Grief is the strangest thing.
Currently my ears are hot and I’m a little bit sick to my stomach, and I don’t want to write this. I’m not crying, but perhaps that will change shortly.
When I wrote about my beloved cat Boo dying in September, I had to wait a few weeks before I could even get back on this blog and put words down. But what comforted me often during the period after I lost him was thinking about all the words I was going to write down when I inevitably blogged about it. When I finally did post, I sat down and just let all the words I wanted to say flow out, along with my tears. My grief for him was a storm– it was wild and often out of control, and descended upon me suddenly, often without warning, and sometimes when triggered by specific conditions.
On Friday evening my sister and I were at Target when my mom called me to tell us they were rushing our dog to the vet because he had collapsed. We found out he had an auto-immune disorder, where his immune system attacked his red blood cells and caused him to become dangerously anemic. He had possibly suffered a stroke when he had collapsed, and his spleen was enormously swollen. The doctor gave him injections, prescribed medicines for us to give him, and told us that he had a very good chance of being fine.
We took him home– we had to carry him because he was too weak to walk– and we settled him in our living room to watch. The vet had told us he would hopefully be up and around by tomorrow even. Throughout the night, he was able to lift himself and drink water numerous times, which our vet told us was a great sign. I sat up all night with him, and around seven in the morning, I realized he could no longer sit up. I thought he might have worn himself out, and so I hesitated to wake my mom up. After a little bit, however, I checked his eyes and realized they were rolled up into his head, and his breathing was becoming labored. I flew into my mom’s room and told her, begging her to call the vet. He told us to meet him at the vet office in thirty minutes.
We only live about five minutes from the vet’s office. It’s incredibly difficult to stall for time when you think your pet might be dying. We lifted my dog into the backseat of our car, with his head on my lap so I could hold him in place, and rushed over to the vet’s office. We arrived about fifteen minutes before he did. Or maybe that estimate was completely wrong; all I know was that my dog was not responsive and I was in something of a daze. We sat waiting in the car, desperately watching for our vet, while I ran my hand over and over my dog’s laboring sides, muttering soothing nonsense words to him.
Suddenly he jerked, and his breathing became erratic, and he started thrashing. He jerked so hard his back end fell off the seat. I was holding his upper body and desperately blowing air into his mouth, imploring my sister to push on his chest and doing it myself before she had a chance. I kept shouting his name, over and over, and telling him to wake up, to stop, to hold on.
It was so surreal. It felt like a moment in a bad movie, when one person dies and the other hovers over them, dramatically pleading with them to hang on even when they know they can’t. My sister and my mom had gotten out of the front seat of the car and were standing at the door, and they were crying and crying. And I just… I couldn’t cry. Because this moment couldn’t be real. It was like my brain simply could not comprehend what was happening. My dog was dying in my lap, and there was literally nothing I could do. Nothing. I was irrelevant. I didn’t matter.
I’m starting to tear up now as I write this. But I wasn’t at the time. I think someone finally said, “He’s gone.” And I just sat there, holding him in my lap and not crying, and in the back of my mind I distantly could hear a voice say, why aren’t you crying? but all I could do was just look at my boy, all I could feel was the way his body had gone slack in my arms, all I could hear was the absence of those deep, hard breaths he’d been taking.
What I’ve learned in the past few months is that one of the worst, most confusing moments of death is that moment right after they’ve gone. Literally seconds before, this body I was holding in my lap had contained my dog, Cash. It had just been the puppy we’d raised from birth, the one who had a white spot on his chest, even though he was an AKC registered Labrador, and they weren’t really supposed to have white on them. This was the dog my parents were going to sell because we already had three. He was the last of the second litter that we’d raised to sell to still be at our house (we had a boy dog named Riley and a girl dog named Sadie, and we’d already had a litter of puppies from them the year before that we’d sold, except for one named Johnny, who we kept).
This memory is so crystal clear to me. Cash was a few months old, and he was sprawled sleeping on the floor of our living room, right by the couch (because it was in a different place in our living room at that time) and next to the step up to the entry way. He was sleeping away, that hard, committed sleep of a puppy that’s worn itself out, a sprawl of black limbs, and I could just see that white spot on his chest. And they were talking about giving him to this sheriff who was interested in him, and how he could be a sheriff’s dog, and ride around with him, and I just started crying. And I laid my head against him and he looked up at me with these melting ambery-brown eyes and I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear for him to go. He was my Cash puppy; a strange name for a dog, but I was the one who had chosen it, because I was reading some ridiculous Diana Palmer romance novel when we were naming the puppies, and the hero was named Cash (the heroine was named Tippy, so the naming thing went better than it could have). And we already had a one year old dog we’d kept from our first litter named Johnny, so how cute to name a puppy in the next litter Cash! And now, how cute if we had dogs named Johnny and Cash! And I cried and I cried and I cried, and even after my parents agreed to let us keep him, I couldn’t stop crying for a while, because I was so scared at the thought of him going.
So come Saturday morning, I’m sitting here holding the body of this dog in my lap. And I’m so bewildered, because I’m staring at that little white spot on his chest, where the fur grew upwards for some strange reason, and I can’t understand how that white patch of hair means nothing anymore. This sudden absence, this disappearance to a place we simply cannot follow, is one of the worst things I’ve ever been forced to experience when losing someone I love. A few hours before, we were doing everything we could to care for that body, to make it better. And now, it was meaningless.
The vet arrived probably five or ten minutes after Cash was gone; again, I might be a little hazy on the details. My mom got out to speak with him; I couldn’t move because I was holding my dog on my lap. And my sister was sitting in the car crying and crying, and my sister never cries, and she kept saying, “Why can’t he just stop talking, we just want to go home!” and it was so strange because she is always the calm one, the reasonable one. And I remember thinking in this very distant way how I felt bad for the vet, because he’d had to drive from a long way out to meet us specially on a Saturday when the vet was closed and he was making an exception for us, and now he’d come all this way for nothing, and perhaps the least we could do was have our mom speak to him to tell him what happened.
Finally my mom came back and told us that the vet was pretty sure that Cashy must have suffered another stroke that morning. It seemed strangely irrelevant to me at that point. I was already bewildered with the rapidity of what had happened, the shock of finding out that our eternally healthy Cash had collapsed, to finding out he had some bizarre disease we had never heard of and knew nothing about, to thinking that he was improving ahead of schedule, to his sudden and abrupt decline.
My dad had had to work that day, and I realized I needed to tell him what had happened. I called, but he didn’t answer, and so my mom started the car. As we were pulling out, my dad called back, and all I could say was, “Daddy,” before I collapsed into sobs. As painfully dry as my eyes had been before, belatedly the truth struck me like a fist and I couldn’t even speak. I cried on the phone incoherently as we drove home, Cash’s body still in my lap, and I couldn’t seem to stop myself from still running my hand over him, like somehow that would soothe him from the trauma of dying. My dad just kept saying he was sorry over and over again, and again, somewhere in the back of my mind, I was so sorry for my dad, who feeds and waters and takes care of our dogs practically every day, and who had to go through an entire day of work before he could even come home and try and deal with what was waiting.
There was nothing to say when I finally could stop sobbing about how Cash died in my lap, and so I hung up the phone after telling my dad I loved him. We got home and parked in the yard, close to the gate to our side yard where we have an old pen that we kept the puppies in when we were raising them. We lifted Cash out in the sheet we’d put over the seat, and laid him down under one of the trees. It was cold outside, and my shoes had fallen off while we were trying to move him, but I couldn’t care enough to go get them and put them on.
Death is rarely a clean process, and I was determined to clean Cash up as best as I could. My mom brought me wipes and paper towels and I sat outside alone in my front yard, crying and snotting all over my sleeves, and doing the last thing I could think to do for my little black puppy with the white spot. The sheet Cash was on was very dirty by this point, and I was determined he would not be buried in it. I took the bright green sheet that I’d slept on my first year of college, and when I was finally done cleaning up Cash, my mom came outside with me and helped me move him onto it, and into the old dog pen. I wanted desperately to bury him, and it seemed impossible to wait the hours and hours for my dad to come home from work (it was barely eight, and my dad wouldn’t be home until around four or four thirty that afternoon). It was cold outside, and I just didn’t want to leave Cash laying in the yard in the cold. It was so wrong; I didn’t care if his body was empty of him, it was the closest thing I had left. I was ready to dig the hole and lift him into it myself at the point, until my mother quietly pointed out that my father would probably like to be there when we buried him. I thought of the hours and hours and hours my father had devoted to our dogs, and there was no more talk of burying him then.
I went inside to take a shower, as I was fairly cold by this point, especially since I hadn’t been wearing shoes. But when I went in the bathroom, I was suddenly overcome by the finality of it. It seemed like if I took a shower, I washed off the last traces of Cash’s life, and I just couldn’t take it another second. I kept repeating over and over that I couldn’t bear it, I just couldn’t bear it. My insides drew up so tight that it felt like I’d been punched in the stomach, and I kept doubling over in a fruitless effort to alleviate the pain. I kept flashing through parallels of my beloved Boo dying before my eyes and not even three full months later my precious Cash doing the same. And I was suddenly overwhelmed with the crippling, paralyzing recognition that there are so, so very many I love that can die, and it just didn’t seem possible to live with the knowledge.
I put my clothes back on and put on a bigger jacket, one which I always wear when I go outside to play with the dogs. I went into the pen where we’d put Cash, and I laid down in the leaves next to him and cried as I stared up at a beautiful blue sky, and ran my hand across his silky black ear.
I’ve no idea how long I stayed like that, but when I finally got up to go inside, I took my jacket off and spread it over him, so he wouldn’t get cold.
I slept until my father got home, and when I woke there was that brief, cruel moment where I didn’t remember what had happened, and the crushing, agonizing recollection that followed it. We buried Cash in the pen where he was raised, and I saw my father cry for one of the very few times in my life. We wrapped him in my sheet and tucked a tennis ball in with him and buried him.
I don’t know why I shared all of this. I didn’t want to start writing this post, unlike with Boo’s, and I in no way wanted to recount what was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. But these words have just come out, with no prior planning and intent. I couldn’t stand to post what the actual end of Boo’s life was like, because I physically cannot type those words. But for some reason, as I’ve written this, I couldn’t stop myself from speaking of Cash’s death. I am constantly perplexed by the infinite types of grief that exist, and the endless array of ways we deal with it. I’m sitting here and I cannot make sense of why I’ve done this. I still want to speak of Cash’s life, too.
He was barely seven years old, and I’m still stunned by the injustice of his death. He was the youngest of our four dogs, and he’d never been sick a day in his life. His favorite thing to do was chase tennis balls with his mom, Sadie, and they would play endlessly. Anytime Cash got the ball from Sadie, he would tease her with it, and jerk it away the second she got close to him. Then he would chew messily on the ball, drool flying, chomp chomp chomp, until I took the ball out of his mouth or Sadie managed to. If you scratched above his tail, he was physically incapable of stopping himself from lifting his back leg and scratching. He loved to roll around in the grass and half the time he didn’t even eat the little dog bones we give our dogs, because he was picky. He was ornery, and he loved to rile up his brother and dad, and you couldn’t have him in the house too long because he would usually try and pee on something. He wasn’t a small dog, but compared to his 120 pound father and 100 pound brother, he always looked so slim and young darting around everywhere. When it snowed a few weeks ago, I remember looking out our bay window, and he was the only one out, rolling gleefully around in the snow. Cash was the most expert jumper I’ve ever seen. There was not a single fence or gate in our yard he couldn’t get over, if he wanted. But Cash loved us and loved his pack fiercely, and he never once tried to get out, even on a couple memorable occasions when certain naughty other dogs did and left the gate open. Cash always was a happy dog, and he always looked like he had a little grin on his face. We don’t have very many pictures of Cash when he’s older, because he was always running and moving and playing. It seems impossible to me, sitting here in my living room typing this, that he’s not outside in the backyard now, curled up with the other dogs. For seven years, every time I’ve looked outside my mind automatically looks for four, and for the past couple of days I’ve literally felt a stab in my heart when I count one missing.
I once read in a book that heaven is a place where every animal you’ve ever loved comes to greet you when you arrive. That’s certainly the most beautiful idea of heaven I’ve ever heard of, and that’s what I’m hoping for.
I love you so, so very much my sweet Cashy boy, and I promise you that will never, ever stop. And if I could go back this very second to that moment six years ago, when you were laying on the floor and I was sitting a few feet away looking at you and thinking about giving you to someone else, it wouldn’t even take a heartbeat for me to lay my head down on you again and cry until my parents let me keep you.