On the morning of my thirty-eighth birthday, I drove my old dog to the vet’s office and cradled her as a needle slipped into a vein and her life eased away. As I pulled her body against my chest, my eyes met the doctor’s.
“Just remember that this is the last best thing you could do for her,” he said.
It felt right, proper. I had no question that I’d made the right choice.
I went home and did probably the worst thing I could do – I cleaned. I wiped the nose marks from the windows, vacuumed the drifts of red-blonde hair from my hardwood floors, and threw out the rug she’d spent her last incontinent weeks on. The cleaning felt good, something like closure on a situation that had been building for months. But the next day, I looked at my clean windows, the spotless floor, and something in my heart snapped.
Cassie was a rescue dog. I chose her because she was the calmest dog in the shelter. She sat still that day, leaning against the chain-link gate, looking down her long nose directly into my eyes while the dogs on either side jumped and howled and barked. Minutes later, she sat in my lap, leaning against my chest just as she’d leaned against the gate, like she had all the time in the world to find her family and she wasn’t going to rush it. Cassie – or Olive Oil, as the unflattering name on her gate read – was four months old, and until she grew into herself, I had no idea what kind of dog she was. Golden blonde with a white mask, neither big nor small, with a monstrous heap of disheveled fuzz at her rump, she had ears the size of a Golden retriever’s, but they stood up straight like a Collie’s. My mother-in-law came to call her “Batgirl.” People would stop at traffic lights, look at Cassie sitting in the back seat of my car, and say, “Look at those ears!” I swore those swiveling satellite dishes could pick up the sound of ants crossing the foot of our driveway. But at the time, that day at the shelter, she was a sad, quiet old soul with big ears and a scraggly tail, legs too long and nose too sharp, and she had my heart by her teeth and never let go.
I spent thirteen years with Cassie. I watched her grow into a lush Golden retriever tail. Delicate curls formed below her ears and her muscles grew hard and smooth. She was my companion through three moves, two college degrees, a crisis of faith, my first grown-up job, the best years of my marriage, and the adoption of two boys followed by the loss of one I thought I’d never recover from. Maybe I still haven’t recovered. But she lay next to me when depression draped its wet, cold weight over me and I couldn’t leave my bed. She held my hand with her paw when I locked the two of us in the bathroom so no one would see me cry. She swathed my icy feet in fur during those early hours before dawn as I cranked out yet another essay mere hours before its deadline. She leapt in the sunshine and ran for the sheer joy of it, round and round and round my back yard, laughing and gulping the air, guzzling her precious life. She kissed my boys goodnight and never asked for a single thing but my steady love.
At thirteen, Cassie was deaf and partly blind. I’d noted the stiff joints after naps, until she seemed sore all the time. She no longer ran, but wandered out into the sunshine next to our lake and lay, blinking and nose twitching, for hours. She seemed content. Soon she stopped climbing the stairs to sleep with us at night. I made a permanent bed for her under our west-facing living room windows, and started to notice dribbles of urine on the trail between her bed and the back door. The doctor said it was a natural progression for a dog of her age. He knew her time was close, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.
And then she started falling. At first it seemed like she lost her footing on the smooth wood floor. Her back legs shot out behind and to either side of her body, belly crashing to the floor. She sat there, back legs splayed awkwardly on the ground, back sloping from quivering shoulders to the ground, holding herself up on her front legs. She looked surprised and embarrassed. I ran to support her rump as she lifted herself back up. I cupped her ears and brought her nose close to mine where I hoped her filmy eyes could see my face. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’ve got you.” I knew she couldn’t hear me, but I believed she understood the touch, the smell, the being of me.
She fell again, and then again – the same thing, back legs unexpectedly betraying her – and soon she was falling every day, and then several times a day. I pulled all the blankets from the cabinets and covered the wood floor between her bed and the back door to give her better traction. But she still fell. This time, the doctor said it was the arthritis in her spine. Eventually, it would progress until her back end became paralyzed.
“How do I know it’s time?” I asked, hoping the vagueness of my question would trick the tears threatening to break into thinking I was talking about something else.
The doctor folded his arms and leaned back against the counter. Cassie lay on the tile floor under the exam table, panting. “You can’t make a wrong decision here,” he said. “From here on out, she’s living on love. It’s different for everyone, but you can’t make a bad choice.”
She could go for months this way, he said, or she could find herself paralyzed and unable to go to the bathroom tomorrow. She could fall and break a hip. The one thing he knew was that she wasn’t going to get better.
I went home and looked online at harnesses that would allow her to walk while I supported her rear end. Cassie slept on her rug near my feet, bat ears twitching. The afternoon sun baked the urine in the rug until the house stank.
I closed my laptop. I knew it was time.
The day after Cassie died, I didn’t get out of bed. I didn’t the next day, either. Or the next day. I curled under the covers and cried, thinking that if I just allowed myself to spill all of my grief, I would eventually run dry. Friends texted and I declined invitations. I felt silly, but I was honest: “Thank you, but I have to grieve. She was my best friend.” My husband lay next to me on weekends, holding me in silence, listening to me cry.
Grief is cumulative. When a new grief rises, it does so entangled with and dragging every past grief behind it. I folded double against the pain of not just losing Cassie, but against losing my son and countless losses that came before. From those days, I remember the shame I felt when I had to explain to people who’d never experienced the depth of canine love, “I’m sorry, my dog died. I’m just not up to doing that.” I remember the darkness of my bedroom, the drapes pulled tight against the light Cassie loved. I remember my husband’s voice, soft and low: “It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay.” But I mostly remember the fear that I’d never recover, that I’d never emerge from this cave, that I was permanently broken because losing a dog – an experience millions of people have weathered with grace and strength – could send me into a whirlpool of despair.
I adopted my son when he was three. He was a pudgy, stubborn little guy with cheeks for miles and brown eyes fringed with thick black lashes. He’d spent his whole life in foster care. Mine was his tenth home, and not all of these homes had been kind or gentle ones.
I’ve come to learn that there’s a primal pain surrounding adoption. “You are amazing,” people tell me. “He’s so lucky to have you.” I cringe at the idea that I’m some kind of hero. I adopted my son for selfish reasons: I wanted a child in my life, and adoption was the easiest way to make that happen. Through the years, I’ve only confirmed I’m no more qualified or heroic than the next person. And lucky to have me? Let me stop you right there, I want to say. There’s nothing lucky about my son losing his entire birth family to drugs and alcohol and violence. He didn’t feel lucky as he asked me each night when he would have to move to a new home. Luck had nothing to do with the bruises on his small body when police pulled him from a foster home intended for adoption and placed him in my care. It’s not luck I feel when I can’t tell him what his first words were, or what his mother felt when she held him the first time, or even if she ever held him. Adoption is scar tissue forming over a wound that doesn’t heal easily or quickly. Sometimes it heals enough not to cause pain, but there’s always a mark left to remind you of trauma every time you look in the mirror.
I didn’t know this when he was three. A decade on and we’re still learning this, together, he and I. A decade of questions and grief and flashes of startling anger. The unexpected loss of a brother, on the heels of all he’d lost before.
Grief is cumulative.
Grief ripped that scar tissue wide open and slammed his heart shut.
At eight years old – consciously or subconsciously – my son decided he would feel nothing but anger again.
I didn’t know it then, but my next dog was born exactly one week after Cassie died. I brought her home in July, the year my son turned ten, in the peak of our high desert summer, home to Cassie’s patch of sun by the lake. Molly at eight weeks was a ball of dandelion fluff with a sandbag butt that dragged her down every time she tried to climb the stairs. Where Cassie had old, wise eyes as a puppy, Molly was all youth and joy. Cassie had been lean and reserved, but Molly – twice the size of her Golden retriever littermates – toddled through the house on pudgy legs, jumped at grasshoppers and begged to join me in the bathtub. She licked my husband’s beard until his laughter turned silent and wolfish, and played hide-and-seek with my son on rainy afternoons. I lay on the grass with her in a cloud of lake-side insects that sparkled in the sun, and when she looked down at me the loose skin around her face fell forward along with her ears and I’d place my hands on either side of her face to squish the dear folds of skin and fur the color of fresh cream and kiss her until I thought my healing heart would burst.
I assumed from the beginning that Molly was mine, in the same way Cassie had been mine. My husband, tolerant as he was, was an avowed cat person, and my son had bonded more with our cat than with Cassie, who was old and set in her ways by the time the boys came along. Just as I chose Cassie and named her, I chose Molly, named her, and set about getting to know my new best friend. I brought Molly into my home specifically to plug my hemorrhaging heart, but – as dog lovers come to learn – she filled a Molly-shaped hole I hadn’t known existed.
As my son slid deeper into depression and closer to puberty, he stopped allowing people to touch him: no hugs, no kisses, no ruffling of the curls on his head. Gone were the days I would lie next to him in the darkness of his room, singing, telling stories, imagining the future: Stay for just one more song, Mom. Please? Just one more. He refused to talk to counselors. He got in trouble at school and I dreaded the sound of the principal’s voice on the phone: “Hi, Mrs. B. We need to talk.” He started running away at night, but always ended up back in his room well before dawn. Everything about him screamed, “Look at me! Show me you love me, no matter what I do!” But he pushed that love away faster than I could offer it. He spent more and more time in his room, head phones on, polishing his grief to a keen, hard edge that might, just maybe, protect his vulnerable heart.
Molly grew until she was finally housetrained enough to spend the night outside of her crate. That first night, she trotted up the stairs behind me. I stopped at the hall linen closet, grabbed a fluffy white blanket, and folded it on the floor next to my bed.
I caressed a velvet ear. “You get to be a big girl and sleep with your people tonight.”
Molly laughed, her tongue flopping out of the side of her mouth.
“Let’s go tuck Brother in first, though. Come on!”
Molly bounded off to Brother’s room, ears bouncing.
I followed her down the hall, steeling myself against the painful stiffness of our new bedtime ritual: Good night, honey. I love you, followed by a grunt or something calculated to sting, to keep me at a distance. The muscles across my shoulders tightened.
I inhaled and stopped in his doorway. Molly had managed – in spite of her persistently heavy rear end – to jump into bed with my son. She lay next to him, her length stretched out against his, head resting solidly in the angle between his shoulder and elbow.
She looked at him and grinned.
He grinned back.
He pulled her close against him and kissed her face, a loud smack filling the silence. Molly’s tail thumped against the mattress.
How long had it been since he’d kissed any living thing? How long since he’d shown unguarded happiness at the closeness of another being?
Molly wouldn’t sleep with me that night.
I bent over my son’s bed and kissed Molly in the divot where her ear met her temple. I smiled and placed a tentative hand on my son’s head. He didn’t jerk away from my touch as he usually did.
“You okay with Molly sleeping with you tonight?”
He smiled. “Yeah, this is great.”
“Okay. Let me know if you need anything. I love you.”
“Love you, too. Good night.”
Don’t react, I told myself. I backed out of the room, turning the light out as I left.
My son is fourteen now. I’d like to tell you he’s a model teenager who is always respectful and loving and never makes bad choices. But you know I’d be lying.
Molly is three and she still sleeps every night with Brother. She mopes when he’s away at summer camp or visiting Grandma and Grandpa. She lights up when he comes home, when he speaks to her, when he puts his arms around her sturdy body and squeezes, teeth gritted not in anger, but in love so strong he can hardly contain it.
Grief is cumulative, but I have to believe that hope, that joy, is also cumulative, that the love we allow through the cracks in our walls can only build, widening those cracks until our hearts lay bare and open and whole.
If my son can love Molly so completely, trust her so fully, he can learn to trust humans again. I thought Molly came into my life to heal me. I was right. But she’s healing my son in ways I never expected.
I suppose that’s why we love our dogs so much: they teach us how to live, how to love, how to give and take and give some more. Molly teaches me that this moment is the one that matters – this afternoon running along the lake shore; this Sunday morning wrestling under the covers; this moment of sadness, when she places the top of her head against my chest and pushes her eighty pounds into me – I’m here, human, I’m here in your arms and in your heart. Trust me. Pain comes and goes, but love stays.
So much life has passed since I first brought Cassie home from the shelter that it’s hard for me to remember her young and healthy. Sometimes it’s even hard to remember the void I felt after she passed. But I never forget her friendship, just as my son will never forget Molly’s.
I can hardly force myself to think how brief Molly’s life will be next to my own, that by the time my next big birthday comes around I will likely be the strong one and she the one needing compassion and comfort. But after all our dogs give us in their short lives, what an honor it is to hold them close at the end and whisper, I’m here, my friend, I’m here surrounding you with my arms and my heart. Trust me. Pain comes and goes, but love stays.