As a young child, I was not allowed to have a dog. Growing up in Chicago apartments, it seemed landlords just did not allow them. However, as far back as I can remember, I wanted a dog.
When I was eight years old, I entered a contest with Cap’n Crunch cereal. The entry involved naming Cap’n Crunch’s dog. The grand prize would be a puppy. The winner could even choose the dog breed. Here was my chance! In my little girl’s mind, I reasoned that if I won the contest I would have to be allowed to keep the puppy. After all, I won; it was only fair. Well, needless to say, I didn’t win.
We did have other pets, though. From the very beginning, there were pet turtles. My favourite was a Red-Eared Slider. She had been injured when she was accidentally caught on a fishing line. She was blinded in one eye, but I loved her dearly. I named her Snoopy; that is how badly I wanted a dog.
We had a variety of rodents, too. Not counting the ones who were native to the apartments, there were also hamsters and gerbils. We even had a guinea pig. However, their warm soft fur is no substitute for a dog’s. It is not the same.
Right after my tenth birthday, we moved to Ohio. We lived in a Duplex apartment, where I was able to “sort of” adopt a stray Siamese cat. I fed him and sneaked him inside when no one was looking. It didn’t last long, though. Suddenly, we were moving to Texas. I was dead set against the idea of moving yet again. I was happy in Ohio, out of the big city…and, now I had a cat…sort of.
I voiced my concerns and dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms. In response, I was told that in Texas we would be living in the country. I was promised that I would be able to finally have a dog. Shortly after we settled into our Texas home, I was taken to the Houston Humane Society and told that I could choose any dog that I wanted.
I took this offer very seriously. I went through the entire facility. The center of the building was a huge open area. It was the activity hub. Hallways went off at angles like spokes on a wheel. Each hallway was for specific breeds or needs of dogs. Along the walls of the big, open area were cages of mixed-breed puppies. At the very center of the room was a giant, walk-in cage, similar to one at a zoo. It was the exercise area for puppies. The barking and whining was almost deafening. I was amazed and thrilled.
It was there that I saw her: my dog! Sitting in a very large, empty dish was the puppy for me. She was silently looking at me. When I approached, she wagged her tail. She was solid black and very shiny, with short, soft wavy fur. I was told that she was a cocker spaniel-beagle mix. I immediately chose her and named her Velvet. I had no doubt that she was the one. She was perfect.
Velvet playing frisbee
At the time, we lived out in the country, southeast of Houston. I taught Velvet to walk on a leash, but also to be able to go without one. She followed me everywhere and did everything with me. She loved to play Frisbee, though she had her own style. She would usually wait for the Frisbee to land, and then pick it up upside down. In her very nonchalant way, she would carry it back to me.
Velvet had no faults. She never was naughty, in any way. She was sweet. She was gentle. She was wise beyond her years. Trust was mutual. We were both old souls, and inseparable from the start. I had a very difficult and painful childhood. Velvet knew all of my secrets. She went through all of it with me, suffering right alongside me. She tried her best to keep me safe. She was always there to comfort me, and she also gave me hope and purpose.
When Velvet was two-and-a-half years old she had an unplanned litter of puppies. The father, a neighbor’s rat terrier, got into our yard. The pregnancy and delivery were hard on her. This was when Velvet’s face turned grey, almost overnight. I stayed with her for the labour and delivery. I named each puppy and helped her raise them.
We had many pets and various assorted rescued critters. Velvet was loved by and patient with all of them. But, one was a constant source of frustration for both of us. John Henry, our pet squirrel monkey, was incorrigible. He would ride on the backs of the puppies like a circus act. The puppies thought he was a lot of fun. Velvet and I thought he was naughty.
As the puppies got bigger, one failed to thrive. Missy, who looked just like a beagle, was fading away, no matter what we did. Velvet sensed this and fretted over her. She would not give up on her littlest puppy, and was with Missy as she took her last breath. As we buried Missy, Velvet was there, too. She stayed at the grave for hours. Her love was obvious. It broke my heart to see her grieve.
When the other puppies were old enough, I put an ad in the paper to sell them. I figured if people paid for them, they would be more inclined to want to take good care of them. Even at twelve, I cared about forever homes. I wanted someone to love the puppies as much as Velvet and I did.
The puppies inspired me to teach Velvet more things, too. I taught her to sit up and to shake hands. When I fed her, I would ask where her manners were. She would sit down and shake hands. She was very smart and eager to please. Our bond of trust and love strengthened.
We moved back to Illinois when I was 14. I was able to bring Velvet and some other pets came with us. But, through my teens, Velvet was the one who was always there to share everything with me. She knew my struggles and she gave me a constant purpose.
Velvet and I left home when I was 18, after my high school graduation. We did some traveling by car and plane together. Wherever we went, Velvet was welcomed and loved by everyone she met. Her manners and behavior were exceptional. She fit into whatever experience she encountered. But, we were a pair. One of our favorite things was to go to the Lake Michigan lakefront to watch the sunrise. We often went to a remote beach to enjoy this peaceful time. As we would sit on the bluff overlooking the lake, I would make a crown of wildflowers for her to wear. We were free-spirits and liked it that way. We were finding our path in life.
Velvet the Flower Child
As she aged, it became my turn to be there for her more and more. She developed bladder stones and liver problems. That was the first of several surgeries. We were forced to make some changes for the good of her health. She needed medication and special food, now. I got her sweaters to wear when the weather turned cold. I would do anything for her.
At 21, I became engaged. I said, “Love me, love my dog.” And, he did. Bill became Velvet’s “Dad”. He actually told her that immediately following our wedding. Soon after, the three of us took off on a road trip. We traveled out west in an old Ford van. Velvet went fishing in Minnesota, and exploring in the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. She ran around the lava-beds of Moon Crater National Park, in Idaho, and walked in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. She enjoyed every place in between, too. She loved it!
After several months, we eventually settled back in northeastern Illinois. We rented a cottage on a small lake where we could fish regularly. I found Bill and Velvet outside one day, digging. I had never seen Velvet dig! When I asked him what she was doing, he said, “She’s helping me dig for worms.” She was 13. It was a satisfying thing to her dig a hole. One hot day that summer, she dug a nice hole and then laid down in it. It proves that you really can teach an old dog a new trick. You never stop learning, as long as you want to. After a lifetime of being guarded, Velvet was relaxing into old age.
That same summer, we asked Velvet to help us raise a puppy. We knew that she was getting tired, but we hoped a puppy would help keep her going. I also hoped she would teach a pup how to behave. For our first anniversary, we added Grits, a yellow lab puppy, to our family. He truly saw her as a mother-figure. He tried her patience that first year, too. When she got enough of him, she would let him know it.
Velvet and her baby brother, Grits
One time we left them alone for a short time, just to see how Grits would behave. We came home to a house in chaos. He had scattered record albums everywhere. The trash was knocked over and tossed around. Grits was nowhere to be seen, though…or so he thought. He was hiding in his favorite place, behind the sheer window curtains, watching our reactions. Velvet was in her bed under my desk, trembling as if she had barely survived the apocalypse. She was not impressed with his behavior.
As calm and well-behaved as Velvet was, Grits was wild and energetic. She was small and dark; he was big and light. They were like night and day. There was a real bond there, though. She never chose to be the alpha-dog, but she took the job of raising this wayward puppy seriously. And, he loved her for it.
Velvet’s health continued to deteriorate as she aged. At 14, she developed a tumor on her knee. Her veterinarian removed it, but told us that it would most likely grow back. At her 15th birthday, we were told she had inoperable cancer.
By now, her heart had grown very weak. Her kidneys were also failing. She never lost her spark or her joy in living, though. We were the sad ones. We were forced to make final plans for her as she approached 15 ½ years of age.
Tried and True, Velvet
She had always been there for me. She gave me companionship when I had no one. She was my friend when I couldn’t even be a friend to myself. I knew she loved me even when I questioned that anyone did. She endured numerous moves with me several times throughout my childhood. When I became an adult, we traveled in tandem. I wanted her to have a final place to rest, one where she would never have to move again. I wanted her to be safe. I strongly felt that I owed her that.
We found the perfect place. Velvet was buried in a pet cemetery, under a big shade tree at the edge of the woods. In her casket, we placed her bed, her sweaters, and her bowls. She was tucked into her bed with her special blanket. Along with her name and dates, her grave-marker says “Love surpasses death”. I am sure of this. Even now, decades later, I love Velvet just the same as I did so long ago. She will always be a part of me; I know this to be true. I see her in every animal that I bond with. I remember what she taught me and why it is so important.
Velvet taught me unconditional love. She also taught me inner strength. She taught me how to be strong and take what life gives, but without giving up myself. Velvet taught me dignity in the face of despair, and grace in spite of fear. She taught me to always have hope and to never stop learning.