Layla: Once In A Lifetime Love

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We lost our beloved Labrador Retriever, Layla, over three months ago. It hurts. It hurts so much that I haven't even told a lot of my closest friends that she died. I don't want to talk about it yet. (And that's ok.) It's too painful for me to face the whole reveal of telling my friends and speaking it out loud. Somehow writing about it is healing to me, so here I am, writing about her. This kind of post is out of my normal range of topics, but I know that many of you are also animal lovers, so I think just maybe... it would be nice to talk about her to you. ​
It's both an empty and a lonely thing to lose your constant companion. After all, she was our little shadow for almost 14 years. 

 

It's empty because when you lose a best-friend-pet, all of a sudden there's a gaping hole in your heart and in your life. The time you used to spend feeding them, playing with them, walking them, brushing them, taking care of them, snuggling with them and loving them is now glaringly obvious. If you're lucky enough to have a pet grow older with you, then you develop a strong rhythm together, and even daily habits together. When they're gone, those daily habits aren't the same. Nothing is really the same.

​Then it's lonely for two reasons. The first  is you miss your little bestie so bad words can't describe it. You have no way to communicate it. The second is the world keeps turning even though your heart is breaking. Your world has briefly stopped, but everyone else's keeps on going. If you've experienced any kind of heartbreak at all— and I hope you haven't— then you know exactly what I mean. Grief is grief.  No one really knows how you feel, even those with a similar story. So the world keeps on turning.

My two labs Samson and Layla are once-in-a-lifetime dogs. I've been so blessed to have had many great pets. As a child, I was already rescuing animals. At one point, we had 3 dogs, two cats and a rabbit. (My parents are obviously very kind and patient people.) But Samson and Layla were mine and my husband's first dogs as adults, and we all did a lot of growing together.

So yes, the loss hurts. How do you explain to people how much you loved that pet and how badly it hurts to lose them? Simple: you can't. No one will really understand, because they don't know the special bond you had. How do you explain how much you'll miss them? How their presence filled your home and your heart. That every time I pulled into my driveway, Layla would run to welcome me home, even in the rain. That even now  I still expect to see her when I park my car. I still expect to hear her paws in the hallway. I still call her name out loud. I still look over my shoulder when cooking to avoid stepping on her because of how she'd lay right in the middle of the kitchen. That I knew her habits, and she knew mine. That our house is too quiet without her. That my heart hurts

In honor of my once-in-a-lifetime, irreplaceable best friend and co-pilot (and maybe for my own heart), this is Layla's story. ​

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When my husband (Pat) and I were young and engaged, his Aunt Jan and Uncle Terry bred their yellow Labrador Retriever, Paris, and saved two puppies for us. Pat had male black labs growing up, so they saved him a black male and yellow female for me. I didn't know about this— as it was a Christmas surprise— but Pat and I had already talked about getting a puppy and I was adamant that the timing wasn't right. I wanted to wait until after we got married and would be living in the same house, not three hours apart like we were at that time. 

 

But then Terry and Jan had us over during the New Year's holiday to meet Paris' litter of puppies... and Lab puppies are the cutest things in the world. I dare you to resist one. They gave Pat a box with a big bow on it. It wiggled and made sweet little whiny noises, and right away I knew I was in trouble. Pat opened the box and lifted out the cutest little black lab puppy that ever lived. He had an orange string-bow around his neck, his name was Maverick, and he was meant for Pat. We both fell in love with him right then and there.

While we all visited that evening, I picked up a pretty little lady named Flo, short for Florence. She had a pink string-bow around her neck. This was their way of keeping track of what puppy was which... a smart color coded system thanks to Pat's cousin Sarah Jo who lovingly took care of them in their first few weeks of life. I held a few of the other puppies with different colored strings, too, but I kept going back to Flo with the pink string. I really liked her and thought it was funny how she liked to lay in her food but keep eating, how she was so young that one eye didn't focus quite right yet, and the little grunts she made. I didn't want to leave her when it was time to go home and said so. The room got quiet and one of them said, "Well, we didn't want to pressure you but, if you want Flo, she's actually yours. We saved her especially for you."  ​

That's when I really knew I was in deep, deep, incredibly deep, trouble. For me to unknowingly choose the one they had saved for me when I didn't even want a puppy was meant-to-be, right? I said I would think about it.

I didn't sleep much that night. I knew it was horrible timing. My condo didn't even allow pets, and I didn't have time for a puppy. And then...

I called them the next day to say I wanted Flo. Logic didn't stand a chance against little Flo. That's how I got her. We were meant to be best friends right from the start.

We eventually named them Samson and Layla (both after songs), and the rest is history. The four of us have gone through many big life events over the last 14 years together. Samson and Layla were ours as we got married, as I quit my first job and moved across the state, as we renovated our old farmhouse, and as we later added on to the same farmhouse. They were with us as we had good years on our farm, and some really disastrous years on our farm. They were with us in floods and with us in droughts. They helped me love life where I live, since our farmhouse is remote and I wasn't used to the isolation. They were my friends when I didn't have many close by. They were with us as we grew through our 20s, and into our 30s. They were with us as we passed milestones in our lives, careers, and in our marriage. They were with us through some major heartbreaks, like when close friends moved away, miscarriages, when loved ones passed away, and having to say goodbye to other beloved pets when they died, too. They've loved us by being constant companions in sad times, and excited bundles of canine energy to celebrate with us in happy times. They made me feel safe, loved and never alone. 

When you have a bond like that with your pet, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. No doubt about it. There will never be another Samson or Layla. Layla was like an extension of me. She knew when I was sad, and would sit right beside me or sit on my feet. When I was sad, she was always near. She sat with me when I had the flu. She knew when I was excited and would hop around with me. She knew my daily habits. She "helped" me out as I went about daily chores, following me from room to room and keeping me company. She would do that all day long. She was an excellent watch dog and alerted me to anything going on in the yard, harmless or suspicious. She would dance with me when she liked the song.

No, that last one is not a typo. You read it right. I'd clap twice and hold my palms out and she'd jump up, place her paws in my hands and we'd dance. I could swear she was smiling. It still makes me laugh.

I named her well. Layla was a diva, living up to the song. She eventually earned the nickname Miss Piggy, too. Her big personality, love of food, and her favorite toy being a pig were the original reasons behind the nickname. But she also loved the color pink, so the nickname fit. How do you explain that a dog— who supposedly can't differentiate colors— always goes for the pink toys? Almost all of her favorite toys were pink pigs (she had 5!). She pretty much was Miss Piggy. Once time I picked her up from the groomer's, who was thrilled to tell me that she had painted Layla's toenails— pink, of course. I didn't even know that was a thing. I was astounded that Layla let the groomer paint her toenails. Layla pranced around like a show pony for days with her pink toenails.


​With her big personality, you may assume she was an alpha. (She was.) At one point, Samson weighed 50 pounds more than her (all muscle) and she never stopped bossing him around. I never once saw her back down from being the alpha. She was sassy. She showed off at the vet's pretty much every time I took her. The girls there were always so sweet to her, indulging her and her protective reputation. She and our vet had a love/hate relationship. She growled at him every time she saw him, but we secretly think she loved him. I can't make this stuff up. Here's ONE example. One time she growled at him so obnoxiously, and I told her under no uncertain terms, "No." She gave me a sweet look and wagged her tail politely as if to say she understood. Then immediately turned around to face him where she didn't think I could see and silently curled her lips at him. Our vet and I laughed and laughed and laughed. She was so smart, our Layla. 

Samson is a great retriever. Layla, not so much. Up until Samson got too old for it, he still loved to get up early in the winter and duck hunt with Pat. Layla preferred to sleep in with me. Sometimes after Pat and Samson left, I'd let her get in the bed with me. She'd look up at me— questioningly-- and if I patted the bed, she'd leap into it before I changed my mind. She could get under the covers on Pat's side, lay her head on his pillow and start snoring— all within a minute flat.

One time Pat took her with him and a group of guys dove hunting around Labor Day. Again, our Layla would rather hang with the girls than actually retrieve, so she snuck off and ran home (about a mile through the countryside) instead. I heard a familiar woof and when I stepped through the front door, she literally lept into my arms. She was so glad to be home and I was happy to catch her.

Where Samson is all business when it comes to retrieving, Layla preferred to play. When we fostered a chocolate lab mix, Kate, Layla finally had a playmate. During the 6 months we had Kate, she and Layla played and played. It was already sad enough for us to send Kate to her (awesome) forever home with our friend Sally, but Layla was heartbroken. I'd never seen her so sad. When a stray puppy showed up a couple years later and snuck IN our fence, Layla looked like she had won the jackpot lottery. We all got pretty attached to that puppy, and that's how we got Lovely Rita (also named after a song). Those two were sisters, playmates and best friends.

We all miss Layla. Layla was certainly the pack leader for Samson and Rita. In a way, she was the glue for all of us. I didn't realize how many cues I took from her. If her ears perked up, I'd go investigate. When she'd go to the door wagging her tail, I knew Pat was home. If she sat in the kitchen politely, I realized it was time to make my supper and hers. She was a great companion.

Other little things about Layla that I'll miss:
-How she winked at me. Often. (Of course I always winked back.)
-How she insisted on riding shotgun in the car. No other seat would do, even if other people were in the car. My co-pilot.
-Her "guilty" face when she was the one who had been on the sofa or eaten the cake off of the kitchen counter.
-How she always welcomed me home, no matter the weather.
-How she always welcomed me home, even if I'd only been gone for 5 minutes.
-How we'd celebrate their birthdays every year with a swim in the pond, a steak, and a new toy.
-How she'd pout when she saw my suitcase; sometimes, she'd lay in it in protest.
-How she always hung out with me in the kitchen while I cooked. Every night. 
-How she loved the fellas. 
-How she liked to cannonball into our pond and make a splash.
-How she never, ever, ever gave up the stick while playing fetch with Samson.
-How she loved a belly rub.
-How she liked to "do yoga" with me and steal my mat. 
-How she actually would "do yoga" with me... in Downward Dog, she would prance up beside me and do it, too. 
-How I often told her the story of how we met as a bedtime story and she'd thump her tail contently and put her head in my lap. 
-How she got her head stuck in the dog food bag. More than once. 

​And of course, there are many stories that will stay between me, Pat, Samson, Rita, and Layla. We were sworn to secrecy. 

Layla, thank you for making me a better person. You taught me a lot about love, joy, and play. You loved your people with your whole heart and protected (fiercely) those you adored. You taught me a lot about the importance of being present and the art of soaking up love. You taught me much about enjoying the simple things in life, like fresh air, a walk, a stretch, a good meal and time with loved ones. I am incredibly thankful that you were ours. I tell Terry and Jan often, but you and Samson are THE best gifts I have ever received. The impact you made on my life, I cannot put into words. I'm grateful beyond measure that you were happy, healthy, and peppy right up until the end of your life. Samson, Rita, Pat and I miss you so badly, as do our family, close friends, and even the cats... but I fully expect you to give me the same excited welcome when I see you again. 

Forever and ever grateful for you, my girl. 

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