I felt her wet nose against mine as I blinked open my brownish-green eyes. I was staring into the face of an 8-week-old, precious baby girl with a red bow around her neck. She was the best Christmas present I had ever received in my seven years on this big planet.
For the next 16 years, I had so many beautiful memories shared with Coco May. She was the most stubborn dog I have ever known, but she was my little girl. We celebrated her birthday every year, she got Christmas treats, and she was our "Cokie Girl." She became part of our family. A few years after getting Coco, my family got me a 2-year-old cat named Jen, and she fit right in with Coco, and us.
Growing up with these two well into my 20s was a gift I never knew was possible to receive. For anyone who has ever loved and formed a bond with a pet, you understand the way they can make your heart swell with joy, or the comfort they give by sitting in your lap and letting you know they are your number one fan. Although they are no longer a part of my life, I have learned many things from two of my childhood pets.
1. They will always, always, always be there for you -- even when the rest of the world forgets you.
In seventh grade when I tried out for the volleyball team and oh, so gracefully failed to make it (and by graceful, let's just say I kept Kleenex in business with all my tears), Coco sat by my side. Sure, everyone gave me an, "Oh, sweetie, it'll be okay," or "You'll get 'em next year!" But Coco just understood. She was just there, and she was what I needed. And time and time again, through trials and disappointments, this same scenario played out.
2. They stay constant.
Despite the fact that maybe everything around me was shattering like glass against the hardwoods, Coco and Jen didn't change. Jen still loved me when my family split apart, Coco ran around the backyard joyfully while I went through dark times, and they didn't leave me despite each boyfriend that came and went. With the ever-changing world around me, Coco and Jen stayed constant; they stayed dependable.
3. They never judge.
And they don't backstab. (Well, unless they want the chicken sitting on your plate. Then, all bets are off.) They stay loyal, they accept you, and they love you unconditionally -- in spite of your flaws.
4. You learn a sense of responsibility.
As a young girl, my parents usually did the feeding, bathing, and "caring" for the pets, although I was a wonderful assistant. As I got older, there were times when I had to start feeding the pets when I got home, or looking after them in the absence of my parents. You start realizing how much they depend on you once you start caring for them, and you learn how to stop being so selfish and focused only on yourself.
5. They teach you not to sweat the small stuff (as much).
Coco's main concern in this world was meal time. Jen wanted to make sure she was given enough love. Other than that, they didn't have a care in the world. I, however, used to worry about Coco eating something that would make her sick, or something bad happening to Jen. One day, Coco managed to eat an entire bag of chocolate chip muffins, and Jen got loose in the neighborhood. While yes, both situations could have turned out poorly, they didn't. Coco was fine, and Jen was captured within a minute of her escape. I learned from these types of situations that there was nothing I could do to control the outcome. Life happens, and we learn to start letting it happen and stop trying to control everything in it.
Now, if only I could sunbathe without a care all day the way Jen can, we'd really be talking.
6. You learn that sometimes you just need to be present.
My pets wouldn't always want me to smother them with love and affection, but it was important to them that I showed up, watched TV in the same room as them while they lay peacefully on the couch, or was just around.
It's shown me that maybe there are times when I, too, just need to be present in the lives of those around me. Just as a pet needs to know I'm there, so do the people in my life. Even if it's not a 24/7 thing, it's nice to make known that you are there for the people you care about.
7. Letting go is really, really hard.
Losing Coco and Jen as an adult was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. They were both there with me when my family was a family, and they were both there with me when it wasn't anymore. They were by my side through many addictions, many achievements, many heart breaks, many betrayals, and many, many let downs. Losing them was like losing the last bit of my youth, my innocence. The last piece of my childhood seemed to leave when we said goodbye to them.
But losing them never means they are gone. They lived wonderful, long, happy lives, and they gave so much joy to anyone around them. The memories I hold of them will last with me forever, and the lessons I learned will stick with me too. I'm so grateful for the wonderful years I had with them, and I wouldn't trade them, or the lessons they taught me, for the world.