by Diana Doherty
It was a confusing time in my life when I adopted her. I was graduating college without a solid life plan. I had just moved in with my boyfriend. I felt worried and afraid.
When my neighbors brought over a litter of puppies to show me, I spotted this fuzzy little puppy off to the side of the others, hiding. I considered my income and figured I could feasibly handle the financial cost of adopting a puppy. Without school, I’d have plenty of time to train a puppy.
I brought her home the same day. We both began to settle into our new environment. She was a sweet, playful puppy. I named her Aislinn. She was a mystery mix of breeds. At full size, she would be a 50-pound dog with a beautiful, tri-color, fluffy coat. While my relationship with my boyfriend became increasingly difficult, later dangerous, my love for Aislinn was like that of a new mother. I’d never loved another creature so much.
We spent the next couple weeks leash training and shopping for puppy essentials. Days after her first vet visit, she began limping. I immediately took her for a checkup. Many vet trips later we were referred to Cornell University where they diagnosed progressive paralysis. No immediately obvious cause. No treatment. The paralysis worked its way through her body rapidly. Thankfully, one day it just stopped progressing.
She walked and even ran, despite having little control over one front leg and quite wobbly back legs. She couldn’t walk on slippery surfaces. She fell down often, sort of tripping over her own legs. She needed to be carried down steps. It took years to only partially house train her.
Despite her obvious hurdles, she was a joyful, loving dog. As our bond grew, she became fiercely protective of me.
My boyfriend was a bodybuilder. He spent a lot of time eating weird powders and injecting questionable liquids. He went to church. He talked a lot about marriage and children. And he was abusive. He would fly into rages when things didn’t go his way, often breaking household items. In time I became the target of his rage. It was so gradual, I almost didn’t realize it.
A thought occurred to me one day, while his body pinned me against the wall, my head turned to the side as he screamed into my face. I was looking down the hallway at Aislinn. She wasn’t quite a year old yet. She walked with a limp all the time by then, so she always looked hurt. She worked her way down the hall with her teeth bared, then let out a deafening barrage of barks at my abuser. He tried to ignore her, but she hunkered down and did her best to protect me.
So he kicked her. Hard. She yelped and staggered back.
Finally, in that moment, I saw the truth of this coward of a man. My love for Aislinn was so encompassing, so protective. I pushed past him and scooped her into my arms. We slipped out the front door, got into my car, and left. Once we were in a safe place, I snuggled up with my dog and planned our permanent escape.
In just a few weeks, I moved out of our house and severed that relationship. Our lives only got better from there. Her loyalty to protect me helped me see things clearly. Her strength and perseverance in living every day with her happy personality kept me pushing forward, even at times when I didn’t think I could.
When I met my now-husband, Aislinn had to approve of him before things got serious. She did. He accepted her limitations and the extra work involved, like lining every linoleum surface with area rugs for her to walk on and cleaning up her accidents. When we moved to the military base where he was stationed, we traveled thousands of miles by car so riding in a plane wouldn’t compromise Aislinn’s health. And the next base after that one, too. She welcomed our first child with the same fierce love and loyalty she had for me, often sleeping beside his bassinet and staying close when visitors came.
As my son grew, Aislinn and I had less quality time together. She spent more time trying to hide from a wobbly, newly-walking toddler than she did playing or cuddling. When everyone was finally getting to sleep at night, she would whimper, toss, and turn. In five years, her paralysis caused muscle atrophy so severe she couldn’t fully extend one of her legs. Her body curved dramatically so her spine was shaped almost like a “C.”
During those long nights, I lifted her aching bones onto my lap to offer some cushion and warmth. She would lick her painful muscles before finally falling asleep. One particularly awful March night, I kissed her nose through my tears and whispered into her furry head, “If it hurts too much, you can go. I love you.”
I hoped she would give some kind of sign. I spent countless hours thinking about how I would know it was time. How would I know when this was too much for her? How could I possibly let go?
One warm, spring afternoon a few weeks later, my husband came home with a meaty bone for Aislinn. She had been in so much pain lately we wanted her to enjoy a special treat. She had been playing outside, so I brought the bone out to her. When I got to her favorite cool spot in the garden, I called her name, but she didn’t get up. I reached out and touched her body, but she didn’t wake. She didn’t move. She was gone.
One last time, she rescued me. She took away that unimaginably painful choice I was certain I would need to make. Though losing her broke my heart, her memory will always fill me with love and strength.