Willie and the girls - a new kind of love story
Meet Lizzie and Grace. They recently lost the love of their life and never thought their heart could be that full again. Here Lizzie tells about the wonderful new dog that they unexpectedly rescued.
"Soon after Casper died, we had a few people ask us whether/when we would get another dog. Some assumed it was a foregone conclusion, and others asked about it gingerly, not knowing if we were even ready to think about it. The truth is, we were ready to at least think about it almost immediately, because we simply don't know what our lives look like without a dog. We also knew that we would get a dog through a shelter or rescue organization, and the sooner we could bring one home, the less time that particular dog would have to sleep in a concrete kennel instead of in a warm bed. That said, we had no idea what the process of adopting again would look like.
With Casper, we weren't expecting to get a 7 year old, 80-pound pit bull with a dark past. It just kind of worked out that way (you can read more about the story in this post). So, we thought, where do we start when we know we want to adopt an older rescue pit bull (or pit bull mix)? It was kind of like working backwards, unlike when we adopted Casper out of happenstance. And Grace made me promise that we wouldn't get attached to any photo we found online or any particular rescue organization. She also said that the process would probably take a few weeks--we needed to dip our toes in first, meeting a few dogs and introducing ourselves to organizations while also donating some of Casper's stuff and just getting ourselves more comfortable with the idea of letting a new pup into our hearts.
For some reason, my thought going into the process was that adopting through a rescue organization this time "made sense" more so than adopting from a shelter. When dogs are in these organizations' systems, they tend to be more socialized, better with people and other dogs, and the organization will be able to tell you a lot more about the dogs' personalities and histories because they've worked closely with them. At a shelter, the dogs stay in individual small kennels/cages for the vast majority of their days, and their history is often totally unknown if they were found as a stray (like Casper was). Even though we adopted Casper from a shelter and loved him to pieces, I felt like lightning wouldn't strike twice--we needed to go through an organization that was, for lack of a better word, a little more organized than a shelter.
Well, as many people have said, we make plans and God laughs. The process didn't take a few weeks, it took 2 days, and we didn't adopt from an organization, we adopted from the exact shelter where we got Casper. But let me back up and tell the full story.
To be honest, I had lot of anxiety surrounding the process of adopting another dog. When Casper died, it felt SO unplanned and uncontrollable. I felt like searching for our next dog was a process that I could control, and so I desperately tried to. Grace gently reminded me that I couldn't control this, either. She promised me that we wouldn't end up with a dog that wasn't "our dog," and we also wouldn't leave behind a dog that WAS "our dog." As soon as we started thinking about adopting again, I spent a lot of time on the websites and Instagrams of several organizations that seemed like a good fit for us. I researched and eventually got in contact with NKLA, Angel City Pit Bulls, and Downtown Dog Rescue. One day after work, we decided to drive over to NKLA's adoption center just to check it out and see what it felt like meeting a few dogs. We were amazed at the facility there; it is the nicest dog rescue I have ever seen. We even asked to take a couple of dogs out of their kennels to meet them. They were sweet and we had fun with them, but it was pretty obvious that they weren't going to be our next dog. We went home, feeling encouraged by the experience of "getting out there" in regards to looking for another dog.
Two days later, we had an appointment to meet some dogs at Downtown Dog Rescue. We LOVED their mission of helping homeless and low-income people keep their dogs (they offer veterinary services and supplies at reduced or no cost), and they also have a kennel where rescue dogs are up for adoption. Our experience there was so special. The setup is lovely--I recommend anyone looking for a rescue to consider them. Feel free to use my contact page if you want to know more about how to get in touch with them; the process is a little different from just walking into your local shelter. We met some amazing dogs there. I even thought one or two of them could be "the one," but Grace pointed out some issues that we probably weren't prepared to deal with at this stage in our lives (i.e. extremely high energy, not house-trained, etc.). So while we left feeling like we most likely hadn't met our dog yet, it was still a great visit, and we got to donate some of Casper's items to be used by dogs in need. We loved that.
After leaving Downtown Dog Rescue, the one other thing Grace and I wanted to accomplish that day was to go by the West LA Animal Shelter, where we adopted Casper, to bring the volunteers flowers and just to tell them about Casper and how much we appreciate the work they do. We drove over to that side of town and picked up a flower arrangement on the way. As we were arriving at the shelter, Grace took a wrong turn and ended up on the back side of the facility, where the staff/volunteer parking lot is located. Right at that moment, Grace sees a car pull up to the parking lot--and she recognizes the driver. It was the same volunteer who helped us adopt Casper! She is an older, no-nonsense lady who loves animals more than anything and demands that they be respected. When we were first looking at Casper (at age 23 and 24--haha!) she told us we weren't ready. It kind of rubbed us the wrong way (even though WE weren't sure we were ready, either), but after Grace visited every day for a week to prove herself, she trusted Grace and gave her blessing over the adoption. She told Grace, "just remember, this is another heartbeat." That always stuck with both of us, even though we never saw that lady again. Until today.
We walked into the lobby of the shelter with the flowers, and the volunteer lady came in at the same time. We walked over to her, saying that she might not remember us, but we adopted an older dog here a few years ago and we wanted to bring flowers in his memory since he recently passed away. We showed her a picture. She started crying. "Yes, I do remember that dog. I always wondered how his life turned out." We told her about how he had seen the whole state--Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Big Sur, San Diego, the Bay Area, etc. We were all tearing up. Then the lady asked us, "Are you ready for your next dog?" We hesitated--"kind of! We are JUST starting to look; we really just want to meet some dogs and ease into it." She said "okay, look around, take your time. You've been here before. But when you're ready, I have a special dog for you to meet."
I kind of knew it was all over as soon as she said that. She pointed him out to us. His name in the shelter was Teddy, and he'd been there for almost a year. He was roughly 6 years old. He had a special sign on his kennel to help people notice him, just like Casper did (I included a photo of it below). In the picture, he's wearing a red bandanna. Casper always wore a red bandanna. And in the back corner of his kennel is a black Kong. Casper had the EXACT same kind, and it was his favorite toy. Looking around, we noticed that this dog was the only one in the shelter with a Kong in his kennel. That's a weird coincidence, we thought.
We walked around and looked at other dogs. There were some really sweet ones. Though it's sad to see them in such small spaces without a lot to occupy them or keep them happy, we kept saying what good "energy" this shelter had, as silly as that may sound. Memories started flooding back--the spot where I took the first photo of Grace and Casper, the play area where we first took him out and played fetch. It was bittersweet but special to remember those first visits with him. But during all of this, we kept thinking about this dog that the volunteer pointed out to us. She knew we were open to an older dog, that we were used to a medium to low energy dog, and that we took a lot of road trips. What could it hurt to take him out of his kennel and meet him? So we did. My palms actually started sweating, I was so excited to meet this dog. He ran up to us in the play yard and stretched his legs, taking interest in a few toys that were on the ground but mostly just taking in his surroundings and meeting us. All the while, volunteers are singing this dog's praises. One even showed us a video on her phone of him performing an agility course! He was amazing, so fast and strong. But also so gentle and timid. Even though we were used to Casper's issues with other dogs and were open to a dog with "issues" again, we come to find out that this dog is actually the one the shelter would use for "temperament testing" to check whether other dogs were okay around dogs, since he was so friendly and mellow. They even introduced him to a cat in front of us and he was fine! Grace looks at me over the dog's head and her eyes are dancing. She nods quickly and I "give the signal" back. This was the one.
But, we were really not prepared to get a dog THAT day. We had already donated all of Casper's stuff, so we had literally no supplies--no bed, no collar or leash, etc. We had been thinking that when we found "our dog," we would sleep on it for a couple of days and do 1-2 additional visits while we got everything ready for him. But when we expressed that to the volunteers, they explained something we hadn't realized. This particular weekend all of the dogs at the shelter were completely free to adopt. They said that while this is a great promotion, it sometimes backfires in that the wrong people adopt a dog. After hearing about the life we gave Casper, they REALLY wanted us to take this dog, especially given that he was the volunteers' favorite and they wanted him to experience a real home. What's more, this dog had already been adopted by the wrong person once and GIVEN BACK a month later to a high-kill shelter! The West LA shelter had spent another month trying to get him back and save him from being euthanized for overcrowding. As soon as we thought about the fact that someone else could swoop in and get "our dog" on a weekend when they see a high turnover rate because the dogs are free, we knew we had to take him right then and there.
The only other problem was that we didn't have a leash and collar to take him home with, which was obviously necessary. However, a sweet volunteer let us borrow her leash and collar and told us that her daughter owned a pet store just down the street. She suggested that we use her leash and collar to go to the pet store, buy our own, and then leave the loaner with her daughter so she could get it back. As we were getting everything ready for the adoption, volunteers started crowding around, tears in their eyes to see this sweet dog get a forever home. We told them about our plans to drive to Alaska and they started digging out supplies, wanting to send us off with coats for him, beds, etc. They didn't end up finding a coat that fit perfectly, but we told them we had plenty of time before September to get him outfitted. They gave us email addresses, wanting us to send photos of him in Alaska and Canada. We were surrounded by love, and we felt so sure that this pup was meant to be ours--in fact, that Casper had anointed him just for us.
Waiting in line to officially sign the adoption papers, we realized that we needed a name. His name was Teddy in the shelter, but I didn't love it for him. I know a (very sweet) dog named Teddy, but he is VERY different from our dog, and it seemed weird for them to have the same name. To top it off, Grace's brother once had a ferret named Teddy that met a very sad demise . . . so the name just wasn't doing it for us. I pulled out my phone, where I'd been making a list of potential girl and boy dog names. Following our RuPaul experience from the day after Casper died (read here if you don't know the story), we were pretty sure that our next dog would be named Ru. But when we met this dog, he just didn't seem like a Ru. We even tried calling him Ru at the shelter to see what he thought, but he was not into it. We considered a few others, including Earnest and Tag, but they weren't right, either. We thought harder. Grace said, "what about Billie?" The lady volunteer who led us to both Casper and this dog is named Billie, so what if we named this dog in her honor? But I didn't really love it for a boy; I thought it was darling as a girl name. Then Grace said, "well how about Willie? Like Willie Nelson? We're getting 'On the Road Again' with our next dog." I instantly loved it. It's a nod to Billie, our shelter guardian angel, and I love the "On the Road Again" idea. We even realized another little connection--Free Willie (though spelled differently than the movie), since he was free at the shelter. On the drive home, we played and sung along to "On the Road Again," and our Willie loved it. The name was perfect. His full name is "Willie Nelson Baldridge" (Grace's last name).
Later, after naming Willie, we had another moment kind of like the RuPaul story--a coincidence that we knew couldn't be a coincidence. I'll try to make this one short. After Casper died, Grace's amazing dad sent me a book as a birthday gift, called The Gospel According to Sam. It's written by Father Bill Miller, and it's about the experience of loving, and eventually losing, a dog named Sam, and the spiritual lessons that came along with that. It's a wonderful book. During the process of grieving, Grace would read aloud to me passages from the book while I was cooking dinner for us. It has some amazing stories, and we were so taken with Sam, a dog we never even met. Well, Grace's dad didn't mention this when he sent the book, but he actually knows the author personally (as they are both ordained in the Episcopal Church, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised). Grace wasn't aware that her dad knew the author either. A little while after we adopted Willie, I messaged Grace's dad to thank him for the book. He told me that Father Bill, the author, actually came to stay with him and Grace's mom in Belgium after Sam (the dog) died. Then, he casually threw in--"by the way, this isn't in the book, but Bill's new dog is also named Willie Nelson." WHAT?! I about fell out of my chair when I read that. Grace and I had no way of knowing that when we named Willie. I racked my brain for ways we might have subliminally gotten the idea for using it as a dog's name through Grace's dad or something, but there's zero chance because Grace and I had no clue. Plus, Grace had independently been listening to a lot of (the singer) Willie Nelson around the time we adopted Willie, so it's a true coincidence. And yet, of course it's not. It's meant to be, and it's another sign that we are on the right path with this dog, even though we have no idea where we're going, still wading in a sea of sadness and shock from losing Casper. But "coincidences" like this one give us strength.
From day one, he has made me laugh so hard. He's a quirky, special guy, and we are so excited for everything to come with him. It's so strange and funny that he's coming with us to Alaska--a trip we meticulously planned for Casper. But it feels right. Grace keeps saying, "Willie, you hit the jackpot! Get excited for your all expenses paid trip to Canada and Alaska!"
In the meantime, we are getting to know each other better and better. After being the shelter for so long, it makes sense that Willie would need some time to come out of his shell. He's shy but so, so sweet. He's already made some dog friends--it's a weird experience introducing your dog to other dogs and letting them play when your last dog could never do that due to abuse and aggression issues. But it's special, too. We're lucky. We LOVE shelter dogs and feel that it is so right for us to adopt an older dog. Willie came to us house-trained, socialized, and we've barely heard a peep out of him in terms of barking or whining. But it is different than just getting a puppy (I think it's better!). For that reason, and because we are still feeling so tender about losing Casper, we have taken our time introducing him to people, and I've stayed pretty quiet about the adoption until now. But as he adjusts to his new life and as we get to know him better, I have a feeling he is going to be Mister Popular. He's truly a GOOD dog.
I can't overstate the mix of emotions, the raw feelings, the highs and lows, and the beauty of the experience of losing Casper and adopting Willie in such a short span of time. On our first full day with Willie, I sobbed, feeling like I was going to tear my hair out at the thought of never seeing Casper's face again in this lifetime (this has been a thought that has haunted me since he's died; I don't know why I'm having such a hard time accepting it). Me having an emotional meltdown had nothing to do with Willie--it's just that I'm very much still grieving Casper. In fact, it helped a lot to have a dog to snuggle when I was feeling so sad. I KNOW that it's right for us to have adopted Willie when we did. Casper picked him out for us. But I will admit, the timing is funny and confusing. Such is life.
One of the first times I was alone with Willie, I just stared at him, and he silently stared back with huge golden eyes. As I looked at him, I thought, "Oh, Willie. Look at you. I don't even know you yet, and I've already accepted the fact that you're going to wiggle your way into my heart more and more with every day that passes. We're going to drive thousands of miles and have countless adventures together. Am I going to hold you across my lap as you take your last breath; am I going to have to find the strength to lift you on your last day when you can't walk anymore, like Casper? Am I going to cry a hundred thousand tears once you're gone?"
It's too much to wrap my head around right now, this ebb and flow, change and consistency, circles of life, and love of dogs. But here we are, on the road again, with Willie Nelson Baldridge."