01_kissing_oliviaToday, I said my second goodbye to the first love of my life.  Olivia, like all dogs who instantly enchant us, owned me outright from the very first moment I saw her.  I will spare you the details of our chance meeting, but there is no doubt that on April 14th 2004 when I left the house as a college student, and returned as a mom of one 9 week-old harlequin Great Dane, the trajectory of my existence shifted exactly into place.  Although, I expect my roommates may have disagreed as I explained to them that there was going to be a 5th girl in the house.

 

PrintOlivia was tiny {at first} and floppy – cow-spotted with gigantic velvety Dumbo ears and the most delicious cotton-candy pink nose. Her eyes, one blue and one brown, were always a-sparkle with adoration and curiosity. Her feet, huge and thick as if she were wearing winter boots, padded at the bottom with more sickly sweet pink, were constantly reaching out with a playful affection. From the off she was exceptionally lady-like {she never pottied inside the house and never ate her food in a hurry}, she simply possessed an incredible grace.

As Olivia grew out of her puppy years, there developed a wise and thoughtful air about her. With a soft stare, she would look deep into your eyes for minutes at a time – usually then offering a bark or a paw, as if imploring you to answer her subliminal repartee. When I think of her, this moment of connection is what I picture – this knowing expression. She appeared to have it all figured out.

03_In_GrassLike many Danes with a little coaxing Olivia would easily shift from snoozing couch-potato to playful, bounding beast. Leaping throught all grass, splashing through shallow water, popping in and out of play-bows and chasing other dogs were among her favourite games. She was always the referee her black-and-white colouring suggested.  She was especially inclined to correct boisterous dogs and puppies when they weren’t minding their manners, to protect the underdogs {and later, her little brother Charlie}. Should could be bossy and loud, and she often charged around like she owned the world.

 

Like any doting parent, I snapped a million images of my girl.  But since pet photography was also my job, I was lucky enough to also ensure that we rarely spent days apart and our adventures were plentiful. Olivia was a seasoned 5-start hotel guest, a famous dog model and an exceptional traveller. When our path led us to the UK, she obediently curled up in her custom-made cargo box in Seattle and eagerly greeted me on the London-side of an 11-hour flight. She had a gentle, trusting nature, and if I asked her to do it, she would.

05_Olivia_playingI was, without a doubt, her favourite. Even at the beach, where she was her most wild and carefree, she would dash about, dig in the sand, gallop through the surf and sniff every possible wonderful smell, but she was always near me, with a keen eye on my safety.

The regular offenders of her law and order included: knocks on the door, anything 4-legged on TV {real or animated}, men in hats, humans moving unnaturally {like dancing or cartwheeling}, small kids {wobbly toddlers toddeling towards her she found especially suspicious}, kites flying, horses running and dogs which were either dark in colour or slinky in gait. More than just protective however,Olivia was devoted. Our connection wasn’t boastful or flashy – it was just known. We even shared a birthday {February 8th, both Aquarius} and for nearly 12 years, she and I were simply “we”.

Last year on a small seaside terrace in Sicily, our “we” became three as I married the second love of my life, the handsome, adventurous man of my dreams.

Luckily, Olivia not only accepted Phil, she absolutely adored him. Every morning she’d slowly lick his entire face, as if to say “You’re good one. I’m glad you’re here”. Although their time together was relatively brief, her impression on him was profound. Before meeting Olivia, my husband was scared of dogs. Now, he begs for our Frenchie to sleep in bed with us and goes out of his way to show kindness to canines wherever we find them. She literally transformed him. Such is the power of Dog.

 

07_FamilyAs I write this, it has been exactly 24 days, 7 hours and 22 minutes since we said our first goodbye to Olivia… since the day she left us, Charlie and all the underdogs behind to fend for our selves. Her beautiful, knowing eyes and velvet ears were still in perfect knick.  Her 12 year-old heart still beat strong and healthy in her giant chest, and although her candy-pink nose had gone more and more spotty black over the years, she was just as keen as ever to smell all the smells on every walk. But Olivia’s back legs were getting weaker every day. She struggled to stand on her own and they trembled when she walked. Worse, inside her abdomen, a sinister, melon-sized mass of unknown origin loomed, threatening to take away her dignity and then her life.

One very gloomy Tuesday we discovered it was going to be days or weeks, and not months or years that we’d have left with our girl. Life as we knew it ground to a halt and the following 10 days were filled to the brim with nothing but decadent human food for Olivia and long, reflective, grateful hours for us.

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetWe said our first goodbye on a Thursday at home. She was snoring when we she left us and I’m sure she was glad for the rest, as she’d grown very, very tired.

Three days ago she came home to us in a lovely wooden urn: a football-sized version of her former self. Without thinking I rushed to unpack the box, tore through plastic and packing peanuts, ripped off the wooden lid and struggled with the toggles on the sateen bow tied around the bag inside the urn. I was surprised how desperate I was to see her again, despite knowing she was only ash. I ran my fingers through the chalky dust inside and examined the small gravelly bits. What strange new reality is this?

A day later, somewhat unceremoniously, I scooped some of her ashes into a ziploc bag and stowed them in my suitcase. We packing for our anniversary trip back to Sicily, and this time, Olivia was coming with us.

09_tonnara
Today we strolled down to the “Tonnara di Scopello” – the ancient tuna fishery where exactly one year ago, along with 90 of the best people on earth, we smiled and laughed our way through our I-do’s.

My heart bursting with indiscernible emotion, ziplock-in-hand, we waded and then dove into our familiar little section of the Mediterranean Sea. We swam out parallel to the plain, stony terrace that exactly one year ago was littered with petals and the chatter of our friends and family. I slowly spun around, taking in every sensation: the warmth on my skin, beaming down from cloudless sky, the taste of salt on my lips, the delicious temperature and turquoise hue of the of water, the echo of Italian chatter off the rock formations beside us. This warm little spot in the center of the universe, our happy place, could not be more perfect.

We said our second goodbye, as I slowly opened the plastic bag underwater and watched the ash spill out into the sea in a smokey burst – the once-dull particles suddenly sparked to life like tiny stars and frolicked in the current, carrying Olivia deeper and wider, wrapping her around the length of our bodies in delicate spirals of weightless silver glitter. I have never seen anything so surprisingly breath taking as her shimmering cloud, no longer dull or lifeless, no longer constrained by boundaries of form and substance. All at once she was the salt and the air, the sand and the water itself.

The finality of this second goodbye crashed down on me as I watched Olivia become the sea. But my grief was replaced instantaneously, with an overwhelming joy: our beloved girl was now intertwined with this, our most sacred place, and the warm narratives of our life with her and our marriage by the sea were now one inseparable truth. Ours and ours alone, to treasure, visit and dive into just as often as we desire.

Best of all, now our baby girl, my darling Olivia, will never ever have to leave the beach.

In Memory of Olivia the Great: February 8th 2004 – August 13th 2015.