In the hours and days following the unexpected death of our dog, Maybe, I used writing as a way of processing my thoughts and emotions. What follows is a transcript of that longhand therapy captured in my notebook.
Months later, I don’t know what my mental state would have looked like had I not done this. I just remember having such intense feelings.
Fitting that I opened the notebook and started writing right in the middle. The part where you can see the stitches. Seven years old. Supposed to live ‘til 14. Our dog died today. Suddenly and unexpectedly. Gradually then all at once.
Her legs are getting stiff. She’s starting to get cold. Olive is going to be so sad. What the fuck?
I guess I thought they would bring her into the room after we got there. Of course there wasn’t much time for thinking today. It’s a small room. Tile or linoleum tile floor. A small blue loveseat, blue leather. A box of tissues square in the middle of the cushions. A clunky blonde wooden side table. The stainless steel table suspended from the wall like an ironing board. Someone spent time arranging her — blue fleece blanket, fuzzy, pulled up to her shoulders. Head resting gently on a cushion or a bunched up blanket. Hippo resting between her arms. She looked so peaceful.
The first thing I noticed was her eyelid. Drooping down across the bridge of her nose, revealing a sliver of her chestnut eye. For a split second I thought I saw her twitch, like she used to do when she was sleeping and having a dream. A good dream? A bad dream? I always imagined she was dreaming about chasing squirrels. Or maybe a rat. “Just get all of them.” Cremation? Aqua-something-cremation? Private? Communal? A single sheet of paper on a cheap blue clipboard. “The aqua one is more sustainable,” she said. I need an itemized receipt to get money back from insurance. And I need payment. Here’s the card, take it. Like, here’s the fee to start grieving.
She loved looking out that window. Staring. She could see the neighbors’ cat two houses down and across the street, through a fence, in the dark… but when we walked right past she couldn’t see it.
She barked and barked. There was always the possibility that her favorite humans would walk through the door. She greeted me every single day I got home from work, as excited as if she hadn’t seen me in three weeks.
Her stiff ear was still stiff. Laying on her side.
She had a mass in her abdominal cavity and an enlarged heart. I miss her. It could have been malignant, a metastasized cancer spreading from her spleen to her heart. There’s a one-in-three chance it was benign. Either way it grew large enough to push her intestines to the side, to press against her spine. The x-rays reveal so much.
Her nose was getting dry, was already a little crusty. There was a membrane of saliva in the corner of her mouth that I wiped away with a tissue.
I left the room to talk to the staff. Asked if they could take her away while we were still there. I really did not want to have to leave, to walk out and close the door. Leave her alone again. Two guys came in, I stepped aside and sat down on that blue couch while one of the guys rubbed my shoulder in a consoling gesture. They positioned themselves at either end of the stretcher. First they slid the stretcher to the side, so they could both lift. They didn’t use the straps and so my mind was racing the whole time. I watched them take her through the door and out into the hall. I stood up and grabbed the door handle, slowly pulling it past maybe… I turned towards Sarah standing in the corner, locking eyes while I slowly shut the door.
They’ll call me in two weeks when the ashes are ready.
Nobody tells you how awkward it can be to try and cry in each other’s arms, where to stand.
Two bowls. When will we put the second one away?
She was the dog that made you like dogs.
We’re going to go over there at 3:30 and get all the details. I tried to be the stoic one. Optimistic. Rational, logical. Talk through the options, weigh the pros and cons. Make an informed decision. But what are we going to do for the next two hours? We should get a ramp, so we don’t have to lift her stomach. There’s one in stock at petsmart. Or petco.
How can something so unreal be so definitive? Final? Devastating? And yet, if this is how it has to be, I’m grateful. That we weren’t forced to choose, between keeping her in pain just to see her a while longer, and letting her rest in peace. Grateful for hippo, knowing there was some piece of us with her in the end. Grateful for the people who took care in presenting her for us — Grateful we didn’t have to walk away and close the door and leave her alone. Grateful that Olive didn’t have to witness it, or find her at home. Grateful that we didn’t all suffer a prolonged and — selfishly, disgustingly — expensive process of palliative care and risky surgery.
But we wish she could have seen one more Christmas.
She’s just gone. Forever. There was no time to prepare, mentally or literally physically prepare. And now we have to keep living this alternate life, like a switch. On one day, off the next — not even a full day, like two hours.
Thank god Olive loves fetch. I hope it offers some kind of distraction. She gets all the presents this year.
I keep going back to that room. Flashes of that blue blanket or the stainless steel ironing board. Flecks of black, brown, white. It’s like I’m trying to convince myself that it’s real. But she’s fucking gone.
It’s already been a week.
I’ve spent so many hours with my noise cancelling headphones in, just sitting in silence, staring at a screen.
It feels like I’m experiencing the slow, scabbing-over of my soul, layer by layer. Or a callus. That day was so traumatic, sudden, shocking. In days since, I’ve thought about why I don’t spontaneously start sobbing. My eyes have been spicy, a mix of tears and tiredness. I just want to be distracted, I’ve said to myself, and to Sarah. I’m actively trying to block out the thoughts — covering the pictures that pop up on my phone with my hand, or quickly scrolling away. I can see flashes in my head, starting to think about her. And I catch myself, put up a coat of paint, hurl a bucket of teal across my mind.
I’ve felt guilty for doing this. I worry about forgetting how I felt — that traumatic day, but also the days before. It’s all too easy to move on. But then I thought about scabs and how scabs work. There’s some trauma — a scrape, a cut, a scratch. Your inners are exposed, vulnerability revealed. Then fear, defensiveness. (Am I just re-discovering the stages of grief?) Because you feel pain, because you’re left vulnerable. The scab builds up your protection. When you pick your scab you re-expose yourself, remind yourself of that pain… and you start the process over again.
Suppressing those thoughts is like forming a scab, so you can heal. So you can remember without being overwhelmed by pain. The deepest wounds leave the darkest scars. Scars don’t cause pain, they only remind you of it, and give you space to remember the joy before the pain.
When I blink, in that split-second my eyes are closed, I see flashes of her from that day. I see her lying on that blanket, the aqua, the red, and the brindle. I see the black and white of the x-ray, the slight curve of her spine, above an opaque, swollen abdomen.
I would give so much for the chance to make that decision. To fight for more time. To have another three years. Three months. Three days.
We parked the car in the auxiliary lot surrounded by chain link fence. We pulled ourselves together just long enough to walk across the street, in the door, through the lobby, past the scale, and into the room. We may have well been floating.