Jeneé Osterheldt

I had to say goodbye to my loving dog, Charli Brown, and my heart aches

“It’s just a dog,” people told me.

They looked at me like it was wild that I would put my boxer Charli Brown in day care or leave parties to take her on a walk. I had men expect me to choose them over her.

But people are mad that way. People wouldn’t understand a dog’s love until they experience it.

You know my dog stopped to smell the flowers? Literally. Charli Brown, my beautiful boxer baby, never met a flower she didn’t stick her nose in. Bee stings, pollen and not even a crazy cat kept her from admiring their beauty.

Maybe it’s that determination to appreciate life that changed me. When my ex-boyfriend put her in my arms 12 years ago and told me I needed her, I didn’t know he was saving my life. I didn’t know she was saving my life.

But Charli Brown, with her soulful brown eyes and lean legs and irresistible cuddles, made me a better human. She taught me to slow down. She showed me what it meant to be loved unconditionally. Few humans are always happy to see you and never get mad at you for longer than two minutes. We live in a country where folk like to rage and rush.

My friends used to joke that I had to leave the club early and schedule my life so that I could take care of a dog. But truly, she was taking care of me, ensuring I didn’t become too self-involved or cold to the world the way you can when you’re young and making money in your 20s with no family around to ground you.

I was 25 when she climbed up my shoulder and nestled that pink pig nose in my neck. I was 25 when she became my shadow and followed me everywhere. Even places one shouldn’t be followed. I quit closing bedroom and bathroom doors and put up baby gates instead. She just wanted to know I was OK. She loved me like a mama loves her child. And I loved her that same way.

People hide behind screen names and count text messages as a relationship. Not dogs. They love you out loud.

The truth is, I think I saw the loneliest parts of myself in that dog. She wanted to love everyone and to be loved in return. Nothing made her sad face happy like a hug. She gave me family at a time when I didn’t have any family in a city full of new friends. Kansas City didn’t feel like home until she pranced into my life like a posh little pony.

I had love to come home to. Do you know what that feels like to someone who didn’t grow up with stability? A blessing.

And now she’s gone. We had a lot of scares, me and my boxer girl. She’d beat cancer and tumors and managed a heart condition. She lived six years longer than one doctor said she would. But on Sunday, June 4, I got a phone call.

I had taken my first trip out of the country, to Aruba, to celebrate a friend’s 10-year wedding anniversary. Something I may have never done had this dog not come in my life and showed me how to smell the flowers. A frantic voice on the other end told me Charli Brown had been rushed to the hospital.

Another call came in. This time, a vet. Charli had fainted. Charli was having a hard time breathing. Her stomach was swollen. A test showed fluid around her heart. A test showed her stomach had twisted. Only an emergency surgery might fix it. But with her heart condition and overall health, surgery wasn’t an option. The inevitable ending I knew was coming had drop-kicked me in the throat.

So it was a Sunday, over FaceTime, when I told my boxer girl thank you. I cried as I forced the words out and let her know she helped give me the strength to get up and out of the bed when my marriage failed, when my mother died and when I had to move across the country and transition into life here at Harvard University for my yearlong fellowship.

God worked through her. There were days she would nudge me out of bed, pulling at the blanket. There were times she barked and held her own doggy conversation with me until I snapped out of the funk and took her on a long walk, tossed a ball or cuddled. No one could spoon you like Charli Lola Brown. She radiated love.

I think that’s why people loved her. I was walking her one day in North Kansas City some years ago, and a car drove by and stopped. The driver yelled, “Is that Charli Brown?” It was a neighbor of mine from when I lived downtown. He remembered her when she was a puppy and was so happy to see her. This was not rare for Charli Brown. People were always stopping and talking to her and remembering meeting her at brunches and doggy happy hours and parks.

We could chalk it up to her many appearances in The Star. Except her popularity continued here in Cambridge, Mass. Even at Harvard, the girl had a following.

The concierge team in my building stopped to pet her every single day. They gave her treats. When she wasn’t by my side they asked where their girl was. Even people who don’t like dogs liked Charli Brown.

This pup was magic. And now I’ll never hear the trot of her feet across the hardwood floor. She’ll never drag the pillows and blankets around and build the perfect bed. I won’t get to see her wrestle my younger pup, Peppermint Patty, into submission over a squeaker or watch her deconstruct a stuffed animal with the mastery of a seamstress.

Just as she tore apart toy bunnies and bears, she stitched together tears and rips in my soul. She was always giving me gifts. A year ago in May, I stood in a hospital room and held my mom’s hand while she died. I was alone. I don’t know if I would have had the strength to do the same with Charli. I think she knew that.

People like to say, “It’s just a dog.” But that’s because a dog’s love is too big for this world. It’s why they are here for only a short while.

I said goodbye to my Charli Brown. But for her, I’ll always keep flowers in the house and a door in my heart open. Because that’s the way people should love.

Jeneé Osterheldt is on leave at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism program at Harvard University. Email: Twitter: @jeneeinkc