When my brother-in-law passed away recently, he was mourned not only by family, but by an extended community of contemporary friends, friends dating back to his childhood and thirty-four years’ worth of former students and colleagues whose lives he’d influenced as a high school teacher, coach, mentor and class advisor.
One grieving companion, though, who might have easily been overlooked in the crush of events following his death was his dog Belle.
My sister and brother-in-law had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary not long before his death. They always had at least one dog in the house, so many of them altogether that I can’t remember all their names. Many were beagles that served as both hunting dogs and family pets to my sister, her husband and their three children.
Belle, though, has been a bit of a skittish dog, prone to excessive excitement and the occasional snip at visitors to the house. For reasons I can’t remember now she was excused early in life from hunting. But she remained attached to and protective of my brother-in-law. As his condition worsened, she stayed at his feet or, when he could bear it, crawled into bed with him.
Because of her unpredictable proclivity for nipping at people, Belle was often sent to stay with another family when my sister and her husband entertained or hosted occasions when large groups of people were at their house. However, when family and friends gathered last week to remember my brother-in-law, Belle stayed home, grieving along with everyone else.
When I walked into the house and reached down to pet her—something I do instinctively with most pets, but only tentatively with Belle—rather than barking and snapping at me she nuzzled against my leg and whimpered as I rubbed her soft ears.
Part of the process of getting over the death of someone close is getting past the stage where you walk into a room and still expect to find that person sitting in his or her usual place. For much of last weekend Belle sat faithfully by the couch where my brother-in-law spent a lot of his last months, keeping watch should he return and need her companionship.
When loved ones die, it’s common for someone to invoke that familiar phrase from the Book of Matthew: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Those words certainly fit my brother-in-law.
They also fit Belle.