She was a runt. Not just small, but really the runt of the litter. Yet the moment we saw her and she nosed her way to the edge of the cardboard box she was in we could tell she was the one. It was like she was saying, “Yep, you’ll do. You’re gonna be my mom and dad.”
We brought her home and she became the princess of the household, taking her place on our pillows at night as though she owned the place. She certainly owned our hearts. We named her Nilla, despite the fact that she was dark as night. (We had seen chocolate Nilla Wafers in the store earlier that week and the name seemed ironic. We were into irony. Still are.)
Not only was Nilla small, but she was tough, fearless. She never wavered when faced with a larger dog. Her first canine friend, a Golden Retriever, let Nilla romp across her body, chew on her ears, and curl up between her huge paws. My wife’s family dog, a monster that was part Husky, part Akita, part horse, and part wolf never thought to display his dominance, Nilla would have shrugged it off anyway. They played and ran the yard when we visited, often to the danger of any human in their way. Nilla couldn’t back down if she tried. She held sway over dog and human and feline alike. We had a cat when we got her and he tried to ignore her. Nilla refused to be ignored, however, and they cuddled together often, the cat casually licking Nilla’s head, trying to clean the dog off her.
My sister in-law came to live with us and brought her cat, which was three times the size of Nilla. That cat didn’t get along with anyone, but Nilla held her ground, giving chase whenever possible. Once, when the two cats got into it, Nilla attacked, latching onto that cat’s hindquarters and not letting go even when I reached in to break up the fight and held the devious cat high in the air. Nilla hung on with her tiny jaws while her larger sister barked and whimpered from the safety of the couch. It was as if Nilla was saying, “I will teach you to mess with my friends, cat!”
Through the years, Nilla and her sister, Scout, were our companions, our babies. There were our first babies. Those dogs were like a sign that we were destined to be together, long before we actually got married. We carried Nilla around in satchel when we went to concerts in the park. Nilla loved to snuggle up right next to you on the couch or floor or bed, wherever. She didn’t want much, just to be around. She and Scout went where we went and they were there when we came home from the hospital with our own newborn children.
Everyone warned us about dogs and babies, but it was never a problem. As much as we could tell that both dogs were not too keen on the idea of drooling, wailing babies, they minded their manners, except for a couple of meaningless snaps. No lost fingers or toes, no facial scars. Nilla and Scout were getting older. Nilla, especially, had a grumpy disposition, so it was inevitable that there might be tension. Yet, as the kids grew the dogs became increasingly tolerant. Those dogs knew a good thing when they saw it. Kids drop food: dogs get to clean it up!
Nilla developed some ailments, especially in the last year or so. She went blind and had some seizures. She had bladder stones, bad teeth, and a thyroid condition that required special food and pills twice a day. We called her Walter, because the thyroid made her bloat, so she resembled the farting dog we read about with the kids. Our youngest laughed when Nilla ran into things because he thought she was being funny, he just loved her and didn’t know anything was wrong. The kids never stopped loving her as she fell apart and neither did we.
Yesterday, when we let her go her fur was as soft as it was on the day we brought her home. Her eyes, though clouded by cataracts, were still the deepest brown I’ve ever seen. We will miss her terribly. I know her sister misses her. And the kids, jeez! The first thing our three-year old asked when we got home was, “Where’s Nilla?”
I know there are worse things in the world. Yes, there are bigger tragedies than the loss of a dog. Yet to love a dog, to bring it into your lives as we did with Nilla is to feel love as it is supposed to feel: unconditional and accompanied by big, sloppy, dog-breath kisses.
It is also guaranteed heartbreak because dogs don’t last and that sucks.
But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nilla Bean: 1999-2011