Searching for a Handhold

It’s been a month since I said my last good-bye to Atlas, my beloved Bernese mountain dog. And I’m probably not ready for this if my shaking hands, tear-filled eyes and pounding heart are any indication, but I needed to do something. I miss him so incredibly.

I waited over twenty years before I felt ready to get a dog again.  I did my research. I knew the risks; I thought I had accepted them.  And despite knowing about their health problems, I wasn’t wrong about choosing a Berner.  Atlas was the perfect match for me. He was gorgeous – a real “head turner.” We couldn’t take a walk without people stopping us to comment on his striking appearance. While his physical beauty was a daily source of joy for me, my greatest source of joy was Atlas himself: his temperament and his unique personality.

His name was more fitting than I could have ever anticipated. For over eight years he carried my world on his shoulders.  During some of my loneliest and most challenging years, I at least had him. “My love” I called him most of the time.  I don’t mean that in any strange way. I called him that because the love I felt for him was so pure, so free of any doubt or conflict…so unchanging, and I believe, so mutual. I have always been an extremely private person with a somewhat tenuous hold on life. Those in my very small social world know I struggle to stay connected. But Atlas was my anchor.  He gave my life meaning and value and joy in a million ways -small, yet significant.

I am grateful I did not wait for him to be gone to know what I cherished.  Even while he was here I knew my favorite sound in the world was him lapping water from his dish.  I loved the feel and smell of his soft fur, I loved the way he softly sighed when I found just the right spot behind his ears.  I loved that he was always waiting for me at the door- except for those few heart-wrenching times towards the end.  I loved the sound of his nails clicking on the floor.  I loved how his spot to sleep was right by my side of the bed.  Even though our other dog Halley tried to usurp it, Atlas would get it at some point every night- I knew because he always made that loud hrumphing sound when he lay down there.  It filled me with a sense of peace.  No matter what else was happening in my life, everything was all right in my world when Atlas was where he was supposed to be. It was all I truly needed.  I loved that he was the first thing I saw every morning.  I loved that ever since he was a puppy he had this way of lying on his side perfectly still with only his eye tracking my movements or his tail thumping loudly. I loved that he still wanted to play with me – even up until the end.

I’m glad I could be there for him then. I always hoped I would be able to. My two greatest fears were that he would die alone (and in pain) or be hit by a car.  I tried hard to be a thoughtful owner.  And while I have doubts and guilt and questions about whether or not I did the right things along the way, about whether or not I could have gained more time together had I done something differently -I could not have possibly loved him any more – of that I am certain.  Perhaps that was his greatest gift to me.  He proved to me that I was capable of a pure, sustaining love.

I’m struggling to figure out what to do now.  I’m trying to remember that I knew this was inevitable and that I had decided that it was worth the eventual pain.  I know I would not trade a day I had with Atlas, but I’m heart-broken and more than a little bit frightened about my future now that he is gone.  I struggled even with him in my life.  Without him, I fear I will start drowning.  I’m trying to remember how full of life he was.  How he made me appreciate the small, sensory-laden moments that life has to offer.  I’m trying to find the courage to give the love he showed existed inside of me to others around me. He gave it so freely to me. I’m trying to honor his memory- but mostly I just feel the void at this point.

Atlas was a once in a lifetime dog for me. I am grateful I had something so precious- even if it was only for a while. It was never going to be long enough for me.

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