(Belle Belle at home)

“When the hour is upon us
And our beauty surely gone
No you will not be forgotten
No you will not be alone
No you will not be alone


“And when the day has all but ended
And our echo starts to fade
No you will not be alone then
And you will not be afraid
No you will not be afraid


“When the fog has finally lifted
From my cold and tired brow
No I will not leave you crying
And I will not let you down
No I will not let you down
I will not let you down


“Now comes the night
Feel it fading away
And the soul underneath
Is it all that remains
So just slide over here
Leave your fear in the fray
Let us hold to each other
Till the end of our days


“When the hour is upon us
And our beauty surely gone
No you will not be forgotten
And you will not be alone
No you will not be alone”

Lyrics to “Now Comes the Night,” written by Matthew Michael Serletic and Rob Thomas / sung by Rob Thomas

In the early summer of 2008 — just a few months after I witnessed the awful and tragic death of the 3-year-old filly Eight Belles following the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby — my beautiful Leigh Ann called and asked a very simple question:

“What are you doing this afternoon?”

Without waiting a second for my reply, she full-throttled into the second sentence / question:

“If you don’t have anything pressing, I am going to come and pick you up. I have a surprise.”

I always did like surprises. And, on this day, I was surely up for one. You see, the awful images of Eight Belles’ injury seemed to linger in my mind and on my heart. I had a tough time shaking the thoughts. I had a tougher time accepting the reality. And, I was having a difficult time with that difficult time.

In short, on this day, I was up for an adventure. But little did I know, at the time, that this was the adventure of a lifetime. An adventure that would steal my heart and capture my soul. An adventure that would ultimately turn my life around, upside down, inside out, and fill my next 13 years with joy to the world. An adventure that I will never forget, and, yet, never be able to duplicate or match. An adventure of pure love.

A love story that goes something like this:

On this summer day, Leigh Ann dropped by the office and picked me up in her souped-up SUV, and headed out of the office parking lot about as fast as NASCAR’s finest, Jimmy Johnson, would depart pit row. We raced for the interstate, and then turned some two-lane country roads into a motor cross. As I was hanging on for dear life and the Michelins were hanging on to as much asphalt as they could, I managed to ask Leigh Ann exactly where we are going and why were we in such a rush to get there.

“You’ll see when we get there,” was the only reply that was forthcoming.

When we hit the Owen County line and twisted our way through the hills, I thought I might never see civilization again. The yellow divider lines in the middle of the road looked to have been painted by Otis Campbell, of Mayberry fame. There weren’t any speed limit signs to be found. Then again, they didn’t need them. If you got over 35 MPH, you might end up at the bottom of the top.

After an abrupt turn, LA slowed and turned into the gravel driveway. We had to forge through a little creek, and then we inched our way up a hill to a “manufactured home.” I grunted. Until I saw a state-of-the-art dog kennel in the back. Until I heard the chatter of what sounded like a million puppies. Until I saw a dozen, little Golden Retrievers jumping for both joy and a mouthful of mommy’s milk.

I looked at Leigh. She looked at me, with a smile as big as a Golden’s heart. “We’re here,” she said. “I’ve been waiting until the puppies were ready to be weaned. You get to pick your favorite one from the litter. This is my present to you. Happy Father’s Day.”

I rolled out of that truck as fast as Leigh Ann drove it. Golden Retrievers have always held a special place in my heart. At this time in my life, my heart truly needed a Golden Retriever to find it; play fetch with it; heal it; and mend my broken one. And, Leigh Ann, God bless her, knew it, too.

Before I knew it, the owner was there at the kennel with the key to both the lock and my heart. She told Leigh that we had first pick, just like she promised. As soon as the gate opened, Mommy Dog took off for the creek. I don’t know if she ever came back. She looked a little bit worse for wear. Meanwhile, the pups lit into us like a 5YO on a Candy Cane at Christmas time.

“Which one do you want,” LA asked? “A girl or a boy? A light one or a dark one? A chubby one or a skinny one?” The questions multiplied like the pups.

Then, I saw her. A little girl sitting in the corner of the kennel. Brown eyes begging for more. My eyes caught hers. Her heart caught mine. We connected. I knew right then and there. My little brown-eyed girl. She was the one.

It wasn’t long before we were on the road headed home. Slower now. Puppy in my lap. Puppy Love in my heart. We had only just begun. But it was going to be one helluva ride.

Leigh Ann asked what I wanted to name her. We tossed around a few thoughts, and then she said the magic words:

“How about Belle Belle,” she said. “You know, after Eight Belles.”

It was perfect. A perfect ring to it. A perfect name for who would become our perfect baby and our life’s companion. A perfect and most fitting name of a Golden Retriever unlike any I have ever had before, and unlike any I am sure to have in the future.

You see, Belle Belle was never meant to be an Owen County-kind of a dog. If ever there was a city-dog, she was it. She was meant to be a Belle Belle.

She liked her food served on a dish; not in a bowl. And, always, she wanted it to be placed right in front of her. She liked to be left alone, for the most part, and admired from afar. Compliments were OK. Petting was not. She might dole out a kiss or two, but they were always on her terms. Not yours. She didn’t play fetch much. Not unless there was a treat tied to the activity. She liked her collars to be custom-built and they had to be “pretty.” After all, she went by “Belle Belle So Pretty.”

And, she always thought that she was the Belle to any ball. The one. The only.

As a little pup, LA and I would take her to our office in Frankfort. She was right at home. She was our Belle Belle.

She could mingle with 100 or more people and never raise her voice. She would roam into the conference room and plop in front of the fireplace and catch a nap during most business meetings or client pitches. She was just as comfortable with me in my office. All alone.

She was home. She was the Belle Belle.

One day, as we walked around the State’s Capitol and made our way past the Governor’s Mansion, Belle Belle stopped to take her daily ritual right there on the green lawn of high society. After she had finished her business, a high-ranking member of Governor Ernie Fletcher’s executive staff — who went by the name of Stan Cave — asked if I was going to clean “that” up.

I look at him and laughed.

“Nope,” I said. “Your Governor ran on the slogan that he was going to clean the mess up in Frankfort. He can start right there.”

Belle Belle and I kept walking. It wasn’t too many months later that ole’ Ernie had to issue a pardon for ole’ Stan. Seems as if they had other “messes” to clean up, instead.

Belle Belle was right at home. After all, she was the Belle Belle.

On our walks around Anchorage, Belle Belle had to be the one in front of her two older brothers at the time. Bunker, always the man of our household, had no problem giving her the leading role. He loved her so much. He knew beauty when he saw it, and he cherished her. Belle Belle accepted it.

Bogey, on the other hand, cussed about his relegated and subservient position. But he was too small to win any argument, although he tried.

Always, Belle Belle was at home in our home. She was our Belle Belle.

When we bought our retreat on Kentucky Lake, Belle Belle soon had new quarters to conquer. We found out very quickly that if you just mentioned the word “Lake” out loud, Belle Belle would go into a rain dance that would make the Cherokee proud. It didn’t take us long before we had to start spelling it out so that she wouldn’t begin to party days in advance of our departure.

She knew where we were going.

She knew it was her place, too.

And, it didn’t take long before the entire neighborhood knew her name and loved her game.

Our neighbors Don and Judy were the first to fall. Although they never were “dog people,” they soon were Belle’s people. As soon as the car pulled to a stop in the driveway, she would pop out and head to their door. Don was always waiting with a loving pet and a dog treat that somehow found its’ way into his pocket.

While the other dogs would swim and swim, Belle Belle would wade into the party up to her belly, and then turn and wait for her plaudits. She would stare at us until we told her that she was “swimming” very good.

But her most favorite thing in life was going for the daily walk down to the pier several acres away. Always, Belle Belle had to lead. Always, we had to stop along the way to catch up with friends and foes, like Blueberry. Blueberry, a sheepdog, is a trained “therapy dog” that helps with a youth camp just down the lake. For some odd reason, Belle Belle found Blueberry to be a threat to her reign. After a brief discussion, Belle Belle would be on her way. And, we always had to walk all the way to the end of the pier — where there is an American Flag always flapping in the wind.

No trip was complete until Belle Belle made it all the way to the end of the pier. Every. Single. Time. We did it when she was a pup. We did it every time since. Even on our last trip about a month ago, when Belle Belle limped to the finish line. Every. Single. Time.

This lake was her most favorite place. This was her home away from home, and her home way ahead of any other home. This was her comfort place. This was her place.

Some days we would go for a boat ride. Belle Belle always laid in the same spot in the boat. Don’t dare and try to take it. It was Belle’s.

Some days we would sit on the porch and watch the barges and the world go by. Belle Belle always laid in the same spot. Don’t think about sitting there. It was Belle’s.

Some nights, we would light the fire in the outdoor stove and sit there and watch the stars fill the sky. Always, Belle Belle would position herself in the same spot. Don’t even imagine scooting up a chair in that spot. It was Belle’s.

She was home.

And, you know what? We were always at home, too, when Belle Belle was home. She was our constant. She was our mainstay. Amazingly enough, she was the one thing we could always count on in a world where you can’t count on anything. She was our rope. She was our hope. She was our thread. She was the one to held our family together.

Without a word. Without a whimper. Without an ask for anything. She was our home.

This past Sunday, we all went for our walk in Anchorage. Our new “boys,” Haggard and Crosley have taken the place of Bunker and Bogey, who have gone on to better things. But they know the routine, too. Belle Belle always leads. We can’t go as far as we used to. Belle Belle’s legs just are not up to it. But she leads with her heart. And, she grunts it out every time.

This past Monday, Belle Belle helped Leigh Ann finish up some outside decorations. She laughed. She played. She even rolled around and acted like a 13-year-old “puppy.”

She was home. She was happy.

But on Tuesday, our world changed. I was at the Louisville Thoroughbred Society when I looked down and saw a text message from Leigh Ann. She wrote that I had better get home. She texted that Belle Belle was not acting right.

A few minutes later, Leigh Ann called. I could tell that something was wrong. She told me to hurry home.

I drove from downtown Louisville to Anchorage much the same way LA drove to Owen County that first time to pick her up. When I got home, Leigh Ann was in the floor, cradling Belle Belle’s little head. I dropped to my knees and rolled up next to her.

Slowly, Belle Belle inched her way closer to me and put her head on my arm. Her breathing was laboring now. Her eyes were cloudy and dark. Her time coming. Quickly.

For the next hour, Belle Belle and I had held onto each other.

Somehow, someway, I started to sing the Rob Thomas song quietly to her:

“When the hour is upon us
And our beauty surely gone
No you will not be forgotten
No you will not be alone
No you will not be alone


“And when the day has all but ended
And our echo starts to fade
No you will not be alone then
And you will not be afraid
No you will not be afraid”

We called our vet. There was nothing to do. Life had been fulfilled. Death had come calling.

I told Belle Belle it was OK to go home. 

I told Belle Belle that Bunker and Bogey were waiting for her at home.

I cried more than I have ever cried in my life. And, at times, Belle Belle would cry back. Then, slowly, she was gone.

I held her tight. I kissed her forehead. And, I sang:

“When the fog has finally lifted
From my cold and tired brow
No I will not leave you crying
And I will not let you down
No I will not let you down
I will not let you down


“Now comes the night
Feel it fading away
And the soul underneath
Is it all that remains
So just slide over here
Leave your fear in the fray
Let us hold to each other
Till the end of our days”

Early this morning, after a night of terrible dreams, I woke up in an absolute crisis. I sat straight up in the bed. Tears flooding down my face. I couldn’t tell if it was a vision or a dream, but I saw it all very clearly:

I was standing on the porch at the lake and I was watching Belle Belle walk towards the pier. All by herself. All alone. Slowly. Painfully. Inching along.

I yelled for her. I yelled for her. I kept yelling for her to come home.

Then I saw her turn and look at me, like that little puppy in the corner of the kennel some 13 years ago. She looked.

I yelled for her to come home.

Slowly, she turned and headed towards the pier again. All by herself. All alone. Slowly. Painfully. Inching along.

One stride.

Two strides.

And, then, she was gone.

She had gone home.

I knew she had gone home.

Bye bye Belle Belle. I will love you and miss your forever and ever.

“When the hour is upon us
And our beauty surely gone
No you will not be forgotten
And you will not be alone
No you will not be alone”