We knew heading into this trip the weather would change. It was our youngest’s birthday wish to spend her birthday camping in Honeysuckle Manor. This trip would take place in the middle of the week and all reports predicted that the 80 degree weather we’d been enjoying into November would be pushed out with a front coming through that night–one that would leave the next morning’s high at just about freezing. But who could resist one more chance to camp before the bustle of the holiday season was upon us? I’ll never forget this trip, because it was the last we would have with Blue.
We adopted Blue from the Humane Society in Tacoma, Washington, when she was 2. We set out looking for a dog to be a companion to our Blue Heeler mix, Gus, and to round out our then-childless family. We walked though the rows upon rows of kennels; pausing here or there to talk about this one or that one until TJ just stopped. There was this dog. This dog with eyes so soft and sweet, she couldn’t be overlooked. She was pressed up against the chain link of the kennel she shared with two other dogs, and once TJ started to scratch her, she just leaned in, leaned into our hearts, a lean that we would later find comfort in and joke about being flattened by, a lean that could almost bend that chain link kennel. Well, that was it. She was ours from that moment on. I don’t think we thought at all about what breed she was; she was just right. When our vet met Blue for the first time her eyebrows raised as she looked over our adoption paperwork. “Lab mix, huh? Pretty sure this Pit Bull isn’t mixed with much.” And she was guarded, at first. By the time our appointment was over, Blue was leaning into her doctor who was pulling dog treats out of her pockets and giving them to her by the handful and smiling.
Most of the time I think TJ and I live in a little bubble of self-delusional happy. So when our friends and family were a bit apprehensive when learned that we had adopted a pit bull, we were completely unaware of why this would be an issue. And it turned out the whole pit bull thing never was an issue, Blue’s good-natured spirit just infected everyone. Being a dog, of course, she had her quirks. Always the first to seek the couch after coming in from exercise, Blue taught us that light color fabrics are just not good choices for living room upholstery… or carpets… or bedspreads. When our first daughter was born, it was like having a second mother in the house. Gus would bark at a car driving by and she’d rush over to him, licking his face until he quieted down, “Shush, silly boy! Don’t you know the baby’s sleeping?” When our baby began walking, Blue would be there putting herself between our wobbling proto-toddler and Gus, who wasn’t sure about kids but liked the stickiness left in their wake. After moving across country and having a second child, we watched our children cherish this dog. She was the first dog they could walk on a leash themselves. Their movie watching partner, and crumb cleaner. The dog they could just run into full force and hug and be covered in wet canine kisses. To TJ and I she was our comfort at the end of a long day. Our comic relief when things were just too serious. When TJ deployed she and Gus were my rocks, always following my lead so I never felt alone. There is nothing so comforting as a warm dog pillow, knowing they will stay where they are until you done with that nap or moment of unbridled insecurity or crying fit.
Nearly six years later, as we packed up to go on this little camping trip, we knew Blue needed to see her vet soon. She was having issues with one of her back legs but it hadn’t slowed her down or in any way affected her general level of happiness as gentle guardian of our family. We kept telling ourselves it was something to do with her torn ACLs… and as long as she was fine, we were fine.
We pulled into the park about an hour before sunset and had the entire campground to ourselves. After making TJ check the weather a dozen times to make sure there was nothing we didn’t know about, we settled in and basked in the serenity. The girls played climbing rocks, we checked out the river running behind our site, the dogs lazed about in the warmth of the afternoon. We were so excited to see the stars that night! When we camp in the summer, the girls do get to see the night sky, but usually not that much of it as we are surrounded by the lights of a full campground and it is almost always past the point of being overtired as the long day has been filled with fresh air and adventure. But this night seemed like it was just for us.
Now, we never let our dogs off leash. As much as we love them, we are aware that, for strangers, they frequently fall into that pet category of “obnoxious.” They are very into their protective roles and would bark down a leaf if they thought was blowing too close to the girls. But, there we were. And it was just us, so why not? And the night was just perfect. Off came the leashes, and we began exploring. Our night walk was so calming. So tranquil. We could see the Milky Way, and pointed out constellations to the girls as the dogs panted quietly at our feet. It is a memory that will be recalled for each of us when we need a moment that was perfect.
Of course we began an evening fire and began settling into our nighttime camp stories and snuggles. Then the wind blew. Now, when frontal systems come through Oklahoma they do not arrive quietly or gently. What was once a calm breeze became huge gusts that shook the oak tree above our campfire so thoroughly we were pelted by acorns. The girls squealed with surprise and we scrambled to get everyone in the airstream and prepare the site for winds that we knew would not be dying down anytime soon. Amidst laughs, we settled in for the night, feeling safe and cozy in Honeysuckle Manor as the wind howled outside and the temperature plummeted 10 degrees every hour.
A clear, crisp day was beginning when we woke up the next morning. Icicles hung from the water hookup and the windows fogged up with the first pot of coffee on the stove. TJ started a fire as the girls, all bundled up and enjoying wearing mittens for the first time in a long time, marveled over being able to see their breath and hear the crunch of frost under their feet. It was a glorious morning, and we celebrated our little girl all day.
A week later we learned Blue had bone cancer. Within the next week something had gone terribly wrong and we knew there was no getting better for her. That sparkle in her eyes had become dulled with pain and she retreated into herself. She died in TJ’s arms, leaning into him, as I held her head and looked into her eyes telling her we will find her again on that starry night walk.
When I think of the end of Blue’s life, I think of that camping trip. Our family out in the beautiful wide world together. And I think that’s how I want to remember her. Maybe that’s how I want to be remembered myself.
Now when I look to the stars, I find her, our old Blue… waiting for us.
PS. Writing this has been both extremely heart wrenching and cathartic. Thank you for reading. For some of us pets are people too. Sometimes they are also glampers. Best wishes to all your furry companions in life.