The Life Lessons of One Tiny but Mighty Dog
The loss of my beloved Romeo has left my heart broken, yes, but he will be an inspiration for the rest of my life
On July 31, ten or so brutal seconds were the last moments of my dog’s life, a life that was full of enthusiasm, contentment and unbridled enjoyment for nine years with us.
Romeo was so named because he loved women, and when I met him as a scrawny little ragamuffin my friend had rescued, I am pretty sure I actually swooned because I knew I had to have that sweet boy in my life. When we met, I had a dog-shaped hole in my heart, a hole blown open when my beloved beagle-basset Lenny passed, and as a lifelong dog lover, it was an uncomfortable, palpable void right at my sternum.
I was resigned to this sad, empty feeling, though, at least until our circumstances were different. My husband and I were caring for my mother, suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, and in addition to trying to manage this progressive, cruel disease, we were also raising our elementary aged son and self-employed. Before I met Romeo that July evening, I told myself that if we were to adopt again while my mother lived with us, this dog would have to be the perfect fit: easygoing, not too large, gentle, good-natured. Little did I know that this perfect bull’s-eye match would actually cross my path. At that juncture in my life, I was not too accustomed to things going well.
Then I met Romeo.
My mother was with us when we met friends for a picnic with friends and my friend Amanda had this little dog in her arms. Mandy very unofficially adopted Romeo a few days before from people who were in a car next to hers, attracted by her animal rights magnet. This dog was good, they told her through the open window, but they had too many. He was young, they said, six months or a year old at most. They didn’t want to take him to the pound but they had too many. Over a series of red lights, they had this conversation and eventually the dog was handed over to Mandy. The car disappeared into Chicago traffic.
I asked if I could hold him right away and carried him over to my mother. Despite raising me, my mother wasn’t much of an animal person but she immediately smiled at this little dog in my arms. How could she not, this fuzzball? I leaned over and put him on her lap; he settled in and put a paw on her arm in her wheelchair. She smiled bigger. My mother and Romeo connected immediately, two orphans knocked around by the storms of life. In that moment of my mother and Romeo meeting, I knew that hole in my heart had been filled. He would be ours.
Adding Romeo to my life was the lifeline I was in such desperate need for, I immediately felt the loosening of the grip of despair and lightening of my spirit, like sandbags that had been weighing me down were tossed overboard. Losing my mother bit by bit every day, watching her slowly fade away like a sand mandala, created a state of suspended grief, a raincloud of sadness over me. I was grieving the loss of my mother in real time while she was still here and also stressed beyond description due to the work of keeping her safe and alive. Romeo — this ten-pound bundle of curly fluff and verve — immediately gave me something to look forward to every day when I was otherwise so preoccupied with the heaviness of worries and responsibilities. He was there, ready to be loved and ready to play, when I was at the end of my rope as a daughter and a caregiver. Whether he taking a nap with my mom on her favorite chair, her hand gently resting in his fur, or chasing my son and his friends in the yard, barking happily, Romeo adapted seamlessly into our household for all its members. He slept on the bed snuggled up against me and went downstairs with me when I was in the throes of insomnia, sitting on my lap as I read a book or checked my email. He was good to go for anything from the day we adopted him until his final walk.
I believe Romeo saved my life once when we adopted him and again years later when my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. He was here to ground me when I felt like I could spin off, to make me smile with just a little wag, to be a stalwart companion and dependable walking companion. It wasn’t just what he did for me, of course; he was his own spirit with his own needs. It just so happens that his fulfillment and mine were perfectly in synch.
Rather than focusing on those last seconds of Romeo’s life, I want to zoom in on the gifts of his presence and life, what I learned and took away from the experience of knowing and loving this perfect soul.
• Vulnerability is honesty and gets you through to the other side of fear.
When we first adopted Romeo, he needed to be held all the time. There was no ducking into the bathroom for a minute without him whimpering outside and scratching at the door. As his confidence grew and he knew he was with us to stay, he ventured out of my arms and my lap. I could be out of sight without him panicking. This last summer, my otherwise self-assured doggy started trembling at the fireworks exploding in our neighborhood and didn’t want to go outside. He eventually overcame his anxieties (the ThunderShirt and Tofurky didn’t hurt) and by the middle of the month, he was more or less back to his old self, enjoying long walks with me. But Romeo didn’t hide his vulnerabilities and act as if he were unbothered when he wasn’t. Part of processing through vulnerability was being honest about his experience; Romeo understood that intuitively.
My take-away: If I’m scared, I will admit it. It doesn’t mean I need to crumple up into a heap, it just means I’m being honest about something that’s probably quite obvious regardless.
• Everyone needs a little love.
Oh my gosh, this boy. Romeo was a magnet for finding whoever needed cheering up and loving on them. Not in a big, slobbery kind of overbearing way, but just in his friendly, warm way; he’d just make eye contact, wag and if they were into it, he’d walk up and say hello. His emotional intelligence was next level. I’m not sure if this was a goal of his, but he almost always managed to find someone to cheer up on our walks. If it was clear they weren’t interested, he’d just keep on his merry way. Their loss. There were neighbors, though, Romeo made a special point of going out of his way to greet whenever possible and brighten their day like the mayor of our block.
My take-away: I genuinely try to brighten at least one person’s day outside my home each day. If it’s the cashier, if it’s a fellow walker, if it’s the mail carrier, I try to do say something kind, to smile, to say something funny. I’m not Susie Sunshine or anything like that but it takes so little effort to make someone feel a little better than they did moment’s earlier. That’s what Romeo did every day of his life and that’s what I am trying to carry on.
• Don’t let anyone leave their sticky fingerprints all over your self-esteem.
As I said, there were some people who — despite seeing this lovable fuzzball with the black button nose — weren’t into meeting him and, yeah, that was fine with Romeo. He just moved on to the next opportunity, whether it was a tree to sniff or a friendly person. Someone else’s openness to him wasn’t an indication of his worth or deservingness and Romeo knew it. There was even the occasional person who scowled at him. Again, not his problem. It did not diminish his confidence one iota or make him less likely to be friendly to the next person he encountered. Not everyone was going to love him and he was okay with that.
My take-away: If I believe in my self-worth, no one’s rejection or bad mood will matter a bit. Shake it off, baby, and move on. Life’s too short to be under the influence of grumpy people.
• You may be tiny but you are also mighty.
Romeo was only ten pounds, but despite this, he would go toe-to-toe with anyone else without having anything to prove because he was that comfortable in his own skin and confident of his worth. He knew his value, which meant he didn’t need to overcompensate to make up for his small size. He knew in his heart he was everything he needed to be.
My take-away: The quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” comes to mind. Whether I am as physically impressive as someone else (or as accomplished, as popular, as wealthy…) doesn’t matter. What matters is between me and me. If I decide that I am worth loving and liking, and I do, that is enough.
• When you’re over it, be really over it.
Not much needs to be said: like most dogs, when Romeo had moved on from the fireworks or the crotchety people or that dog who was barking at him from another house, he really moved on. He didn’t linger in an unpleasant place. Other species tend to live in the now, especially dogs, and Romeo was no different.
My take-away: A moment spent anywhere I don’t want to be is a moment wasted. Moving on…
• Make time every day for play.
Sometimes I’d walk in on Romeo and he’d be all by himself on the couch in my office, flipping around and happily snorting. It was one of his favorite things to do, that snort, and was always a sign he was in a playful, silly mood. And why not play bow at your treats, bark at them and nudge ’em around with your nose before you eat them? It makes the enjoyment of them that much richer. We had a ritual most afternoons when I would unfurl a big blanket, spread it on the floor in my office, and we would play. I called it “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a special song. He would half-drag himself over the blanket on his side like Curly from the Three Stooges, snorting with delight. These are memories I treasure and miss in the core of me.
My take-away: I will look for opportunities to laugh, to have fun, to play just for its own sake. To be se silly, be goofy. At least once a day, I’ll enjoy myself like the happiest child at the playground.
• Gentleness is a strength.
Romeo was little, yes, but his nature was to be gentle regardless of his size. He knew how to snuggle up and get the warmth and comfort he was seeking without being pushy, and he was able to win even dog-resistant people over not by force but just by shining his sweet light and letting them know they didn’t have anything to fear from him.
My take-away: We can have many settings, and sometimes being oversized and bombastic is great. There is nothing wrong, though, with subtlety and softness. It is just another setting on the dial and sometimes, it is perfectly appropriate. Regardless of anything, there is no reason to apologize for gentleness, for tenderness. We need more of it in the world.
• Loyalty is earned.
A dog’s loyalty is the stuff of such legend that it’s pretty much a cliché but Romeo’s loyalty was not automatic, it was earned. He was an easygoing, sweet-natured boy but if you didn’t have time for him, he didn’t waste time trying to win you over, either. He was steadfastly loyal to those who earned his devotion and in return, it was a treasure worth cherishing because it said as much about you as it did him.
My take-away: True friends and kindred spirits who reciprocate with kindness, respect and consideration are deserving of my loyalty. Loyalty doesn’t mean we no longer have discernment either. Loyalty is earned and it can also be withdrawn.
• Model what you do best.
One of Romeo’s most enduring traits was his easy compatibility with other dogs. Often on walks, we would meet other dogs on walks who were shy or intimidated. He had the friendly, very adaptable nature to help scared dogs have successful interactions so they can could gain confidence and courage. He enjoyed being in this role of mentor and that boosted his self-esteem as well.
My take-away: What are some skills that I can share with the world, no questions asked, to make the world a better place?
• Focus on the things you love, not the things you don’t like.
Yes, sometimes you’ve got to pay bills even if that isn’t your greatest joy, just like walking in the rain or getting a bath wasn’t Romeo’s deepest delight, but still, it was necessary at times. Rather than focusing on unpleasantness, though, he turned his focus as soon as he was able to things he loved: cuddling, playtime on the floor, walks, saying hello to friends on our jaunts. Focus too much on the things you don’t like and pretty soon you’ll be a grouchy soul. Who has time for that?
My take-away: Yeah, life has things I don’t enjoy. I am going to amplify what I love instead.
• Be a source of kindness and healing in the world.
As I said before, Romeo was so named because he loved the ladies, and one of his favorite things to do on walks was find women to love on, especially older women. As we age, women tend to become invisible from view. Not to Romeo! He loved women over 45 the most and I don’t think we ever encountered a woman who didn’t giggle like a schoolgirl when I informed them that I was sorry for all his attention, he just loved women. For those who are pushed to the margins in our youth-focused society, Romeo’s attention was a reminder of one’s value and deservingness of being noticed. I like to think that every time he shined his light on someone, that person was uplifted and found a reason to feel good about herself. And my hope is that everyone he had a loving encounter with went on to have a better day and one with more kindness spread.
My take-away: It isn’t complicated. Be genuinely kind, putting particular focus on those who may experience less kindness directed toward them.
It hasn’t even been two weeks since Romeo left us and I miss him desperately.
I miss Romeo with my whole heart. I miss the physicality of him. I miss feeling him in my arms, by my side, curled behind my knees in bed. I miss his ebullience and confidence. I miss his emotional intelligence and pure, loving spirit. But I am not going to let his life be in vain. I am not going to focus on the last moments of his life. I am going to focus on keeping Romeo’s legacy alive.
There was so much to love about Romeo. What can I bring more into my life and my interactions? That is my take away.
I love you, Romeo. You will never be forgotten.