So often we lament about how short life is and how we need to strive each day to add quality to the time we are given. We vow to take more time for family, adventures, and all those things that make us truly happy before it is too late. We also look back in regret at all the moments lost and things we failed to do in the past. If I have one single regret, it is that I did not meet my black lab Deshka sooner so that we would have had more time together.
Deshka was a gleaming barrel chested lab with a heart of pure gold and a penchant for popcorn. Her instinct to excel in the field was born of years of field trial breeding that ran through her veins. When I met her I had just entered a new relationship and she was part of the deal, the best part. At nine years old she had already bore two litters of pups and was struggling through a bout of Lyme’s Disease which had slowed her down considerably. Her joints were sore, her gait slow and painful, and her eyes betrayed the agony she attempted to hide from me. Her usual favorite sleeping spot under the coffee table began to collect dust as she was unable to contort her body to fit beneath it due to her illness. I lost a season of duck hunting with her that year but by the following fall she was chomping at the bit to get out to the marsh; all pain a distant memory.
It was the greatest fall of our lives. Ducks were in abundance and Deshka was a machine on the water. From her grassy point she would survey the sky like a soldier standing watch for the enemy to approach. Many a time she spotted sneaky teal before I even noticed them and would give out a sigh of exasperation every time I missed a shot. I could almost imagine her rolling her eyes and requesting a new hunting partner. Retrieve after retrieve she never showed a single sign of slowing down and almost majestically, she would come up out of the water, a duck clamped firmly in her mouth, as the early morning sun shone off her red tinted coat like a polished gem.
Her beauty and gentle soul was second to none. I recall being sick for days at a time and she would only leave my side to eat or go outside. I called her “Mamma Bear” for the simple reason that she was so big and comforting like a mamma black bear with her cub. Deshka was my best friend, my confidant, my protector, and my favorite hunting companion.
When I received a call from a friend who was watching Deshka one Friday in November, 2014, I was unprepared for the news that she had passed away at the age of 13 in her sleep on her bed. I was devastated. No, devastated is not the right word. Is there a word to truly explain the feeling of such profound loss that it is like losing a limb, like having your heart deflate in your chest because the very thing that filled it is gone?
I cried for days, I looked at old pictures, I fell apart over the very clumps of her wayward fur that used to frustrate me when they littered the floor, and I agonized over all the times I let her down when she wanted to play or go for a walk. Sometimes I would even imagine that I heard the sound of her claws tapping a staccato beat across the floor to her water dish. I could still feel her weight against my leg as I sat alone on the couch trying to figure out what I would do without her. I am not ashamed to say that I was a wreck.
As they do, time and fate intervened and two weeks after Deshka’s death the opportunity arose to purchase an 11 week old female Polar Bear English Lab. One photo from the breeder was all it took and no three hour drive in a snowstorm would stop me from getting her. My first glimpse of her was love at first sight. An almost white, pot-bellied pup with eyes so compelling that everyone who met her would say that they made her look like an old soul. I named her Freyja after the Norse goddess of love and now, at 3 years of age she is as faithful a companion as anyone could wish for. While she lacks the drive and concentration out in the marsh that Deshka displayed, and she has her “blonde” moments, she remains a blessing and much-needed balm after such an incredible loss.
Not many can understand the bond people like myself have with their pets. My pets are not mere animals, they are invaluable members of the family, irreplaceable and unconditionally loved. They add purpose and quality to each and every day. Most importantly, they have awakened my heart and soul to the concepts of love, loyalty, and companionship in their purest forms. There is a saying by Anatole France that sums it up “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” No truer words could be spoken. Deshka gave me the love and companionship of a best friend and I cannot look at a bag of popcorn without the memories rushing back along with a smile. She was a once in a lifetime kind of dog and she will always have my heart.