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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

The short, magic life of our puppy, Punkin Bleu

Updated: Dec 9, 2023

In October 2020, Punkin Bleu waddled into our hearts. Before she ever laid a paw in our home, we loved her. She was perfect from the beginning. She was perfect when we said goodbye.

By and large, dogs are wonderful companions that make every day a little bit better. Any dog owner will attest to that. But others, they are magic. They arrive in our lives in moments of hurt or pain or emptiness. They salve open wounds and quiet hidden demons. Punkin was that kind of dog. 

In just under 1,000 days, Punkin fixed things in me I did not know were broken or had no idea how to correct. Parts of me shattered and twisted over the years healed. Her gentle soul fixed sharp, broken edges inside me. That was her magic.

Even though Punkin arrived during the COVID pandemic, she was not a pandemic puppy. My wife and I spent three years thinking about bringing another dog into our family after her 17-year-old lhasa apso-beagle mix crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2017. Lori spent months researching breeds and looking at pictures online. We saved money and served as dogsitters. When we drove to Idaho State University to visit our daughter, we scheduled a visit with a trusted breeder in Grand Junction.

Nothing in this world is more adorable than a pack of French Bulldog puppies. It is a swarming mass of distended bellies, squat legs, and wrinkly faces. All of it is all covered in velvet-soft fur. A pack of Frenchie puppies is pure, unadulterated joy. Out of that chaos, before she knew her name, Punkin performed her first work of magic.

She chose us.

Punkin Bleu walked right up to me, rubbed her soft head against my hand and chose us. I did not understand the importance of her choice in that moment. It did not occur to me how much I needed it. But I think she did. 

In the years before the pandemic, I suffered rejection after rejection. I lost a job not due to performance, but because a buddy of the CEO wanted mine. My middle brother and childhood best friend both decided to cut me out of their lives entirely. I lost clients who disagreed with my political positions.

No single event sent me to rock bottom, but each added weight pushed me down further. By the time the pandemic hit, I had been working in isolation at home for two years and had been suffering even longer. It contributed to a generally dour mood that strained the other relationships in my life.

None of it mattered to Punkin Pie. As soon as I had her home, she wanted to play with me. In what would become a daily occurrence, she ran around me and landed in a down dog position: front paws stretched forward, butt in the air, ears perked up and big puppy eyes, something she never lost, fixated on me. She wanted to play chase. The moment I twitched toward her she sprang into action — always thinking she was faster and quicker than she actually was — and dashed from room to room. Under beds, around chairs, through the hall. The game ended when she collapsed into another down dog, but with her head sideways on the ground as she panted, her signal that she wanted pets and love.

And love her, I did. I would push her over and pet her tummy and scratch her chest and bury my nose in the soft fur that hung loosely around her neck. And she loved me back. She would wriggle and struggle until she got into a position to lick my nose, puppy kisses that she gave to me relentlessly.

In moments like that, pet names for her leaped from our hearts into our mouths: Punkin, Punki, Punkin Pie, Punki Bluester, Punkus, Pie, Princess Pea. Every one who has ever loved an animal knows that one name is insufficient; the more wonders they work in our souls, the more names they get. 

By November, we were taking long walks together every day. Despite her short gait with crossed back legs that made her look like a runway model, she could walk for miles. Every time I said “walk” her head would cock a couple degrees to the left as her eyes widened and ears picked up, her own version of “really, can we?”

It took longer than the solitary, ghostly walks I became accustomed to in the first six months of the pandemic. Punkin loved to sniff everything: trees, rocks, light poles, fences. One of my favorite pictures of her is her bending down to sniff a small spring flower in our yard just as we were headed out.

She understood the shortness of life and how to savor each moment.

Much of it Punkin savored laying between the legs of me or my wife. Early on, Lori plopped her on a fuzzy fleece blanket (Punkin’s fuzz) between Lori’s outstretched legs as she sat and read. In bed or in a chair, it didn’t matter, that is where Punkin wanted to be. If we forgot and crossed our legs, she would softly paw at us until we assumed the proper position. She would lay there for hours, gently snoring in bliss.

Her bliss typically ended when one of us would scoop her up, pull her close, and kiss her sweet face. In response, she would move her head so it could rest in the crook between our neck and shoulder as she snuffled into our ears. That was how Punkin hugged us.

We thought we would have 10 to 15 wonderful years repeating that pattern. We were wrong.

In early July, Punkin stopped eating. No matter what we tried, she would not take food. Eventually we resorted to syringe feeding her. We spent a panicked week working with our local vet who were as dumbfounded and distraught as us. When we couldn’t find answers, we drove her up to the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

The CSU animal hospital could easily be mistaken for most human hospitals. It is spacious and bright and has people in scrubs constantly passing through swinging double-doors. Our emergency vet, Dr. Jessica Rutten seemed to be in her mid-20’s and has angular facial features that could have been cold if not overwhelmed by the empathy radiating from her eyes and warm compassion in her voice.

In a direct, no-nonsense style that put Lori and I at ease, she promised to do everything she could to save Punkin. If anyone could, we knew her team of experts at CSU would. And initially, they were able to stabilize Punkin and drain the liquid that had filled her stomach and stopped her from eating.

But human science is no substitute for magic.

Hours after we arrived, a misty-eyed Dr. Rutten explained that a pathologist confirmed the blockage in Punkin had been caused by an aggressive, untreatable cancer. Even invasive surgery followed by chemotherapy would not prolong her life. Through sobs we chose to end her pain.

It was unfair and too soon. She was too young and too sweet and too gentle and we loved her too much. 

We were brought into a dimly lit room with soft couches and pads. After a brief wait, they brought our little angel into us to say goodbye. We whispered our love into her outsized ears and stroked the soft wrinkles in her head. Just before midnight, Lori held her close and Punkin hugged her as her final shot was administered.

We walked out the side door to hide our tears and broken hearts from the prying eyes seated in the waiting room. Before I rounded the corner to the parking lot, I paused and looked back through the glass. As I watched, Dr. Rutten walked into the hallway with Punkin gently cradled in her thin arms. She had swaddled our sweet girl in her favorite white fuzz and carried her off in the opposite direction.

My heart and soul are sure that the moment I looked away large white wings appeared behind Dr. Rutten and she carried our baby back to heaven. That is where Punkin Bleu came from, that is where she returned; we were lucky to share her short, magic life in between.

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