Brian Hamilton: In the end, everything changes | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: In the end, everything changes

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with a crooked little smile carried the pup through the door, promising she'd feed her, walk her, bathe her … anything at all, if she could just call "Bella" her own.

As if I could say no.

After all, my wife had apparently already said yes. Bella was a "free" puppy, one they brought home from a litter in the back of a pickup truck in the Kmart parking lot. Though our daughter long called her "My baby girl," of course Bella became a member of our family.

That was a dozen years ago. And now Bella's dead.

"It's time," my wife and I kept saying in recent weeks, as we dragged our feet on actually doing anything about it. It was as obvious as the volleyball-sized tumor on her chest and an increasingly apparent lack of bladder control.

But Bella's energy never wavered.

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She was a mutt, yet a working dog that never went off duty. She was the watch dog, sounding the alarm when a visitor arrived — whether human, deer or wild turkey. Herding had to be in her DNA, as she simply had to stay ahead of the pack, whether that meant the family on a hike or even a car coming down the driveway.

As you can imagine, the latter led to trouble.

I was the driver when we first ran over her. And despite the "ba-dump" of the tire driving over her head — the tread marks across her noggin confirmed it — her thick skull apparently checked out just fine at the vet.

My wife was at the wheel the second time, when Bella darted beneath and the SUV drove across her rib cage. Her outlook didn't look good, as the vet gave her a 50/50 chance of survival — and likely less if we hadn't paid hundreds to put her in a hyperbaric chamber to speed her healing (which, of course, our blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl insisted as soon as the doc suggested it).

Bella survived, of course, and the incident broke more than her ribs. It also helped break her habit of herding cars. Yet her hyper little self was still on the job — always on the job — regularly raising a ruckus if anything seemed amiss at the homestead.

And that's where she needed to be, at home, after we'd put her down.

Because she's more thoughtful than me, my wife wondered if it wouldn't be easier on me to have Bella's body cremated rather than spending an afternoon digging through the hard, rocky clay. She also feared our black lab, and Bella's best buddy, "Shadow" sniffing her out and trying to dig her up.

But Bella needed to be buried.

Actually, I needed to bury Bella.

That's what I worked through, as I was working through the dirt, the rocks and the roots. The actual act of laying her to rest was what I needed, proving cathartic as I tried to understand why this dog's death was hitting me so hard.

The truth is my grief extends far beyond Bella.

I thought about each pet buried on that hillside. Buk, our black lab, and Leo, our black cat, were our first family pets. Cami, a calico cat, and Harry the hamster, also rest in peace in our little pet cemetery.

It soon struck me that Bella had served as a bridge among them all — along with Shadow, our cats (Kale and Pita), the gecko, the fish and the chickens — spanning the lives of all our family's loved ones.

Her death marked an end to a chapter in our family's life.

I felt that when I hugged our youngest, the night before, holding her a bit longer than normal while tucking her in and kissing her good night. I wondered how many more moments like that I'll be able to squeeze out of her, particularly now that she's a teenager.

I felt it again, as I watched a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, still with that crooked little smile, stroke Bella's forehead as her "baby girl" slipped into a final sleep.

"You're a good girl, Bell Bell, a good girl," she said, the last words Bella heard.

And I've continued to feel such grief in recent weeks, as our oldest headed out of the home to write the next chapter of her own life, simultaneously stoking me with a sense of pride, and of sadness.

Truth is, things just won't be the same.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.

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