There were tons of things I had to get done around the house. I was hosting Christmas for my family in less than twenty-four hours, but I needed to take a little break from the unfolding chaos, and my never-ending procrastination. Some rooms in my house were halfway cleaned, some had gifts scattered about. I stressed myself out over hosting Christmas even though my only guests would be my dad, my brothers and my nieces. Despite that, planning to have a perfectly clean house and a fully-prepared meal was usually something that happened only on special occasions. Like Christmas.
I sent Alyssa a text message around noon to see if she wanted to take the dogs on a walk. It was exactly what I needed to clear my head from the Christmas stress I had enveloped myself in. She immediately responded and said she’d love to go on a walk. Alyssa had to work until 1:00, so we agreed to meet at 2:00 at a nearby park. I received another text message from Alyssa asking, “Who are you bringing?”
“I don’t know,” I texted back, still questioning which dogs would tolerate the cold the best.
Of my four dogs, Alyssa had a clear favorite. Kane. She adored him. Kane, a three-year old black and white pit bull mix, was the largest of my crew of canines. His head was about the size of a cinder block. His sweet, gentle temperament won Alyssa over the first time she met him. She always joked about swapping dogs for a weekend.
“Ok,” she said. “See you at 2:00!”
“At the gazebo?” I asked.
“Yup. I’ll meet you as soon as I get off work.”
Running late as usual, I scurried around the house getting ready. I pulled my hair into a loose ponytail, crammed a stocking cap that was too small for my head over my ponytail and zipped up my black feather-shedding jacket. I rushed to load Kane and Lili into the car. I didn’t like leaving the other two dogs (Rufus and Simon) at home, but knowing how much they both hated the cold weather, I figured I was doing them a favor by letting them stay in the comfort of a nice, warm house.
As I approached the gazebo, I saw Alyssa standing beside her car with Walley, her brindle pit bull. She was wearing a large purple jacket. It was too big on her, except the stomach section was tight. Alyssa was almost eight months pregnant and her baby belly was visible underneath her oversized jacket. Her short brown hair stuck up like spikes under her black headband. One of her tennis shoes was close to being untied, but she didn’t seem to notice.
It was mild for December. The 30-degree temp felt nice considering the chill Minnesota usually feels this time of year. The ground was bare, no snow. Just brown, lifeless grass everywhere.
As I was getting out of my car, Alyssa saw Kane through the car window. He wagged his tail at the sight of her and whined, eager to get out of the car to greet her and Walley.
“KAAANE!!!” she shouted, waddling over to give him a big smooch on the top of his head. “I knew you were bringing him,” she laughed.
“He loves you!”
“And I love him!”
She squatted down slowly and grabbed Kane’s large jowls, wiggling his face back and forth. Kane’s long black tail slowly swayed from side to side as he soaked up the attention Alyssa gave him.
Walley, adorned in his own gray fleece jacket, stood beside Alyssa patiently taking in his surroundings. He nuzzled her with his nose, and she quickly reached over to Walley and kissed him on the top of his head. He was her pride and joy, loved beyond words by Alyssa. He had been a vital part of her life for the past five years.
Walley, named after the coloring of walnut wood, was rescued from the streets of Nashville. Alyssa happened to see a picture of him at a photo lab she worked at a few years earlier. She went against the company’s protocol and reached out to the photographer, who volunteered her time photographing rescued animals. Alyssa was eager to get more information about this handsome pit bull in need of a home. She was able to locate the rescue group that had Walley. Within days of first seeing his picture, she flew to Nashville to bring this handsome pit bull back to Minnesota. From that day on, Alyssa and Walley were inseparable.
Alyssa gathered up Walley’s leash and we trekked over towards the Red Jacket Trail to begin our walk. It was a calm day. Mt. Kato, Mankato’s ski hill, was busy with people skiing, snowboarding and tubing on the only snow in the county. All of the noise from the flurry of activity on the ski hill caught Walley’s attention. He watched and listened as people raced down the hill.
Alyssa leaned back, placing her hands under her tummy.
“You sure you want to keep going?” I asked.
“Yes! I need this,” she said. “My back is just sore from being on my feet all day.”
Alyssa was a medical assistant at a local clinic. She loved her job and was always happy to share stories about the kids she treated in the pediatric department.
“One more month…” I said, “Can you believe it?”
“I know,” she whispered, her bright blue eyes getting wider. “Can you believe how fast this time has gone?”
Alyssa was gleaming over the arrival of her daughter in February. She had a name picked out for her baby girl: Sutton. She glowed with happiness over the impending arrival and joked about Walley being a big brother. As we walked, we talked about one of our favorite topics, our dogs. Our dogs were always our stress relief from the chaotic pace of everyday life.
“Did you get Walley anything for Christmas?”
“A couple little things, but I feel bad,” she said.
“I just feel guilty. I feel like I should have gotten him a toy, but he doesn’t like toys. I just feel like he knows I didn’t get him much.”
“I feel guilty about not getting them more, but they don’t know the difference.”
“They don’t, do they?” She asked.
“We’ve humanized our dogs,” I said.
“We totally have, haven’t we?” Alyssa laughed.
Her laugh became a snort, causing me to laugh, which evolved into a gut-busting cackle. Wiping away tears from laughing, Alyssa looked towards me. She looked serious about what she was going to say.
“You think we’re dog snobs?”
“Dog snobs?” I repeated, laughing at her remark.
“Yeah,” she laughed, “We spoil our dogs rotten. We’re kind of dog snobs, but I mean that in a good way! We’re always quick to defend our dogs. If anyone says anything bad about them, we’ll defend them, but we talk about how bad other peoples’ dogs can be. I feel like we’re dog snobs.”
“Well,” I said, “In that case, maybe we are!”
As we walked, I told Alyssa about how stressed I was over planning Christmas for my dad and brothers. She took my complaints in stride and saw the positive side of the situation. “Hey, at least you don’t have to go anywhere.”
“True!” I said. When they leave, I get the leftovers and I don’t have to travel.”
“I should come over to your place for Christmas,” Alyssa said.
“Come on over! You’re more than welcome.”
Alyssa was quiet for a moment.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” I asked.
“Nothing. We’re celebrating on the 27th.”
“Seriously, you’re welcome to come over.”
Alyssa smiled. “Maybe we could walk the dogs tomorrow if there’s time,” she said.
“I’m up for it. I’ll let you know when everyone leaves. Like I said, just stop over if you want.”
We joked about being “dog snobs” and finished our walk with Kane, Lili and Walley. As we approached our cars, I remembered the Christmas card I brought with to give to Alyssa. I rushed over to my car to grab the card, realizing after I opened the car door that Kane or Lili had stepped on it. The envelope was damp and bent, but Alyssa didn’t care.
“Thank you,” Alyssa said, holding the card tight against her chest. “Kane, I have to give you a kiss goodbye.”
Alyssa leaned down and gave Kane a kiss right on his nose. I patted Walley on the head and said goodbye to him, and loaded Lili and Kane back into my car. Alyssa and I said our goodbyes.
I watched her car leave the parking area by the gazebo in my rear view mirror. I couldn’t get her ‘dog snobs’ comment out of my head. I laughed about it on the way home.
My Christmas stress had been eased, my mood lightened. I was thankful to have taken that walk with Alyssa, to hear her laugh, to share stories, and to realize that maybe we’re dog snobs.
Kane and Lili slept great the rest of the afternoon and I finished preparing my house for Christmas dinner the next day. The kitchen was clean, the presents were wrapped, my baking was done, and all the dogs were napping.
Christmas went well, there were no catastrophes, and all of my worrying about preparing a feast for my family was for nothing.
Alyssa sent me a text on Christmas asking how everything was going. I replied to her text and told her my stress was for nothing, everything went great. We wished each other a Merry Christmas and set up a time to walk our dogs on Sunday. She was spending Saturday with her family, but she wouldn’t want to miss a chance to walk the dogs.
We missed out on a white Christmas, but December 26th, it finally snowed late into the evening. The barren, brown ground was finally covered for the time being.
On Saturday, the 27th, I knew Alyssa would be celebrating her family’s Christmas.
I began cleaning up the remaining remnants of wrapping paper, bows and crumbs that had been scattered randomly around the house. Kane slowly ripped apart a green paper bow that he found under the couch. As I pulled the slimy bow out of Kane’s mouth, my phone rang. I threw the bow remnants in the garbage and quickly wiped my hands on my jeans.
“Hello?” I said.
I assumed my friend Kris was calling to ask how Christmas went. She had a nervous tone to her voice.
“Stephanie?” Kris’ voice shook as she spoke.
“Kris, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“Alyssa. What happened to her?” she asked, her voice still shaky.
I felt a hollow pit form in my gut. “What do you mean?”
“I, I think something bad happened,” she said with her voice trailing off. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I saw something online…”
“Kris, what did you see?”
“I, I thought maybe you heard something. You know Alyssa better than I do.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my throat tightening. My breathing was short, my heart rate quickened. My hands shook as I reached towards my laptop.
I quickly opened my laptop and scrolled through Alyssa’s Facebook page to see what she was talking about. I was speechless. I was in denial. There had been an accident. Message after message on Alyssa’s page revealed the grim news Kris was calling and trying to avoid saying. But the messages on Alyssa’s page were clear.
‘Rest in peace, my beautiful friend…’
It couldn’t be. I had just seen her three days earlier. She just sent me a text message the day before. No. This was not happening. But as my vision blurred from the tears in my eyes, the truth of what had happened this very morning was unraveling before me. I immediately looked to local websites to see if I could learn more about the unfolding tragedy.
Her name wasn’t mentioned, but the description of her car was on a local news website. “One fatality due to icy roads,” the headline said.
Unable to stop at an icy intersection, her car was broadsided in the driver’s side door and pushed into the median. Her beloved Walley was found sitting on Alyssa’s lap when rescuers arrived on the scene of the accident.
Alyssa was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Despite the effort the doctors made, it wasn’t enough. Just a few hours after the accident, Alyssa and her unborn daughter were gone.
Walley didn’t have a scratch on him. Walley was released to Alyssa’s boyfriend after he was notified of the accident.
My memories of our last walk together were flooding my mind. I was in disbelief, shock and despair.
“Why? How did this happen to her?” I asked myself the same question repeatedly, as did her many family and friends. She had so much to live for, she was so excited about the birth of her daughter, becoming a mother, she radiated happiness and kindness. She deserved to have the opportunities that had just been taken from her. She deserved to know what it was like to become a mother, to see her daughter grow.
As the shock turned into sorrow and the reality set in, I realized how truly blessed I was to be able to see her on Christmas Eve. Her voice, her laugh, were still fresh in my mind. I wanted to remember her just as she was that day. Her blue eyes, her late-term pregnancy waddle, her compassion for all things canine.
The loss of Alyssa was constantly on my mind. I drove past the area we walked our dogs on that last walk nearly every day. Several days after the accident, I had an idea. I wanted to create a tribute to Alyssa. What better way to honor her, her love of dogs and her compassion for helping shelter animals in need than a dog walk that would do just that: help animals in need.
I contacted Susan, our local humane society director. I asked her if we could plan a dog walk to raise money for the shelter and honor Alyssa at the same time. She loved the idea. The next month was filled with itineraries, phone calls, emails and ideas. The walk to honor Alyssa would take place in May.
Two months after the accident, I walked Kane on the same trail Alyssa and I walked on. This was also the same trail the dog walk to honor Alyssa would be taking place. I could hear that last conversation with her in my mind, word for word. I felt her presence beside me as I walked. I could hear her laugh. I could hear her asking me, “Are we dog snobs? Have we humanized our dogs?”
I laughed. I stopped in my tracks and looked up at the gray, gloomy overcast sky. I breathed in the heavy, sharp February air and opened my eyes to see no living beings near me. Just Kane, who stared up at me as though I had lost my mind. I patted him on the head, leaned down and gave him a hug.
“Kane, this one is from Alyssa.”
Five months after the accident, Alyssa was honored by her friends and family, and many others in the dog rescue community whose lives she had touched. The first annual Alyssa Sue Memorial Dog Walk to honor Alyssa was held on a beautiful day in May. The walk started at the same place that our walk started in December. As I walked with friends and our dogs, I couldn’t help but think of the walk Alyssa and I had taken just a few months earlier. But this walk was different. The sky was clear, the grass was green. The setting was the same, but the day had nothing to do with the stress of the holidays, it had everything to do with honoring Alyssa.
Walley was there with Val, Alyssa’s boyfriend, and Walley’s presence seemed to bring Alyssa’s presence to all of us. We shared memories, we shared laughs, and we shared a love of our dogs, and a love of our beloved friend. Alyssa would have loved every single dog, and every single moment of this day. Alyssa’s parents were there too, and Alyssa’s mom said she knew Alyssa was smiling down at us all.
The accident may have taken her and her daughter, but it didn’t take her spirit, her passion, or her memory. A beautiful person was taken far too soon from this world, as was her daughter. Her laughter, her kindness, her love of all things dogs, especially pit bulls, her generosity and her bubbly, upbeat personality are things we all remember about her. The world was a better place with Alyssa’s presence. She is missed by so many. She touched many lives. The world needs more people like Alyssa. She was a ray of light in a world that can sometimes be a dark place. Her memory will live on forever in the hearts of those she touched. Rest in peace, my beautiful friend.