On Love and Grief.

In memory of Emma Lilly Ritenour-Sampson 6/2002 – 12/21/2015

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Yesterday we said goodbye to our beloved Emma-dog. She was a part of our lives and our family for 13 years. She’s in the background — and the forefront — of many of our (growing) family photos over the years. Her story is interwoven with ours; moments of joy, sadness, frustration, silliness, laughter, anger, hope, all stitched together. The day I met her was serendipitous. I was a new transport to Rochester, MN (oh love – you silly thing!). I was homesick, lonely, and feeling quite forlorn in a “city” which felt nothing at all like the CITY (Minneapolis!!) where I had grown up. One day I was driving home from the high school where I worked (where I had hoped to make friends and was failing miserably), and I saw the sign “Paws and Claws Humane Society.” I turned the car around, pulled into the parking lot and went inside. I went to the counter and nervously asked the woman working what I had to do to see the dogs. “See that bulletin board?” she said, “take a look at the pictures, and if you see a dog you want to meet, just tell me their name and we will go get them for you.” I walked up to the bulletin board, and there were many dogs; young dogs, old dogs, big dogs, little dogs, and somewhere in the middle of all those dogs was the 100 watt light bulb shining smile of “EMMA.” I went back to the counter and said “I’d like to meet Emma please.”

A few minutes later, a door opened, and there was a stirring and a commotion as this little burst of yellow leapt up on the counter, spilling brochures and magazines everywhere, while dragging an employee on the other end of the leash behind her. It was love at first sight. This wild little thing stole my heart. She finally settled down (a little) and I was able to get a better look at her. She wasn’t roly-poly puppy cute. She was adolescent puppy; wobbly on new long legs and lean torso. I’m pretty sure she peed on floor right at my feet. She probably shredded or chewed something up too. But she had me by the heart. I filled out the extensive application form, which felt both appropriate — I mean a dog IS a living thing — and nerve-wracking — “what if we’re not good enough for her?” And in the meantime, heard two conversations involving other people interested in adopting this Emma. I stepped outside and called Brandon from my cell phone. He was at work “Babe, I need you to come to Paws and Claws like, now.” “What?” he said “Why?” “There’s this dog and her name is Emma and I love her and if you don’t come meet her right now someone else is going to get her because they have to meet everyone in the family and someone else can’t have her because she’s MY dog.”

Let me tell you a few things about Brandon you may or may not already know. 1. He’s a farmer’s son. Meaning, he’s a hard worker. Almost to a fault. He works. He works hard. Everyone he works with likes him because he works hard and doesn’t cause a fuss (ever) or they don’t like him because he works so hard you can tell when someone else isn’t. Hard workers don’t leave work early, they stay late. Hard workers don’t ask for special favors. Hard workers keep work at work and life at home. 2. He’s a farmer’s son. Meaning, he grew up on a farm, where animals lived happily outside, and humans lived happily in. There wasn’t mixing of animals and humans in inside places. Nevertheless, this guy got out of work early and came over to meet this dog who I was in love with. I was nervous. What if he didn’t like her? What if he could tell she was a little “naughty” and said no? He walked into Paws and Claws, still in work dress pants and shirt and tie. I explained to him a little bit more what the process was, and then they went to get Emma. She walked out like a show pony, paws touching the floor so gently, sweetly leaving slack on the leash until it was handed to Brandon. She walked right up to him, sat down, and put a paw on his knee, and looked up at him with the sweetest brown eyes ever. (Oh my gosh, was this really the SAME dog? She was so good, she was so smart, she was even better than I thought!)

Papers signed. And then we waited. Waited to find out if we were good enough for this EMMA dog from the polaroid picture on the bulletin board at Paws and Claws. We got the call. We were approved. She was ours, as long as we agreed to… (enter many things that required money and time — along with all the other things that we didn’t discuss but agreed to by default). The date was set. We were to pick her up on October 21, 2002, the day after we returned from a weekend celebrating Brandon’s birthday in Chicago. I got a call that morning from my brother that my sister-in-law was in labor with (our family’s first!) baby! I got a sub for work, and drove up to St. Paul, excited to meet this little babe (note to self – write blog post on the amazing Madeline next). The hours ticked by and she wasn’t here yet, and there was a dog in Rochester, MN that was counting on me to get her, and if I wasn’t there I was pretty sure they’d just tear up my application papers and send her off to someone else. So I called Brandon. at work. again.

“Babe, I need you to pick up Emma today.” “What?” he said. “Why?” I explained that this sweet baby Madeline wasn’t born yet or was just born or whatever and I wouldn’t be back in time to get the dog, and if we weren’t there when we said we would be there I felt quite certain they would tear up our application and give our sweet dog to someone else. “I’m not putting her in my car,” he said “she’ll get hair all over it.” “Well, babe, I don’t CARE what you DO with her, but you have to go and get her. Take her for a walk!” And I hung up. Fast forward a couple hours. I pull into the Paws and Claws parking lot, and there is my husband, (in dress pants, shirt and tie) sitting on one of those parking lot curbs, feeding our dog pork chops. Now she was in love — with HIM!

We put Emma in the car and went home. What came after was: pooping and peeing everywhere, chewing up stuff, discovering she HATED being in a kennel (so much so that she would put her teeth through the front grates and pull to try to get the door open and get out), that pork gave her the runs, and that she had what the experts call “a hard play drive.” I got up in the morning and walked that dog. I drove home on my lunch break and walked that dog. I got off work and walked that dog. We walked all over. We explored every nook and cranny, every inch and trail of Quarry Hill Nature Center. We went for “bike rides” which consisted of me sitting on my bike and her pulling me — pedaling was optional, but not necessary. We snuggled with her in OUR BED (yes, farm folks, we’ve got a convert on our hands!) We snuggled with her on OUR COUCH. We pulled over on the side of the road to see what was wrong if she looked nervous, or whined, or breathed funny when we took car trips with her.

She helped Brandon propose to me. We got home from a dinner out, and it was November and snowy and beautiful and I had been diverted with large quantities of red wine, and she took me out to the park across the street from our house and we ran and played and rolled in the snow while Brandon set up the candles and the music and the whole proposal. And we came back to the house and I knew right away and we laughed and cried and hugged and she was right there with us, wagging her joyful tail.

When Max was born, she was very protective of her big brother. If someone held her too long, Emma would sit in front of them and look them up and down, and if they didn’t give the baby back to mama, she’d bark at them. She loved our babies, even though she also sighed with jealously, and as we added to the lot, sighed a lot. But she was a proud sister, who held her head high and wagged her tail proudly when we’d walk (and we walked and walked and walked) with the stroller. Even last week, she still loved to walk, even though it was more like a slow limp. We’d make our way up to school to drop off the kids, and she’d pause every time someone passed, in hopes she might get a pat or two from some young dog-lover.

To say she was empathic is like saying Matisse’s art is “ok.” Emma felt, and she felt it all. During arguments sometimes she’d get right in the middle and bark along with us, and other times she’d curl up tight on the couch and tuck her nose under her paw. She hugged back, and there were literally times she and I fell asleep that way, my face buried in her soft neck, or her nose tucked under my chin. She licked tears off my face more times than I could ever count, all kinds of tears, but when sadness came, she came closer instead of retreating like so many humans I’d tried sharing my heavier feelings with.

And she smiled. SMILED. For real. She even smiled for cameras. I have the good fortune of one of my besties and favorite people being a photographer who is ALSO a dog person. We have photo after photo of Emma smiling. She was a happy girl, and it was so fun to watch such a joy-filled rambunctious alive being embody happiness the way she did. She also gave stand-up hugs to a chosen few of my friends (usually the most petite ones with the sweetest voices) — paws on shoulders, pinned to the wall hugs. And our friends loved her and tolerated her pee, and her poop, and her chew marks on things, and loved her TOO (not anyway, not still, not despite). Because Emma was the kind of dog you loved, even if you weren’t a dog person. No one could help it, she was just that kind of being in this world. Like a love magnet. She made the faces of strangers soften. She drew compliments and admiration. She was Miss Congeniality.

She was tolerant. Like kids riding her back like a horse tolerant. Happy to pull a kid on a sled across a snowy yard tolerant. Fingers in eyelids and lips and ear and  tail-pulling tolerant. She smiled. She accepted it as affection. She was leave me home alone for 6 or 8 or 10 hours and I won’t pee on that damn floor tolerant. She was “you’ve got three kids now and you hardly remember me but I love you anyway tolerant.” Near the end, she was in a world of pain but keeping it tucked inside so she could stay with us a little longer tolerant.

Who loves like that? I don’t. I’m fair-weather-y, stubborn, conditional. I’m all open-hearted optimist one minute, and terrified of getting hurt control freak the next. I’m temper and apologies. I’m take you for granted, regret it and try harder. I’m hugs and kisses and tears of wonder and joy and then cynical and hard-tongued and apathetic and recalcitrant. I forgive when I feel like it, or when it looks good and because it’s the right thing to do. And yes, I am also a wild-at-heart-unabashed-wide-open-brave lover of love who wants the world to be beautiful, and believes I can help make it that way. But even that, she had a part in, because she helped heal the places in me that were afraid of trusting, she showed me what it felt like to be forgiven, she gave me hope on days when my tank was empty. There are so many ways, even though she was technically the “orphan” that we saved, that she actually saved me.

Gosh I miss her so much. She was what made our house feel like a home. The jingle of her collar, the tap of her nails on the hard wood floors. She held the space for us. She kept it safe. She kept it alive. I miss her soft ears, and the way they never got pokey even as she aged. I miss the soft place under her chin, like a refuge. I miss her yellow body being somewhere, anywhere, on a couch, under a table, getting busted being on one of the kids beds, with all the bedding crumpled under her like a queen. I miss her big warm tongue and her kisses. I miss the smell of her paws (like popcorn). I miss the weight of her.

And right now I am grieving and it is heavy. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this sad before in my life. Or maybe I’ve just never let myself feel this sad before. I remember this fall when Brandon’s beloved Grandpa died, feeling like there were just no words anymore that mattered. I was left speechless in the gravity of it. We were left speechless. And here, now this morning after the day I said goodbye to my truest most loyal and bestest friend, the world feels flat, icy, like you could make a wrong move and just slip off. There is an emptiness in the physical space that she filled, and yet my heart is brimming with love. I don’t know if I ever knew how much I loved her. No, I did. I remember claiming I would never love my own flesh and blood children as much as her. (Why did I think I would I have to choose though-? She’d never make me!)

But this is the crazy gift of loss, of grief, is that if we let it, it breaks our hearts wider open, and we see, sometimes through the lens of regret, but hopefully just through the lens of of own human-ness what a privilege it is to love and be loved. Something has been freed in me. Something wild and untamable and so very alive.

Thanks Emma. Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 12.30.55 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 12.31.15 PM

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4 Replies to “On Love and Grief.”

  1. The top of Charley’s head smelled of ginger snaps and Hemi guarded me with his life. My parents dogs (who we now have adopted) – Dani and Spin are 11 and 12 year old puppies. We even have Cmas stockings for them.

    Yup- I get your grief. Dog is God spelled backward. Peace and love

  2. I didn’t know Emma well, I only met her a couple of times. One of those times she helped me more than any person could. I brought my girlfriend to your house for dinner. Emma was being a dog. She was very good at that! The girlfriend was visibly annoyed by this through the whole visit. She complained on the way home and all I could think of was how the hell could I be with someone who didn’t like that dog? Emma was so sweet and she made me want a dog of my own. That was the push I needed to start pulling away from her. It was one of the best things I ever did. I’ve thought about her and that turn of events often. She helped put me on a better path. Thanks Emma! You were an amazing being. Wish I would’ve gotten to play with you more.

  3. Ok I’m a business guy on the Paws & Claws board because my daughters love animals and I thought I could help. But my eyes are red after reading your story. Your story is what Paws & Claws dreams about for animals without homes – finding one and becoming a loving part of it. I would like to ask you to help others – other animals needing a loving home, and other people needing love. You eloquently paint the picture of this special relationship and perhaps will help others by sharing what you know can happen. Please contact me or Tanya at PCHS – I shared your story with her – we’d love to share your story.

  4. Thanks for sharing. A former student forwarded this to me because he thought “I’d like it.” I started leaking tears about half way through–we are a year into a new pup after 10 years of our 4th amazing golden retriever ended (We’ve been married 47 years and have lived with a four-legged since year 5 when we bought our first house.). By the way, Brandon sounds just like so many of my mother’s relatives who grew up in western Minnesota with that “farmer perspective” of animals, but adapted when in a different environment, and in the throes of love, to make an exception for dogs! Every pup with whom we have shared life has been an exceptional being! You caught it and sent it out powerfully! Thanks again!

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