One day our Bella was fine. And then one day she wasn't.
Our gentle giant, our enormous princess, our prima donna Dane, had this massive lump on her lower leg and it just kept getting bigger. We had it biopsied and treated and first it was cancer, and then it wasn't, and then it was, and then it wasn't, and several thousands of dollars later, nobody knew what it was or wasn't.
I remember when Bella Mia became mine. She belonged to the family that became mine. She was their Great Dane; I had a German Shepherd. And when I remarried, my husband and I blended kids, houses and dogs. Then she became mine, and she belonged to me, and I was hooked.
I doubt there is anything I can say that will define my oversized hound as "magical," but there were moments with her that most definitely were. Like the morning I caught a beautiful snapshot of my 7-year-old autistic son stroking Bella's back for 30 quiet minutes to soothe his nervousness and anxiety, the perfect embodiment of a "therapy dog." Or the night I checked on my sleeping toddler in his bedroom only to find Bella wide awake stationed across the foot of his bed like a canine guardian angel on active duty. And the most endearing, yet comical, afternoon of all, when Bella laid completely still for a full gum inspection from my 5-year-old, who lifted her flappy jowls, unrolled her sloppy tongue, and leaned in for an up-close-and-personal look just to see how a big dog's mouth really works.
Clearly, Bella belonged to my kids, too.
She didn't understand sign language and she probably barked a little too much for my husband's liking, but the way she nuzzled into us and leaned on our legs was out-of-this-world cool. She would steal food if it didn't require too much effort, and her un-cropped ears made a fantastic flapping sound when she shook the sleep off every morning.
She always dozed in, only stirring to relocate from our upstairs bedroom to go downstairs to find a sliver of sunlight in which to bathe all morning long. In the afternoon, she would relocate to the backyard, delighted to discover the sun had flooded her whole lawn with warmth.
And although she loathed the bath, there's nothing quite as grand as a Great Dane who will position herself in front of the fireplace with a wistful backwards glance at the (real) master of the house as if to say, "So ... are you going to build me a fire or what?"
But then came that lump and the confusion began. They gave her 30 days to live and my husband and I panicked that our kids might freak out.
Our four ™neurotypical∫ kids had loved Bella since her puppy paws were practically bigger than her head, so such an abrupt loss at her tender age of 6 would be devastating to them. And our three autistic children would surely panic if their big Bella just went missing one day, as change is extremely problematic for them.
Naturally, we did what all sensible parents would do when faced with such a dilemma-we adopted another Dane, hoping happiness would replace sadness.
And then Bella was fine. So we had three huge dogs, and seven kids. And I was oh-so-delighted with my house full of life and love and (all the neighbors said) too many kids and too many dogs.
But a little limping here and there led to the talk of amputation. A three-legged Dane? No way. But a little Google research and a video on YouTube of a giddy Great Dane with three legs made us think amputation was an option. Bella was so worth it.
And then we lost her. Just like that. In just three days.
On Friday she stopped eating. By Sunday she hadn't moved. My poor husband made the inevitable decision that the lump had won at last and we told the kids to say goodbye to our sweet Bella Mia.
We watched while our 16-year-old cool kid wept over his gentle giant, our 12-year-old quarterback sobbed over his diva dog, our kindergartner threw his arms around his guardian angel's neck, and our 10-year-old petted his therapy dog one last time.
The kids got over it, as kids always do. But why haven't I? I still cry because I miss her so much and I am puzzled why I am so affected by the loss of the dog I knew for three years. And then, when I think back to the moment I met her, the moment she first belonged to me, it is clear: It wasn't that she belonged to me...
It's that I belonged to her.
Jennifer Wheeler Wood is a Plainfield mom of seven and a frequent contributor.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.