I climbed up the step-stool to reach the cabinet above the sink, grabbing a box to fill with the medley of cold medicine, antacids and allergy pills. A handful of bottles was too much and two of them fell to the floor below, rattling and popping open, throwing their contents across the tile. I sighed and climbed down the steps and began gathering the small pills. I rolled the bottle over in my hand after retrieving it from the floor. “Patient: May Normand Johnson. Give half a pill with food 2x a day.” My breath caught in my throat, and I leaned back onto the step, eyes immediately tearing up. I was jarred from my manic cleaning by the reminder of my most recent loss and the continuing grief I’d been fighting.
Dearest readers, I have had a truly black case of writer’s block since Sunday, August 6th, 2017. I’m not trying to be overly dramatic, but something broke in me as I held my dog as she took her last gasping breaths, her heart finally failing her. Failing us. In a short month and half, she had gone from the most energetic and obnoxious dog to a shadow of her former self, unable to play ball due to her shortness of breath and extreme fatigue. She would hold the ball in her mouth, breathing heavy around it, in an act of greatest defiance. She could no longer move around and would frequently pass out, losing control of all of her functions and gagging in a most frightening manner.
On a warm, sunny afternoon playing ball in the backyard, she’d passed out suddenly. Panicked, I grabbed her and took her inside where she came to and looked at me as if I were being silly. She was fine, she said. I took her to the animal ER and her breathing was stabilized with oxygen as she underwent imaging and tests. A couple of grand later, we learned that she had a congenital heart defect that had suddenly worsened. That, for a relatively youthful eight-year-old terrier, she had a bad prognosis of at most two to three months and that there was nothing we could do for her. I spent the next month not sleeping much and spending every moment I could with her, rushing home from work anxiously praying that I wouldn’t open the door to find her gone already. Praying that she wait to go till I could be with her.
And so, on another warm, sunny afternoon in the backyard, it happened. She’d been up all night, unable to get comfortable, so I’d slept on the floor with her, holding her. As the sun came through the blinds the next morning, I had a sad feeling. She looked at me and, though her breathing was still labored, she seemed different. As if she were distant, not present anymore. I opened the back door and took her out to lay in the cool morning grass. She loved laying in the grass, so we lie there together, the sky painfully blue above us. She labored for what seemed like forever. I had coolly thought that, after a month mentally preparing myself for it, that somehow it would be less painful or awful. I’d seen animals die before, but this was quite different. This was my best friend, the love of my life. Save for my parents, no one had loved me more than Normand and, likely, no one ever will again. As anyone who knew us would attest to, she and I were beyond inseparable.
It was awful. It was ugly. I held her in my arms, unable to maintain any composure. She went quickly, but it was death. The whole eyes-dilating, body-seizing, foam-out-the-mouth ugly, ugly face of death. I felt her fighting it, and I held her till she was still. I don’t know how long I sat out in the grass holding her. I’d lost track of all time. Eventually, I picked her up and took her inside to lay her on her blanket. I felt tremendous shame at the feeling of relief that washed over me. So much shame. I took her to be cremated that morning, still consumed with shame and guilt at being able to take a breath in the now overwhelming silence of the house.
By far the greatest casualty of Normand’s death was my other dog’s severe concern and anxiety about what had occurred. I had been dedicating all of my energy for the past two months in the constant care of Norm, which he seemed not to mind. But this event was too much for him. All that he knew was that she was different and then that she was gone, taken away by me. He’d pace for hours at the front door, eager for me to go get her. In my grief, I did not know how to respond to him other than to try to console him through my own tears. He was despondent almost immediately after her death, lacking her constant leadership and guidance. I had work to distract me, but, when I’d get home, he’d be sleeping in her bed. He stopped responding to me and he’d stopped eating by the end of the week. Luckily, he loves my parents’ dog pack and has sense regained his sense of joy since going to stay with them.
I tell you all of this awfulness, dear reader, to tell you this — that I still believe in love. Though my heart is broken and I am changed, I still believe in love because a dog showed me and taught me such an awesome love. She came into my life during a separation and divorce, helped me survive grad school, moved multiple times with me, and braved the cold winters of Maine by my side before making the journey back to North Carolina this year. She had the most enthusiastic and purest love for everyone around her. She packed in so many good memories in her short eight years. I miss her the most when I am driving. Her place was always riding shotgun, Guns N’ Roses blaring on the radio, happy to go anywhere with me so long as we were together. Thousands of miles we’d ride together. Sometimes I see something out of the corner of my sunglasses, and, for a split second, I swear I catch a glimpse of black and white next to me. I guess, in some way, she’ll always be riding shotgun with me.
I know that this is a seemingly dreary post to start off 2018, but I feel that part of my healing will come through sharing my grief. I count myself so very lucky to have been loved by a dog and, as I write more about the other changes going on in my life, I hope to be more of the person she thought me to be. It’s a lot to live up to, but that is my simple goal for 2018.
“You’ve been gone for a long long time
You’ve been in the wind, you’ve been on my mind
You are the purest soul I’ve ever known in my lifeTake your time, let the rivers guide you in
You know where you can find me again
I’ll be waiting here ’til the stars fall out of the skyWhen you left I was far too young
To know you’re worth more than the moon and the sun
You are still alive when I look to the sky in the nightI would wait for a thousand years
I would sit right here by the lake, my dear
You just let me know that you’re coming home
And I’ll wait for youYears have gone but the pain is the same
I have passed my days by the sound of your name
Well they say that you’re gone and that I should move on
I wonder: how do they know, baby?Death is a wall but it can’t be the end
You are my protector and my best friend
Well they say that you’re gone and that I should move on
I wonder: how do they know, baby?
How do they know? Well, they don’t”
“Yes I know that love is like ghostsOh, few have seen it, but everybody talks
Spirits follow everywhere I go
Oh they sing all day and they haunt me in the night
Oh they sing all day and they haunt me in the nightYes I know that love is like ghosts
Oh, and what ain’t living can never really die
You don’t want me baby please don’t lie
Oh but if you’re leaving, I gotta know why
I said if you’re leaving, I gotta know whyOh I sing all day and I love you through the nightYes I know that love is like ghosts
Oh and the moonlight baby shows you whats real
There ain’t a language for the things I feel
And if I can’t have you then no one ever will
Oh, if I can’t have you then no one ever willI don’t feel it till it hurts sometimes
Oh go on baby, hurt me tonight
I want ours to be an endless song
Baby in my eyes you do no wrong
I don’t feel it till it hurts sometimes
So go on baby hurt me tonight
All the spirits that I know I saw
Do you see no ghost in me at all
Oh I sing all day and I love you through the night”