I just finished the best book I’ve ever read. People probably say that a lot, but Lily and the Octopus resonated with me in a way nothing else has, at least so far. This beautiful book somehow gives words to the indescribable feelings I didn’t know could be explained. It blurs the thin line between reality, and the reality we make for ourselves. Most importantly, it gives life to the feeling of loving a dog more than the world.
Now, I have a dog. His name is Ollie and he’s a very important part of my life. You’ll hear more about him, I promise, but this post isn’t for him. The feelings evoked by Lily and the Octopus are reserved for Bailey, who, growing up as an only child, was the little furry grip I needed to hold on to reality.
I’m no novelist, this isn’t going to be a real version of Lily and the Octopus. I suggest that you go read it, it will make your life better. This is just a little story about an amazing dog in the life of a little girl, and how losing her changed me.
I got Bailey on a spring day in 1999. I was five years old. My dad picked me up from school, wheeled me home sitting on the seat of his bike, and there she was, waiting for me in the driveway. Five weeks prior, we’d gone to the breeder to meet the new addition to our family. Her eyes were barely open and at that time she was about the size of a tennis ball. Now here she was, at my house, part of my family. I was in love.
Bailey became the most important part of my world. She understood me in a way my human friends never did. She didn’t ask questions, she didn’t pass judgment, she just licked and loved and played with her Red Ball.
My baby was fearless, and it caused me, an already anxious child, immeasurable anxiety. There was the time she ducked out of a friend’s house and made it across a busy intersection before we even realized she was gone. There was the time, on a camping trip to Thunder Bay, that we realized after 20 minutes Bailey hadn’t made it into the canoe. We paddled to shore, fighting off the dread that she was lost forever in the North Ontarian Wilderness. We found her gnawing on a dead chipmunk that she undoubtedly killed. She was always fine.
Then Bailey got hurt. She lost her drive, she stayed in her crate all day. The vet said he wasn’t sure she would get better. Daily medication and leg massages became part of our routine. My little baby, who used to run forever, was restricted to short, limping walks around the block. We started cooking her homemade meals, wondering how long we could keep her comfortable. Always my little fighter, she got better. The strength returned to her leg, she didn’t jump, or play as much, but she was back. God forbid we ever stopped cooking for her.
I started to grow up, there were friends, and boys. Drinking, partying, heartbreak. She was always there. She never told my mom. She always knew what to say, how to help. I didn’t know what I would ever do without her.
The summer I turned 18 was a turning point in my life. My last summer at home before I left for University, my last summer of complete security, predictability. That was the summer Bailey started vomiting everyday. I spent the summer unemployed, watching Lost reruns, running up the AC bill. The first time Bailey was sick, I took no notice, she ate something, she drank too fast, it’s normal. It became more frequent. She was taken to the vet. My mom lied and told me she was fine. She wasn’t. She got sicker, and looking back, I became distant.
The last two weeks of the summer were to be spent at my boyfriend’s cottage, a happy time where we could be together before both leaving for school. My mom dropped me off at his house and I told her to call me if anything changed with my dog. It’s the biggest regret of my life, leaving at the end of that summer. A week passed, and I got a call. Bailey was up at my cottage with my parents who were to be joined by my aunt and uncle the following day. I was told that I somehow needed to get in their car, and come to the cottage. I was driven home, spent a restless night alone in my house, and picked up in the morning by my grave faced aunt and uncle. We didn’t say a word for the entire trip.
My heart broke the second I saw her. It wouldn’t stop breaking after that. It still breaks. My tiny baby, so full of life just a week before, was unrecognizable. The tumour had grown so big that she couldn’t stand. Her stomach was grotesquely distended but her spine was entirely visible under her now dull, shaggy coat. I picked her up and I don’t remember putting her down after that. We spent the next day taking pictures, smelling flowers and eating peanut butter. We talked, we were quiet and we contemplated beginnings and ends and tears were shed and licked away. That was the last good day.
I made the decision. It took a couple days in the city, after our last good day, for me to come to the finality of it, but in the end, I had to make it. Bailey was gone, this being in her place was full of pain and it was selfish to allow it to flourish. My mom scheduled the appointment. We went to the vet the next morning, I still don’t know how we made it.
Vet’s offices are strange places. There are new puppies waiting for shots, guilty looking dogs who’ve swallowed a Barbie head, cats in crates, people sitting alone. Then there are families who come in with clouds in their eyes and dogs that aren’t dogs anymore. A piece of advice: don’t ask questions in the vet’s office. While we were waiting to be called, while Bailey was laying splayed out on the floor unable to move, while tears were streaming down my face, a woman had to nerve to come up to me with her seemingly healthy dog and say “aww, what’s wrong with your pup”. I didn’t answer, she didn’t deserve an answer. This was a sacred moment that I was sharing with my dog. These were her last minutes alive. I wasn’t going to spoil that with time wasted answering the question of a woman who was trying to pry into my life. I don’t care if she was trying to be nice. Don’t talk to people in vet’s offices.
We were called back to see the vet. I wish I could honestly tell you what happened. I wish I could relive the seconds exactly as they occurred, but I can’t, and most of it flies by in a blur. Putting Bailey on the table and holding her paw. The vet trying but failing to inject the sedative into her old, collapsed veins, half hearted smiles from the assistant, her telling me that she was so sorry for what they were doing, that it was the right choice. And then it was over. We wrapped what was once our little girl in her favourite blanket, brought her to the car and drove to the cottage. We wordlessly dug a deep whole, my dad carried her to the hole and we sat in a circle, just my parents and me. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen my dad cry and I think about it often.
It’s been six years, and I still think about that day, every day. Her grave has become a garden, three bells hanging over it, the three people that loved her most always watching over her. I have a new dog, whom I love in very strong, but very different ways. I know she would forgive me, I know that she was strong, that she never wanted me to be sad even if she loved the taste of my tears.
For 12 years, Bailey was the most important part of my life. We had conversations that no one else would ever understand, we shared moments of laughter, of sadness. She made me feel loved when the thought seemed impossible. She opened my heart when I thought it had closed forever.
I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe that she is physically somewhere, playing with Red Ball, or that she’s even watching over me. She’s gone, I know that. But I also know she lives on in the way she impacted who I became. She lives because I will never forget her name. She lives because I will always love her.