BRADLEY COOK/ FLASHBOX STUDIO

Bella, aka Granny Belle.

For many of us, saying goodbye to our loved ones is the toughest thing we ever face in life.

That challenge certainly isn’t made any easier when we can’t fully communicate with those beloved souls, and really share our true feelings, in those final days. 

Bradley Cook knows what that pain feels like. He’s felt it a few times before, but that doesn’t make it any easier. He and his wife, Kellie, lost Bella, their 14½-year-old Golden Retriever, on Nov. 30. Bella wasn’t just treated pretty much like family. She was family.

“Kellie and I have no kids, so Bella is our child,” Cook said a few weeks ago from his Eugene photography studio. 

At that point, Bella was already living on borrowed time, as the average lifespan for all retrievers is 10-12 years. She got weaker by the day, until she was finally put down by Sharleen Henery of H&H Animal Hospital in Eugene. Henery agreed to make a house call and administer the dreaded “pink juice.”

As Bradley and Kellie continue to mourn their loss, this story examines how the death of a pet can be just as devastating as losing a close friend or family member.  

Bella’s longevity has to be partially attributable to a steady walking regimen, especially with Kellie. It’s proven that walking extends the lives of people, so it stands to reason that it should apply to dogs as well.

“We’re both avid hikers. Bella averaged getting two walks, three miles a day,” Cook said. “She got to do a lot of fun stuff. She always followed me when I skied. She loved to go skiing … loved the snow.”

Bella fought the good fight until the bitter end. 

“Her walks started getting shorter, and her shoulder started collapsing,” Cook said. “I got a frantic call from Kellie that Bella can’t walk. Then the next morning she was fine. We kept getting these little scares, and she’d always bounce back.

“Last month I came home one day from work and she greeted me at the door with her chew toy, talking to me,” Cook recalled. “I got down on all fours, taking in the moment. You know the road you’re going down when they don’t greet you … Her hips were going.”

Bella is the last of quite a Golden family legacy. It all started with Bradley’s sister Kim, who had a dog named Ralph. 

“That dog set the bar, he was the coolest Golden,” Cook said. “I wanted a dog just like Ralph.”

BRADLEY COOK/ FLASHBOX STUDIO

The Golden Retriever loved the snow.

So he found a Golden puppy – an alpha female, a voracious digger – that he named Domino, after the Van Morrison song. Domino developed a degenerative nerve condition in her spine and died shortly before turning 10.

“About halfway through Domino’s last three weeks, I asked Kim, ‘When will I know it’s time?’” Cook said. “There was a short pause, and she said, ‘You’ll know.’” 

Cook surely thought of those words again as he watched Bella deteriorate. 

Next in line was Sasha. She loved to play, but a fluke accident in the water wound up killing her the day before Cook had to attend his father’s funeral. Sasha was 8 years old. 

They say silence is golden, but not having a Golden makes the Cook household too quiet. Enter Flash.

“Flash was so smart, he totally set the bar, I had him trained so well,” Cook said. “Everybody loved her. When she was a little over 9, they found liver cancer. Our vet, Ron Greer of Animal Health Associates, broke down bawling when he told us. Flash was his favorite.

“Two months later Kellie said this house is too quiet. The life and the energy of the house is gone. We had gotten Flash from Debbie Berry of Sunshine Goldens, so I called her and she said ‘I have half a litter left and I’ve got two girls!’ So I came home with Bella.

“At first I felt sorry for Bella after Flash – that’s a tough act to follow – but wow! She’s the perfect complement to Flash and such a great dog in her own right.” 

She may have been born Bella, but Cook said he renamed her Granny Belle after her 10th birthday. And they sometimes called her Sniffy Longstocking for her proclivity to always stop and smell the roses along the way. And there were other fun word games. “We’d go in the bathroom and say, ‘Bella, come in, it’s tooferbrush time, and she would come right in,” Cook said. 

Those are the kind of mental snapshots that will always warm the Cooks’ souls – not to mention the thousands of actual pictures that Cook, an award-winning photographer who also contributes to The Chronicle, has shot over the years. Through a lens, he witnessed the drastic aging process of an aging animal.

“Pet her face and you feel the skin getting looser,” he said a few weeks ago. “She’s really looking like an old dog now. About six months ago she started getting cataracts, she’s about three-quarters blind and she startles very easily. I’ve told her if you’ve got to go, it’s OK.”

When the moment of truth arrived, it was difficult. Always is. 

“When Sharleen shaved her arm and had the needle in and said to say our last words to Bella, I felt such a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders,” Cook said. “I just knew that she was somewhere with Domino, my first Golden, and finally at peace.”