It came across my Facebook memories recently. Several years ago, when I was childless and disinterested in parenting anything other than Pit Bulls, I posted a picture of my beloved Pit mix, Bianca, smiling effusively into the camera. The caption read: “I doubt I could love a human baby this much.”
For 11 years, Bianca was the best friend I’d ever had. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I struggled to make sense of what happened to me. Between illogical guilt, crippling depression and rabid self loathing, surviving was an achievement.
During this time, Bianca was always there. Her soulful brown eyes told me everything I wanted to hear. She mothered me in ways I never knew could happen, loving me through my grief, rage and despair. She stayed with me when I drank myself into oblivion, cried myself to sleep and shattered things. Unlike my own inescapable presence, her constant companionship was a comfort. For as broken as I felt and as hard as I struggled to survive, I felt lucky that she was mine.
She did all the things for me that my family couldn’t. She didn’t minimize my experiences or the aftermath—she heard me. She validated my feelings, regardless of how horrible they were. She was always happy to see me. She was present. She kept me alive.
Bianca was often the only beauty I saw in the world. There were countless times I felt hopeless about my life, my ability to recover, my ability to survive. My love for her and the joy she brought me are the only things that kept me from taking my own life. Her goodness of spirit, coupled with the fact that she loved me unconditionally, told me on some level that I must not be as worthless as I felt.
When I became unexpectedly pregnant, I could barely manage. I was overcome with anxiety over the future, the pregnancy and my would-be relationship with my child. I wasn’t excited at all to be pregnant. All I felt was paralyzing terror. I knew having my child was the right decision for me, but I still didn’t welcome it. I was utterly terrified of all the changes it would bring.
To cope, I listened to endless hours of birth affirmations. I had them written and posted on the fridge and by my bedside. While I believed in their prospective efficacy, the thought I held closest to my heart was, “as long as Bianca’s there, I’ll be fine.” I planned a home birth in large part so she could be there with me.
For all of my wild fears about the unknown experience of childbirth, I knew having Bianca there would make it okay. And she would make motherhood okay, too, because she would still be there. She would be with me through the endless, lonely nights I’d been warned about. She would be there when the company left. She would be there when it was just me and my tiny, completely helpless and dependent baby. She would be happy to add a baby to our daily walks.
She would make everything okay.
One gorgeous spring day while my then-fiancé was out of town, Bianca and I set out for our regular two-mile walk in our favorite park. About a quarter of a mile into our walk, Bianca suddenly stopped. I tried to coax her into continuing for a few feet and then saw it wasn’t going to happen. I turned around to head back to the car, but she didn’t want to come with me. I tried to pick her up and carry her back, but I couldn’t manage her 60-pound self on my rotund seven-and-a-half-month pregnant frame. I was becoming increasingly worried. Thankfully, a stranger offered to sit with her while I ran back to get my car to race to the nearest emergency animal clinic.
It took less than 10 minutes for me to get to my car and return to the spot where I’d left her, and I flung my car into park haphazardly by the sidewalk. As I raced to Bianca, who lay motionless on the sidewalk, the woman sitting with her looked at me and shook her head no. I ran to Bianca’s side and began talking to her and stroking her. She looked into my eyes, gave the tiniest tail wag and died. Tiny droplets of vivid red blood sprayed the sidewalk by her nose.
I wrapped my arms around her body in the middle of the busy park sidewalk, sobbing. People stepped around us while I wailed. After a while, I called a dear friend to come help me. He worked as a vet tech and graciously took her body away. I found out later she had a heart attack, something I hadn’t even known could affect dogs.
In the weeks that followed, I was inconsolable. I had no idea how I would get through labor without Bianca. I had to trust that even though she was gone physically, she was still with me.
After my daughter was born, I struggled to adjust to motherhood and my lost sense of self. I didn’t have any friends with children, and the ones I managed to speak with didn’t leave me feeling supported or understood. I’d always thought Bianca would be the thread that carried me from one phase of life to another. But it wasn’t her physical presence that helped me through it in the end. It was love, and what she taught me about it.
When I didn’t feel head-over-heels in love with my baby at first sight like the conventional rhetoric said I would, I remembered that I hadn’t fallen in love with Bianca at once, either. My love for her grew slowly as we got to know each other. That knowledge helped me understand how normal my feelings for my baby were and helped me know that one day, just as I had with Bianca, I would find myself in love with my baby like I was “supposed” to be.
Even in her death, Bianca was helping me, mothering me.
Losing Bianca didn’t make me a perfect mother, but it did teach me the importance of being present. When my daughter has temper tantrums and screams for me to leave, I think of Bianca, who calmly sat with me when I screamed and threw things, and I try to act similarly. More often than not, my daughter settles down and we calmly discuss our feelings before moving on feeling stronger and more connected than before.
Because I know how much Bianca and I thrived on the unconditional love we received from each other, I make it a point to tell my daughter two things Bianca taught me every day: Nothing you do could ever make me stop loving you. And I love you more every day.
Turns out, I could love a human baby as much as I love Bianca.
Appalachian born and bred, Brook Bolen is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Guardian, Salon, Reader’s Digest, and more.