Unconditional love is a rare and precious thing. It can be found in only a few different places in life, a significant other, a parent, a child, etc., and most people are lucky to find it once or twice. However, there is one exception to that rule, and that is the relationships that we share with our pets. Whether it’s a dog, a cat, a horse, or something else, a human’s bond with their pet can be one of the most treasured connections that we are capable of experiencing.
Not everyone has shared that connection; some people aren’t used to having pets. Others simply don’t maintain that close of a relationship with their animals, instead choosing to view the situation as a necessity when the animal provides some sort of service, such as transportation or security. Some people only keep porcelain pets (not that that means they don’t love them just as much as if they were, say, NOT made of porcelain).
For me, as most of you know, having a pet has always been something of a focal point in my life. I grew up with multiple dogs and a couple cats. Then I worked at an animal shelter for years. Nowadays, while I may occasionally steal some affection from my parent’s dog, Sammy; or my roommate’s cat, Biscuit, I primarily get my fix for unconditional love from my dog, Levi.
If you don’t know Levi, he’s a boxer and bullmastiff mix. I got him from the SPCA, where he was a “frequent flyer”, meaning that he was returned to us time and time again due to the bad habit of jumping fences and never staying in one place for too long. That habit didn’t change much when I got him. It took years of chasing him down the street, tricking and trapping him, getting help from my roommates, (and one time even enticing him back in to the house with a trail of bacon that I HAD been cooking for myself) in order to break that habit and get him to stay home.
Despite his natural wanderlust, Levi is quite the homebody. He’s always loved to sleep on couches or beds, and it’s rare that he lets me out of his sight when around the house, following me from room to room. He is always there to comfort me when I’m feeling down, to annoy me when I’m frustrated, and to share in my excitement when something goes right for me. And isn’t that ultimately what real love is? To be so in tune with the person or animal that you love that you not only feel what they feel, but you either amplify it or you change it for the better?
However, nothing can last forever. Levi is a large-ish dog (70+ lbs.), and even though I never knew him as a puppy, and all we can do is guess at his age, best guesses put him right around 10 years old. Now for a dog his size, 10 is on the distant side of middle-aged. Most dogs his size usually live to be 12 or 13.
I mention this because his age is beginning to become a worry for me. He limps when he walks; he struggles to get on the couches and beds that he loves so much. A few minutes of play with younger dogs will nearly incapacitate him for a week. He has fatty tumors growing all over his body, and he sometimes has trouble swallowing. He’s getting old.
He still looks at me with absolute adoration in his eyes, but now those eyes are clouding up with cataracts. He still likes to cuddle on the bed, but now he can only lay on a certain hip, the other one hurts him too much to lay on it for more than a minute or two. He still begs for food, but he can’t raise his front paw as he used to in order to give that classic begging pose.
Having worked at the SPCA for as long as I did, I have had to assist with euthanasia multiple times. Sometimes the animal was sick or old and in pain, and someone had to be there to do the deed. That someone was frequently me during my time there. I became somewhat accustomed to it, even with dogs or cats that I had grown attached to. Still, it was never easy; it was an emotional hurdle every time. (Side note: In my last two years there, I would sing “If I Could” by Jack Johnson to the animals while I held them. It seemed to help calm them, and it certainly helped me.)
However, this one, this one will be harder. Levi has been my best friend for years now. When I’m depressed he can tell, and he makes sure that he’s touching me whenever he can be; whether that means that he is laying on my feet while I sit on the couch, or pressed up against my side while I lie in bed. When I’m happy, he tries his best to lick my face, even though I won’t let him. When I’m confused, he sits and watches me as I talk to him. I pour my heart out to him, and he listens, he’ll just sit there for hours and calmly watch me as I talk my way through my dilemma.
It’s because of the love in his eyes as he watches me; it’s because of the emotional warmth he gives me while pressed up against my side in bed; it’s because of his determination to congratulate me the only way he knows how, even though I won’t let him. It’s because of all of this and more that I’m not sure I’ll be able to face that day that I know is coming. I’m worried that it will be too soon. And I’m worried that it will be too much. I’ve had that unconditional love for years now, and I’m not sure what I’ll do when it’s gone.
Still, someday, everything goes. It’s inevitability. So I implore you, if you have that connection with a person, or with a pet, cherish it. Make sure they know it. Return that love with every fiber of your being, because ultimately love is the best way that we can improve the world around us.