life lessons from LEO

You know it’s funny. We grew up without really ever having “pets”. Sure we were surrounded by animals on the farm and there was the occasional “farm” dog but beyond that I never had that whole Lassie experience (except on TV) as a child. Most likely it was because there were just so many of us kids to keep track of, that my parents were probably smart to not throw in a dog to care for on top of the whole chaotic ‘Anderson’s on the Hill’ (like the Beverly Hillbillies but even more fun).

However, when I had my own boys I knew that I wanted them to have a dog. What boy doesn’t need a dog? So we went to the local shelter when my boys were about 5 and 7 and picked out not one but TWO dogs. Smart right? I mean if you’ve never had pets before why not just go all out and grab two right off the bat and what’s more, get two Husky-German Shepherd mixes. You know, the kind that are stubborn, bull-headed and intelligent enough to out-think you at every turn.

Two proved too much (shocker) and so we quickly gave Akitah to mom and dad so that Chad could have a dog too, remember the whole boy and his dog plan, right? We kept Raijah and for the next few years we chased her around trying to get her when she bolted (like the speed of light) out an unguarded door. The rest of my time was spent vacuuming (sometimes twice a day, yep I have issues) up her enormous amounts of shedding dog hair and pushing her out of my way as she clung to my right hip as though she were an accessory.

I can’t say that I loved being a first-time dog mom (the pet commercials just made it look much more Hollywood-ish) but my boys loved her, most especially Darien who hasn’t met a beast yet that he couldn’t love.

That’s where it started for us. Akitah and Raijah. After that came Oscar our Golden who was truly a golden boy. He made potty training look easy and was always happy to see you. Always. Shortly after Oscar came Ole our Bassett. It’s true, everything they say about Bassets, it’s ALL TRUE (stubborn, naughty, stinky) but we loved him anyway.  He was fairly easy to train because he simply followed Oscar around. They were the Odd Couple those two, Oscar and Ole.

We lost Oscar at the age of ten and I decided that Ole needed a friend, so along came Elsa (a super-mutt from the local shelter) who had energy enough for her……and Ole. Ole wasn’t impressed.  However, he did get used to her (begrudgingly). Soon after that we acquired Zorra, my brother Chads black lab mix, giving us 3 LARGE pad-foots running about. Soon enough we would lose Ole on St Patty’s day no less, he always knew how to make an entrance and an exit!  He was 13.

And so then it was down to the girls, Elsa and Zorra, who by the way we’re totally content with that arrangement.

BUT, they have me for a dog mom and I couldn’t help but think that Nolan (my nephew) never really had his own dog and so yep, you guessed it, every boy needs a dog right?  Christmas time last year we brought home this little guy, Leo Finneo Anderson Timmerman (we couldn’t decide between Leo and Finn so there you have the debated result).

People thought I was crazy to add Leo into the mix, and to clarify in case there is any confusion, I am crazy. My life is beyond busy with full-time work, college and family with our house running like Vegas, 24/7 action it seems.  I figure it will make for an interesting tombstone none the less, but a fulfilling one: “Here lies the lady that packed more people and animals in her house than some of the smallest towns in the US” and you know what? I’m happier for it! But you know what else?

For the first time ever, I fell in love with a little 4 legged fur-ball…..named Leo. Like totally in love. Not just me though, ALL of us. Bruce, Darek, Dari, Chad, Madi, noli (technically his dog). Even my sister Ally and her family, and my brother Lon couldn’t help but love this lil stinker.

I can’t explain it but his personality is just the best. He prances around the house like the King Leo that he is (a tad spoiled). Also a first, he sleeps in bed with us, and when I say us I mostly mean Nolan and I (we fight for his attention a bit).  He just moves around the house, dispersing his love and adorable-ness with whoever picks him up and let’s him on the bed with them. Elsa is mostly unimpressed, irritated that her baby status was bumped, not happy about the bed situation considering she rarely gets that treat, and truly hating being a middle child. Zorra, well actually we are starting to call her grandma Zorra, or Granny-Z for short, she’s almost 9. I thought she would be the most irritable with him but rather quickly, she warmed to him. Giving him “motherly nips” when he’s naughty and sweetly playing with him and his unrelenting 24/7 barrage of puppy energy.

If you are not familiar with Pugs they are interesting beyond measure. When you talk to them they cock their head sideways, like they are trying to understand what you are telling them. They love food and he learned quickly to beg with the best of them and found the weakest link (BRUCE!).  They love to play, starting a “game” of keep-away or tag with let’s say, your SHOE….. at every chance.  And speaking of shoes, he finds the biggest ones to try to carry around, so big that he trips himself endlessly while trying to run away with it!

Leo is all of that and so much more. It is so fun to wake up and see him in the morning, his energy contagious. Coming home from work is always fun knowing he will be there at the door. My favorite things; him standing at the window, his butt pulled in to gain a little more height….just able to peak out over the ledge to the goings-on outside and this,

he and Zorra stalking Roxy, our poor Golden neighbor dog who can’t get a moments peace when she is out in her back yard.

But my very favorite thing is his doggy-purr, it melts my heart each time. Seriously like a kitty-purr but instead a puppy-purr-gurgle sort of thing.  I love it when I pick him up and he does that and then he melts into my arms, all 20+ pounds of fluffy fatness.  Each time I love it.

But more than all of that, Leo made me realize one thing. I had dogs and did all the things I was supposed to do: feed them, walk them, vet them, etc but rarely did I “love on them”. Sure there was the quick pat on the head but mostly, I was too busy for them.

But once we brought Leo home, he didn’t allow that.  It was “lovin-on-Leo” time all the time.  I find that I always want to snuggle and cuddle him, it’s like I can’t get enough of him.   But soon enough I saw the sideways glances from Elsa and Zorra and realized how much attention I didn’t give them and how much I showered on Leo.

And so I made a conscious effort to do the same with them. I decided that when Leo got attention, they would as well and it’s amazing how much it has transformed my love for them. I have always loved them but I realized quickly that they (elsa and zorra) and ME needed that physical connection.  Not only that, but Leo has just brought an energy into our home like no one or anything else ever has.  It is crazy how one fluffy-furr-ball can transform “life” so effortlessly.  I find that all of us stand and chat a bit more, telling a story about something Leo did as he stands in the center of us, glorifying in his attention!  No one walks by him without bending over and grabbing his fat little face, and kissing his flat little nose!

Overall, I do think I’m a pretty good dog mom, my lack of affection for my previous 4-legged-counterparts prior to Leo aside (remember I’m turning over a new leaf).  I do everything that they need to be cared for well. And like all good dog moms it came time for Leo’s once-in-a-lifetime trip to the world of un-man(dog)hood. Yep, it was time for the snip-snip. Of course there were all the jokes leading up to it from the guys at home…”well Leo its best you never knew the dark-side anyway”, etc etc.  And there was even some debate, “do we…don’t we?” but in the end, its the responsible thing to do, so the appointment was made.

This past Friday morning (yesterday) we woke up and I was surprised how well I could distract him from one of his favorite things in the WHOLE WORLD (well his little world), eating!

We left for the vet and on the way he sat in the passenger seat just staring at me, those big-brown-bulging-bug-eyes that I love so much, while I rubbed his head (he loves that!) and did his doggy purr (I love that!).  After a few miles, he clamored over the middle console and onto my lap, just like he first did when I brought him home 5 months prior, 14 pounds lighter then!  And we drove, all the while him dosing while I listened to his sweet little doggy-purr.

We arrived at the vet, and instantly my half-asleep pup bolts to attention realizing we have reached our destination, and an awful good smelling one (I mean I guess…..they seem to love to smell all the different doggy scents).  We get out of the car, I wrangle him in through the door as he darts in between my legs, nearly tripping me countless times.  He makes out with a cute little red-haired girl of about 4, licking her face and loving her up…her giggling the WHOLE time, sweet little giggles, his tail wagging and his butt swaying side to side so happy for the attention!

We get ushered back to our room.  The vet comes in, does his little physical, we talk about the procedure a bit: one testicle is not descended completely but no big deal, he thinks he can get it, at worst he makes a slightly different incision, and at double worst, he stays over one night if that happens.  They take off his collar and leash hand it to me, I pick him up the way I always do, like a baby.  You know, under the two front arms and I give him a hug and I kiss his flat little runny nose.

This is always weird isn’t it?  This part right here. Handing your loved-one over to strangers….heeding the loss of control and total vulnerability that I can no longer be right there every second to protect him.

BUT I KNOW it’s going to be fine, they do these surgeries ALL the time!  I had the tiniest bit of trepidation as I handed him over but mostly, I didn’t.  I am a surgery recovery nurse, I see these quick surgeries all the time (in people).

I give him a last pat on the head and the out the door from the exam room I head.  I get to the lobby and the front desk lady says, “see you around 4” (our agreed upon time to come and get my furry-baby).  And as I turned back, I saw the vet tech walking down an adjacent hall with Leo.  His head was above her shoulder, and he saw me and tried to climb up her shoulder towards me.  She turned her head and saw me and smiled, and paused for just a second.  I was such a proud momma, there was no fuss, he just sat there looking at me, his little tongue hanging out of his mouth just a tad, like it always did.

Already I couldn’t wait until it was done so I could pick him up.

I hold that last memory in my mind and I keep going back there…to that last little bit where I stood staring at him down the hall, because little did I know that would be the last time I saw him alive.

My brother Chad got the initial call from the vet.  He said he doesn’t remember much after hearing the words “complications…anesthesia…I’m very sorry but Leo died”.  The vet explained in detail, much of it a blur to Chad.  Knowing my brother, I can imagine the length of time he sat there knowing he had to call me next.

I was at Target where every dog mom goes after dropping off her fur-ball at the vet, right?  I saw Chad’s call and picked up, thinking he wanted to remind me to get coffee creamer ( I was slightly annoyed at being interrupted from my mostly window-shopping excursion).

“Where are you?” he asked.

“At Target, why what’s up?”  I say. (remember I am annoyed but trying not to sound like it)


“Hello?” I say. (again….annoyed…)

“I have some very, very bad news…..the vet called….Leo died…..” he said.

I know what some of you may be thinking…it’s just a dog.  And yes, you are right.  It is just a dog but he was our dog, he was our pup and for 5 months he filled our life in such a way that I cannot explain to any of you in any way that would make you understand just how much he meant to us in such a short time, and just how much it broke our hearts to lose him yesterday morning.  

Initially, I just left Target.  I literally left my cart full in the middle of Target and bolted for the door.

“No!” I said to Chad.  “No, No, No!”

“I know” he said understanding what I was feeling as he was feeling the same.

“Chad please tell me this is a bad joke…..”  I say (thinking please God let him be pulling a total little asshole brother bad joke).

“Carla, I would never-ever joke about something like this.  The vet called, Leo is gone.” he said.

I asked him what happened…he tries to tell me.  I tell him I need to go there (because in my mind I think I can do something….it just can’t be) and he says to come home first.  I hang up and call the vet, who took the careful time and with a lot of patience explained everything to me….in the end, all that mattered is that I FINALLY start to realize, truly realize…… that he is in fact gone.  And I am just devastated.  I sat in my car in Target and bawled.  I didn’t care who walked by….who saw.  I hated myself so much for putting him in harm’s way.

I went home.  We all sat in stunned silence, me crying…Darek consoling me and Chad doing his best Darryl-Anderson-stoic-yet-with-the saddest-eyes-ever impersonation.  Chad went and got Madi and Noli from school early (it was about 11am) because they needed to know but mostly, did they want to see him?  It’s hard….that decision…..remember him as he was or go there and hold him one last time?

The kids came home, I heard Nolan before I saw him.  He was sobbing and hanging on to Chad.  I hug Noli as Madi went by me in a blur.  I held Noli for a few minutes before turning him back over to Chad and then I go find Madi, who is buried under her blankets on her bed sobbing.  I climb on her bed, trying so hard not to cry but finding myself sobbing along with her as I held her.

In time, we all calm, though you know how it is, it comes in little waves, the feeling of total disbelief and overwhelming sadness.

I had told the vet that I was coming when I had talked to him, which has now been more than an hour previous.  Chad and I keep going back and forth wondering if we should go see him (the kids have opted for not, as well as Darek and Bruce).  Finally, we both know that neither of us will ever forgive ourselves if we don’t go and see one last time.

Chad and I get to the vet and they bring us back to a room and there he is, our little fluffy fur-ball.  He looked so perfect.  He looked like he was napping.  I wanted so bad for him to pop his round little head up and look at me with those big-brown-bug eyes again.  Of course, we were well beyond that…

Instead, I held his fat little furry neck to my cheek and kissed his little flat nose, and held his little paws….and I hated myself even more that I put him in that position.  Of course, hindsight always being what it is, I wish now I would’ve said that we should wait to see if the other testicle would descend making the surgery shorter.  He had done well, only it took longer because of his ascended testicle.  They had said that his anesthesia was wearing off so they gave him some more and they were just about done when they lost his heart rate.   And so now there will always be that…the same thing we did after losing Daren…the “what ifs” that eat you alive.

Last night Darien drove down from the cities and we all just sat around together, talking…..about everything…and of course, Leo.  We would share a funny story, or a cute video of him.  We watched Chernobyl together and then Dari left for home late and I fell asleep instantly, I was emotionally wiped out.  I woke up in the middle of the night and on instinct reached behind me to pet Leo.  I couldn’t feel him there and so I sat up and tried to find him thinking that he was at the bottom of my bed… I sat there squinting to find him….I started to remember…but I looked anyway, hoping it had been a nightmare.  Instead it was real, he wasn’t next to me warm and snoring his little pug-snore but instead he was…..I tried to push the thought out but I couldn’t….I hated to think of him all alone away from us.  I lay awake for hours then.  None of us rested well, Bruce and Chad not sleeping either.

I know there are lessons in this, and first-time hard ones for Madi and Noli.  This is what “living” is…it is life….but it is also death.  And these times simply suck shit!

I had called my sister Ally immediately after talking to the vet yesterday.  My sister, who by the way just finished a 12 hour breast-reconstruction FLAP surgery on Wednesday and who was still in the hospital, took the time to sit and console her much older sister who was blubbering on about her “baby”.  She consoled me until physical therapy came in and we had to hang up but she then sent me this text….

“Car….it’s so horrible, you guys loved him so much.  It’s so sad.  He had the best family ever, and was so loved.”  That is true, we loved him but more accurately, I would say that we were the ones that had the “best little bug-eyed pug-pup ever, who loved all of us so much, in such a short time and in such a way that today we are feeling it so acutely that it hurts”.  The house is quiet today.  We are just “here” and he is “there” (wherever that is) and our hearts are heavy.

More than all of that, he has left his LEO imprint on us. In five months, he taught us that dogs are more than just a passing shadow, they are a reflection of unconditional love, and each day they bring their best.  He made me realize that Elsa jumping on us the second we walk in the door with a shoe in her mouth….was her bringing us a gift….the only one she had handy and available.  That’s how much she loves us.  Granny-Z, I came to realize is the furry-mother-hen who never lets us forget that their bellies need to be filled, and for that I am grateful (I do get distracted easily, Zorra has caught on to that).  More than that, Elsa and Zorra stand ready to alert and protect us from every leaf, every plastic bag and every UPS and garbage man that happens by, and for that I am going to try to be more thankful.

How did LEO teach us what truly matters?  It was the simple things really, every morning he would greet us with his tail wagging and tons of hugs and kisses, who isn’t happy to wake up to wet flat-nosed puppy kisses?  Each night he cuddled up to the closest person who would give him a lap or their bed (usually Noli), and fall asleep doing his puppy-purr.  Every day, he stood at the door with a gift, usually a shoe that was almost as big as him, ready to offer it up alongside his big “sister” Elsa.  And each afternoon, he would get scrappy and pick a fight with Granny-Z, just to keep her young.  And always, he held his own.  He demanded his attention, but he gave it back ten-fold.  He demanded his love, but he gave that back unconditionally.

That’s what Leo did for me, and for all of us, “just a dog” in just 5 little months.





2 thoughts on “life lessons from LEO

  1. Holy Tears Carla!…
    So sorry for your unexpected loss of your fur baby!
    Being an animal lover is hard sometimes but the good times and love they bring are so worth it!

    1. Thanks Angela! You are so right…I think it was obviously just so unexpected that it surprised me to the point of panic and tears! 🙁 Thanks for the note! Good to hear from you and I hope all is well!

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