met Elsa when Eve took our little dog, Dixie, to find a new playmate. At the animal shelter, Dixie picked Elsa out of a crowd. She was the one cowering in a corner, starved to skin and bones, afraid of everything around her. Dixie walked right over to her, then looked back at Eve with the clear message, “This is the one.” Elsa was Dixie’s choice for her new sister. It turned out to be a better choice than any of us had imagined, except for Dixie. She sure knew what she was doing.
Eve named her ‘Elsa’ after the queen in Frozen. The name fit perfectly. She became our Elsa.
At first I wasn’t sure she would live long. I met her when I came home later that day and quickly noticed that she had kennel cough. It was much worse than I thought. The vet diagnosed her with two serious respiratory infections. She was also clearly suffering from starvation. She was weak and weighed only 8 pounds.
We can only guess at what kind of horror the first year and half of her life had been before we rescued her. She was afraid and skittish every time we approached her. She slept in the living room alone every night. I am sure that she had never been around people, certainly none who loved her and took care of her.
Medical treatment, plenty of good food, and lots of love did the trick, though. I got her to sit on my lap every evening while I stroked her soft fur and talked softly to keep her calm. Everything we did seemed to help. She kicked the infection and doubled her weight in short order. She was probably healthy for the first time in her young life.
She was still skittish and afraid. Nevertheless, her personality started to come out. She would vibrate with excitement about everything in her new life with us. Well, nearly everything. Going out for walks still scared her. It would take a long time for her to enjoy little excursions around our cul-de-sac. Ultimately, she not only enjoyed them, she demanded them.
Our little rescue dog was well on her way to becoming a happy and healthy member of our family.
The Full Elsa Emerges
The misery and loneliness of Elsa’s early life is hard to fathom. She seemed to be afraid of everything. It took a while for her to be confident enough to use the pet door. She did it, though. She also couldn’t jump very high, so we got her some steps to help her climb onto the master bed and join Dixie in prime sleeping space. It took some time for her to overcome her fear about using them. Yet she did that, too.
The ‘full Elsa’ was starting to come out of her shell.
Describing all of the changes we saw in her personality as it blossomed would make up a long list. She could still be skittish. Even up to the end, she would sometimes vibrate excitedly, cock her head, wag her tail, and stay just out of my reach. We had a little game, though. I knew she wanted a head scratch, so I would just hold out my hand until she came close enough to give me a little lick. Then she’d slowly come close enough for a little head scratch. Our game finally led to full-body scratching, often finishing up with her flipping over for a coveted tummy rub.
Elsa started every day bursting with excitement. She loved to wake me up early, licking my face, nosing my hand to scratch her head, rolling over for a tummy rub, and making it clear that it was time to get up, go outside and pee, then come back in and have a treat. I loved to start the day with her, no matter how early she woke me.
After getting her treat she loved to sit next to me on the couch or on my lap while I had coffee and read the newspaper. Her internal clock told me when I had finished reading, whether I had or not. She wanted to go for her morning walk, together with Dixie. She let me know that it was time to get going. Then she would let loose another burst of excitement, as she would do over again and again for the entire day. She was so happy to go around the block and check out the new day!
More recently, in our new house, she developed the habit of watching me make the bed in the morning. She would either ‘help’ by jumping under the covers or wait patiently until I was done. When I was finished she knew I would get down on the floor and give her a vigorous, full-body scratch. Something about my being at her level let her know that it was time for some great attention.
Every day that I sat at my desk, Elsa had a mental clock ticking for when it was time for more attention. She loved attention! When her internal alarm rang, she would come into my office and put her paws on my leg, then start spinning around with excitement. At our new house my desk chair was close enough to the guest bed that she would jump onto it and put her paws on my back. She was relentless. I loved it of course. When she brought in the ‘heavy hitter’ (Dixie), then I knew it was time for treats, too. This game would go on all day.
Elsa loved frolicking in the back yard with Dixie. They would chase each other, bark at real or imagined dogs on the other side of the fence, or simply sun themselves.
Whenever I would do stretching exercises on the lawn, or sit in my cold tub, Elsa always had to come over for a little attention and a head scratch. To her, my getting down to her level was obviously an invitation to get in my face.
In the evening she would sit next to me during TV time. As soon as I started petting her, she would roll over for a tummy rub that could last until bedtime.
She was so cute and irresistible when she wanted something. Vibrating with excitement, spinning in circles, and looking at me with those deep brown eyes. There was something about how she looked at me that always melted my heart.
Whenever I sat down to eat she would gently place her paws on my leg to let me know that she was there and expecting some of whatever I was having. She always got it, too. Steak, shrimp, chicken, lobster, bacon. You name it. I ate well, and so did she.
The ‘full Elsa’ had so many endearing behaviors, all centered around being close to me, Eve, and Dixie. She gave us all the love she had. And she soaked in all the love we could give her back.
One of my favorite memories of her is how she greeted me every time I came home from anything. Even returning from a quick trip to the store brought on enthusiastic jumping and spinning around as if I was a long lost friend. She and Dixie both delighted in welcoming me home.
At bedtime she would excitedly go outside with us for her final pee time of the day, then head back inside and climb her stairs onto the bed. She loved to go to bed with a rawhide chewy next to her head. Once she got to her place on the bed and got covered up with her blanket, she laid her head down for the night. I loved tucking her in with a kiss on her head and one final head scratch for the day.
There are so many more examples of her life that I love to remember. Eve and I talk about them often, every day. It is therapeutic. It helps for decreasing the frequent, gut-wrenching sobbing attacks that still overcome both of us.
Some time ago I began to wonder how such a cute little dog could be so full of love. She had been sneaking herself into my heart without me realizing it. I am still amazed that she did that, just by being herself. We gave her a chance to bloom, and she made the most of it.
The gentle little girl we just lost had transformed in the short time we knew her, from a sickly and fearful runaway to a healthy and happy member of our family.
Little Bundle of Inspiration
Some time ago Eve started referring to me as an old curmudgeon. The name fit. I was becoming more easily frustrated and angered by small, insignficant things. Except when I was with Elsa.
Elsa inspired me to be more joyful and loving, just like she was. How could I not be influenced to be like her? She loved me unconditionally. She was happy and excited every day. She lived in the moment. She exuded joy constantly.
Sometimes I would pause and imagine what life would be like to live like that. I still do, now more than ever.
Elsa inspired me to look at life through her eyes. Now that she is gone, I realize that she had been inspiring me to do so for quite a while now.
She was 16 pounds when we lost her. All of those pounds, every fiber of her being, made my life so much better for knowing her.
A Swift End
We had been on a 3-week trip with our travel trailer when subtle symptoms began to appear. By that I mean trouble pooping. She started producing very loose, orange-ish stools that seemed difficult for her to eliminate. This issue may have been developing for some time and only became obvious over a couple of days in San Antonio. On a visit to a local park, she ate much more grass than usual, which I thought was her way to aid digestion and elimination.
She was still frisky and happy, as usual, in a dog park in Clovis, NM, a few days later. Running around, smiling (yes, she smiled!), sniffing everything in sight. I will never forget the joyful look on her face as she came running to me when I called her that day in the dog park. It was the Sunday morning that we embarked on the next leg of our trip, to Santa Fe.
When we arrived in Santa Fe, more obvious symptoms began to appear. She was less energetic. She had none of her usual excitement to go for a walk. She still couldn’t poop right, and she peed something darker than usual. Later in the afternoon her pee was clearly red. She didn’t even want to walk anymore, pausing and even lying down when we went out. I had to carry her back to the trailer.
Eve, bless her heart, found a local vet hospital that had 24/7 emergency service. Elsa was clearly not herself by then. Her vigorous tail wagging had slowed down and her tail was no longer up in the usual happy position.
Dr. Amy Land was the vet doing Sunday emergency duty. She is the most compassionate and caring veterinarian I have ever met. Some quick lab work came back with her diagnosis of an autoimmune attack that was causing acute hemolytic anemia. Elsa’s own immune system was destroying her red blood cells. Her blood count was critically low. We left Elsa at the hospital for overnight treatment with immunosuppressants that would hopefully stop Elsa’s internal destruction.
By morning Dr. Land recommended a transfusion, using blood from her own dog. By afternoon Elsa had picked up her energy and her blood count was above the critical range. When we visited we got in some precious cuddle time. She could walk better, even though her back legs were wobbly. She sat on my lap and stared at me with those beautiful deep brown eyes again, while I scratched her all over and told her that I loved her. She was wagging her tail again, at least a little bit.
We were optimistic for her recovery when we left her at the hospital for overnight observation and continued treatment. We made plans to pick her up the next day and head back to Arizona.
Our high hopes soon collapsed.
Dr. Land’s call came at around 11:30 that night. We were stunned. Elsa had apparently rejected the transfusion or the drugs or both. Her back legs quit working. She couldn’t walk. She was suffering and dying.
I will never forget the look in those big brown eyes when we came rushing in to see her. She looked at me as lovingly as she always did, even through her suffering. All I could do is hold her, kiss her on the head, give her one last scratch, tell her one final time that I loved her, and say good-bye.
Eve did the same, both of us sobbing with heavy hearts at what was happening to our little girl.
I had the irrational thought that I could scoop her up and take her to a safe place to escape this nightmare. I felt utterly helpless.
Elsa gave me one final, loving stare as I gave Dr. Land a nod for the injection. Then my sweet little girl slowly laid down her head and stopped breathing. Her suffering was over.
I couldn’t help myself from reaching into her kennel one last time for a final hug of her now lifeless body. I cried so hard that I could barely utter the words that I loved her.
The time from the appearance of obvious symptoms to her final breath was less than 36 hours. The tragedy unfolded with stunning speed.
Even though Dixie was waiting for us when we got back to the trailer, I felt a tremendous emptiness in it without Elsa. Her love had filled every nook and cranny, and now she was gone.
Eve and I are in deep mourning. I feel as though I have a rock in my chest where the heartbreak is. Dixie is mourning, too. Her sad eyes and lack of appetite tell me that she misses her little sister as much as we do.
When we finally got home to Phoenix, all of the reminders about Elsa in our home hit so hard that we had to stop unpacking many times to sob and to hug each other.
Every day Eve and I do our best to focus on the good memories we have of Elsa. It is still a struggle. We both want so much for our sorrow to subside and be replaced with the gratitude that we have for having had Elsa in our family.
Eventually my appetite will return, I’ll regain the weight I’ve lost, I will be able to sleep without waking up crying in the middle of the night, and the frequency of gut-wrenching sobbing every day will diminish.
I know that my feelings of devastation and sadness will lessen. Memories of Elsa’s unconditional love and boundless joy for life will drive away my depression. I will just feel the gratitude I have for the relationship we had.
Her legacy is one of a lovable and loving little girl who taught us how to live life to the fullest.
Her time with us was far too short. Her nearly 5 years on this planet were way too few.
Eve and I had a conversation about angels today. We have concluded that Elsa had a purpose for us. She was an angel in disguise, here to inspire us to live the way she did. What we thought we were doing to make her life better was a 2-way street. She was a force for transformation – of us. Especially me.
When I think of her now, I feel that I am more capable of love and joy than I ever was before she graced my life. Eve asked me whether I would ever want another dog. I said that Elsa taught me so much about love that I could definitely love again.
All along, I thought she was the rescue dog.
In turns out that I was the one who was being rescued.