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Aimlessly Navigating: Missing my best friend

Globe reporter Alyssa Sobotka with her former dog, Princess.

I don’t have any tattoos. I’ll admit that it comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as someone in my mid-20s and during a time when they’re far more acceptable than they once were.

In my mind, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having tattoos. It’s just that I hadn’t ever experienced wanting something permanently etched into my skin.

That changed two years ago when I tragically lost my best friend.

I remember stepping foot into a small animal shelter in October 2016 in Wahoo, Neb., where I formerly worked and lived for a year just out of college.  

Princess was the first dog that I laid eyes on — or rather, she was the first dog to lay her big, brown eyes on me. She was laying on the cool floor and never bothered to get up at my presence, but she had this big, goofy grin for me as she looked up at me.

She watched me exit the room to visit the other dogs in kennels — a sight I’m sure she’d seen more than a time or two before. I walked from cage to cage visiting what I don’t doubt were very special dogs, waiting to be loved by a family again, but I didn’t feel the same connection I had with the big dog nicely lying in her kennel up front.

I’d gone in hoping to find a medium-sized dog and came home with a 110-pound lug of love.

I admit that I was initially a little concerned about her size, considering I was renting a very tiny house with a small yard that bore no fencing. I was accustomed to strictly outdoor-only pets — or “farm dogs.”

She quickly reassured me through her actions that she didn’t require much space, as she preferred jumping up on my lap when I sat as if she was a 15-pound “lap dog” and not the “horse” that she truly was. She always wanted to be touching me, whether we were sitting on the couch watching TV, sleeping in our shared (still not sure how I let that happen) bed or lying on a blanket in the grass flipping through a magazine. Her favorite place to sleep was in the crook of my armpit with a paw resting over my belly. I gave her plenty of attention, but if I didn’t, she’d be sure to let me know by placing her gigantic paw on my thigh.

We did everything together, so it wasn’t a big surprise when I loaded her up for a spur-of-the-moment camping trip one weekend. We headed about  two hours east of where I was living in Nebraska. I wasn’t meeting anyone, but I was never alone with Princess — who was always up for whatever adventure. She quickly made friends with our camping neighbors in the park, and enjoyed chasing the ball.

It was what turned out to be the perfect last evening together of a bond that ended too quickly. In the morning I frantically rushed her to Des Moines, Iowa to an emergency animal clinic, where I made quick decisions to try anything to save her after experiencing Gastric Dilation Volvulus (her tummy twisted as a result of too much gas). When it became clear to me that she’d never enjoy the same life again — considering she’d even survive surgery — I hysterically gave the vet team permission to put her down.

My dad and brother made the five-plus hour trek out to retrieve me and Princess so she could be buried at my parents’ Nebraska farm, where she loved to visit. Her final resting place is designated with a concrete stone that my dad’s hired hand formed in the shape of a dog bone and etched her name in it.

In the days, weeks and months to come I had a hard time overcoming the loss. No matter what I did, I was constantly reminded of her absence.

It was during this time that I added a “sixth” stage to the notorious five stages of grief. The “guilt” stage was the hardest and most painful. Despite what the veterinarians told me, I blamed myself for a long while for her death. I was her protector, and I let her down.

It was throughout my stages of grief that I seriously considered getting my first tattoo to honor her memory. I knew exactly what it would look like and what it would say. However, I resisted, not wanting to act on impulse for something as permanent as a tattoo. The thought then was that if I let a year go by and still felt I wanted it, I could get it on the anniversary of her death. The first year came and went, and Monday will mark year two.

While I still don’t have anything inked into my skin, Princess’ memory lives on in many other forms. Her dog tags continue to jingle on my car visor, photos of us are in my home and a prayer plant gifted to me by the adopting agency’s coordinator still provide constant reminders that her love continues two years after she crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

It’s been said that it’s unknown who needed who more — Princess needed me or I needed her. I’m sure the latter is true.

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