“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Part II, Day 72: Good Grief

It's been five weeks and two days since Zoe died.  I bought a book about pet bereavement, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  In a culture that still doesn't quite know how to talk about death, entering this landscape of grief is another new place for me, another new country, although a lot of friends have given me advice.

And not one person has implied I should get over it, and move on, even though I heard recently that grief is going to be listed as a pathology in the new DSM-5 coming out in 2013, that is, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Apparently grief becomes pathological when it goes on a little too long.  I think you're allowed six months to a year to mourn, and then you get cut off.  After that, you need counseling, or drugs, or both.  I don't know the limit for pet bereavement.  If dogs live a seventh of our lifespans, does that mean we can only give them a seventh of the time we're granted for human family members?  If that's the case, I'm already close to tapped out. 

So here is my question:  How is healthy, non-pathological grief for one's dog supposed to look and feel?  I don't know.  All I can say is that the best advice I got from friends who have lost their beloved pups this year was to cry whenever I felt like it, for however long, and not to stop myself, not to judge myself, but to just let things be what they are.

It was the same advice I got when my mother died five years ago and when my best friend died suddenly when we were both only twenty-four.  The essence is: have your experience, and don't judge it.  Just be present.  Let what is come inside the house; abide with it without fear.  Grief delayed or repressed comes back later to haunt you anyway, so it's better to let it flow.  And so I've had to give up wearing mascara for a while.  It's liberating to live free of restraint, so open and unguarded, but I never know what to expect. 

Which is kind of what this dog has taught me ever since I brought her home, with one major difference.  In the 10 months after her diagnosis, I tried to be present with her always, to seize every day, to embrace the unexpected just as we made our routines feel new, but I also did my best not to cry in front of her or let her know when I was sad.  Now, I just move from laughter to tears to calm conversation to my eyes filling mid-word.  Living so fluidly--literally--is my new normal.  There were entire years in my life before this when I never cried once, not even at sad movies, and I would never cry in front of anyone, not even my loved ones.  It's hard to imagine now what that life was like.  It feels like it happened to someone else.

photo by Suzan McDermott, Bravura Photography
So if you ask me to describe how things are going around here, I can only tell you this: I am terribly sad sometimes, but I'm not despondent, and definitely not depressed.  And I can't really say I'm unhappy.  I sleep and eat, I exercise regularly, I'm back in yoga class, I water the plants, and I come as close to balancing my checkbook as I ever have.  I am still inspired by my work, extremely focused about it, and more in love than ever with my husband, family, friends.  I often feel great inexplicable surges of joy.  I hug my colleagues when I see them shopping at the farmer's market or checking on their book orders at the campus bookstore.  Sometimes my heart feels so full it almost hurts.  I feel gratitude for every sweet thing in my life, including the kindness of the gentle readers who followed this blog.  But I really miss my dog.  I miss my dog more as time goes on, not less, because at first it didn't seem so final, even though I saw her take her last breath. 

At first I thought I could be a Miss Havisham if I totally let myself go.  Instead of being the jilted bride who lives in her torn, stained wedding gown, with mold and cobwebs the only organic matter left in that room where the wedding feast would have occurred, I just thought I'd creep around with a lot of black Zoe hairballs in the corner.  I didn't want to vacuum up her fur, and when I did, I didn't want to throw it out, but I did anyway.  There's still a clump of it in our bedroom on the floor beneath all our sweaters.  Her toys are still in a box by the wood stove.  Our TV in the bedroom is still balanced on her crate, although my husband is making a new wooden stand and when that happens, the crate will get broken down and will live in the room where we keep our suitcases.  I also have a little portable Zoe shrine I bring to the deck sometimes when I meditate.  It has her collar with the purple heart for bravery that was given to her by her oncologist, a sand dollar I found when we were walking on the beach at Topsail Island this past March, and a completely disemboweled red fleece bow she got under the tree one year that she used to balance on her nose and still smells like her.

I sit out on the deck with this odd collection and imagine her looking at me as she did in this photo on an ordinary morning in the last couple weeks of her extraordinary life.

Maybe she would think Mommy was acting a bit strange if she saw me sniffing her eviscerated toy or jangling her collar, trying to recreate the sound of her running up to me.

I did this every day from the day she died until about two weeks ago.

Now I do it about once a week.

I wish I could see her, even just out of the corner of my eye, but my mind refuses to play tricks on me.  This is what frustrates me the most.  Being with Zoe for nine years grounded me, made me more present in the here and now, more planted on this earth, less likely to retreat to my space girl imagination.  But sometimes I wish my imagination would help me out.  I used to be a lot more other-worldly.  If I could believe now in another dimension, that a spirit world was right around us, I would allow myself to think she was still with me here, sitting on my left, as friends of mine who think that way promise me she is. 

But even though I don't believe she's here, I talk to her.  When I get in the car, I tell Zoe she's a good girl and I'll picture her smudging up the window with her nose.  (I have cleaned my car twice since she died, and vacuumed up her fur, but have yet to wash off those doggy nose smears.)

I talk to her a lot in my studio, since she spent so much time here with me and I wrote almost all of my posts here with her looking right at me.  I'll just say that she's a great girl, a beautiful dog, that she's so good, that she's so good, so very good.

And sometimes I just smile and say, Hi, baby dog, and I'm flooded with the memory of her essence, and I feel peace.  I see her grinning at me just like she did in this picture below:

Kelly Prime took this photo of Zoe looking at me, May of 2012.  The poop bag got in the picture too.

My former student took this photo of Zoe and me on an ordinary day, the kind of ordinary day I tried to make memorable when all our days were numbered.  We walked around the track on our campus and Kelly told me how she wanted to be a writer.  Zoe plopped down on the grass to rest when we were halfway through, and Kelly and I took turns with the camera.  I cropped this one so that you won't see my weird brown sweatpants that look like fake suede, or the black leather money belt I used on dog walks for carrying treats and poop bags that my husband teased me about, or the extra five or so pounds I put on from all those amazing Sundays lunches we had this year, post-diagnosis.  There was a time--maybe this was back when I couldn't cry--when my vanity would not have allowed me to keep a photo like that around.  But I love the way Zoe looks here, and I like the way I'm looking at her, in the part of the picture you can't see, and the photo, in its entirety, is one I will always treasure.

I didn't dream about her for the first ten days.  This made me get very mad at my superego, my hyper-vigilant sleeping self.  Couldn't my superego/sleeping self stop being so damn literal and just take a little break from reality?  In all of our nine years together, Zoe would appear in my dreams even if she didn't make an appearance until late in the game.  At some point I would remember: Hey, you, sleeping Natalia person, you have a dog!  Where's your dog?  And then she'd sneak in, as though she'd been there all along.  She was never on a lead, never had on her collar.  We'd just walk together or run wherever I happened to have been in the dream when I remembered she was my companion.  Often we were in city traffic, but she never got in harm's way.  In this way Zoe and I traveled to New York City and London together, through crowds in the middle of Delhi, through mountains and deserts and lots of other complicated futuristic dreamscapes that have no name.
Photo by Suzan McDermott

So I thought she would stay in my dreams forever, that we would be reunited whenever I slept.  But she was gone.  And then, ten days after she died, ten nights of dog-less dreams later, she finally showed up.  She was both a young dog, maybe a year old, looking very collie-like, with more white markings than in real life, and she was a nine-year-old little girl, with long, silky black hair and the nutmeg skin of a Cherokee.  The two were both Zoe, both gorgeous, and both doing what my friends and I playing at recess used to call around-the-worlds on the monkey bars, twirling and twirling nonstop.

Finally I got the puppy version of Zoe to stop moving and I held her head in my hands.  I wanted her to listen.  I said, "Zoe, thank you for letting me be your person.  Being with you made me happier than I've ever been in my life."

And when I woke up I realized that was true.  And this came to me as a shock.  That of all the sources of five-star happiness on my list, the pure joy I felt in the company of my beloved dog was like nothing I'd ever known.

My husband says he doesn't mind.  I love him so much for that.  But here's the thing: that happiness I felt with Zoe leaked out, over everything.  Over everyone.  And it hasn't gone anywhere.

Zoe taught me to inhabit every moment with everything in my arsenal: brain, heart, soft belly, fierce animal hunger, compassion, annoyance, fear, the whole lot.  So how do I sit with my grief, which takes me to the past, and still live thoroughly in the present?

photo by Suzan McDermott
I wake up each day and do the things on the to-do list.  Work on the novel for 3 to 12 hours.  Draft syllabi for the new semester.   Get aerobic exercise.  Do yoga and lift weights.  See friends, read, cook meals, relax with my husband, make plans for coming trips.  I like doing all these things.   I like being productive.  I always have.

But I also look at old photos of her and I'm there, in those memories, and I'm grateful to have them, grateful even for the flood of tears.  I have about five or six old movies consisting mainly of my sister and me provoking her dog and mine to roll around and nip at each other and grunt, our version of pup pile-up, and I think, Thank goodness we were wise enough to know we needed documentary proof of our supreme immaturity, thank dog we knew we needed to record for all time these three minutes of sublime happiness.   Honestly: the first two weeks I think I went through every single photograph of Zoe I had every single day and if you've been in this corner a while, you know that's a lot of pictures.  Ditto, movies.  Ditto, old journals that never became posts.  That was pretty much how I spent my afternoons.

What I haven't done yet, though, gentle reader, is re-read all the posts of this blog.  I will, when I feel like I can.

I miss her when I eat.  I can't break the habit of picking out the bits of egg or meat that I know she'll like when she licks the plates.  Now they just sit there.

under the deck
I miss her when I walk up the steps to the deck of our house, where she kept watch.

I miss her on the balcony when I sit or water the plants.  I think of how amazing it was to behold her there, rapt, staring for hours on end at the river and wildlife and wind, how she taught me stillness and steadiness and wonder.

I miss our morning love.  She would thump her tail, roll on her back and grunt, and it was a new day, a marvelous new day.

I miss nighttime cuddles.  After I brushed my teeth I would find where she had made her nest for the night and I'd talk to her, review the highlights of the day, scratch her back, and tell her again how wonderful she was.

Every part of town probably still has her DNA.  She has peed on every bush.  Every walk we've taken is still happening in some other dimension as I make my way around on foot from village to woods to town green.

One of my friends who lost both her beloved cat and best friend in the same year had their ashes mixed and fired into jewelry.  Another friend who lost her dog this spring went out and got a tattoo of the dog's paw print on her ankle.  Another friend wants to salvage all her dog's fur that she's vacuumed and knit a scarf to wear in winter.  These are people who are very even-tempered, whose grief would not be the first thing you would notice about them if they walked into a room.  I understand the need to wear the beloved companion around one's neck or to scarify oneself with his memory.  You want something against your skin that says, This love has seared me, and that love is here to stay.  You want to say, This creature I mourn was my heart.

What I'm going to do is plant some of Zoe's ashes beneath the willow bush my friend Cathy gave us to honor Zoe's life.  This bush will live and grow in front of the deck where Zoe used to guard the house.  I'll also put some of her ashes in her favorite other places in the yard, and on my balcony.  And I'll let some of her ashes float away in the river that flows past our house and when I do I'll think of the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala I once saw, and I'll remember the wonder I felt as it was being made--which was exactly the same wonder I felt as it was released to the universe.

Her remains came home in a lovely wooden box.  I expected something tacky made of cardboard.  I expected something cheap and flimsy that would make me weep.  Instead I cried because of the kindness and courtesy being shown to us by our vet, who chose to take our beloved girl to a place that returns the ashes of our animal companions back to our family hearths in a treasure box.  It looks like it's made of walnut or stained mahogany and some delicate vines are carved into the top of it.  It's the kind of box I would buy for storing nice stuff.

It's in our dining room now.  I haven't opened it.

Coming home after work or an evening with friends is the hardest, even five weeks on.  Knowing that she won't be rushing to the door to greet us, to put on her own one-dog parade of welcome: that's sad for us.  Our house is quieter now, and Zoe was already a very quiet dog.

photo by Suzan McDermott
I get a little restless at the part of the day when we did our walks, and I've been trying to use that time to do yoga instead of just work. I am also on the lookout for some dogs to borrow, short-term.

In fact, even though I'm really busy now, I try to spend as much time as I can with other people's dogs.  Last weekend I picked up my friend Cathy's dog from her house and brought him to our house while she finished a project at the library, and I can't begin to describe how much it filled my heart to see him in my rear view mirror grinning at me from the back seat, and stepping up on the divider now and then to take a whiff of my savory arm pits (it was 95 degrees) and look out the window at the North Country landscape of maple trees and pines whizzing past, a sight that always made Zoe so content.  I can't tell you how happy it made me to know that for the next few hours while my friend and I made dinner and caught up on each other's news there would be a sweet dog to pat after every other sentence.  It sent me back to memories of the two dogs playing together.

But that didn't stop me from missing Zoe.  It made me miss her more.

And you see, that's the thing.  A kind and helpful part of myself wants to console the grieving part of me and say, Hey, your memories are beautiful and they give you peace.  Aren't you lucky to have them?

I am.  I'm grateful.  But I can't touch those memories.  Not with my hands, anyway.  And that's the paradox.  Loving a dog, loving this dog, made me more physical, more connected to all things palpable and three-dimensional and real.  And there's no replacement for the physicality of that experience.  For the feeling of my hand against her fur, her rough tongue, her bad breath, the thump of her tail.

Milo, the King Charles Spaniel who thinks he's a Greyhound, came by last week with his people.  When he's over these days he looks all through the house for Zoe.  He still smells her everywhere.  I hope if he ever sees her he'll tell me where to look.

So I am getting to know this place called grief.  It's like another room in the house.  I go there and look out the window and see what the sky looks like from this new angle: the maple tree rocking in a sudden wind without a dog to track its motion, the emboldened groundhogs and bunnies and now a baby skunk all playing hacky sack in a dog-free yard like teens in the house when the adults are gone.  And always, always, the river flowing past, never stopping, never changing direction, gleaming white and gray like the ashes we'll send down it soon, when we are ready to let some of them go.


  1. Hi, Nat. (Good. Really wonderful.)The nicest photos. I rarely remember my dreams, but last night I did and it was of you. You were in a new outfit. a sage green seed stitch winter hat, with a white/neutral scarf, maybe seed stitch too. A nice coat- winter wool, pale, and some really nice shoes that were multicolored. Where would you be in such an outfit? France in the fall? Where ever or when ever, your pals are seeing you out the corner of our eyes, and it is even nicer to read your new post. I'm so glad you had Zoe in real life and have her in your spirit now. Keep me posted!

  2. Hi Sara. I love this dream! Actually, we're thinking of a little trip to France in the spring if I ever pay off my debt, and I'll go looking for sage and white items and multicolored shoes. Thanks so much much for writing here, and always. xx

  3. Natalia, I'm always awed by the way you capture the emotional experience of loving a dog.When Barney was in his last days, I would look at him and try to capture the very essence of him so that I would have something to hold onto when he was no longer there. I had the ashes, the collars, the toys. Six years later, I still have them. But I don't need them so much now. Instead, I speak of him, sometimes dream of him, tell his new "brother" how Barney would have done this or that. It's an odd comfort, to be able to speak of him as if he is still a part of my life and to realize that indeed, he is. Grieve as long and as hard you need to. It is part of the alchemy of transforming love into something both less solid and more lasting.

  4. Dear Janice, Thank you so much for these lovely, consoling words. I'm glad to know you still have all these things--ashes, collars, toys--but that you have the comfort that goes with the part that is "less solid and more lasting." I crave solidity perpetually, because it's so much part of the loss--the physicality of my pup, her furry there-ness. But I do find comfort in just talking to her and looking at photos and remembering. You're so kind to write--thank you again.

  5. Sometimes I sense movement in my peripheral vision and trick myself into thinking it's Halley. I'm not sure what it really is; movement memory? I just had an eye test and there's nothing out of the ordinary with my eyes. It's just a way to get her back for an instant, and I'm happy for it.
    I'm hyper-aware of other people's dogs too. I think I love them all now. To put my hand on their warm back for a moment, or exchange a few oohey words with a sweet furry love, that's a little solace.

  6. Thanks so much for writing about Halley here, Hertap. I know from experience that you are a dog-whisperer with others' dogs too, and I hope your pup finds ways to visit you that give you solace too.