To the Dog Loves of My Life

Leo Hull

I didn’t really grow up with dogs in my house, but we were a neighborhood family so it felt like they were always around. My grandparents also had a dog. When my family went camping with our friends, there were dogs. When we went to the swimming pool, dogs were always circulating the pool, patiently waiting for their families to come out. The pattern of them being around me, but me not actually owning one continued through college and I got to live with a lot of  different dogs. It was like this special club that I got to join because of the human connection, and not the dog part. I regularly had labs, mutts, golden retrievers, and rottweilers in my hemisphere. Because up to that point, I had never actually lived with a dog, I recall bouts of a love-hate vibe. I didn’t really connect with any of them on an emotional level, but I could see how my friends did and via my cats, I got how they felt. I cared about them because they cared about my friends. I got the dog thing, but at the end of the day, it isn’t the same thing as a cat thing. It wasn’t until much later in life that my appreciation for dogs would grow.

There was this one time on the UGA campus that I witnessed a dog mom with her dog and they had this magical connection. It was something that I had never witnessed before. You could see how they trusted each other. I probably watched them for about 30 minutes before moving on with my life, but I remember walking off thinking that one day, for the first time ever, I wanted to be a dog mom.

Later, when I moved to Alaska, dogs exploded into my life! They were everywhere-dogs I didn’t know, dogs roaming without their owners, dogs who we didn’t know who owned them; they wondered around, and just spit love all over the place. All kinds of breeds were wondering in and out of cabins as their owners did the same. Pretty soon after moving to Alaska, I learned that you could ski with dogs. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe I didn’t know that fact before college.

Upon graduating, with our two cats Forrest and Misty in tote, my then fiance’ and me moved to Tuntutuliak, Alaska for my first real teaching position. It was there that I met Lia, who pretty much became the first true dog love of my life. To find her, we walked the boardwalks of the village and we were particularly infatuated by the what would become parents of Lia for many reasons. In the villages, if dogs are not being used for mushing, they are typically tied up to their houses outside, and are used as garbage disposals rather than family companions so many of them had some relatively rough personalities, but when we saw these two huskies, we knew that if they bred, we would defiantly consider getting one.

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Lia Hilger-Rector

Just like that, we became parents to a full bred female husky. We named her after the village, short for TuntutuLIAk. She was an immediate lightening bolt to our lives. She was kind, smart, and beautiful. I knew that one day, we would learn how to skijor together, which we did. I took her everywhere I could to learn from her, and to try to feel what being a dog might be like as a husky in Alaska. She taught me so much about the wilderness, and how to love it more and more. We had a special bond that is irreplaceable.

I didn’t get to say goodbye to her, but I made that choice. Once my husband became my ex, for a short time, we tried co-parenting Lia. I would take her on AK summer trips, during which she consoled me. It was difficult picking her up and dropping her off. It reminded me of what a failure we had become and it made me feel like a terrible mom. I wasn’t sure how to navigate that situation and I couldn’t visualize doing it for an eternity because I would have had to face it for years and years, like parents with kids who divorce. Eventually, I realized that I had to let her go and there will always be a part of me that regrets that because I didn’t fight to remain in her life. I will never forget when I dropped her off and I knew it would be the last time. I cried like she had died because to me, she had, and because I was going through a divorce, it felt like I had experienced two extreme deaths all at once. Even though the people and pets of the families are alive through the divorce, it feels just like going through a death, or so I would learn.

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Lia Hilger-Rector

My ex didn’t reach out to me upon her passing, but I didn’t ask either. On the one hand, I didn’t have to put her to sleep. I didn’t have to say goodbye to her in a veterinarian hospital. I didn’t have to give the last order. I didn’t have to do that because I didn’t want to experience that with my ex. I didn’t want to share it. I didn’t want to have that moment, especially if I had to experience it while also being witness to how my ex experienced it. I didn’t want to give him anything. I didn’t want to have to share my loss with him alongside his loss when he was the one who had decided that we were no longer that kind of love. I let us get in the way of me being with Lia. I realized much later that this would be one of those times where I had let my shame dictate my life. Like I said, I didn’t fight for her. While I’ve said my goodbyes to her in my own way, I won’t ever get that chance back.

As years went by, my friends and family would continue to interject a variety of amazing dogs into my life, but I would never own one again. I didn’t manage to get another dog after Lia for a lot of reasons, but part of me feels like I’ll never be able to top Lia. Maybe my bestie’s Augie comes close, but for me, I’ve already experienced the gold medal.

And then along came Leo. I met Leo when I started dating Brett a couple of years ago. At first, I remember thinking that living with a big dog in my tiny place wasn’t worth it. He was an older rescue too so you couldn’t take him on the trails to play like I was used to doing with Lia. I didn’t know how to be around him like I was used to being around Lia; he would stare at me when I was working from home, making me feel like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing as his newest dog mom. He reminded me of losing Lia and I would constantly mill over how Leo and Lia would have made great siblings. I think Leo knew that I was troubled by having him around, but eventually, we grew together. Leo’s soul was different; there was something about him that when you looked into his eyes, you knew that he got you. Sometimes, I wondered if he was how Lia was visiting me, helping me make up for the lost time. In a way, it was like Leo brought me back to Lia. I have a picture of us up on the fridge and I think of her often, but I thank Leo for the deep reminder.

Just like that, the other day, Leo had to go too. 12 is old for a German Shepard and he had a great life; one day he was doing so good, and the next day, he had a stroke. Once again, I didn’t get to say goodbye or be by his side. That is something I will have to live with.

I didn’t know you that long Leo, but I sure loved you. To steal the right words from my love Brett, I will look for you on the Rainbow Bridge.

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