Better to Have Loved and Lost

In the dark days of 2020, I heard from two longtime Tucson fans, Janice and Valerie, both of whom had husbands hospitalized with non-Covid related issues. The two women heartsick and lonely, worried about spouses they were unable to visit. Although they may have been at one or two of my Tucson-area signings, the two of them had never met in person. I took the liberty of introducing them over the Internet, and, because they were stuck in similar boats, they have become fast friends. They were finally able to meet in person for the first time when they went to Mostly Books at the same time to pick up their autographed copies of Unfinished Business. Nonetheless, most of their interactions continue to be virtual ones.

When Janice and Valerie began corresponding, they included me in their email conversations. We’re all women of a certain age with a good deal in common. Shortly after that, I heard from yet another grief-stricken fan—Michelle in Texas. After a concerning dental appointment in October, her husband was immediately referred to an oncologist. After undergoing surgery for that, he was diagnosed with Covid. Michelle was living alone out in the country while her husband was being carted from one distant hospital to another. What could I do? What else? I put her in touch with Janice and Valerie in what we’re now calling the Circle. Later, when Pat, my best friend from fourth grade, suffered a debilitating stroke in Florida, she joined the Circle as well.

Through the months we’ve been a remote control support group, passing along encouraging words along with the occasional joke. Michelle’s husband eventually died of Covid, and we’ve all offered our prayers, condolences, and encouragement as she struggles to find her way into this new phase of life. We’ve cheered each other’s triumphs and mourned our various struggles and losses, one of which happened just last week.

Somewhere along the way, Janice and her husband rescued an elderly gentleman of a dog, a little guy named Benji. He came with some issues, including something that was eventually diagnosed as diabetes. Last week, on a cross-country trip, Benji suddenly went into seizures and had to be put down. The loss hit Janice hard. How could that be, she wondered, since we had him for such a short time? It was a situation I knew all too well. In writing a letter of condolence to Janice, I ended up telling her my own story, and now I’m going to tell it to you.

In the late eighties, our family adopted a dog named Mandy—a silver-haired golden retriever. Bill saw an ad in the local newspaper saying, “Free to good home. Eleven year-old golden retriever.” “That’s looks like a sad story,” he told me. “You should give them a call.”

Despite the fact that we already had two Goldens, Nikki and Tess, later that day, I called the number. The people who owned Mandy lived only blocks away. They were downsizing and moving into an apartment where dogs weren’t allowed. When we went to meet the dog, we took our kids and dogs along for the ride. Mandy was out in the back yard. She was so filthy, that when I tried to pet her, my hand came away dirty. The woman told us that Mandy had always been an only dog, and they wanted her to go to a one-dog home. “Okay,” I said, “but if no one else takes her, let us know.”

Three weeks later, they called. When we went to pick Mandy up, she was still dirty. (If you’re trying to unload an old car, don’t you at least give it a wash polish?) The old girl came to us dirty, arriving with no toys, no blanket, no bed, and no dish, and with a collar that was so tight it was a struggle to remove. The fur on her hind legs had mats three inches thick. It took hours for us cut away those awful tangles. The former owners had told us that Mandy had arthritis, so we began giving her a baby aspirin every day. She was used to doing her business on her own and refused to do anything while on a leash. We didn’t have a fenced yard, but finally I gave up and let her off leash. As soon as I did so, it worked and she immediately did her job. It turns out she was the one who trained Nikki and Tess to go leash-less as well. Despite your having no fence and the fact that her old house was less than a mile away, she never showed the slightest inclination to go back there.

Mandy loved being clean. While she was filthy, I’m sure flies must have tormented her terribly. I noticed that when she spotted flies in our house, she was death on them every time—stalking them until she could snap them out of midair. Wherever I was working, there she was—at my feet. For a time she followed Bill and me upstairs to the bedroom at night, but eventually she chose to sleep on the cool tiles in the front vestibule at the base of the stairs. The first time we took her to our vet—good old Dr. Eighty Bucks—we learned that Mandy was terrified of vets. That was the beginning of a family tradition that meant every trip to the vet included stopping off for a Burger King Junior on the way home.

One morning when I went out to get the papers, there were three crows having a disagreement in the front yard. Seeing them, Mandy flew off the porch to give chase. When she returned, one hind leg wasn’t working. I loaded her into the car and went straight to see Dr. Eighty Bucks. “That leg may be broken,” he said. “She needs an X-ray,” before referring me to a specialist in downtown Seattle. I took her there. When I dropped her off, she was still trembling. They called me a couple of hours later with the sad verdict—bone cancer with nothing to be done other than putting her down. “Should I come back and be there with her?” I asked. “No,” the person on the phone told me. “She’s settled now and comfortable. Seeing you would just make things worse.”

We lost Mandy that day having had her for less than six months. Like Janice with Benji, I was devastated. I was also writing a book—Beaumont #9, Payment in Kind, the one in which Beau finally meets his long-estranged grandfather. When Beau drives up to the house, his grandfather’s beloved dog—a silver-haired golden named Mandy, is there on the front porch with his grandfather. So now both the Circle and my blog readers know the origin of yet another of my characters.

Putting Mandy into the book helped me deal with the grief of losing her. I did the same thing when we lost Bella, passing our beloved rescued miniature dachshund along to Ali Reynolds and B. Simpson by way of telling a fictionalized version of Bella’s story in an ebook novella called A Last Goodbye.

This week Janice’s Benji was cremated and buried in a family yard in Alabama, so although he’s far from Tucson, he’s still close to home. Telling Mandy’s and Bella’s stories in fiction made them live on for me in the same way Janice’s sharing Benji’s story with the Circle makes him live on for all of us and now for my blog readers as well.

And although losing a beloved pet is heartbreaking, I can say that the following is absolutely true–better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.