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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

My Sammi - My Heart Dog

I first heard the term "heart dog" after my beautiful girl Sammi died. A dear friend, hearing my intense heartbreak, said, "Oh, I see. She was your heart dog."

My heart WAS breaking. It made sense. What was a heart dog? That one special dog that lives in your heart and never leaves it. Your dog soulmate. That's how it felt.

Sammi and I bonded deeply when she was only five and a half months old and got her period - early for a dog. Just like I got my period early, at 11, for a girl. It just so happened that she and I bled at the same time. I had cramps and stretched out on the couch the same day Sammi started menstruating. She jumped up, reclined on my stomach and lower areas, warming up my achy spot. Belly to belly. Bonded for life. Soul sisters.

Sammi only suffered through that one menstrual cycle. She was spayed as soon as she was deemed old enough, a few months later. She understood me, though. She readily became my heating pad. Close at hand, Princess Underfoot as my husband Steve called her, Sammi was my baby, my shadow, my familiar.

Sammi accompanied me in the car on Saturday mornings to stop at the Starbucks and buy a special coffee. Special coffee, special treat, special dog. I am all about the special. She ran to the door, instinctively knowing that it was Saturday, in the that way that dogs have. Dog time revolves around breakfast, lunch, dinner, walking, and treats. I left her in the car for the few minutes it took for me to grab my skinny latte. Then, we sat together at one of the tables with the umbrella watching the people and occasionally meeting other dogs.

She hung out with me while I gardened. Sammi came to us when Owen was just five years old. He gardened with me back then, too. So there we were, mom, son, and furry daughter hanging in the dirt and planting beautiful roses, tiger lilies, and nearly any purple or dark blue flower we could find to satisfy Owen's aesthetic. Sammi loved to dig a hole to lie in, stopping to measure it with her head now and then until she deemed it the right size. Then she smiled with contentment and enjoyed the sunshine. Interesting she never helped me dig holes to make planting easier. Neither did Owen come to think of it. But he talked and talked and talked. About worms, birds, our intestines (a favorite subject for him), and he talked about Sammi.

And she loved to chase bunnies! She leaped and frolicked across the yard panting with exertion and happiness. So much beauty displayed against the landscape of our tiny, stamp-sized back yard. When she finally had an opportunity to catch the rabbit, she entranced me by stopping short, sniffing it gleefully, and leaving it alone. She loved the bunny, maybe, because she enjoyed the game of chasing it. She never planned to hurt it.

Sammi the Princess

My babydog was such a princess, I bought her a diamond collar (not real stones) and a furry pink polka dot coat held on with one large button. I called it her Doris Day coat and she strutted when she wore it. She was a shih tzu poodle mix. The perfect dog, yet she expected as much attention as possible. A trait of the shih tzu.

I often took my furbaby walking with me. We sometimes walked to the Starbucks and back. If she did not feel like completing the excursion, she would lie down and refuse to move. She weighed 14 pounds, so carrying her nearly two miles to get home was not within my capabilities. So, we would call my husband.

"Where are you exactly?" Steve would say.

"We are close to the high school. I'm so sorry, Steve, but she won't move," I would reply.

"Stay right there. I'm on my way!"

This is not the story of a one-time occurrence. It happened frequently. And, much of the time, when her dad arrived, Sam still would not move. He had to pick her up and put her in the car. So much for my big walk that day. But the fun, laughter, and love we felt made up for all of the inconvenience.

She relinquished her princess-hood to one person only. The boy. My boy Owen was her boy. She was up and ready for whatever game he played. She was so focused on him, her prince, that we found out there were mice in Owen's room because Sammi found them, caught them, killed them, and laid them at the foot of his bed as an offering. He was her baby. Until the cats came along, that is. Then she had three children to mother.

New Role- Cat Mom

The day we brought home the cats - yes, two cats, sisters - Sammi jumped into the relationship nose first. Sky immediately reared up and hissed leaving my puppy very glum. Within 24 hours though, the three formed an unbreakable pack. Sammi took on the role of mommy to these two orphans. She was so selfless with her love of them that Winter often slept directly on top of Sam.

At night, they would wreak havoc. The cats figured out how to open the cupboards. They would find the cat treats and toss them down to Sammi. She would open the treats quickly and all of them enjoyed a midnight snack. We woke in the morning to find small bits of plastic and crumbs scattered throughout the first floor of the house. After awhile, we added child restraints to the cupboards ruining their game.

In looking through the pictures to find the best ones for this post, I realized Sammi and Winter were the closest. Sky kept herself separate seemingly too sophisticated for the low brow antics of animals. In fact, Sky had her own blog for a bit where she talked about her life and her family. She's a very expressive cat.

Saying Goodbye

It was a terribly rough year, 2016. It still gives me chills to think about it. My mother-in-law Lynn had recently passed away (October 9, 2014 but we were not really recovered from it. She died of cancer). There were a series of deaths that year, 2016 (do you hear the echo every time you read the word? 2016. 2016. 2016.). My bountiful beautiful, spirited Aunt Bette passed away first, in February. My mom's other best friend (other than Bette) Mary Ann who was also Ann's godmother died next. Then my Sammi died at the end of March. All while my sister's second husband, Vernon, was dying of brain cancer. He died in July that year. And Ann's illness reared up too - the continuation of the slow death of which she seemed to be constantly in the midst.

I felt at the end of my rope already - just barely keeping everything together between work and home, when the vet discovered more tumors in my Sammi. When we first met Sam, she was recovering from a surgery to remove a tumor from her puppy belly. Apparently, shih tzus, are prone to it. In the Fall of the previous year, we learned a tumor removed by the vet was cancer. Now, there were more.

She went through a second surgery at 11 years old in March 2o16. At her return check up, she caught kennel cough at the doctor's office and took a turn for the worse. We knew Sam was in pain and was not going to recover. We knew she was in pain because she kept hiding in the house and not sitting with the family. I would find her, pick her up, and carry her to the special place next to me on the couch. After a few minutes, she would slip off the couch and hide again.

One night, she sat in her bed and stared at me for the longest time trying to communicate with me. Finally, I got it. She was telling me it was time for her to go with that look. So, we celebrated a lovely Easter with Sammi and my family and scheduled her appointment to be euthanized on Monday afternoon. I spent her final night feeding her pain meds, lying next to her on the floor with my hand on her as she snoozed in her bed, and cleaning up after her bladder completely let go. That was the cadence her care took on that long rainy evening.

I was exhausted in the morning and terribly sad. My heart was breaking. I still remember Owen's wails of sorrow when we told him his beloved girl was dying. That day, we all stayed home together with her. We made her a hamburger for lunch. I can still feel her frail little body pressing up against me on the couch as we passed the time together. Winter sat with us her little white body contributing to Sammi's heat and comfort in those last few hours. Winter was savvy to what was happening and was saying her goodbyes.

The three of us drove our girl to the vet together. I held her paw as they injected the med and she quickly slipped away.

Later the same week, I waited in the airport for my plane to board for another work trip. As I sat there, the grief started

rising inside me. Starting in my stomach, traveling through my chest and then up my esophagus until I thought sobs would explode from me. I made it to the bathroom and cried in the stall.

How was I going to do this? How could I work? How would I keep myself from crying during the presentations I would be giving? I cried and cried until I heard the announcement for my plane getting ready to board. Then, when I landed at my destination, I cried some more in my hotel room. The next day I was ready to go, business ready and completely professional. Then I came back to my room and cried, falling asleep sometime during the expulsion of emotion. Repeat and rinse.

The worst feeling of all was arriving home to no playful yapping, no tug of war between Owen and Sammi as they raced to greet me. And my poor baby Sky was not prepared. She spent countless hours, days, weeks, looking for her good pal Sam - her fur mom. I believe Sky grieved for more than two years. She kept apart from the rest of the family becoming a loner until one day she decided to come back to us. Everyone has their process and their own timeline for grief, I guess, even animals.

We desperately craved the love and loyalty of a dog and adopted two puppies a few months after Sammi passed. In fact, they were born on her death date. One is a white shih tzu chihuahua, Snow. The other is a mix of Australian cattle dog and a number of gun dogs, Storm. When these new dogs came to live with us, I was a bit suspicious of them. No new dog will take the place of Sammi, the best dog ever! In time, I found room in my heart to love them fiercely and also retain a piece of my heart for my Sammi.

Life, love, and grief are funny that way. There is room for all of it. Some days are better than others and eventually love takes over.

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