Last week, I hosted a giveaway for a copy of the book, “A Dog’s Purpose.” First, a huge thanks to Brianne and Lauren for sharing their stories — since there were only two of you who entered as of closing yesterday and I absolutely hate disappointing people, I’m sending you both copies of the book.
Why…Why did such a simple book strike such a nerve with me? How could something that was meant to be an entertaining read be much more profound than that, sparking memories and drawing forth my own experiences?
In one part of the book, the dog grows old and weak and is taken to a veterinary office where his family decides to ease his suffering and put him down, though they wait anxiously for their son to return from college so they can all be there, knowing how much the dog meant to the boy.
That’s summarizing it very, very lightly.
When I read that, memories of my own experiences flooded back to me — memories of stroking Hercules’ fur, telling him we loved him as he lay his head down, like he always did, like he was only going to sleep; memories of holding Sampson — my Sammy — hugging him and kissing him and thanking him for loving me as he found his peace.
Memories of Lucy.
These dogs…How do you explain to someone who hasn’t loved a dog that these dogs are more than just animals? They become a part of your family, a part of your heart in a way that nothing else can; they’ve taught me some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever needed to learn…
That there can be peace in the passing; that time is meant to be savored and enjoyed; that love is everything –everything — and that it can come from anywhere, anything.
And that love, once felt, is never, ever forgotten.
* * *
I’m sick today with some kind of cough/fever/flu thing that’s been going around, so I’m going to cheat a bit here and post an essay I had written for a class in college. It was the hardest piece of writing I’d ever written at that point, but it was also my catharsis. So why am I posting it? I don’t know exactly, I can’t really say…It feels personal and heavy and too long to recount here on a blog.
But it’s a memory. My memory. It’s an experience that changed me for better and for worse…Or, perhaps, more accurately, for worse and then for better.
It took me years to come to terms with Lucy’s passing, not just because I missed her so much, but I think, too, because I wasn’t expecting it, because I so naively, so fiercely believed that a miracle just had to happen, and because I lost all faith when it didn’t.
It’s been years since I’ve even opened this document, but I realize that in these years I’ve learned so much, gained so much — including a renewal of faith, including an understanding of what it means to say goodbye…
Early Morning Reminiscence
I’m caught somewhere in that state between sleep and consciousness where everything is just a mess of early-morning haze and flitting images. The outside streetlight casts a gray tint on the bookshelves in the bedroom, the only light, save for the steady green blinking of the computer’s standby button.
I roll onto my stomach and bunch up my pillow, trying to get just comfortable enough so that I can easily fall back asleep. Resting my head back down, I heave a sigh, readying myself to fall back asleep, but in the next instant I’m wide awake. I stare down at the surface of my left hand where, just a moment before, I could swear I felt the faint hint of pressure and moisture.
I must still be dreaming, I think as I glance around the room, because these things are impossible. It must have been the cat…But, no, Mikey had scurried away the moment the bed shifted in my attempt to get comfortable. It only takes a moment, but in that moment there’s a flash of recognition, an image so vivid that I know it can’t be anything else. I know that the contact on my hand wasn’t a dream or my imagination or something impossible: it was a tender reminder, a kiss from Lucy.
Lucy was the unexpected final addition to our family’s trio of dogs. We already had Hercules and Sampson, two Labrador and Golden Retriever mixes who still acted like puppies at four years old, and back then we couldn’t imagine taking care of a third dog; now, it’s hard to imagine life without her. The day Lucy came home, Mom had called us from a flea market, asking how we would feel about another dog. My brothers and I were skeptical — three dogs was a lot of responsibility, and I worried that the boys would feel left out while we were fawning over a new puppy.
We decided to make it a family decision and agreed to first see the dog that Mom was gushing about. We really should have known better: when my brothers and I opened the garage door to leave, there was Mom, still seated on the passenger side of the van, holding a tiny black puppy in her arms. She later told us that the connection she felt to Lucy was so strong that she was unable to let her go, even for a little while.
Lucy instantly became our little girl, our source of amusement and affection. Fiercely protective, she would lead the chorus of barks whenever someone neared the house, and the very sight of a rabbit brought out the hound we believed was mixed in with her unknown pedigree, her leg instinctively raised in a hunter’s stance. She was always eager to welcome me home, whether I was away all day throughout high school or gone for longer periods of time in college, and she led the others in a race to the back door, greeting me with a howl and a tail that wagged so fast that her behind couldn’t help but move side to side with it.
She completed our family in every possible way; she was the source of endless amusement and unlimited affection…
Which is why her illness was so much more difficult to bear.
November. The perfect time to chase the leaves and nip at the wind; however, this year Lucy was barely interested in the outside world at all. Her face had become swollen due to an abscess; my mom was terrified that it could be cancer, yet surgery healed her and soon she was back to her energetic old self, tearing through the house in search of her ball in the hopes that someone would want to play. No one could predict how the weeks that followed would turn into a dizzy mess of emotion, as fear and relief traded places almost daily.
Though I returned to school after a short break, relieved that Lucy seemed to be fully healed, worry for her quickly replaced all other concerns when I received another call from my mom a few weeks later. Lucy was sick again. Weak, lethargic, and running a high fever, my parents immediately took her to the vet, where they managed to get her fever down and extract what they thought was a swollen lymph node to have tested. Her tail wagged once more, eager and ready to rejoin her family at home where she belonged.
When I arrived home for winter break, I was astounded at the transformation that greeted me at the door. Lucy’s tail was moving as usual, but there was no bark of joy to accompany it. Her face and eyes were sad, swollen, and bloodshot, she could barely lift her head off of the couch cushion, and she shied away from all sources of food. It seemed as if our spirited little fighter had given up, too weak to do anything else. Not knowing what else to do, wanting to comfort and be comforted, I sat beside her on the floor, stroking her velvet fur as her head rested near my own.
A soft smile tries but fails to form as I turn on my side, staring at the wall in the early hours of the gray morning. I blink furiously to hold the hot tears at bay, but they slide down my cheek anyway as I imagine Lucy at home, frantically trying to locate her ball as we ask her where her toy is or barking wildly at the squeaking rubber ducks that my mom collects. I run my hands over the fur fleece throw blanket on my bed, and I can‘t help but think that it should be her fur I‘m feeling beneath my fingertips, so soft and fine that it could have been velvet. I rub my fingers together, wanting to remember the smooth texture as I stroked her head lovingly, wondering, if I imagined it hard enough, if I could bring it back, that tactile sensation, that gentle, rhythmic pat, one last time.
But my hand is empty.
I feel only my own skin beneath my fingertips, and the realization causes my chest to heave with a muffled sob.
Our concern only grew as the start of the new week rolled around and Lucy was still refusing to eat. We decided to take her back to the vet’s office in the hopes that she could regain her strength by means of an IV, and although we felt comforted in the fact that Lucy was in safe hands, we were little relieved from the worry of her health. Being supplied with the necessary nutrients, she was lovingly and meticulously cared for all week. When she was offered bits of hamburger meat, dog biscuits, and hot dog that should have excited her, she sniffed at the food with interest and stuck her tongue out to lick the treats, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t, eat.
My parents and I visited her every evening after work, waiting anxiously for her in an empty examination room. And when the door opened and she was guided inside, her tail wagged ferociously, her eyes lighting up seeing us. Her fever was gone, the swelling in her face had diminished, and her beautiful brown eyes were, as always, full of adoration and love. We shared grins as we hugged and petted her — our little girl was returning.
The Christmas holiday rapidly approached, and with it came my expectations of some sort of miracle. The day before Christmas Eve, my parents and I went to visit Lucy and see about bringing her home for the holiday. We arrived to find that all of the doctors had been called in on another emergency, so we filed into an empty room to wait patiently for Lucy to be brought into us, as had been the daily routine. My parents and I were all smiles: Lucy seemed to be getting better and she would be home with us for Christmas, once again among her family and brothers, once again where she belonged.
Outside in the hallway, someone’s urgent shout for the oxygen filtered through the crack in the door. My dad and I raised our eyebrows at each other, sympathizing with the other family whose attacked dogs had been the source of the emergency. So when Dr. Nicole walked in a moment later, I kept my eyes on the hallway behind her, expecting to see the precious face and wagging tail of our little girl. But the door closed behind her, and my eyes shifted to her face, the smile on my lips failing. I glanced anxiously at both of my parents, but their eyes were fixed on the veterinarian standing solemnly before us.
Lucy had been on her way in to see us when she collapsed, Dr. Nicole explained, tears betraying her attempt at professionalism. She had immediately scooped Lucy up and carried her into the emergency room where all of the doctors gathered to help restart her heart. She was now breathing only with the help of life support.
Mom choked on a sob, Dad, tears in his own eyes, reached out to comfort her, and though I tried to be strong for my parents, I reached for a tissue to wipe away the sudden onslaught of my own tears. Having loved and cared for Lucy like her own dog, Dr. Nicole guided us through the hallways to the back emergency room. The still figure of our baby girl made us gasp: Lucy was lying on a counter’s blue mat, her tongue lolling, hooked up to a machine that registered her reflexes. Those brown eyes that days earlier were full of such pure joy at the very sight of us were now open — lifeless and unblinking. Her voice soft and full of regret, Dr. Nicole asked us what we wanted to do, but there was no other choice – our spirited little girl was already gone.
The three of us surrounded her, covered her body in our embraces, and stroked her velvet fur in rhythmic strokes as tears dropped from our cheeks to the blue-matted countertop. We whispered how much we loved her close to her ear and pressed kisses on her head as Dr. Nicole injected the pink solution that would put her to sleep. We tried to bring comfort to Lucy — and maybe ourselves — by telling her what a good girl she was, how much we loved her, and how happy she had made our lives until Dr. Nicole checked her heartbeat and told us that Lucy was finally at peace.
It was difficult to celebrate the holiday knowing that Lucy wouldn’t be there, resting at Mom’s feet as we ate dinner or sniffing curiously at the boxes as we exchanged gifts, wondering if there was a treat beneath the tree for her. I kept expecting a Christmas miracle for Lucy to get better and come home for good; foolishly, perhaps selfishly, I believed it would happen. I latched onto Sammy as soon as I walked through the door, pressing my face into his fur and not letting go until I cried myself to sleep. It was so difficult to imagine that now it was only the boys once more; I often wondered if they understood that Lucy wasn’t coming back, if they wondered where she had gone. In the days and weeks that followed, I kept expecting Lucy to follow us upstairs to bed at night, to be waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs in the morning. I tried to console myself with the thought that Lucy was still around in memory, but it never quite made up for the emptiness we felt now.
We won’t ever know if it was cancer or not, as Dr. Nicole didn’t have the heart to have an autopsy performed on Lucy. The biopsy on what we thought was the lymph node turned out to be a salivary gland that was filled with dead cells, and previous x-rays showed us that she had been retaining water that was pressing on her heart and lungs, though even these factors failed to explain the sudden illness that took her from us so quickly. I liked to believe that she waited as long as she could to see us, to be able to hold her and feel once more the velvet fur as our hands rested lovingly on the top of her head…
To let us have our chance for goodbye…
I squeeze my eyes shut tightly, but tears still escape. It’s nearly two months later and still that final image of her lingers and evokes a fresh pain. I open my eyes and roll over so I can see her picture on the bookshelf, barely visible in the grey light of early morning. She should be at home right now, I think as I unconsciously run my fingers over the blanket. She should be taking up most of my parents’ bed, stretched out at the bottom, her foot twitching as she dreams. She should be getting more white spots as she ages, not just that little tuft on her chest, the only spot of white on her body of black. She should be waiting for me, greeting me at the door with her brothers as I visit for the weekend; she should be jumping on my bed in the morning, waking me up with kisses.
I turn on my side and snuggle in deeper among my pillows and blankets, holding my hand to my chest as the memory of the slightest bit of pressure and moisture lingers on the surface of my left. The tears have dried and I sleepily shut my eyes, the faint trace of a smile touching my lips as I silently thank Lucy for her reminder that she’ll always be with me with a gentle kiss and a wagging behind.