Big news, y’all: Angel just turned four!

Obviously, I had to share the adorable puppy photos—but I also wanted to share why I’ve been looking forward to her fourth birthday ever since I got her, and why I named her Angel.

Here’s the first time Angel and I ever met. She was only four weeks old! She had lots of siblings, and I didn’t know yet that this puppy was going to be my puppy. Rather, this was the day I decided I wanted to do business with this particular breeder. Regardless, I’m delighted I have such an early photo of me and Angel.

Three weeks later, we met again, and this time I was there to select my puppy. The breeder brought them out a few at a time. Angel was in the first batch. She wore a teal ribbon.

While her siblings romped and played, the puppy with the teal ribbon planted her tail under the dining room table and observed the chaos from a distance. Her siblings tried to pull her into the fun, but she refused. I found her crabby, stand-offish attitude adorable.

Even as the breeder added more and more puppies to the pile, I found my eye returning consistently to the aloof one.

“I think that’s the one,” I finally admitted.

The woman grinned knowingly. “It’s usually the first one you were drawn to.”

I picked up the puppy with the teal ribbon, and—well, you can see for yourself whether I made the right choice.

“What are you going to name her?” the breeder asked.

As I held my puppy, whom I would bring home in a week, I realized that the name I’d had in mind was, in fact, the right name.

“Angel,” I said.

I had a dog before Angel. Her name was Molly. Molly and I met when I was volunteering at my local humane society, back when I lived in North Dakota. Ever since I was a little girl, I’d dreamed of owning a Golden Retriever. But Molly expressed to me in no uncertain terms that she was my dog.

She was half German Shepherd, half Rottweiler. And she was right; she was meant to be my dog. Swiftly, we became soulmates, and everyone at the shelter knew it.

I eventually brought her home with me—back when “home” was still with my mother and step-father. By that time, they had been emotionally and psychologically abusing me for over twenty years, using homeschooling to keep me isolated during my childhood and guilt to keep me obedient even into adulthood. Even though they had spent a lifetime creating obstacles that would make it difficult for me to finally step out on my own—brainwashing, gaslighting, and belittling high on that list—I still wasn’t aware that what was going on was abuse. I thought we had our differences, but I had fallen to the careful conditioning that it was my sole duty to make my mother happy.

Molly was my bedrock during that time. She was the only living thing who knew how to love me—freely and unconditionally—and the only living thing I loved in return.

She saved my life in more ways than one.

One day in my mid-twenties, I stood on the edge of a bridge, staring into a river. I had grown increasingly frustrated with the obstacles my parents put between me and my own adulthood—making it hard for me to get a driver’s license and shooting down every career idea I thought of pursuing. I was desperate for a way out, but they were blocking my paths. I asked myself why I shouldn’t jump. I went down a list of reasons to keep on living, but none of them mattered to me anymore. Not even my dream of becoming a writer. My characters felt cold and unreachable to me—and that’s when I knew I was in trouble. I was now fighting daily with suicidal ideation—and this, at last, looked like the moment.

The pull to simply end my life and my misery felt like sweet relief—and I had nothing with which to fight back against the overwhelming desire.

Until I thought of Molly.

I couldn’t abandon her. Without me, she would probably live with my mother, where love was only dished out in response to how happy you kept her.

I’d had a cat who was old and dying. My mother had found her illness inconvenient. When I wasn’t home, she locked my cat in a cold basement room, alone—despite the fact that my cat was now tiny and frail and incapable of regulating her own body temperature.

I couldn’t abandon Molly to a life like that.

Instead of jumping, I collapsed beside the bridge railing, crying. And then I picked myself up and swore once again that I would find a way out for Molly and me.

Eventually, I did. In the end, it was simple: I let go of the all-consuming need to keep my mother happy. I did what was right for me.

The relief I felt to be in my own apartment, forty miles from “home,” was immense. But so was the healing process ahead of me. As I came face-to-face with the trauma and abuse I had endured, I fell into depression and anorexia. During that time, I once went an entire month eating nothing but a glass of juice for breakfast and a cup of yogurt for supper.

I finally reached out for help. I admitted to new neighbors, who were concerned about me, that I wasn’t all right. They took me in like their own daughter. They told me I should go to therapy, and I did. They had me over for dinner almost every night and in doing so, ensured I had at least one square meal a day. I found a doctor who walked me out of anorexia.

But the person who most helped me to overcome my eating disorder was Molly. She figured out that she got to lick the plate when I was done. If, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I wasn’t in the kitchen cooking, then like clockwork, Molly position herself in the kitchen doorway.

“Awrrrooo!” she would howl in her deep baritone, and finish it with a snort and a shake of her head.

She would maintain this eager protest until I got up and filled a plate. While I ate, she sat right by my side. As soon as I was done, she cleaned my plate, eyes bright with joy.

And so, she saved my life again. She didn’t even know everything she was doing to help me. I was blessed with an extensive support network at the time. But Molly was the coach who, paws on the ground, enforced better eating habits for me three times a day. Eventually, those habits became my norm, and I can say that I’ve beat anorexia, thanks to her.

Molly and I eventually moved to Montana, where we became mountain adventurers and added Charles to our pack.

Molly decided that Charles was worthy of my affection, and that he was the right person to eventually carry the torch for her. She was, by now, an old dog.

She was remarkably active in her senior years, and I’d assumed I’d have much longer with her.

When her health did turn for the worse, she declined rapidly.

We took her to the vet on a particularly bad day. We agreed to try to make her comfortable and run some tests. I kissed her good-bye, well aware that it could be our last good-bye. Molly looked at me with worried eyes, and I knew what she was afraid of.

She knew something was wrong with her, but she was refusing to abandon me—just as I had refused to abandon her.

So I leaned down and whispered in her ear. “It’s okay to let go. I love you, and there isn’t a day we spent together that I regret. But when you get to the other side, you still have one more job to do for me.”

From where she lay on the exam table, she looked up into my eyes intently, listening.

“I need you to help me find my next dog,” I said. “Because I don’t know where to start.” Filling Molly’s pawprints was going to be no small undertaking.

Molly got a determined look in her eye, the way she did whenever I gave her a task. She knew what she had to do. She could now look ahead without fear—even though we both knew what lay that direction.

Charles and I went home. Later, I decided to go to my office to distract myself.

As I was driving, I felt my heart pound three times hard—followed by a sense of release and relief. Five minutes later, my vet called to say that Molly had passed.

“I know,” I said, crying.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about her, mourning her passing, and thanking her for the life-changing time we’d had together.

The next day, I told Charles I wanted another dog.

“Oh, good,” he said. “I was trying to figure out how to tell you—you need a dog.”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I turned most of the American Northwest upside down in my search. Humane societies, German Shepherd rescues, breeders—I explored them all. I eventually decided to get a puppy, because their ever-developing personality would prevent me from unfairly comparing them to Molly. In the end, I was surprised to settle on a breeder only a few hours from home.

“What are you going to name her?” the breeder asked as I cuddled my new puppy.

“Angel,” I said.

Because what else do you name a puppy your last dog sent to you from the other side?

Aside from looks, Angel is nothing like Molly. Where Molly was stoic and wise, Angel is a goof who still embraces her puppy-like shenanigans. The Rottweiler side of Molly’s heritage tempered her energy. Angel is pure German Shepherd (and a descendent of a world champion in Schutzhund, to boot), so she is all go all the time.

However, Angel still likes to sit and stare when she feels overwhelmed, confused, or merely curious—the same as when she was seven weeks old. And slowly, her innate protective instinct is maturing. She’s learning that she doesn’t have to bark her head off at every new person. I’m teaching her Molly’s ways—that a shared glance will tell me all I need to know.

Today, both Angel and my cat Fergus are designated as my Emotional Support Animals, meaning they’re recognized as a key element of my mental healthcare, and any rental where Charles and I might hope to live are required to allow them.

Angel and Fergus both excel at their jobs. When the depression and anxiety are so overwhelming I can’t get out of bed, they curl up with me, their bodies touching mine for comfort. Fergus heads up reminding me that I should eventually get up and feed the both of them. Angel is in charge of outdoor playtime and daily sunshine—and, as noted, shenanigans.

And now, Angel is four—the same age that Molly was when she and I met. Somehow, this birthday feels extra special.

So, Happy Birthday, Angel.

And thank you, Molly, for helping me find her. You did a good job.

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