Posted on | April 24, 2014 | 24 Comments
By noon yesterday, I was wandering aimlessly around Target, wiping tears from my cheeks and wearing a sign as big as a house that announced “GRIEF” to any and every one who approached. I ran into two people I know and both asked, in that sideways way that people do… sort of from the corner of their mouth with a glance around to see who is listening: “are you… okay?”
My shopping cart was attracting non-essential goods like a magnet. First it was a pretty lamp shade, then two kitchen rugs that don’t match anything in my house. Inexplicably, I saw a Welcome mat there, though I have one already, and before I knew what was happening I was checking out at the register and watching the number creep steadily higher into the range of “No. No I am not okay.”
Grief is a funny thing.
On Tuesday night, my sweet boy, my darling just-shy of sixteen years old puppy, came into the kitchen where I was making dinner. He walked stilted, sort of stiff and disjointed, the arthritic walk of an old man… but I’d grown used to the sound of the click and drag of his feet. It no longer worried me. I no longer thought “Oh he’s old” when I heard him coming… I just thought “Oh. He’s AJ.”
Because he was.
He stood there looking at me in his peculiar way, head cocked sideways, ears pointing straight up at the sky as though he had a question. As though he had the biggest question. Slowly, I watched his back legs slide out from under him, something that had been happening more and more often. Though this time, all four legs slid out, and he lay there on his belly before me, splayed out and unable to move, his ears and eyes still asking me that impossible question.
I tried to help him up, tried to give him traction to brace his feet against. J helped, sliding in rugs and towels and anything we could find to put beneath his feet to help him stand. It took twenty minutes of both mother and son, both mother and puppy, working together to get him upright again and in the meantime, he had pooped himself and the floor around him.
This is not living, his eyes announced sadly, this is not living.
I didn’t want to believe him, I wanted to believe he could strengthen his old bones and try again, maybe rewind time and be the puppy who ate the drywall off the top of the stairs in our rental property… the puppy who would hide beneath my bed in such a small space that I’d believe he’d somehow gotten out and I’d run the apartment property sobbing and calling his name. I wanted him to be the young dog who would dart past me out the door and stay just ten feet away, never returning, never leaving… just staying far enough away that he couldn’t be reached. The sweet boy who held my secrets in his soft, pointy ears, and dried my tears with the warmth of his fur. I wanted him to stay.
But this is not living.
So on Wednesday morning, I called my vet and carried my sweet old man down the steps of our house for the last time. I tucked him into the floor board of the front seat and wrapped myself around him, legs and arms and heart. Ever the proud dog, he walked on his own into the office, then fell against the floor, again pooping himself with the sheer exhaustion of getting up. It was time.
I lifted his warm body up to the table and buried my face and soul in the softness of his fur. The memories of he and I… four states, two graduations, a marriage, a divorce, a baby… floated in and around my head making everything blurry and hazy. He nuzzled his nose against my chin and I sang to him, the old Irish lullaby that I used to sing him as a puppy. I wept until it felt that weeping was all there was… all there would ever be. When the song ended, he slept and I watched the rise and fall of his breathing until the last of him disappeared. I stayed until the last drop of urine fell from his body. I stayed until the weight of him not sitting up, not blinking, not licking his nose in the sweet and smacking way he had… felt too heavy. It all felt too heavy. I stayed until I couldn’t say there was any of him left to stay for, burying myself in the memory of him… not bearing the thought of walking out those doors and leaving him there. Leaving him, ever. Anywhere.
But sixteen years is a long time to be able to love someone as strong and sweet and wonderful as my AJ.
Nothing can prepare you for the grief of saying goodbye to a beloved family member… nothing. I still hear his feet on the floors of my house. I still smell his scent in his favorite corners. And unbidden, the last view of him…lying there, still and breathless on the table… explodes into my mind without any warning at all.
I can still hear the words I whispered to him as he slept, the words I’ve always whispered to him… the familiarity of it, the way he used to lick my cheek in response… the way he made no motion at all when I last whispered it to the sweetness of his pointy ears. “Batman ears” the woman at the pound had said when I adopted him, “You should call him Batman.”
Yes, my sweet boy, though I grieve you with every shaky breath, yes. That’ll do.