We adopted her unexpectedly. The timing wasn’t right, it was way too soon. Our life felt “off” as we were swimming in a thick torrent of grief. Loss was right below the surface and the pain of it could easily be released by a mere pinprick of the skin. But she was there. A bright, shiny jewel that was impossible to resist. Her name is Ruby.
Two months prior, we made the humane but gut twisting decision to put down our dog Maxie after 15 years. It had been months of poor appetite, anorexia and trouble walking due to progressive kidney failure–all the things that come with having a senior dog. We wanted her to pass on her terms, with dignity and peace, preferably in her sleep. We ended up having to do it for her and it felt grossly unnatural. Our little family now shrunk back to two.
Then a week prior to meeting Ruby, my mother-in-law, a strong, fiercely independent woman I loved for over twenty years, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Life was beyond misshapen, like a skeleton put back together incorrectly. The ensuing darkness was a shadow, like a heavy blanket that we couldn’t shake off, hot and uncomfortable. It settled deeply in our bones and it felt scarily permanent.
Mornings were especially tough. A new day would be upon us and we had to face it, waiting for what our new normal would look and feel like, impatiently hoping it would come sooner rather than later.
You learn of course that’s not how healing works, it’s not a straight line.
It’s often full of zigzags coupled with vicious twists and turns. One minute you feel okay, steady, capable of coping. Then a slight curve or benign moment can unleash a beast of emotions that you cannot and do not want to navigate. A broken heart is messy. But a broken heart can also let in the light, the purity and the divinity of the human spirit.
We decided to keep a nonrefundable, preplanned trip to the beach after her funeral. Our grief and despair would follow us like loyal soldiers no matter where we were headed. Perhaps seeing the ocean in all its vastness would soothe us a little too. As we were driving, we very unexpectedly drove past a shelter we had previously seen online and a split second decision was made.
Without hesitation, we made a U-turn and went in. We had no intention of adopting. We just missed being around dogs. As soon as we stepped inside, I felt a calmness come over me. The shelter was super clean, the employees were friendly and when we went to the dog section, classical music was playing overhead. Only one dog barked occasionally, not the usual chorus of frenetic, pent up energy of dogs too long denied love and attention. An employee asked what we were looking for in a dog and we ticked items off our list. She then said those magic words: “What about Ruby?” Unbeknownst to us while we were talking, we had stopped right in front of her kennel with our backs to her.
We turned around and there she was–all white with a big splotch of brown over one of her soulful eyes. She’s three years old and 60 pounds, thickly muscled, sturdy and strong. She had just been put out for adoption a few hours earlier. She had recently received her first heartworm treatment and her energy was low. Her fatigue was apparent as she lay somberly in her bed.
She had come from several states away, rescued from a high kill shelter after being taken from a very chaotic home life. There is a one inch scar on her left cheek which makes me think she went through something I do not want to imagine. We went into the meet and greet room and within minutes, we fell in love. Two days later, we took her home.
Our family is back to three, a small triangle in need of healing.
Ruby needed a quiet environment as she recovered from heartworm. We needed her sweet, loving disposition and her wildly swinging helicopter tail in the mornings. My husband needed her sensitivity, intuitively going to sit by his side when he would have an especially hard moment. Her magical “Rubyness” and big physical presence filled our house up to the brim. We needed all of it, the tangible and the intangible essence of her.
After a week of living with us, Ruby’s right leg gave out one morning. After taking her to the vet, she was diagnosed with a knee ligament tear. Ruby would have yet another obstacle to overcome, only this time we would be right by her side. Little did we know, the world would soon be on fire with a pandemic that would boil over into our lives like molten lava. Whatever stability we had been trying to establish was wiped out, vanishing right in front of our eyes like an apparition.
We arrived at the animal hospital at the crack of dawn a couple months after her heartworm treatment had finished. Anxiety was humming off our bodies, vibrating throughout the car as we waited. With inexplicable dog intuition, Ruby knew something was off, every few minutes letting out one of her signature whistle yawns. Soon enough, a vet tech approached the car to take her inside, the immediacy of it all pulsating into my stomach, churning my insides around like a bad carnival ride. Ruby struggled on the leash, thrashing her mighty neck as a masked stranger gently pulled her into the unknown yet again. My heart slivered apart and I fervently wished she could understand we were coming back for her and she would soon be better.
After 24 hours, we picked her up. She walked gingerly out of the front door on three legs, a wobbly tripod in a thick haze of anesthesia and pain medication. There was an extra large collar around her head. Her right leg was oddly shaved all the way up to her lower back exposing pink, freckled skin, as if freshly plucked of its feathers. Her bandage was the color of the sky and wrapped almost as tightly as a tourniquet.
Recognition sparked in her glazed over eyes when she saw us, her tail giving the faintest wag before it gave up from exhaustion. After going over all the instructions, my husband went to pick her up to put her in the car. Ruby let out high pitched wails, a whimper here, a cry there. A cacophony of otherworldly sounds tingling down my spine, like an alarm bell going off, a warning. Crying out “I’ve had enough, please. No more.” Another sliver of my heart fell off. Her vulnerability and helplessness was frightening to me in its rawness, laid bare for all to see. After the vet tech assured us this was anxiety and not pain, we settled her back into the car. She drifted off to sleep, her big collar making her look like the saddest clown ever. We drove her home to let the healing begin once again.
We settled her into a small, windowless room right by the entrance to the garage on the first floor of our house. Stairs, jumping and playing were out of the question and strict confinement was necessary for several days. My husband took a deep hit and slept on an air mattress, over 15 nights so that Ruby would never be alone. It was also to hold vigilance over her Frankenstein-esque incision, a five inch broken line of stitches. If she licked it or pulled the stitches out, infection would set in, bringing us back to another complicated beginning. We were determined to hop on the train moving forward, not backwards.
I would play nurse, in charge of her four rotating medications, making sure any pain was in the backseat, never making its way any closer to the surface than necessary. We huddled in that room relentlessly, quarantined as if on steroids, rotating shifts when we needed a break from confinement and fresh air. Each day, we sat in lawn chairs in front of the garage, having a rudimentary picnic when the weather was warm and inviting. We placed a mat out for Ruby to lay down so she could absorb her beloved outdoors, engaging all her senses.
What caught me off guard was how surprisingly peaceful it was to care for Ruby as she recovered.
I had something concrete to focus on instead of the monotony and blurriness of being isolated. A merciful steadiness, a plan of action. It helped soften our uncharted navigation through the deep valleys of a pandemic. It brought a blessed distraction from all the chaotic political and social unrest that had deeply embedded itself into the world. A trifecta of madness. There were bastions of hope watching Ruby heal and progress towards something attainable and welcomed. We latched onto any small gain, like a life preserver during a storm that seemingly had no end in sight. She was a furry reminder of gratitude, grit and grace.
Eventually, Ruby was able to use a makeshift ramp off the stairs on the porch, allowing her access to the rest of the house. She was back to sunbathing on the outer deck, reveling in the cool breezes and birds flying overhead. Being outdoors fit her nature, allowing her to self soothe as the warmth of the sun lulled her to sleep, fortifying her healing leg. Her load groans of utter contentment during one of her many naps made my face feel like it would crack from smiling. Ruby began walking every day, exploring, hunting and testing her boundaries. Her whole world opened right up in front of her eyes like a massive wave which she rode out with glee.
I realized Ruby was shifting my lens too.
She was a talisman, guiding me if only momentarily out of despair, mourning, boredom, anxiety–a whirlwind of feelings and emotions that can furiously change by the minute. I was reminded to stay present, open and engaged. To bliss out on the littlest things especially on days when brightness was scarce.
Ruby was always remarkably loving, however, I could feel a seismic shift coming off her body as her knee solidified, bones sealing over cracks of surgical invasion and injury. Her tail wagged relentlessly, triggered sometimes only by the mere anticipation of something good. Pain she had long been dealing with faded out to nothing. She was lighter, buoyant, bursting with renewal as her health returned, sliding back into the body of a young, vibrant dog. An effortless fit that was lithe, agile and surefooted. I loved petting her snow white, buttery soft fur, smoothly gliding through my hands like water. Her old coat shed of its dinginess and coarse texture as proper nutrition finally took hold inside her. My heart pleasantly tight when she trotted beside me on a walk, at longlast able to use her athletic body to its fullest. A prisoner set free.
I witnessed daily how she never gave up on herself, tried her best with whatever we asked of her. She silently required this of me too. That we must keep going. I had to be her rock, dependable and consistent so she would feel safe to lean in and trust her new life with us would be everything she ever wanted. During the worst of times, she reminded me to bend, not break. To remain fluid and resilient, to sway with the wind, not stand against it.
Ruby had unknown struggles and adversities in her previous life, the mysteries of which I will never be able to solve. But she retained her innocence, her goodness keeping her traumas at bay. Tattoos of faith that could not be erased no matter what had happened to her. Refusing to let them snatch away the core of who she is and will become.
With a good head on her shoulders, she stays in a lane that is comfortable for her. Now that she is in her forever home, her Australian Shepard side is on full display with her innate protective streak, guarding our home appropriately. Even though it is my job to lead her, I feel safe knowing she is protecting me too. I remain transfixed by her physicality and spirit, watching her become the dog she was always meant to be.
Ruby still has a few rough edges that may not be smoothed out no matter how much love we give her. That is okay. We all have them and it just makes the love burrow that much deeper into my heart.
Ruby–my now favorite jewel. My hope when it feels hopeless. She is a gentle whisper of a landing when we feel unmoored, unable to find our footing in the world. The edge crumbles off a bad moment when I look at her. My heart may burst from too much of her good stuff. I would be okay with that kind of explosion. This may end up being a love story for the ages. Maybe the timing wasn’t wrong. Maybe it was exactly right.
Rachel and Ruby McNamara split their time between the mountains and beaches of the Carolinas. When not working as a nurse, Rachel loves writing, podcasts, exercise, Bravo TV, watching countless dog videos on Youtube and anything related to health, wellness and skincare.
Featured image courtesy of Patrick Hendry.