She lay on a sleeping pad I could wipe down with disinfectant. I threw her normal bed, too blood-soaked now to be cleaned or even safe, into the dumpster days before. She pulled air in through her ruined nose, and a steady drip of red mucus pooled underneath her snout when she slept.
“That dog’s never lost a fight,” I said, pointing at my 9-year-old black Labrador retriever, Anabelle. “Not one.” We were drinking that night as we had been for some nights.
That story was true. For all of her tender care and affection toward humans, Belle had little tolerance for other dogs and long thought herself not one of them. She would prove this from time to time when one got on her too close, or tried to take a tennis ball at the wrong moment. It was almost always the wrong moment. Although she grew nicer and wiser in her old age, she remained a wildcard.
I have no idea what made her that tough – she’d been spoiled her entire life – but it’s something she never questioned, as dogs have no use for questions. And though I hated her scrappiness because her uncommon voltage made me guarded and careful and weary, I suppose, deep down, I’m glad that if she was fighting then at least she wasn’t losing. Belle Beaudin, a record of at least 30-0 in ferocious, 10-second bouts. Never lost a fight.
“Only one,” said my cousin Joe, who was sitting across from me.
“The only one that mattered,” I said defeated, the panic and sadness wringing out my throat. She was losing every day now, as I cleaned the dried blood from her front legs when she’d let me.
It began as a comet of snot from her left nostril, which swiftly morphed into a stream of blood and mucus. There was a hollow hope it was an infection or a stick that had somehow worked its way deep into her sinus. I cleaned the floor and walls for days, trying to erase the drops of sadness and sickness of her bloody sneezes. She wanted whatever it was out of her worse than I did.
Belle was given to me when I was 23 years old from my college girlfriend. She was a coal-black lump of fur handed over in the late evening as a birthday present. Every day she was, I always said. She had parents with long and important names and papers proving her worth, though in just two days I knew she was worth more than anything I’d ever had in my life. I have no idea what happened to those papers.
Belley grew into a 70-pound beast of a dog, tall and strong and lean, and she melted like ice under a torch whenever she was around people, notably children. Watch that baby, or it’s getting a face cleaning. She ate so fast she nearly choked, and I had to put a rock in her bowl, forcing her to eat around it. Like most dog owners, I have reams of stories.
We grew up together in the woods and rivers of Telluride. She chased after the yelps of coyotes in hot and starry Moab nights and kept me warm one night in Gunnison, at 16 degrees below zero, though I don’t think she enjoyed be stuffed in the same sleeping bag as me. We had completely leashless lives, the two of us, and were the better – and banged up – for it. I could never wear her out, and when I could I wished I hadn’t, because then she was down for a day, sleeping.
She chased after bears on at least two occasions. I thought I’d lost her for good as I watched her tear down a snowy ski run after a lynx, deep into the tangled woods. Ten minutes on she emerged, tired and foaming but otherwise unscathed. We had backcountry ski laps, and sometimes she even let me go first. There was an unpleasant two weeks in which she peed on every single thing until I figured out she was incontinent – something that happens to a not small percentage of spayed females. I gave her an estrogen pill every six days, and half of another pill with each meal for the next five years.
Much in the same way we learn to love someone, we can learn to care for another thing as if we were caring for ourselves; there is not separation of routine or order, one is the other. We went outside; I did not take her outside.
Early this spring, I loaded her up into the truck and we drove down for a $2,000 test that would tell us if Belle, chaser of bears, would live or die. A week of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory pills and an Asian herb used to stop bleeding later, her bloody nose had thickened back into mucus and her left eye still seemed pinched and too wet.
There is no desperate hope for a young person like that of wanting what was once perfect to remain so forever. And so I hoped.
The time that we are the same age as our dogs is so fleeting it’s as if it never existed at all. I was decades younger than her now as she slithered underneath my legs and our vet shined a light into her eyes and nose. They took her from me to put her under for a CT scan, and all I had to do was wait for the phone to ring. All of us were hopeful the suddenness of this disaster meant it could go as swift as it blew in. Belle could still fetch for 30 minutes straight, therefore Belle could not be dying of a slow and unspeakable thing growing in her head. She was 9, but every time she was at the vet, she would inevitably say how perfect Anabelle was. I’d always agree. Perfect and skinny and tall and funny and loyal and unbreakable.
And so when my phone rang two hours later I blindly hoped we’d restore our perfection. But my heart had been an anvil for days as I looked in her eyes and listened to her fight to breathe. The voice into my ear said it was sorry, that it was a “mass.” “The worst possible thing,” was what the vet meant to say.
My heart bled into my legs and then into the floor and I could not move. I never cry about anything, but I was used to it by then, and only now do I see that sometimes there is no choice at all but to lie on the floor.
Belle woke up from anesthesia slower than anticipated, which gave me time to read the impossibly thorough and life-sucking report from the scans, though I never needed to get past the opening. “Nasal tumors with bony destruction.”
Bony destruction. I cannot forget it that phrase. I will never forget that phrase.
The scan showed a fucking cloud of cancer in Belley’s snout that would surely kill her, would inevitably dissolve the bone protecting her brain. Surgery wasn’t an option with such tumors; radiation was hard, expensive, and would only prolong the inevitable. The last, best option was to hope a new drug would stall the cancer’s savage campaign a bit longer.
She emerged from a doorway woozy and wobbly, her eyes glass, and a very sad swath of fur had been shaved away from her right front leg to make way for the IVs.
The champ was bloodied and busted.
I sat on the floor with her and the vet kept talking to us, all of us now, my father included, though I have no idea what she actually said. I lifted the dog up into the cab of my truck and she sighed. Her nose had been scraped and washed and blasted with solutions and a biopsy taken. She was bleeding again, and my heart felt stapled together and leaky.
For years, Belle was my road trip partner, sitting in the back and sniffing around and inching forward to split a bag of beef jerky with me on the empty miles of Colorado highways. That, I’ll say, was my one allowance to her of “people food” other than dropped cheese.
And now, she was still in the back, dying but fighting to keep her head up and rest it near my arm, where she always did.
If I committed an enormous crime in my tending of Belle, in anything, really, it’s what I did then: preparing for the worst, crying over the worst, but never grasping the best, even as it was happening. This is a world of movement and irrefutable progress that is cleaved by icebergs of heartbreak and sadness that want to sink us. And sometimes they do.
Our biggest victories in her final days came when Belle agreed to lie on her side and sleep, cracking her mouth open and letting her tongue slip out of one side. She got enough air that way to stop trying to draw anything through her cancer-plugged nose. I smiled when her feet tapped the floor in her dreams; she ran faster now in her sleep than her failing body would carry her much longer, and she wasn’t bleeding in that dream.
We still played fetch, and hard. It was when she ran that I forgot she was on her way out at all, and so did she, because the tumors hadn’t taken her legs or her lungs.
On her last morning, I asked her to crawl up into the bed, bloody and all. She let me push her over on her side, and we both slept for one hour. I fed her sausage from an enamel bowl bit by bit, and she looked confused to be treated too well and embarrassed to be fading away and doted on. She was tired from a venture into the woods around an old family cabin outside Rocky Mountain National Park, a few hours of fetch and her last Labrador snow angels.
I threw the ball one more time that morning and on the last throw I ripped it into the air low and fast, hoping to throw it back in time. She showed up with it 30 seconds later.
She was so good, even in that last minute. Since most of her body was still so capable, she was given two sedative shots, and didn’t fight them. I saw her sink into the floor.
The vet pulled on her leg, to see if she’d care. For once, she did not care. The vet shaved off some of her fur, to make sure she had a clean line to the end of this story. She asked if we were ready. Are we ever really ready to say goodbye to the hearts we love?
It was then I saw the long and scary needle in her hands and large plunger full of destruction.
Are we ever really ready?
I was not then and I am still unready and I never want to be ready, ever. Love doesn’t allow us to be ready for finality.
The mixture went to Belle’s brain instantly. I kneaded those tiny baby rolls of Lab fat on her neck that never went away in my hands as the poison worked its way through her. She stopped breathing but held her head up.
For a moment, she reared her head back and in the air. I used mine to push hers down to the pillow and whispered shhhhhh Belley shhhhhh. I thought it must be over — this fucking has to be over — when I felt her neck slacken. I looked back at the vet, who had a stethoscope on Belle’s deep chest. I opened my eyes wide, hoping she was gone. I never wanted her to be scared.
But Belle’s heart, that heart full of long strides, refused to stop.
“A strong heart,” the vet said, crying.
“A strong heart,” I repeated. “She’s always been so strong.” And then Anabelle slipped away and they let me carry her through the office in my arms and lay her down on a table and wrap her up in a blanket and kiss her on the cheek like I always did. “I loved you so much,” I told her body that now looked very old and very grey in her muzzle. “So much.”
I tried to walk tall, but never felt so short and small.
It was not a woman but a dog that taught me to love unconditionally, and that it was OK to be messy and imperfect and bark. I see that now. And I am so grateful to her for it. Soon, I’ll put her in the wind and sun and snow and cry all over again but I’ll know we’re both better because she was wild and fast and did not fade away.
I stopped the fight. Same as I always did. Anabelle Beaudin is 30-1 now, but an undisputed champion.
Matthew Beaudin, 31, covers professional cycling for Velo magazine.