Ever since Mina was a wee puppy sleeping in her crate beside my bed, I’ve listened for her at night. I’ve told people for years that I’m a “light sleeper” when the truth is that I’m an “aware” sleeper.

I was aware when my little puppy Mina would become restless in her crate, meaning that her puppy bladder needed a quick trip outside. That phase didn’t last terribly long, and I didn’t mind because what’s nicer than cuddling a little, warm, loving puppy at night? Once Mina was house trained, at about four months old, she slept on our bed with me. Usually she’d start with her head on the pillow beside me for “nighty night” cuddles, then she’d curl up at the foot of our bed and stay there all night.

Many times over our years together I’d have a bad dream or a full-on nightmare and wake up calling “Mina! Mina!” She’d dutifully wake up and crawl toward my pillow and rest near me until I fell asleep again. Even if she was sleeping on the floor, Mina would get up to comfort me and protect me from scary things in the night.

Naturally, I tried to return the favor whenever I saw Mina having a particularly active dream. Sure, she could’ve been chasing wildlife or other canine friends in her dreams, but what if she was being pursued? Well then, that required me to lay down beside her and gently stroke her head and her side until she either rolled over for a belly rub or woke up giving me an annoyed look for disturbing her dreams.

Mina in May, 2009, resting after chemo

When, in early 2007, Mina decided to no longer sleep in our bedroom but out in the living room, my “aware” sleeping became even more anxious. I regularly got up at night to check on Mina in the living room. I would try not to wake her up but I always did which, now, leads me to believe that she was listening, too. She slept more soundly as she got older, but Mina knew when I was near her at all times. She’d thump her tail against the floor, often without opening her eyes, to let me know she was happy I was near. I loved that tail thump. It meant so much to me to know that she loved having me near as much as I loved having her near. These are the things I miss so much that it hurts.

Mina started to show symptoms of lymphoma in late February this year, but it took until mid-April to get a diagnosis. We just didn’t know why she was losing muscle mass at an alarming rate, why her appetite was nearly gone, and why her arthritic right carpus took a sudden, dramatic turn for the worse. During those months I was up at night frequently, making sure she was just sleeping, listening to her soft snoring. After we started chemotherapy, my anxiety grew and my sleeping lessened. Mina and I spent a lot of time together at night, when her chemo symptoms always seemed the worst. The Prednisone made her drink water all night and that required late-night potty trips outside. I didn’t mind and I made sure she knew it.

Sleeping became even more scarce once it was clear that Mina’s cancer had returned in late September. It came back with a vengeance. We had a day short of nine weeks together, far less than the predicted 6-8 months. During that brief time I worked at home most days, and slept on the couch most nights so I could hear every breath that Mina took during the night, and so we could go out for potty trips once she was back on Prednisone.

And now that she’s been gone six weeks today, I’m still listening for her. I hear sounds all night long that wake me up, I get up to look in the living room for Mina, and I sleep less than ever in my life. Sometimes I think I hear her bowl rattle or her collar jingle or the sound of her breathing and maybe it’s my wishful heart or maybe it’s Mina paying a visit to check on me. All I know is that grief is as much of a roller coaster as the chemo was, only I’m on this ride alone.

Mina and I in 1997

My sweet baby, you are my heart and my soul

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Last night I stayed up until about 2 a.m. I dozed off on the couch a few times but when I saw the hour I put myself to bed. I can’t bear to be out in the living room during those hours on Sunday nights; it just makes Mina’s last hours very real for me. It’s been three weeks today since she left me.

It is so very real, too. I am living, if you can call this wandering existence “living,” without my rock, my only source of pure, unconditional love, without the best friend I’ve ever known. I give myself big ups for getting out of bed every day and doing whatever I can to fill the hours.

Because it’s a matter of filling hours, not days. We’re not to the level of filling days, yet.

mina sleeping on the couch

Mina sound asleep on the couch, in September

Still, I run into people whom I haven’t seen since Mina died. Yesterday I ran into a neighbor and her two pooches, Hannah and Riley. Mina wasn’t so crazy about Riley when he was a puppy, but she grew to tolerate him. She really liked Hannah, though, and was always glad to see her pals on walks. We didn’t see them very often, though, because Hannah and Riley’s mom worked odd hours so we’d see them only on weekends.

My neighbor knew that Mina had died and, of course, I started to cry when she hugged me. We talked for a few minutes and she told me some nice things about her observations of Mina and I. She said it was clear to anyone with eyes that Mina absolutely adored me and that Mina was also protective of me. I found this surprising because I thought after 13 years together that I’d established myself as the protector. Sure, I counted on Mina to bark when someone approached the door or walked by on the sidewalk below, or to growl when people came near whom she didn’t like or trust, but I figured my job was to protect Mina.

That’s a job I failed at more times that I want to admit. The worst was not finding the right way to beat her cancer into submission, but there was the attack at a dog park in 2000 for which I still haven’t forgiven myself.

It means a lot to me to hear from people who didn’t see us together very often that Mina loved me and felt it necessary to protect me. That’s something I didn’t realize I missed until the first few days after she was gone. I moved my gun off the night stand and put it under the other pillow on my bed, and I double check the locks at night. Mina was my early warning system. If anyone came near the door at night she’d bark, but if she didn’t bark and instead let out a low, rumbling growl, that’s when I grabbed my weapon.

So, it’s true, she did protect me and I miss that protection now, as well as desperately missing the constant love and affection she gave me.

mina outside max's apartment

Mina, looking for Max, just a few days before he and his family moved away

Oh my baby girl … be well and be happy and don’t worry about me … somehow, someday, I’ll figure out this life without you …