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Deborah Lovely: Stray Lab reopens a closed heart

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was July 4, 2007. I was at the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair near Ripley with my friend Cheryl and her two daughters when she her cellphone rang. "We have to leave now," she told me. "I have to pick up a dog."

On the trip home she told me a sorrowful saga about a stray dog that had been abandoned and was living on the streets in her neighborhood. During the harsh past winter, the dog had delivered a litter of puppies, and all had been adopted; but typically, no one was willing to take the mother. My extraordinary dog-loving friend had the dog spayed and then found a series of temporary foster homes.

The current foster family had called to say they were leaving for vacation that day. Cheryl's two dogs wouldn't tolerate a newcomer, and there were no more foster home options, so there was no alternative but the shelter.

We stopped at the foster home and loaded the dog in the car. The large black Lab obviously loved a ride in the car as she enthusiastically jumped in the SUV and began licking everyone in sight.

The tearful group dropped me off at home, but through the evening the situation nagged at my heart. This gentle animal was destined for a fate that was not promising. I knew that older, large dogs weren't usually adopted. I envisioned her in the shelter with her sad eyes peering out through a chain-link cage.

So, in a moment of weakness and compassion I phoned Cheryl to volunteer to take the dog -- but only until she could find her a good home. I told her the last thing I needed was a dog. This was a temporary arrangement, I said over and over.

The canine stranger was delivered a short time later. Cheryl and her daughters had given her a bath and brought a leash. When they left, I stood in my foyer wondering what I had done.

The two previous years had been very tough for me. My husband had died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. Then, I had to put down my beloved dog of many years a year later -- on the anniversary of my husband's death. I decided that loving was just too painful.

Instead, I shielded myself from emotional involvement and sank myself into my career. My job was demanding and it became my life. I was happy working. I didn't need any kind of relationship in my life, especially the responsibilities of a pet.

What would I do with her when I traveled? This was clearly a mistake, even temporarily. "OK," I told her, "We'll make the best of this, but don't think you're staying here."

The next few days proved promising. She took well to walking on a leash and there was not one housetraining mishap. She seemed to know what was expected of her. And those soulful eyes, much like an orphan looking for someone to love, seemed to plead, "Don't send me away."

A week later, I called Cheryl again, to let her know that the dog had found a home. I called her Maggie.

For the next few years I would benefit from Maggie's unconditional friendship. There is no joy like the reception of a wagging tail when you come home at the end of the day. There is no peace like the feeling of a dog with its head on your feet when you're relaxing in a chair. Maggie and I became the best of friends. I came to love her dearly.

I retired in 2011, and for a long time thereafter it was just Maggie and me, walking in the park, taking rides in the car and hanging out. Then in November, I noticed Maggie didn't seem to be feeling well.

Although a cancerous tumor had been removed from her leg 18 months earlier, the cancer had returned and spread. With her head resting on my foot, as she had done so many times before, she was euthanized.

Heartbreak again. But this time it was different.

Maggie had taught me that closing your heart to caring is not living. It did not escape me that Maggie's entrance into my life six years ago was a unique gift at a time when my heart was hardened and I was still in the grips of grief and loss. I truly believe God brings angels into our lives when we most need them. And mine came that July with a coat of black fur.

Deborah Lovely lives in South Charleston. She may be emailed at d_lovely@hotmail.com.


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