September 17, 2016 at 7:30 AM
Kelly O'Connell adopted Charlie Bear when he was just a pup.
She was 19 at the time, living in New York state. Charlie, a 12-week-old black lab mix, had been found in a shopping cart, in the middle of winter.
She wasn't looking for a dog to adopt, but she saw Charlie in the shelter one day, and she just knew.
"It was just kind of like, yeah he's mine," O'Connell said.
Time went by. Years, really. Kelly moved to Colorado. Charlie came, too. They were like two kids, Kelly said. Then Kelly met James Garvin, and the two moved in together. (Charlie came too, of course.)
O'Connell and Garvin, both veterinarians, got married this September. And they wanted Charlie to be there.
But Charlie, who was 15 years old, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor earlier this year.
His condition had deteriorated. And it was clear Charlie wouldn't live much longer.
"I had actually made an appointment for somebody to come to the house and we were going to put him down a week before the wedding, because he had had five seizures and we were just like 'this is too much, I don't want to do this for him anymore,'" O'Connell said. "Eventually, it was almost as if he was like 'no I want to see this.' He got better."
Charlie did attend the wedding. He made it down the aisle, O'Connell said. But he couldn't make it back. That was when O'Connell's sister, the maid-of-honor, swooped down and scooped him up. She carried him down the aisle herself.
"There isn't enough mascara in the world for these moments,"Jen Dziuvenis, the wedding's photographer, wrote on a Facebook post. "Dog people are the best people."
"The world," O'Connell said of her sister's effort. "It meant the world to me."
"This is what love looks like," Dziuvenis said of the moment. "Love for family, love for animals, love for your sister. It was just the most touching display of that that I've seen, and it was spur of the moment, it just happened, because that's how these people are."
Dziuvenis, a Colorado-based photographer, said that she was close friends with the bride's sister, and described the family "crazy animal people, all of them." She knew that Charlie was sick, she said, but didn't realize how dire his condition was, and didn't realize he was going to be in the wedding until she showed up to shoot it.
"And that was kind of when I learned that they didn't think he was going to make it that long, and that he had just a few days, maybe, after the wedding to live," Dziuvenis said. "But they really wanted him in the wedding, because that's the bride's — that's like her soul dog."
After O'Connell's sister carried Charlie back down the aisle, bride and groom dropped to their knees and hugged the dog, O'Connell said.
"I just kept saying, 'you made it buddy, you made it,'" O'Connell said. "He just had a giant grin on his face."
As a veterinarian, O'Connell is familiar with conversations with pet owners: when do we know it's time? She tells people to count five things that their dog loved, and if they can take away three of those things, then its clear their pet's quality of life is dropping. Charlie was O'Connell's marathon training buddy, so seeing him not be able to walk a few feet, she said, was "kind of like a sucker-punch to the gut."
"I think despite that feeling though, when I look at the pictures, especially the one where the flowers are all around him, I just think he looks so happy in those pictures," she said. "I just think to myself, despite that feeling of did I push it too far, or did I force him to stay around for this wedding, looking at those makes me think, he just wanted to see that, us come together, and I guess his mom be taken care of."
O'Connell said Charlie was put down a few days after the ceremony. She described the wedding pictures as "priceless, absolutely priceless."
"He may not have been able to do what he wanted to do, and his body was definitely failing him," O'Connell said. "But he was happy to be there."