Culture: Stories & Lit
I could not bring myself to take pictures of any of it, to take anything, although I did for a moment consider grabbing my camera to ensure that later on I’d have an image, some tangible visual record of the process of losing you. Maybe that momentary impulse came from fear that the emotional weight of participating in your last days as flesh-and-blood would eventually outweigh or alter the straight facts that photographs might hold. Fear that visuals so fresh right then, as I sat on one of the two plush green leather couches of the crematorium waiting room, would reshuffle themselves and gently blend together as merely tolerable sentimental recollection. It wouldn’t have been right, though, to shoot what only you and I should know. The camera stayed in the truck.
The kind man in charge of the ovens had just gone out into the noon blast of July in the San Fernando Valley to check on the progress of your burning. I’d followed but stopped thirty feet back as he’d asked me to.
“You don’t really want to see—it’s something you probably wouldn’t want to see… The. … uh …,” he’d mumbled, faltering in a way that had won me over instantly.
“You mean if she isn’t done yet?” I’d said, completing the thought for him.
“Yes, exactly. The, uh… sometimes they’re not completely …” He’d paused, looking as pained as if he’d known you the way I had.
“Yes,” he’d blurted out with a slight squeak in his voice. “It isn’t pretty.”
“No. I can imagine it wouldn’t be,” I’d said.
“Not at all pretty.”
He had stood there, putting on his fire-retardant gloves and his sunglasses, still looking at me as if needing to say something more. And I had waited. It’d already been a hell of a long morning, so I hadn’t been in any big hurry at that point.
“I do this all the time, but I couldn’t personally, you know, do this.”
I’d thought I understood more or less what he meant.
“My uncle’s dog,” he’d continued, “I had to do that one, and it was very difficult. I could never do it again.”
“I understand,” I’d said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
He’d started backing sideways toward the oven. It was one of the three on the back lot that seemed to be in operation, as evidenced by the grey smoke rising from their steel-pipe smokestacks into the smoggy haze above us. As inappropriate as the thought might have been, I somehow couldn’t help but think of the much larger indoor ones I’d once seen in the Dachau concentration camp memorial. I’d felt a momentary urge to ask if these ovens had been manufactured in Europe, but it had passed.
“Please stay back here while I check and see how she’s doing,” he’d then said.
“OK,” I’d said. “And how do you check?”
He’d stopped side stepping toward the oven. “I open the door and look.”
“She might not be done. She might not be ready.”
“Yeah. OK. I’ll wait… ”
“Plus, it’s real hot. About 1,500 degrees.”
“I’ll wait here then.”
“I’m so sorry,” he’d said, tugging down the bill of his navy-blue ball cap and turning toward the oven. He’d said “sorry” several times since I’d arrived, and he seemed to mean it. “Sorry for your loss. I am truly sorry.”
After a minute spent carefully peeking through the slightly opened oven door, he’d closed it and walked back to me. “I’m sorry. She’s not done yet. Another ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Should I go back inside to the waiting room, then?”
“Yes. If you don’t mind. Sorry. I’ll let you know just before I get her so you can come and watch me do everything. Check, you know, to see if… see that… ”
“Yeah, good. OK, thanks.”
A tall, well-groomed black poodle named Paris, as I’d overheard her being called when I’d first arrived at the crematorium office, had been staring at me for a while. From her position under a sort of anaemic-looking potted ficus by the doorway to the office, she was able to monitor all comings and goings. Suddenly, she rose and bolted straight for me, jumping up on the couch right next to me, barking excitedly. Her breath smelled like boiled carrots. Sort of sweet and not altogether unpleasant, but not something I craved at that moment. The receptionist called Paris, no doubt trying to keep the dog from further upsetting me, the grieving customer. Paris was not bothering me at all. I understood that she had been barking for attention, not out of aggression—probably bored out of her mind in this place where all other dogs were dead and burning or about to be. She hadn’t even barked that loudly, really, and her company was comforting in a life-goes-on-and-there-are-lots-of-nice-dogs-in-the-world-sort of way. Paris gave me one more quieter bark right in my left ear, licked my face and left me to see what the receptionist wanted.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said, as she led Paris into the back of the office area.
“That’s OK,” I said. “She wasn’t bothering me. Female, right?”
“Yes, she certainly is. I am sorry for your loss.”
I know she meant it as well. Expressions of sympathy for the customer would to some degree have probably been obligatory for the crematorium personnel, but everyone did seem to be personally and genuinely concerned. People doing their utmost to run a decent family-owned business with kindness and compassion. The compulsion to record all of this got the better of me, finally, and I went out to the truck to look for my notebook. After a quick scramble through the papers, books, cameras and other assorted commuter debris on the back seat, I found the notebook. Although I had not had the time to take many pictures or to sit down and write much of anything lately, a camera and something to write in are always in the car, or in whatever bag I carry, just in case a moment special to me presents itself to be stolen. Resisting once more the temptation to take the camera, I grabbed the notebook and a pen and returned to the waiting room to begin writing this.
Kind strangers have given me a few handsomely bound journals and notebooks over the years. Some, like this one, are bound in beautifully tanned and tooled leather. This one’s cover has a giant oak tree cut into it, with other old oaks on a distant ridge beyond it. The big pewter button used for tying the notebook closed with a leather thong is cast with an oak leaf and acorn detail. I am not much good at keeping a diary, or diligent about any sort of regular journal entries. My way to remember has usually been to write stories, poems or more often than not, to make photographs or drawings. I felt a little rusty and awkward writing in the waiting room under the quietly watchful eyes of the receptionist and Paris. Maybe it didn’t seem at all odd to them, my scribbling away. Probably what bothered me was my own sense of guilt over being inclined to record the events surrounding the processing of your body. Just a short time earlier I had been openly weeping while crossing the city in morning rush-hour traffic. I suppose we humans can be resilient—nearly as resilient as you were, Brigit—and as accepting of life’s unpredictably rough patches as most animals seem to be. Whatever the reason, I found I could not write fast enough in my attempt to describe the events of the day.
“Do you want to come out while I clean this out?” the kind voice of the oven-minder asked softly, interrupting me in mid-sentence. I looked up and nodded.
“Yes, please. I’ll … let me … let me just finish this sentence—this paragraph. I’ll be right there.”
“Do you write a lot?” he asked, as I followed him outside.
“Nice-looking book you got there.”
“Thanks. Yes, it is.”
I closed it, marking my place with the pen, just as he stopped and turned to me. I was standing on the same spot I had been asked to watch from earlier. “Please stay right here. I’ll shut her down and get everything. You’ll be able to see everything happening, but it is very hot now, and also …”
“Yes, ok I’ll wait here.”
As I stood still in the by-now withering heat and watched him switch off the oven and open it, I suddenly realised that there had been no muzak, no music of any kind playing in the waiting room. That was a pleasant surprise and seemed remarkable to me. The tact involved in such a choice on their part told me that they really must care.
The ovens were out behind the small, one-story building that holds the tidy crematorium office, some oversize freezers and the very pleasant air-conditioned waiting room. The property was surrounded by twenty-foot-high stacks of automobile carcasses, entire auto bodies and an enormous variety of neatly sorted bits and pieces—fenders, doors, hoods, seats, side mirrors, steering mechanisms, engine parts, dashboards, roofs, etc., arranged in row after row—apparently according to year, make and model. The sprawling salvage yard dwarfed the crematorium and its modest parking lot. Although there was no vegetation in sight, the colourful, encroaching heaps and rows of rendered vehicles almost looked like exotic organic growth, a sort of postmortem environment that seemed to me to perfectly complement the pet-burning business. The thick, lightly buzzing strands of heavy-duty power lines drooping as they crossed some thirty feet above us from one massive steel support to another only added to this entirely man-made, and remade, end-of-nature garden. Its perfume was a blend of acrid and oily-sweet, of melting rubber and asphalt, of taffy-thick black engine grease, of yellowing plastic and peeling paint sluggishly wafting upward and blending with the constant dead-fish reek of Los Angeles smog.
I had risen very early—or, rather, got out of bed early, as I hadn’t slept at all. Knowing it was today that I was scheduled to pick up your refrigerated corpse at our trustworthy local veterinary hospital and drive it out to this industrial hinterland for cremating had kept me from being able to rest. Probably I am able to write about this with a degree of detachment because your brother Henry and I have already gone through the worst of your final decay and death process together. We took you, our fifteen-year-old, completely lame and largely incontinent pal, to be “put down” three days ago. In the intervening time we had to wait for a slot at the crematorium to open up. I have been able to largely digest and assimilate the stronger surface emotions of your final morning. As much as I am and will continue to be haunted by your sweet, departing gaze when the brain-stopping serum was administered, time and the responsibilities resulting from your passing have more or less carried me away from that heartbreaking scene. I will always see your eyes slowly lose their gleam as I gently lay your head down. Will always remember your final generous gesture of rolling halfway over to let us rub your belly one last time before the doctor gave you the sedative.
I’d arrived at the back door of the vet’s office feeling like I was complicit in some sort of underworld transaction. As had been the case all week, the morning sky was overcast, and the clammy grey marine layer had only added to the death business I was now part of. Two men in overalls had come out with what looked enough like a curled-up “you” shape inside a light-blue trash bag. As I had taken the thawing bundle and carefully laid it on the towel-covered passenger seat of the pickup truck, I had looked at the older of the two men. He’d nodded, seeming a bit uncomfortable, and then had turned and followed his colleague back inside the building without a backward glance or farewell. I had been very tired, a bit teary-eyed, and had not said a word myself. Probably not the most pleasant person for them to be around. I had gotten in the car and begun making my way to the 405 freeway. Moving slowly, stuck in the usual massive commuter caravan headed north toward the Sepulveda Pass, it had occurred to me that tomorrow would mark the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops. Then I had thought, not for the first time when passing the Sunset Boulevard exit, about O.J. Simpson’s bizarre televised journey in the famous white Ford Bronco. I had continued in that vein for a while, my mind becoming cluttered with a dizzying assortment of images involving unforgivable murders and other perversions of justice. The ideals of compassion had seemed distant, insignificant. I’d felt resigned, passively understanding that life moves forward just as traffic eventually does. Suddenly, the cars in front of me had slowed abruptly and I had braked hard, glad to see cars in my rear-view mirror doing the same.
The bagged corpse had slid off the seat and onto the floor, and I’d tried to pull it back up with my right hand. It had been quite heavy, and I’d realised it would be a difficult and dangerous task to accomplish while driving, so I had made my way across two lanes of traffic and off onto the side of the freeway. As I had come round the front of the truck and opened the passenger-side door, I had decided I’d have a look at you to see if you were intact. I had straightened out the towel on the seat and lifted the bundle back onto it, then poked a hole in the plastic bag, now wet with condensation, where I could feel one of your frozen paws. Long black hair, long black nails. Not much like any of your paws. I had quickly felt for the body’s head, finding a stiff tongue projecting beyond clenched teeth, and then a collar around the neck. We had taken your collar off when you’d expired at the vet’s, and I knew that Henry was wearing it wrapped twice around his wrist as a bracelet today. This dog was not you. The absurdity of it all had hit me immediately as I had stood up and stared at the mass of moving cars through the poisonous-looking heat waves. The sadness of it had been suddenly overwhelming, as was the smell of initial decomposition, which I had not been aware of until that moment, like that of a dead deer that’s been hanging for a few hours from a tree.
I had never really wanted to live in Los Angeles. Here I was, on yet another ridiculous errand, feeling vaguely like I was being punished for some past transgression, marking time and forced to make sense of an oddly evolving riddle. I had secured the corpse and made sure the towel was placed so as to keep the dead stranger from touching the seat or any part of the truck’s interior. Eventually, I’d got myself turned around and headed back to the vet’s, feeling sorry for this poor dog I did not know, and for its unwitting owner. En route, I had called the crematorium and informed them that I would be late for our oven appointment because I’d been given the wrong dog. They’d been very kind, had said I should get there when I could, and that they were very sorry.
Now the crematorium is about two miles behind me as I sit listlessly sipping coffee at a Mexican restaurant. This is as far as I have got, with my new cedar box containing your remaining bone fragments and ashes. I had asked the oven-minder to please not crush your bones if that was what he’d planned on doing.
“Yes, normally we do very gently break down the bone matter so that it fits comfortably in the box or urn as the case might be. If you prefer, though … ”
“…we can also not do it and just try and place her, the bone matter—the bag, that is—in the cedar box for you. If they’ll fit—if it will fit—that is.”
“That’s ok, I can do it.”
Earlier, out by the ovens, I had been allowed to scoop up all your burnt bits from the metal tray that the man had scraped the cooling, fragile ghost-shape of your skeleton onto. I had stopped several times to carefully examine some of your more distinguishable pieces. Vertebrae, hip parts and most beautiful of all, the rounded piece of bone that I instantly recognized as the top of your skull. We have petted that part of you so often. I can feel its shape even now, in memory, feel the bone through your smooth fur, feel your warmth and your happiness. All of it had gone into the plastic bag he now held.
“Ok, sir. As you prefer.”
I proceeded to gently rearrange the bag and its contents inside the box, and then placed your crematorium nametag and the receipt for services provided on top of your remains before closing the lid with its little brass clasp.
“We would like you to consider the cedar box a gift from us due to the unfortunate mistake that was made this morning. We are very sorry about that.”
“Oh. Well … thank you …”
A woman who seemed to be the oven-minder’s boss, and perhaps the owner of the establishment, stood up and came around her desk to address me. “We are very sorry that … Brigit?… that Brigit got confused this morning.”
I almost pointed out that you had not been confused at all, being quite dead, but I resisted the temptation, knowing what she meant.
“It is very unusual that something unheard of like that would happen,” she continued. “Very unusual, and we are extremely sorry. If you prefer a larger box or don’t like cedar as a wood type… maybe an urn would be more to your liking?”
I was truly moved by her words and the generous offer.
“Is it Western red cedar?” I asked, for some reason unknown to me now—perhaps being at a loss for anything better to say by way of response.
“You know, I am not real sure about that,” she replied, a bit thrown off by my question. “I certainly can try and find out for you, if you like?”
“No, thanks. I was just wondering. Just curious, I guess.”
“Would you like to replace the cedar?”
“Replace? No. I like cedar. Smells good, looks good. Thank you.” I now felt like a complete idiot. “You don’t have to give me the box, though. Don’t have to give it… I’m happy to pay for it.”
“We insist. It’s something we want to do for you.”
“Thank you very much. Very kind of you.”
“If Brigit doesn’t fit comfortably, not being completely dust and all… ”
(“Comfortably?” Never mind… ) “No, that’s fine. She fits. I got her in there ok. And it’s a beautiful box. Thank you.”
“Me podría traer un poco de arroz con frijoles, por favor?”
“Would you like anything else with that?” the waitress replied, in heavily Spanish-accented English.
“Gracias, pero la verdad es que no tengo mucho hambre.”
She looked at me calmly, and said “I’ll bring it right out. Warm up your coffee for you?”
“Fijese: ahora que lo pienso creo que sí me gustaría una pequeña ensalada de lechuga y tomate… y cebolla, si hay.”
“Ok,” she continued in English, “and will you like some dressing—vinaigrette, ranch, French, blue cheese, or oil and vinegar—for that?”
Doesn’t happen often, but once in a while my gringo looks or perhaps my Argentine accent seem to be held against me like that. She glances at the cedar box resting on the table to the right of my place setting. I wonder if she has seen this sort of box before. The crematorium isn’t far, and maybe other people stop here now and then as I have, unable or unwilling to drive any further. Maybe they sometimes come here and get a little drunk, become indiscreet and open their boxes to look at what’s left of their animal friends. Maybe they cry and have to be consoled. I do not look at my box, just hold the waitress’ gaze when it returns to me. I’ve taken an initial dislike to her because she seems to refuse to speak Spanish with me, so I’m certainly not going to give her any more clues now.
“Will that be all, sir?” she asks dryly.
“Sí… y si me puede traer la cuenta con la comida—y un poco más de café—se lo agradecería.”
She looks at me for a moment longer, then reluctantly mutters “Por supuesto, señor,” as she turns to go place my order.
His name was Astro. He had that name when I got him. The young, troubled, hippie girl, who had given him up, had labeled him with that cosmic name. It sure must have broken her heart to have to let him go. Her apartment management had strict rules about "No dogs allowed." So her mean old landlord was taking him in his pick up to the pound. That was when he ran across me in a gas station in Kealakekua, Hawaii. He said "Hey. Do you want a dog?' I certainly did not need or want a dog. But I looked at the one and a half year old pup with long, dark, red hair and was immediately struck by his beauty. I said "You’re not really taking a beautiful, purebred, Irish Setter to the pound. Are you?" He replied "You want him? He's yours." I agreed to hold on to him till I found the homeless canine a good home. I put Astro in the back of my van. My wife came along a little bit later. She was also awe struck by his beauty. She said "I've wanted an Irish Setter since I was a little girl" We really never tried to find anyone else to take him. We got attached to him almost right away. Astro went out of his way to please and to fit into our lifestyle. Being that we did not have kids, I guess you could say he became our adopted baby. That special bundle of fur changed our lives. Astro lived to run, jump, play and get all sorts of admiration. He sure got it from almost everyone he met. He had a special warm, affectionate presence that you could feel. He could pretty near communicate in English. There were three syllables to the sound, (sentence), he would utter from time to time, especially when he was around kids. It sounded like "Wouf vov wu" I soon realized he was saying "I love you" We were at a beach party one time. I had tied Astro to my van so he would not run off. I returned a bit later and discovered the local kids had found him. There were ten to twelve little hands petting him. Astro was in seventh heaven. Wish I had a camera to capture it. I did quite a bit of driving in those days. Astro was almost always sitting by my side in the passenger seat. He would stick his nose out the van window, his long, red hair flying in the breeze. He just loved to travel and watch the world go by. It was his passion. We lived for a while close to an avocado orchard. It was neglected and had gone wild. Astro was an outside dog at the time. He would let us know about five o'clock that it was getting close to supper time. We would put out his dinner bowl and watch him gobble it all up. A short time later we would find an avocado sitting on our front step. It would not even have any teeth marks on it. Astro was no freeloader. He liked to have a fair exchange. When it came time to leave Hawaii, there was that dreadful choice about giving him up and finding him a new home. I just couldn't do it. I brought him along to the Mainland and was so glad I did. He became even more sweet and mellow as he grew older. I was in the moving business in California in those days. I did many long distance runs with Astro tagging along for the ride. Vegas, Seattle, Denver, New Mexico, even Old Mexico — we've been there. He and I chalked up many a mile together. At night, when it was cold and rainy, I'd feel sorry for him being all alone locked up in the truck. So I would sneak him into the warmth of my motel room. My wife and I were settled in beautiful South Lake Tahoe in the early nineties. Being so used to the sandy beaches of Hawaii, Astro didn't know what to make of the snow. But he sure loved his new surroundings. He would get us up early each morning to walk together through the woods out toward the lake. Those were good old days with golden memories to treasure. It was there, later on, that his life cycle advanced ahead of ours. Astro's health failed and he left us. He died in my arms. I dug his grave and we bade him farewell. When I laid his body in the cold dirt I had a last look at his beautiful face, hair and features. But there was an emptiness. He was gone. It was as though I had taken off a fur glove and gazed at its form. All that was left was a lifeless clump of material that reminded me so much of the beauty, love and essence that was Astro. After all these years, I finally sit and write the story about my travels and adventures with Astro. Through all the tears and smiles, the memories come flooding back. That red haired rascal taught me the meaning of true unconditional love. There are a great many Astros out there waiting. All they ask for is for a little love, affection and a good home. They will return your love and kindness many times over.
He died a day ago. There is a sand-fire up North. White flakes of ash fall from the sky like snow. And yet, this is not what alarms me. I stare at our yard. For almost 12 years, Bowie would appear, from the brush, often with a fully blackened snout from digging in fresh fluffy soil, from fitting his favorite stuffed animals for their graves or burying bones that were just too good to be enjoyed all at once.
The next day, at 10am on the dot, I open his doggy door, as that was usually when he was due for a pee. I look out at our yard again. He is still not there, of course. It is windy now, the leaves are starting to fall, and pine needles are raining down like daggers. He would hate this. He used to bark at everything, even the wind. We thought it was something he would outgrow. He never did.
In his absence, the squirrels have become bolder. They dig in the grass, they eat the apples from the apple tree. They get way too close to our house, practically touching our back french doors. I will sprinkle the dog’s ashes all over the yard in hopes the squirrels will smell him and show some damn respect. One day, I bark at them, emulating Bowie’s howling beagle arooo. The squirrels just look at me, confused. So I run at them while howling. It works. For a moment, I am proud. I’m continuing to fight the good fight.
“I’ve been barking at squirrels,” I confess to my husband a few nights later. I feel someone needs to know this information, as I am starting to worry about myself. (Though I’m equal parts terrified he will have me committed.)
“I get it,” my husband says, surprising me. “I still open a can of dog food every morning. Habit, I guess.” Then he starts to cry, resting his head on the pillow between us that the dog claimed over a decade ago in his Oedipal battle for my love.
I don’t tell him that I also sit perched on Bo’s downstairs dog bed waiting for the takeout guy to show up with food. Or that I stalked a raccoon near our garbage cans yesterday. And I chased the mailwoman (because she forgot to pick up my letters for mailing).
Is it possible that in all of my grief, I am becoming a dog? Or have I always been one, deep down? Trans-Species: is that a thing?
I took our daughters to a combination pumpkin patch/ petting zoo yesterday. As they fed chickens, I knelt down and pressed my nose against a goat’s nose and pet the blaze of fur between its eyes, the way I used to with Bo. If I had closed my eyes, it would have felt just like him. But I didn’t, as I quickly became aware of how this looked, a woman paying no attention to her human children running around, instead sitting forehead to forehead with a goat. Eventually my kids came over and pet the goat. Before leaving the parking lot, I texted my husband: “our next dog might be a goat.”
Bo’s favorite delivery man came today, with a package for us and two crunchy bones that he always gave to Bo. I explained to him that our dog was gone, had died, and then I watched as this big burly man’s face crumpled into tears. “It’s okay,” I said feebly, while looking away. He still handed me the bones.
Time heals all wounds, the other humans in my life have been saying. I hope that’s true. For now, I’ll bury his bones in the yard and keep barking at squirrels.
Fine, Evil, you win. Take this body. This 12 ½ year old shell of the dog I once was. Take it all. See what it gets you.
Take these eyes. In the end, they were blind to the world and useless to me. I will keep images of every face I have ever loved, ending with Tim holding me as I hopped toward the light and into another world.
Hey Evil. You want these ears? Take them now, for what they’re worth. For in my mind, I have recorded beautiful harmonies and rhythms of nature that speak to my heart. My soul has embraced words of love and friendship that your essence will never comprehend.
My nose? All yours pal. Like you, it’s dry and shriveled like stale fruit. I’ll keep the scent memories of dew on newborn prairie tallgrass and the titillating stench of a rotting log. I can catalog the bouquet of love and joy, and happiness. I’ve known them all my life.
These legs all bent and paralyzed? Take them. I only have three so I bet you’re feeling short changed. Funny how I never felt that way. What you can never possess is the passion that fueled them. For these legs have elevated me to more mountaintop experiences than you will ever know. I have hiked more miles on flatland trails and city sidewalks than you can count. My legs have run, weaved, and tunneled their way to 18 agility titles. This single front leg has enabled people to see that we are all greater than the sum of our parts.
Last is my heart. The grand prize. Bet you think you’ve won the lottery with that one. But it rests silently in my chest and will soon be reduced to ashes. The essence of my heart that lived and loved and pumped blood through my body so I could climb mountains and wow agility audiences remains with me in a place that your cancerous tentacles will never penetrate.
You are a hideous mass that took my life. Damn you. I wasn’t ready to go just yet. Tim still needed me. But I am still here because death doesn’t end relationships. I have legions of beings that have loved me and will continue to do so.
Most of all, I love you, Tim, and I always will. And I will be waiting for you on the other side.
Arriving home at 4am with the ghost
This is what I need – belief that everyone
Poochie, my companion and best friend, came to me as a frisky, sweet and gentle eight years old dog. He had a mind of his own and found a way to let me know what he wanted, needed and when. Poochie would patiently wait by the couch for me to come and sit with him. Maybe he would get a belly rub if he were lucky. If it took too long for me to come, he would become vocal. We had our ways to communicate. The love ran deep between us and there was a bond not to be broken.
Culture: Stories & Lit
On September 1, 2001, I peered into Afghanistan from the very small corridor that touches the Chinese border. Working for a student travel company, this trip along the Chinese portion of the ancient Silk Road had reached its westernmost point. Tomorrow we would retrace our path back eastward to Beijing, to board our plane back to the States on September 11. Life was following its trajectory to extreme and far flung adventure. I had been out of the country on various assignments for nearly two months – time to come home.
The next month would unfold into events far from anyone’s control. On the evening of September 11, I was packing my bags in the Beijing hotel preparing for my flight. With the time difference, we were in horror of what was happening back home on the morning of 9/11. It took another two weeks before I had finally finagled my way back to Boulder after being stranded in Beijing following the terrorist attacks and the chaotic cancelation of international flights. The following week, I was glued to the TV watching anthrax scares after all the employees at my student travel organization were laid off. The director could see the writing on the wall.
Out of all the possible ways to stay sane during those uncertain and CNN-watching times, I chose puppies. I wandered out of my house in the crisp October and into a pet store.
“How many puppies can I have with me in the puppy meeting room at one time?”
“I’ll take a Beagle, a Dalmatian and Golden Retriever, please.”
I sat cross-legged in a sterile 6 X 6 room as they were brought in one by one. They wrestled and tumbled the anxiety right out of me.
Two days later, Roy came home with me from the Humane Society. The dog I named Roy was a three-month-old Bloodhound / Sharpei mix. Yep, try to picture what that looks like. I had no idea what I was doing with my life, but I knew I needed some levity and grounding. I purchased a leash, a food bowl, and a clicker for training at the Boulder Humane Society store. The woman behind the counter said with a knowing smile, “Watch out. When you settle down enough to have a dog, a husband and kids are not far behind. You’re sending a message to the universe - I see it all the time.” It seemed a bit overreaching for the volunteer cashier, but I thought at 31 years old, with some serious curve balls thrown into my career as a travel guide, that a husband and kids might be cool.
“Roy” is a slang word in the Southern Thai dialect (where I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer) that means everything good. Food was roy, clothes were roy, even the weather or a new pickup truck. And my caramel-colored Roy with a wrinkled forehead got me away from the news reel and out of my slump. Like all puppies, he chewed my shoes, needed to be let out to pee two or three times a night and demanded my attention through exercise and socialization – all really good training if you are going to have children one day.
This optimistic, enthusiastic companion bore witness to my next 13+ years: finding the love of my life, three moves, three children and my own wrinkled forehead. He protected me from the fed-ex man and things that go bump in the night, licked the tears of miscarriages away, slept in the bed next to me when my husband traveled or when I had 68 days of pregnancy bed rest. He even kept my feet warm when I was up through the wee hours nursing and soothing my infants and stood guard next to their cribs and infant carriers. Roy is their godfather, after helping me send my message to the universe, my harbinger of life’s gifts.
For the first 3 years we were together, he was my baby. We hiked, I obsessed over his possible ailments on the internet and kept a folder with all his report cards from puppy preschool to adult behavior training. When he was two, Will and I lived in Austin. On the weekends I took him running through the wildness of Barton Creek. He ran three miles for every mile I did - looping ahead and behind, patrolling my perimeter and stopping to hump the smaller dogs he passed. Running, humping, drinking from the fresh creek: good days to be a dog. When we came back to Colorado, we lived on ten acres in Nederland and he chased the huge mule deer and roamed free without a fence. As life progressed, other human babies cornered my attention, we moved to a fenced yard three thousand feet below and I would often look over to him with guilt. I’d love a run too, I thought. How many mornings was I trying to get my three kids to school on time without losing my shit, that I didn’t even turn around to meet his watchful eyes? I’m sorry, buddy.
In two day’s time I have scheduled to have Roy euthanized in our home. I wonder at the tears that lay centimeters below the surface as I go about my day as usual – It’s the logical thing to do. He’s almost 14. He’s lived a great life. He’s suffering. He can’t stand up on his own any more. The drugs have left him a sleepy shell of his former self. Yet, today as I return from the grocery store, his tail thwaps against his dog bed to see me enter. I eat with him in his dog bed. He gets smoked salmon from Whole Foods - all he can eat. I eat my sushi. He sighs his long yogi-ujay breath. I cry.
When someone you love is dying, all the refrigerator magnet platitudes suddenly feel profound. No one else has been such an intimate witness to my life, a bridge through my chapters and cheerleader and non-judgmental friend through my craziness. There’s always some editing to what I show – to even my husband or best friends. Roy has witnessed me trying to squeeze into the too-tight jeans, lip-synching Aretha with a hairbrush, blubbering sad, saying what I wish I’d said to the bathroom mirror and the Madmen evening marathons that I explain away as being really swamped with life. He knows.
My ten-year-old daughter asks me why dogs don’t live as long as we do, why they live seven times faster. Maybe another gift from our pets is to remember that life is brief. We get to witness their silly infancy, their wild and confident teen years and finally the old age that we all might be lucky to face ourselves. All of this happens for them in a decade or so of our own life. Our time here is just a blip – don’t take anything for granted - they remind us.
I hold Roy’s white muzzle in my cupped hands and look into his clouded eyes. I am looking for a message, permission, my further life instructions. I can insert anything I want: “my message to you is _________________. “ A) Yes, I need your help to go. B) Thanks for doing the right thing because I’m hurting. C) You’ve got this, Anni. You don’t need me any more. Or even D) Please remember to wear sunscreen. Instead I just see his goodness, his Royness and maybe that’s all the life instruction I need: remember the goodness.
Slayer was attacked by two large dogs in a moments notice, and he didn’t make it. We buried him earlier this morning.
He was the first person to ever teach me about unconditional love. He would cry if we went in the bathroom and shut the door. He had to be with us no matter what. This dog would hug us. He would lean his two front paws on our shoulders, rub his face against ours, and genuinely embrace us. There’s no denying it for me - dogs are human. They can shut down just like humans do in the face of torture or become as sweet and loving as their owner.
He was a cuddle bug. Mornings we would wake to Slay biting my hair, his soft fur tickling my forehead. If we didn't arise at a time of his liking, he would climb under the covers and jokingly bite our toes! He would come get me when newborn Lars made a peep after we brought him home from the hospital.
But Slay hated not being the baby anymore. When Lars moved into our bed, Slay pouted but eventually found a comfy spot on the side of Daddy instead of on my head. Elongated and now facing our feet, he would keep a vigilant night watch of the bedroom door.
On days when I would try to write at the kitchen desk, Slayer would make the sweetest short bark as he commanded me to give him treats - after all, I was in the kitchen - didn’t that mean it was feeding time?! I spoiled him. I feed him chicken on top of his super expensive no-grain, uber-organic dog food. I gave him cheese, I gave him scraps, I gave him gourmet meals, I gave him everything. And it still feels right.
He came to us a little black fluff ball - he became Mike’s military squadron dog. All the VFA-32 boys knew him. He was always a guardian. Always a little “mayor” who loved everyone.
I will forever be grateful I loved this dog and knew the wholehearted love he bestowed to me and my family. He survived eye cancer only to be taken away from us in this violent way. I fought for him. My arm tells that story. I don’t want the bruises to go away. I want scars. It means I tried to do my job even though I didn’t. Once they fade, Slay’s memory might too.
The tears come in waves. Our family is shaken in a way we luckily have yet to experience. Larsen asked if he will die one day too.
As we came together today to bury my best friend and first born, my heart is heavy, my heart is broken. Of course we will be satisfied with the life we gave him. Yet, we are greedy. We wanted more hugs, more cuddles, more love from this little guy.
How does one write an obituary for a dog?
You just sit down, rub his gray fur, hold his paw for one last time, and let the tears fall into the dirt that you throw on his small white casket, hoping your hurt and love cradles his grave. You remind yourself this is the messy side of life, and you aren’t special enough to avoid it. You graciously accept the ways your son tries to “make you happy again.” You zone out a lot, almost in hopes of deceiving yourself you are living your normal life again and he is just around the corner as you walk in. You leave his bowl out on the counter. It hurts, but it feels like the right thing to do.
You shut the blinds so you can’t see the spot where it happened. You lie in bed a lot. Your friend brings you dirty martinis and croissant sandwiches. You finally face it. You sit in a dark, cold room, drinking hard booze while clutching his collar and clinging to the good times.
You take in the hurt and happiness, swallowing gulps of air after the intense crying, and you tell yourself it will get easier each day. You plan your escape route. You remember how you repeated “He’s a fighter” a zillion times at the emergency vet, with the prospects that positive thinking and words really do create reality. You take in the love that family and friends provide. You tell yourself it’s okay to keep grieving, even if its over a dog-eat-dog world.
He’s been with us since a few days after we were married. Nine years we’ve known his love. It’s funny how we found him. He was named “Teddy” and was in a Hawaiian shirt. He seemed just as laid back as us in that photograph. I imagine taking him to dog beach in San Diego one last time, letting him people watch and catch the ball in the waves.
He will be forever missed.
She was their baby in the beginning.
She was calm, laid back,
And then the human puppies were born.
She didn’t seem to mind the missed walks.
One of the grandfathers took her
The other grandfather brought her
Grandmothers bought her new collars
All the grandparents slipped her treats
When the human babies were learning
She was so calm, laid back,
When I spent the night at her house,
Her sweetness broke my heart.
She had knee surgery a year and a half ago.
And yesterday, Ben called to tell me
The vet came to the house.
Surrounded by the people
Oh, you sweet dog.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Its been a rough few months around here with a great deal of loss. I remember in January and February sitting with the dogs one evening after work and knowing that 4 of them were likely not going to be around much longer. Three of the four were past ten with a variety of age related issues. Tyra was the youngest at only about 6 but Great Danes have one of the shortest lifespans of any breed and she suffered from wobblers disease and other serious issues common in the breed. The first to go was our dear old German shepherd Dillon who we took in with another dog, Molly, when their home burned in the Valley fires. Dillon was old and frail when he came to us. He was in liver failure, heartworm positive and had advanced hip dysplasia. He had 5 good months with us before his issues took a toll and we had to say good bye. Exactly one week later, 13 year old blind pit bull Patty had declined to the point we couldn’t keep her comfortable and our hearts broke again. Patty came to us at age eleven as part of a felony cruelty case and we had 2 ½ wonderful years with her. Patty was perfection in dog form. She had a gentleness, presence and wisdom I had rarely seen even with 30 plus years of working with dogs. I was feeling incredibly fragile when Paul and I got home from the vet after letting Patty go. Two dogs in one week was heartbreaking and overwhelming. We walked in the door and our sweet Tyra was down and in distress. She had been failing for months and in fact several times it had seemed as if she would be the first to go. Tyra had wobblers disease, common in Great Danes and we had been having to help her up for months. She had nerve damage, intermittent incontinence, weakness and other ongoing issues. I was usually able to help Tyra get up but at 120 pounds it wasn’t easy and that time I couldn’t get her up at all. After trying several times with no success I knelt beside her and took her big beautiful head in my hands. I knew it wasn’t fair but I couldn’t help it. I’ve never been one to prolong the inevitable for my own needs but I was crushed with sadness and I struggled to breathe as I looked into her sweet brown eyes. “Sweetheart, I can’t do this. Please give me more time. You have to hold on a little longer for me. Just a week,” I begged her. ”Please, I just need a week to pull myself together”. We held each others gaze for a moment and then with Paul’s help we were able to get her up and moving. Tyra actually rallied for several months and it was a daily struggle but she still had a lot of joy in that time. We monitored her quality of life on a daily and often hourly basis, constantly weighing her comfort and happiness against the inevitable. We kept in touch with her vet, tried acupuncture, pain meds, anti-inflammatorys and more. In the past week it finally came to the point that her bad days outweighed the good and we knew we had to let her go. The vet came to the house and she slipped away in her own bed surrounded by those who loved her. The pain is still sharp and raw and the tears are quick to spill but that is the price of love. The greater the love, the greater the pain. And dogs are so worth it. So incredibly, amazingly worth it. I could have easily spared myself the agony of loss by just not taking them in. But how much richer my life was by knowing them. How sweet was the time I spent with them. And not only did they bring such precious love and joy to my life but what would have happened to them had I not taken them? Certainly there are worse things than a humane end in the arms of caring shelter staff, but how much better to be embraced by someone who loves you deeply and fully. Every dog deserves to take that last breath in the arms of someone who loves them so much that the tears flow but the sobs are held back until the last heartbeat to spare them the worry of seeing your grief.
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