Yesterday marked the end of an era for myself and my family. Our dog Mona Lisa, whom I shared with my parents over the last ten years, had to be put down due to a rapidly metastasizing cancer in her bones and lungs. Those of you who knew Mona in her days of jumping and swimming and making grand entrances and generally being my constant companion knew what a sweet and special spirit she had, and how much she filled the space around her with charm and enthusiasm. She loved the beach, loved people, loved the water, loved music, loved a good party, loved to swim out and hang with the surfers in the lineup, loved to take trips in the car, loved chasing birds and squirrels and tennis balls, loved cleaning plates and being fed leftovers…and loved, loved, loved, a good butt-scratch.
Mona had a great way with people, and a strong sense of leadership towards other dogs. She was playful and tender with small dogs, brought out the extravert in shy dogs, and put unruly dogs in their place with subtle growls and a little teeth-flashing. When occasionally she would get cornered and attacked by the two German shepherds that live down the street, she would stand her ground and fight with pure battle-fury, and we would literally have to tear the dogs away from each other, because once the fight began, there was no way that either side would submit to being called off. Mona was, in short, a lover and a fighter.
Over the last few years of her life, as I began to travel more and more, my parents re-assumed their role as her caretaker, and Mona became a fixture of the Bickford household. Along with my dad’s shy little Zelle, she would rush to the door to greet friends and family members with a lot of tail-wagging and hip-shaking, or cock her ears back and bark madly at anyone she didn’t trust.
During this same period, her health began to deteriorate. My parents, ever-diligent and protective, did what they could, making regular trips to the vet for anti-histamines, anti-inflammatories, cortisone shots…but there was only so much to be done. The great tragedy about the special relationship that humans have with dogs is that dogs don’t live long enough. Not nearly long enough. Mona had ten years in her, and when her time was up, it was up in the blink of an eye.
We all have many many Mona stories, and will continue to tell them to each other for the rest of our lives. My family has kept pets ever since I was a baby, but none has touched us the way Mona did. There was something truly special about her, a purity of spirit and an abundance of heart, that remains in the air around us now that she has passed.
Looking back on her life I’m struck by all the events in my own life that she was a part of. She sat at my feet when I played music at outdoor bars up and down the Outer Banks. She rode with me on my many trips to Ocracoke, when I was indulging my infatuation with the island. She suffered through long hours on the beach while I surfed, and greeted me with little joyful leaps when I came out of the water. She shared me with my girlfriends, tolerated their dogs, played with their children…She moved with me through no less than five different residences in as many years, until I bought a house in 2006. She wandered with me up and down the Outer Banks when I first began taking pictures, often making cameo appearances in my photos. She sat next to me during the long hours I spent on the computer learning my craft and building my business, and would periodically paw at me to suggest that maybe a walk around the block and a little fresh air would do us both some good. She was there for my breakups and breakdowns, for the good times and bad times. And when I started traveling and my parents took over, she was always there to greet me when I got home from the airport, always rushing to the door; or, towards the end, sitting up on the couch and wagging her tail, waiting for me to come say hello.
Now that she is gone, I realize that she was one of the angels in my life, sent here to see me through a long period of growth and discovery, pleasure and pain, transformation and maturation. When she first showed up in my dad’s arms, with a green harness around her forelegs and a head half the size of her body, I was a bit of a lost soul, carrying a bundle of magic sticks I didn’t know how to use. With Mona at my side, and the island fortress of the Outer Banks protecting us from the clamor and confusion of the maddening crowd, I had the opportunity to unpack that bundle, lay those sticks out on the ground, and take the first tentative steps towards making magic with them. With Mona, running and jumping and just being a dog, I learned to trust my instincts. With Mona, ears cocked back and holding position, I learned to face my fears and speak my mind. With Mona, ever patient and loyal, I survived the most painful, confusing, and transformative breakup of my life. With Mona, tail-wagging and hips shaking, high-fiving and barking for joy–with every fiber in her body cheering me on–I came into my own.
And she was an angel for my parents as well. As the financial and housing markets crashed and my dad’s business affairs became stressful and complicated, Mona and Zelle were there at the end of the day to share couch space and watch a little TV. Mona’s presence was a tonic for my folks, and the sheer pleasure that my dad got out of feeding scraps of beef to her and Zelle always made me smile. In the midst of the world crashing all around him, my dad could sit with Mona and Zelle and ponder the immensity of the cosmos, and take pleasure in the love of a good wife, a good family, and good dogs. Somehow, Mona reminded us all what was important, and what was not.
I know that there will never be another dog in my life like Mona. And it will probably be many years before I even think of getting a dog. Though she has passed, I still feel her presence, see her shiny red coat and her all-knowing eyes, and know that some part of her will live in me until the day I die. She will remain a subject of conversation in my family for years to come, her memory kept alive by our mutual affection for her and the ways in which her spirit wove itself through the fabric of our family history.
As my dad and I kissed her forehead for the last time yesterday afternoon, just after the vet put his stethoscope to her heart and pronounced, “she’s gone”, I wondered where exactly “gone” was. Her body was still there, still warm. Aside from a disturbing wheeze and difficulty moving, she had still been alert, still wagged her tail until the very end. Minutes after we left the animal clinic, as my folks and I drove home in silence, I started thinking, I should have stayed there a little longer, should have been there to say goodbye, to help her spirit leave the room. In matters concerning life after death and the transmigration of souls, I confess to being wholeheartedly agnostic. But for now I’m taking comfort in the belief that somehow, in some way unfathomable to human beings with our multitude of religious explanations, some part of her lives on, if only in the hearts of those who knew and loved her.
I think it’s my dad who will miss Mona the most. She was, first and last, his little girl, from the moment he drove up to Seto’s Texaco in the fall of 2001, against his will, to look at some puppies that my mom had called him to come see. “Do it for me,” she had said, silencing his protestations. He took one look at that little red puppy in the cardboard box and she stole his heart. He instantly christened her Mona Lisa and brought her home, without a second’s hesitation. He had had no interest in getting a dog, but he just couldn’t resist Mona’s big eyes and those expressive eyebrows. As time went on we all came to know those eyebrows, always speaking, smiling, worrying, showing eagerness, reluctance, confusion, or sheer joy. She had such a range of emotions, and communicated them all with her eyes, ears, tail, and voice.
When spring comes, my brother David and I will paddle out and spread Mona’s ashes out over the ocean. But I’m going to keep a small piece of her, a few specks of dust, to make a talisman. Because I know, there was magic in that dog, and I will always be grateful that she graced our lives with it.