Before I get going, I just want to give you a heads-up that this essay references childhood (and adult) trauma, so take care of yourself. There are some dubious clothing choices and bad-hair days, and there’s that time when I thought a guy wanted to kiss me, but it was only because my brother and his friends dared him. You’ll also hear mention of dying dogs, dying mothers, and deep confusion — an often-overlooked symptom of grief. So if those are triggers for you, feel free to leave the room, no questions asked. Also excessive late-night eating for no discernable reason — not to the point of bingeing, really, but still, the open jars of peanut butter and jam at midnight, the crumbs underfoot might trouble you. Be forewarned.
There’s a reference to dog poop on the carpet, but don’t worry; it was easy to pick up. I’d do anything for my old girl. There’s a lot of money spent on vets, surgeries, medications, hydrotherapy treadmill sessions (she was expelled for defecating in the water, which seemed terribly unfair; she couldn’t help it), doggy acupuncture, and physical therapy. The number of dollars spent on a single dog might stir some kind of feeling in you, so don’t worry if you need to tune out.
Take care of yourself during this essay, whatever that means for you. Perhaps you need to drink a lot of water or unwrap a snack (quietly please!) or play Angry Birds on your phone — whatever works to tamp down your discomfort. And just a note: the global pandemic hovers around the edges here, because it still hovers over everything we do. Or maybe it’s more of an undercurrent now, mumbling that it’s not through with us yet. You’ll hear of isolation, loneliness, fear. Remember those early days of COVID, when we swerved to avoid each other while walking our dogs? We learned to read eye language above our homemade masks, bought groceries for our elderly mothers and neighbors, tried to decipher their handwriting and get the right brand of butter, the right applesauce, the orange juice with the right amount of pulp. Remember having to wait outside the vet’s office while your mother held her dying dog in your back seat? (Oh, sorry, there will be multiple dying dogs. Heads up.) Remember the way she looked up at you with tears brimming and said, I can’t do this, and you said, I know, but you also knew it was beyond time for her to let go — this old dog was not a dog anymore but a bundle of seizures and suffering — and then the masked vet tech came out and, with the greatest care, the gentlest touch, took your mom’s poodle from her arms? Remember being stranded outside of buildings while important things happened behind their closed doors? How you had to imagine being there, holding your loved ones in your arms? Yes, all that is in here, too. So if you’d prefer to put the pandemic firmly in the past, you might want to sit this one out.
Even the joyful parts might be triggering — because joy, as you know, attaches itself eventually to grief. So if you have any memories of bringing a puppy home for the first time and watching as she gambols from room to room, ears flopping and tongue lolling, and the way a laugh different from any you’ve known before burbles up from the deepest recesses of your being — if you have memories like that, you may want to gaze out the window or make a grocery list instead.
There will be musings about the way a pet’s life span so often marks eras in our human lives. I may mention how my dog came to me shortly after my last heartbreak, more than fifteen years ago; how the arc of her life paralleled my own ascent into middle age. I might remember how I took her on first dates with me to gauge a companion’s suitability (spoiler alert: not one of them passed the test) before settling into a single woman’s existence, for the most part content with the companionship of dogs — my own and the many foster dogs who have passed through my door. You’ll hear how my dog helped rehabilitate those ragamuffins and sent them on their way to their new homes, each one an exercise in saying goodbye, and how every time one left, she gave me the side-eye and harrumphed back to her bed. We were fine, she and I, with our little family, and for the longest time she slept, like the good dog she was, on the foot of my bed, snoring a little, sometimes waking with a start, until she got too feeble and instead slept every single night stretched across the bedroom doorway, so as to monitor all comings and goings. The tenderness in that posture might make you a bit nostalgic for your own guardians — human and animal — so just be prepared.
If you happened to be my student during the era of this dog, you might remember how she came to school and ran down the halls, then settled with that same guardian posture in my office doorway, making eye contact with anyone who walked by. You might recall how you flung yourself down on the floor with her, and how she erased all worry about finals and grades and what to do after graduation. You petted her and talked through your problems; she was your adviser in a way I could not be. But an anonymous complaint put an end to her canine office hours, and then the pandemic made us all flee our offices — calendars frozen on March 2020, snacks growing stale in drawers.
You might be reminded, as you read this, of pets from your childhood who got you through some tough times and then disappeared, so be on alert. You might remember kittens, hamsters, gerbils, mice, hedgehogs, goldfish, turtles, stick bugs, lizards, or even just a pill bug you put in a jar. You might flash on the time you brought the class rabbit home from kindergarten, entrusted with her care, and how she languished and then keeled over. It wasn’t your fault, but I know the guilt follows you to this day. I’m so sorry to remind you of it.
I probably won’t get into all the details of my dog’s decline — the spinal issues, the muscle atrophy, the weight loss that made her feel like half the dog she once was — but I might tell you about the way caring for her triggered my still-recent trauma from caring for my mom in her last days: the anxious, breathless effort it takes to keep another being alive, the hypervigilance, the pretense of competence. I’ll probably tell you about the canceled plans, my anxiety about leaving the house, and more nervous eating at midnight. I’ll reminisce about walking with both my mom and my dog on so many long spring evenings through the rose garden, past the beautiful houses with families inside doing family things: practicing the trumpet, clearing the table, watching television; or the houses of young couples still eating by candlelight. To have a mother die, a dog pass away means you are no longer the person you once were, and you are not yet the person you will become. You are untethered.
I think that’s about it. That’s everything you need to know. I’ll skip the part about deathbeds and how they are not so different from childbirth beds: the labor, the moving from one stage to another. You don’t need to hear about a mother’s last breath, a dog’s last sigh. Those sounds float through these words anyway — a breeze that cools you on a warm day, a tinkle of wind chimes. Listen: we’ve got each other now, you and I, and, in the space between these lines, a whisper that says, Take care, take care.