It’s been just over 48 hours since my dog died. By the time you read this, it will have been even longer. I spent the first 24 hours after he died still hearing his familiar cough, the clickity-clack of his nails on the hardwood floor, his breathing as he waited for me to make my way downstairs in the morning.
Mourning is funny and the human brain plays tricks on us.
I know grief well and this grief is sharp and stabbing and makes me want to vomit. It’s not constant, but when it hits, I can’t breathe. My eyelids are swollen and the skin on my face feels taut from the salt of my dried tears. And then life goes on–errands and work, grocery-store checkers who ask me what fun plans I have for the weekend. Inside my head, I plot my answer just to snap them out of their chipper mindlessness–oh, just going home to put away more of my dead dog’s things and maybe go upstairs to wrap myself in a blanket to sob and grieve a little more. I might throw up. You? Instead, I tell them, not much.
I once compared the types of grief to a salsa bar. This is habanero level.
In texts to trusted friends, I shamefully whisper, I feel like this is harder than when my mom died. Is that weird? They assure me that it isn’t. That I’m not a horrible person because they’ve felt the very same way. I’m careful not to share this with people who will tell me he was just a dog. An old dog.
For nearly 16 years, Max was a daily presence in my life. Every day, all day long, he was there. And not just there but deeply connected to all of us in our family. We were his pack and I was the Alpha. Together we won the Top Dog award in puppy class. Together we logged miles upon miles on the trails in the woods behind our house, explored the park that was eventually built, chasing butterflies and wild bunnies along the way. We looked out for bears in early spring and bobcats in the summer. He showed me how to joyfully leap over the awful garter snakes laying wait in our path but I always turned around and went back the other way. If Max thought I was a coward, he never let on. Instead, he’d simply shrug and follow me back. He always followed me back.
We like to talk about unconditional love when it comes to our children and partners, but I’ve never experienced the truly unconditional love like Max had for me and I for him. Grouchy, tired, annoyed and impatient–my many colored moods didn’t faze him. He loved me beyond measure, sometimes to a measure I was not deserving of. One of my yoga teachers often captions photos of her dogs with the hashtag, #dogisgodspelledbackwards. I wonder if dogs and their unflinching love and loyalty are the embodiment of god on earth. They are here to teach us about love.
Love is all there is.
Max knew the powerful medicine of a lively romp through nature, how both of us would return home breathless and centered in a way even the best yoga class couldn’t touch. He joyfully splashed through deep, muddy puddles in winter as I tentatively tiptoed around them, only to lose my balance and land both feet directly in the murky depths of the thick, wet mess. Patiently waiting for me on the other side of the puddle, he seemed to say, you have to go through the muck, not pussy-foot around it, silly!
The only way out is through.
As my kids grew up and left for college, Max was there to console me. As The Mister’s work continued to take him away and out of town for weeks at a time, Max stayed with me. Max was by my side as I ventured out on my first solo weekends away to cabins in the woods that grew into spending days and days playing together at the ocean’s edge.
Just he and I. Me and Max. A girl and her dog. My constant companion in a sea of change.
The last few months have been hard to endure. Watching my best friend struggle to walk, feeling his bony hips and shoulders poke through his still-thick coat. The morning after Christmas, I awoke before the sun and packed myself and Max into my Prius, driving us both to the beach in Mukilteo. His bones and joints ached so much that he no longer wanted to lay down on his bed in the back of my car. As I carefully descended down the hill towards the water, Max lost his balance and became awkwardly lodged between the front seats. His breathing labored almost immediately and I worried he was getting crushed. I pulled over and managed to hoist him up and out. I sat back in my car and sobbed. December 26 was the last day we spent at the water–Max excitedly trotting from smell to smell, raising a leg to mark tufts of beach grass here and there, giddy to see crows and gulls and other early-risers.
We should all be so fortunate to die such a peaceful death. Surrounded by those who love us the very most, stroking our arms, massaging our scalp as we relax and go to sleep one last time. To spend our final days on earth immersed in our favorite things–one last trip to the woods, as many cheeseburgers as we want, a cocoon of love wrapped tight around us. To have delayed this death any longer would have been selfish. Knowing this doesn’t make the sting and ache of his passing hurt any less.
Nearly 16 years ago, on a Saturday in September, we were the first people at the shelter to set eyes on this litter of pups. Max and his three siblings, all a mix of Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd. As we were led towards the pen the puppies were in, Max stood out as the only one with a golden coat and a spray of freckles over his snout and along his white socks. I walked right up to the gaggle of squirmy pups, pointed to Max and proclaimed, I want you. Done. There was no discussion.
On that day, my daughter was four years old and a bit intimidated by such wild, frisky animals. My son, a slightly more confident nine-year-old. I was a stay-at-home mom and not yet a yoga teacher. The Mister, unconvinced we were ready to undertake such a formidable task. We filled out the adoption paperwork and left the shelter to shop for crates and leashes, toys and treats. We lunched on burritos and quesadillas at Taco Time, excitedly debating names and finally agreeing on “Max”. The next day, I picked him up from the shelter, clutching his soft, sweet puppy body on my lap as I carefully steered the minivan home.
The five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Right now, I’m hovering somewhere in the bargaining stage. Just bring him back, a voice inside me pleads. Just bring him back.
Today, the hole in my heart is massive and raw, with jagged edges that may never fully knit back together again. To those who encourage another dog right away, I say no. Not yet, because I need to sit in the space between–this emptiness–without rushing to fill it up again. To be present in this place of discomfort, as I often encourage my yoga classes. It’s not even close to comfortable discomfort. It fucking hurts like hell. It’s a small price to pay for the love we were so freely given.
Love is all there is.
The only way out is through.
Impossibly sad but forever changed. Send love and whiskey.