Before him I was annoyed by dogs. Simply put, I was not a dog person. It seemed that every one I encountered knew it but tried to convince me otherwise by jumping up on me, sniffing me, licking me or rubbing up against me leaving a trail of hair behind on my clothes. All began to change in 2005 when I first met “Arizona,” a six-week old Golden Retriever puppy. I had a great idea…I’d purchase a purebred Golden Retriever for a very special man I was dating. It was his 40th birthday and I wanted to go big! I had heard him speak so highly of the breed and say several times that one day, when he was ready, he would welcome one into his home. I decided he was ready so I started my search. At the time, I knew nothing of the breed. All I knew is that David wanted a purebred male Golden Retriever with a blocky head. As I came across photos of litters on-line, I thought all the males looked like they had blocky heads and honestly, I couldn’t even tell them apart. I realized fairly quickly that I needed to interact with them personally before making a decision. I kept returning to a litter of puppies living in South Eastern Utah. I liked what I read about the parents both being the family dogs and how the puppies were being cared for. I also liked that they took the time to name their puppies (each one after a different state) and provided multiple pictures of each. I followed my gut and picked up the phone.
The day I made the four hour drive to meet the puppies was a warm, sunny May day. I sat on the grass and waited as the children rounded-up the puppies for me. It seemed an impossible task…how could I choose one? They were all the cutest, sweetest creatures I had ever beheld. I played with, snuggled and intensely studied each male but could not decide which one would be David’s new best friend. As time passed, one by one wandered off to explore something new; that is, all but Arizona. I looked down and he was still by my side with his head resting upon my leg. Done! I didn’t have to make a decision after all. Arizona chose me. Because I am someone who typically doesn’t make impulsive decisions, this one seemed guided and inspired. Even though my head was questioning, my heart was rejoicing. I wrote the check and made arrangements to pick him up in two weeks. I had a week alone with Arizona before flying with him across the country to make his debut on David’s birthday. It was filled with lots of puppy snuggles, play, mischief, and more mischief. I had several moments of panic once I realized what I had just done. What if David wasn’t ready and didn’t REALLY want a dog? I started crafting back-up plans in case my gift was a total bust. Fortunately for me and Arizona, David’s tears upon opening the box said it all. He couldn’t have been more thrilled. As we took Arizona on his first official walk in Virginia, we spoke of possible names for this four-legged fluffball. I had been thinking “Luka” for the past week but felt that David should name his dog. David had always wanted to call his dog, “Maximus.” He asked what I thought and I just didn’t see it. We continued to brainstorm but nothing seemed right so I offered my thought of Luka. As soon as I said it, David lit up. It fit him perfectly.
David then commented about Luka being a 12-15 year commitment and now that we have him, our lives would change. Huh? Our lives? Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about how my life would be affected by my elaborate gift. In fact, it didn’t sink in until a year later when David and Luka moved to Salt Lake City. Our world revolved around Luka and at times, I resented Luka for it. David and I were finally living in the same city and I wasn’t happy about being inconvenienced because of the dog. For example, 1) there were nights we didn’t go out because we both worked during the day and David didn’t want Luka to be alone at night also; 2) because I worked closer to David’s apartment, I was tasked with walking Luka during my lunch-hour; and 3) there was that time that while walking this rambunctious puppy in heels, I fell and ripped a very expensive pair of pants. The list goes on and on. I loved Luka but I struggled with the realities of being a pet parent. I reluctantly settled into our new normal and that included Luka. I went through the motions of walking him, feeding him, playing with him and trying to snuggle him (when he’d finally calm down) but my heart wasn’t totally into it. David reminded me several times that I was the one who made this decision for us, so I needed to suck it up and participate. It became a routine for me and something I did only for David.
As time went on, my relationship with David started to crumble. The arguing, complaining and disappointment reached an all-time high and we decided to part ways. As I watched David walk out of my house that evening, I fell to the floor and wept. My sadness was overwhelming and emptiness completely filled my soul. I can’t say how long my tears flowed but when I finally raised my head and looked up, there was Luka, sitting directly in front of me; watching over me; patiently waiting for me to grieve; letting me know that no matter how long I needed, he would be there. As I sat in front of him, our eyes locked. Neither one of us moved a muscle, other than for him to wipe away my tears with his tongue. In that moment, even though no words were spoken, his spirit spoke to mine. I had always believed that our Father in Heaven uses others to comfort, teach, and do his errands here on earth but the thought never crossed my mind that one of his messengers would walk on four legs instead of two.
Everything changed for me after that experience. Luka and I had connected in a way that I had never known. The immense love I felt for him, in my mind, was likened to what a mother feels for her child. I was consumed with his well-being; I looked forward to spending time with him; and playing tug-of- war until my hands turned numb. I didn’t mind the begging, shedding or slobber. I was more calm, more compassionate and most of the time, more patient. I was truly happy and caught a glimpse of what it is like to love unconditionally.
David saw the change I was experiencing and acknowledged the connection with Luka was real. He agreed that Luka would spend half of the year with me in Utah and half of the year with him in California. That first exchange in 2009 broke my heart. I cried the entire drive back to Salt Lake City from Mesquite. I was a mess without Luka for the first couple of months but as time passed, and knowing he was in good care, our time apart became bearable. I immersed myself in work and patiently watched the calendar. When it came time to make the drive to Mesquite to get him for the next six months, I was elated! This arrangement continued for the next six years. David and I were no longer committed to one another, however, we remained committed to Luka and his well-being. Neither one of us was willing to let him go, until we painfully learned that we were not in control. During the early morning hours on Friday, November 20, 2015, I awoke to Luka suffering a seizure. On Sunday, two brain tumors were discovered after an MRI, and on Monday, he was gone.
His final day was a beautiful one. Grammy and Grandpa spent several hours with David, Luka and me. We all reminisced about our favorite memories of Luka and all the trouble he caused over the years. My favorite memories include: hearing Grammy’s blood curdling screams from the garage one Thanksgiving after Luka had eaten ½ tray of beautiful fruit tarts that she had slaved over; Luka jumping into the front passenger seat of a police car while the policeman was in the driver’s seat because he loved to take a drive over anything else; the two speeding tickets Luka helped me get out of just by loving on the officers when they came to my window; walking into Grammy and Grandpa’s house after being out and hearing Grandpa singing to Luka and playing “name that tune” with him; and who can forget the Christmas Eve when all of us were gathered together sharing memories of our favorite Christmases and Luka getting busy with his blanket right in the middle of our gathering!
In addition to all the sharing of memories and lots of rubs and loves, Grandpa gave Luka his final vanilla ice cream cone and we created his paw prints as keepsakes. Grandpa and Grammy said their goodbyes and then David and I took Luka on his final walk, one last car ride, and picked him up a double bacon cheeseburger on the way home. Once home, Luka was very tuckered out so we laid down together and took some final pics before our vet came. Luka was very peaceful in that last hour; it was almost as if he knew. After a while of snuggling with us, he got up from the mattress we had placed on the floor and walked over near the kitchen. He laid down and quietly waited. When the time came to say goodbye, I laid down in front of him and with my forehead pressed to his, I thanked him for all the love and joy he brought to us; told him how much we loved and would miss him; and that we’d see him soon. Within a minute, he was gone. It was a beautiful moment and I’m so grateful for it.
Luka was buried in the pet section of a cemetery at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon. We placed him in the vault, lying on his bed, with his blanket that he loved so much wrapped around him. We also placed his two favorite stuffed animals, tennis balls, leash, collar and the house booties he wore at Grammy and Grandpa’s house in the vault with him. I picked a plot right next to the dog bush, under a tree. Perfect resting spot for him. All who loved him most were there as Grandpa dedicated his grave. It was a perfect ending to a perfect life. I’m sure some are thinking, “crazy dog lady” and that’s ok. Some are blessed to love, nurture and look after those who have two legs and some are blessed with those who have four. I’m honored that my Father in Heaven and Luka, himself, chose me for this task.
Several lessons were learned through this experience but those that most stand out to me are, 1) We must not be so hard on ourselves. For several months following Luka’s death, my mind returned to every time I scolded him and I questioned if Luka knew how much I really loved him. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for working long hours some days or being too tired to take him to the park. To this day, I would be lying if I said that those thoughts still don’t cross my mind but I am comforted in knowing that although my actions weren’t always perfect, the love I had for him was and still is. 2) Our Heavenly Father knows us; he loves us and is mindful of our needs. I once asked a very wise woman what she believed to be our true purpose in this life. I’ve always felt like there was a deeper answer to that question (other than the standard responses you typically hear) but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Her gentle response pierced my soul and I will never forget it. She simply stated, “We are here to learn how to love.” During my many moments of sadness and tears I still shed, I keep hearing her words and can’t help but think that this four-legged fluffball became the most influential of my teachers of how to love. He truly was the closest thing to God’s love that I have experienced and I predict that I will continue to miss him each of my remaining days.
For others experiencing the loss of a beloved pet, allow yourself time to grieve your loss. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Be grateful for every moment and memory, even the mischievous ones. Most importantly, be thankful for the love our animals bring into our lives. And, when the time is right, consider opening your heart and home to another. I’m not quite there yet but know, one day, I will.