TENNIS BALLS FROM HEAVEN
Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne
I never really believed in heaven. As a child, I can remember lying in bed at night pondering forever and trying to wrap my head around dying and then existing in heaven for infinity. That didn’t sound so appealing. I’m a black and white kind of gal. I like a clear beginning and ending to things, so infinity isn’t a concept that my mind enjoys exploring. It wasn’t until my 11-year-old lab, Darby, died this past January that I wanted heaven to be.
Darby got sick just before Christmas. He was diagnosed with liver cancer, and the prognosis was grim. We did a shot of chemotherapy, steroids, anti-nausea meds and appetite stimulants, and we cooked homemade meals for him, all in an effort to keep him comfortable for the little bit of time he had left. We spent one last Christmas together; he even rallied that week and took a three-mile walk with us. He had a little surge, and then it was clear that he was fading fast. Our vet told us that Darby would let us know when it was time to say goodbye, and he did the first weekend in January.
On Monday morning, we made the appointment for later that afternoon. That day, we lay on the bed together, me wrapped around him, and I told him the story of us. I told him about the first day we met and how he jumped right up and kissed me. How he ran so fast that his leash caught and he did a back flip in the air. We talked about his first big splash in my mom’s swimming pool. I reminded him about the time he took off at breakneck speed to chase a after a black bear. I laughed thinking about him trying to catch snowflakes in his mouth. And I cried remembering how he never left my side when I would lie devastated over failed attempts to have a baby. When we moved to our house in Bluffton, he bounded through the front door and ran room to room, window to window, checking out each view. We talked about our many sandbar excursions and how he would swim right next to me. I asked him why he chose to never play fetch. I thanked him for being my best friend when I became single again. I reminded him how he scared the heck out of me when he got bit by a copperhead and his head swelled exponentially and how much I loved sharing the lounge chair in the backyard and soaking up sun. I talked about the hundreds and hundreds of walks we’d taken and the thousands of miles we traveled together on foot. I told him goodbye and asked him to visit me every now and then. He snuggled in close, rubbed his head on my chin and said his own goodbye.
^DARBY AT TEN YEARS OLD
How do you put your baby in the car and take him to die? It was one of the worst moments of my life. And wouldn’t you know it; he jumped into the backseat as if he was a puppy. When we got to the vet, they took him in the back to sedate him, and I wish I hadn’t let them. I can still hear him crying in the back, and it makes me angry.
They brought him back into the room, all doped up, and he collapsed into my lap. It kills me that those few moments in “the back” may be the last he remembers. I wrapped my arms around him as they administered the final dose. He slipped away almost immediately. When the doctor said, “He’s gone,” I lost it. This was my best friend, and now he was gone. I didn’t know how I could recover. I lay there on the floor, with Darby in my arms, undoubtedly in some dog pee and blood, not knowing how I would go on. I will never forget that moment. And I’ll never forget the look on the face of the little girl sitting in the lobby with her new golden retriever puppy as I walked out with mascara streaked cheeks.
The worst moments came when I would get home from work at night and look at the second floor window and see no Darby, hear no “woof” greeting. Walking alone was gut-wrenching. For weeks I waited for a sign from Darby. I wanted him to visit me in my dreams. As each day passed, I got more and more upset.
I want Darby back and as we started to talk about getting another dog, I of course, was on a search to find a new Darby. I needed a male dog. I needed a black lab. I needed a dog who gives kisses. I needed a dog that would cuddle in bed. I needed a dog that would cock his head to the left and look at me questioningly.
Knowing that thousands of dogs are euthanized annually in Beaufort Country alone, we were on a rescue mission. So we began our search with Lowcountry Lab Rescue (LLR), a 501© 3 animal welfare organization that rescues and rehomes stray and unwanted Labrador Retrievers from life-threatening situations. LLR takes in Labradors that are going to be euthanized in animal shelters because they are determined to be “unadoptable.” This could mean that the dog needs more medical care than the shelter can afford or that the dog needs obedience lessons or simply that the dog is black in color. (Black dogs are the last dogs to be adopted in animal shelters!)
Annually, LLR rescues and rehomes between 150 and 200 dogs and provide referrals through their social media network for countless additional dogs that would end up in shelters on death row.
LLR rescues these labs, evaluates their medical history, identifies any medical issues and treats the issues, and places the dogs in “foster” homes within their network of dozens of homes in the Lowcountry. The organization is 100 percent volunteer run, and their network runs deep. When I started following their Facebook page, it was puppy panoply.
We completed the adoption application and were approved. With so many dogs to choose from, I couldn’t make a decision, so I put it in my husband’s hands. Two days later, we were driving to Charleston to meet “Blue.” An hour later we were on our way home with 75 pounds of black lab, his ears blowing in the wind, and our foster parent paperwork on the dashboard. Together we were embarking on a two-week test period to see if Blue would choose us.
The folks at LLR told us that he was pretty chill. Doesn’t excite much. Well trained. He was the anti-Darby; I was surprised, but I kind of liked it. It wasn’t so bad having a dog that didn’t bark at every other dog, that didn’t sleep in bed between Dave and me, that didn’t want to chase the garbage truck or golf carts, and didn’t bark at my stepfather. But, I did miss the kisses. Blue’s disdain for dog toys was quickly evident; apparently he is too refined for such silliness. Fetch a ball? You fetch a ball, sister, I am comfortable here. Nope, Blue ran outside only to stop short and drop to the ground to feel the sun on his face. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. Two days into our two-week trial, we adopted him and celebrated with three cuts of filet.
Blue’s former family (we call them the “suck family”) had him for four years (rescued him through LLR, in fact) before they decided that they just didn’t want a dog anymore. So, they dropped him off at a kill-shelter. Blue was one hour from death when LLR stepped in. They were able to step in and take Blue, because they had a temporary foster home for him.
So, that got us thinking. How many other Blues are out there? How can we help? Timing was such that another “suck family” in Beaufort County decided they no longer wanted their pup of two years and dropped him off at Animal Control. Enter Jack, our current foster puppy.
Jumping Jack flash. Jack attack. Jack pot. Jackson!
Jack greeted me for the first time much in the way Darby did. He jumped up and planted a big ol’ wet one right on my smacker. Two nights later he crawled into bed with me. On our first walk past the golf course, he stopped, crouched down, and barked like crazy at a golf cart—and later at the garbage man.
Jack had a lot of Darby in him, and I was in love. After just a few days, I looked at my husband and thought how could we ever give him to someone else? He shook his head and really had no words. So, I reached out to fellow fosterer (and one of LLR’s chief volunteers), Janell Gregory for answers. How do you not get attached? She said …
“You do get attached Courtney. The beauty of it is seeing them live their happily ever after and knowing you gave them that chance. You will always get attached… what I think of is, I could have one dog for 15 years, or 15 dogs in one year. I would rather touch 15 lives and not have them than save just one life in 15 years. You did that for me when you took Blue, and you are doing it again for whoever ends up with Jack. You are a huge part of his happy ending. Get attached and stay attached; we’ll give you another one.”
I sobbed. (I’m sobbing again typing it. I imagine you’re sobbing reading it.)
I’m not one to believe in “signs.” But Jack did make me start wondering about why he found us. First Darby and the heaven debate, and now a dog has me thinking that everything may happen for a reason? The Earth must be off its axis.
Sitting in the backyard last weekend, Blue and I were sunbathing, and Jack was begging to play fetch. Finally a dog who wants to play fetch! I must have thrown the tennis ball for 30 minutes and finally said enough. But Jack was relentless; he kept picking it up and putting it on my chair. So eventually I gave it to Dave to put in the garage. Not one minute later, Jack drops another tennis ball in my lap. Where did he find that? Same drill. Put it in the garage. I settled back in my chair, sun on my face, and plop, another tennis ball. This happened 11 times. Jack found 11 tennis balls in the yard.
Allow me to mention again that Darby did not fetch. Blue does not fetch. And, I know I did not build this house on a former USTA training center. So, where the heck are the tennis balls coming from?
As “new” foster parents, who “failed” at our first attempt and adopted Blue within 48 hours, we continue to struggle with the question, should we make our home Jack’s forever home? Do we adopt him too? Then we remember Janell’s advice and know how happy Jack will make another family, and we take solace in the fact that we helped save his life.
But then he gives me a kiss. Or snuggles next to me on the couch. Or settles right into his crate when I grab my keys. Or sits at my feet as I blow dry my hair. Or barks a greeting from the upstairs window when I pull into the driveway. Or dances in circles when I grab the leash. And brings me another tennis ball. A tennis ball from heaven.
For more information on Lowcountry Lab Rescue and details on how to foster or adopt a pup, visit www.lowcountrylabrescue.org.