What Raising and Losing a Dog in My 20’s Taught Me About Love

I met Maxwell Oliver in a fortuitous snow storm. I was nannying at the time and still finding my way around St. Paul, and wanted to find a shelter for a bit of a respite, as to not get lost driving with such precious cargo. Little did we know, it would be a shelter of the animal variety, and my life would never be the same. After about 45 minutes of petting cats, the elderly man who, as fate would have it only volunteered on Mondays, tapped me on the shoulder.

“Ma’am, if you don’t mind me saying, you seem more like a dog lady than a cat lady,” gesturing to the back room where the pups resided. Clearly my level of unamusement was all over my body language, as he could not have been more right. I darted up to my feet so fast that I can only imagine I looked like a rousing game of Whac-a-mole.

It was not, in the least, an ideal time to haphazardly take on the responsibility of keeping another mammal alive. I was in the infancy of my 20’s, in a new city with a somewhat erratic income, living with seven other women. I was working 40+ hours a week, art school at night, and balancing two internships. I tended to my long-distance relationship on the weekends I wasn’t shooting weddings, and was dealing with the wrath of my parents dubious marital status– and in turn– immense grief of what I thought my future was. This optimist was now carrying the weight of an impugnable moral compass and wearing far too many hats; ‘So adopt that dog! ’ I convince myself. ‘You don’t remember to comb your own hair but you will surely brush his! Everyday! At 4pm!’

My heart spoke much louder than practicality, which lead me to a formerly abused, four-legged friend that would in time drain my bank account but fill up my heart bank ten fold. And teach me more lessons than I was emotionally ready for.

 

It was not, in the least, an ideal time to haphazardly take on the responsibility of keeping another mammal alive. I was in the infancy of my 20’s, in a new city with a somewhat erratic income, living with seven other women.

 

As one would expect, more things shifted than stayed the same over the following eight years, aka the thick of post-collegiate life. My family dynamic continued with an about-face, the long-distant relationship turned implausible, my health proved to be a cause of deep concern and would bring me indisputable frustration.

More love came and went, I hopped to different zip codes to live in and countries to explore, and took more blissfully ignorant leaps with my career than I had admittedly stretched for. The only thing consistent throughout the prosperous times, and what brought the most levity while I stalked ex-boyfriends on Facebook over a bottle of ‘Two-Buck Chuck’, was the dog that lay at my feet. For as much as the human race strives to practice patience and kindness in our every action, there is frankly no love as ubiquitous as that of a dog to its owner.

 

For as much as the human race strives to practice patience and kindness in our every action, there is frankly no love as ubiquitous as that of a dog to its owner.

 

That’s what they do, after all. They bare no mind to the gig you just scored or how many Warrior’s you hit your mat with that week; they are here to keep us humble.

They pass no judgement on your student loan amount or if you’ve cried so hard that you pull frozen spoons from your freezer to deswell your eyelids; they are here to remind us we are enough.

They don’t berate you for being gone too long or care if the result of this lands on your newly sourced vintage rug; they are here to remind us of our worth every time we walk through the door. (And also staunchly remind us that this is why we truly don’t need nice things.)

 

When Max passed away this past fall, I truly think a small part of my spirit went with him. When I was trying to recall when he first got sick while processing it with a wise friend, I saw that he took a major turn the day after my wedding. “Of course he did, honey”, she assured me. “It’s because he knows you are safe now.” Once I could wrap my head around that notion and wiped my tears and snot onto my sleeve, I realized nothing had ever been more true. I was not only mourning him but also the end of an era, and he had paid his dues. His work here was done.

 

We know their lives are not meant to last forever, though we would take theirs over a few select humans’ on any given Tuesday.

 

So why do we do this to ourselves, time and again? We know their lives are not meant to last forever, though we would take theirs over a few select humans’ on any given Tuesday. Perhaps it’s their abiding love that gives us enough cadence to keep on and look past the inevitable. Or perhaps the only inevitable is the way that they enrich our lives. At the root of it all, our souls yearn for the unwavering companionship that they offer; one that no human could ever touch. While I was not always the most responsible dog-mom or often got angry over his bizarre antics, how can you really scold anything for long that finds the most solace by laying in your dirty laundry basket?

 

How can you really scold anything that finds the most solace by laying in your dirty laundry basket?

 

Grief wears many shades, and in no way is the shedding of these layers a linear path. But as I embark on an entirely new decade of life, one met with marriage, motherhood and other milestones, I am holding close the biggest lesson of all from this: raising and losing a dog in the plight of my twenties taught me how to accept love.

I’m not sure anyone has ever looked in the ardent eyes of their furry friend and said “Oh stop! You just simply love me too much! I wish you didn’t show so much appreciation for me!” Why we deflect accolades of any measure will always be a wonder, but it’s likely that dogs exist simply to ensure we begin practicing a bit more compliance with graciousness.

Stephen Chobsky once wrote “we accept the love we think we deserve”. I’d like to think that somewhere along the way these animals – that in turn rescue us – drop subtle hints throughout their seasons, to show us that what we think we deserve doesn’t even begin scratch the surface.

 

Sarah Hrudka is a photographer based in Minneapolis and beyond.

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