There are few moments in life that are happier than the day when a new family member arrives. Conversely, the loss of someone who positively influenced us has an equally emotionally-jarring impact. For those who have an appreciation of pet ownership, that experience of joy at arrival and painful grief at the departure of our furry family member is no different, perhaps the emotions run even deeper. Unlike friends or family, though exasperating at times and with annoying habits (much like people) our pets don’t talk back, never disagree with our politics or criticize our shortcomings. Typically they are excited to see us, snuggle with us as we read or watch TV, appreciate us for feeding them and love us unconditionally. For some they even keep secrets and are considered confidantes. Though the term “therapy animal” is relatively new, the service provided is as old as the first time a human brought an animal into the family fold and received affection in return.
This week my family suffered a loss. Not a family member or a pet but the loss of someone who brought our family a lot of joy, despite never setting foot in our home. Rather it was a woman who placed eight paws into our household over the years.
I’m not even certain how I originally interacted with Lisa O’Connor. My best bet is it was via the River Bottom Beagles website in late November of 2002, a year or so after we’d settled into our house in Bloomington; my husband, my daughter, my son and our Black Lab/Redbone Coonhound. It was the year that my daughter asked for a puppy for Christmas. Despite already having 109-pounds of furry mayhem in our lives, I reasoned with my husband that if she were to ever have a dog of her own, it made little sense to wait until she was sixteen and nearly out of the house.
Deeply disappointed on Christmas morning when it became apparent that there was no puppy under the tree, she reluctantly opened the very last gift. It was a book on how to care for a dog, with all sorts of age-appropriate insights and a certificate she could redeem in the spring for a puppy at River Bottom Beagles. For months she shared facts about how to name a dog, train a dog and care for a dog that she had gleaned from the book and other sources.
Lisa O’Connor let us know when the litter was born, Easter Sunday, 2003. Then the waiting and preparations began; puppy proofing the house, getting a small crate, looking at the website for a glimpse of who might be coming to live at our house.
At last the magical long-awaited Saturday in May arrived and we loaded into the minivan and our trek to Litchfield Minnesota began. My daughter was relieved to be getting the last puppy from the litter, since she didn’t have to choose. Things work out as they are intended to, it was love at first sight (pictured above) between our daughter and Lily. Our daughter still thinks of her as the best gift she has ever received.
Not only did we meet our new dog that day, we finally met Lisa. She was soft-spoken, sweet and showed us the facility, answered our questions and promised to remain a resource as needed. I continued to return to the website and see new litters as they arrived and look at pictures of other happy owners and their tri-colored family members. We returned to Litchfield for a Beagle Reunion that was a festive summer potluck of beagle owners, pets in tow.
Lily settled into life at our house as a bright alpha-dog, in charge of her older, much larger and not as smart canine step-sibling, whom she adored! She was traumatized at age two when her “big brother” had to be put down. I returned from the vet with his collar which she carried with her everywhere. She cried and was inconsolable each time I returned home without him. I contacted Lisa and explained our predicament and our need for a new dog. She understood, was compassionate and six weeks later I was in the car with my kids and Lily on our way to Litchfield to pick up the runt of a litter that was born on Mother’s Day. Camilla Barker Howls (Millie) shared a father with Lily and their mothers were sisters. Where Lily was sturdy, Millie was delicate, one had coarse fur, the other a silky coat, Lily had the boxier head of a show dog and Millie was pointy featured. We loved them both and they loved each other. Once Lily had someone to be in charge of, she quit carrying her brother’s collar everywhere.
We returned once more for a Beagle Reunion where Lily frolicked and enjoyed off-leash time with siblings and cousins and where Millie was panicky and spent most of her time on my shoulder, trying to get even higher on me. Lisa introduced us to other attendees with personal anecdotes “This families son grew his hair to raise money for cancer research. They have great kids.”is what she said about us. I was impressed by her capacity to retain details!
Facebook made keeping up with each other easier. It was fun to watch her embrace her role as a grandmother and dote upon her granddaughters. She posted adorable pictures of the girls with puppies. She gave updates about her health challenges and remained positive even when her prognosis seemed bleak. During particularly difficult times her posts would begin “This is Tom…” and her husband would lovingly update her status.
I would send Lisa our Christmas card, featuring our kids, each holding a dog. I contacted her the spring of my daughter’s freshman year of college to let her know that after a sudden decline in quality of life she had made the difficult pet-owner decision to put Lily down. As always, Lisa was sympathetic.
The last time I saw Lisa was at the Minnesota State Fair. I was working in the Pet building on the far end of the Fair grounds selling Dog Bandanas. She wheeled in on an electric scooter, a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. She was optimistic regarding her health. She asked about my kids and my dog. I was amazed by her capacity once again to remember so many people, so many families, so many dogs. She gave me a few business cards. It was great (as always) to see her!
The other day there was a post that began “This is Tom…” that went on to explain that Lisa had died in her sleep the previous night. His wife of 32 years gone at age 51. I told my kids and my husband and we each expressed a genuine sadness. We had lost someone who had brought us moments of joy that cumulatively became years of memories for our family. Her Facebook page became filled with picture after picture of beagles and personal accounts of families who share their homes with River Bottom Beagles. For someone whose own life was complicated with medical challenges, what an awesome legacy to have made such a positive impact on so many!
Thanks Lisa for your generous spirit, your brave attitude and most of all for enhancing so many lives with healthy puppies to love. When I hear a beagle howl at night, I will forever be reminded of you.