Then and Now

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One of two scenic overlooks on 64 East in Virginia. I stopped here on my way home from a college visit when I was 18 years old, and again last week, 17 years later, on my way home from a Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) meeting.

The last time I stood here, I was 18. Half my life ago. I was headed home from an overnight stay at James Madison University, that cliched feeling of youthful angst clinging to me then the way fog and drizzle cling to the mountains now–that cliched angst I can describe only with another cliche: I was a caged bird ready to fly. I might even have gone home and written a poem about it.

Standing at that scenic overlook on the side of 64 East, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I wanted. That’s how I felt then, standing at a crossroads: James Madison or Michigan State? Eighteen and in the spring of my senior year, I didn’t know yet. I do now. I’m 35. That time has passed. Those choices have been made. I went to Michigan State, became a high school English teacher. Things have been pretty stable since then.

And yet, here I am, standing where I stood 17 years ago, somehow unsure again, somehow on the precipice of something new and unknown again. I stand at the threshold of a new chapter, one I’ve dreaded for a long time–a chapter without Jack and Sadie at my feet, by my side, on my path. I have little idea who I am, where I am going (if anywhere), or what I want to do next.

I listen to the hiss of cars on the highway behind me, their tires slicing through rain puddling on 64 East, and wonder–who am I without these two dogs? Where do I go? What do I do and who do I do it for? Why is it possible for my life to keep going when it revolved around them and they’re gone?

And I’m still here.

Matty knew Sadie before he knew me. I knew Sadie before I finished college. Before my first day of teaching. I don’t know adult life without a dog. I’m not sure I know myself without a dog.  A line exists somewhere between “then” and “now.” Sometimes it’s blurry, but sometimes, it’s crystal clear, marked by a move or a graduation or a marriage or a child. Or, in this case, a loss. My time with Jack and Sadie, so recently “now,” has become “then.” We will talk about it in terms like, “When we had Jack and Sadie.” Use it as a reference point for stories we tell or memories we are trying to recollect more clearly, put into some sort of context.

The rain has soaked through my hair, and after a minute or two, I get back into my car

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Another scenic overlook on 64 East

and drive away, outrunning the rain for now. Three or so miles down the road is the second scenic overlook. It’s not raining here yet, and I pull over, step out into the sun. I watch an orange butterfly balance on the purple bloom of a thistle. I read names and dates scratched into the stone-and-wood fencing at the edge of the parking lot. I watch large, white clouds drift across a blue sky, their shadows sailing along underneath them, skimming across green fields. The rain looms to my right, creeping across the few miles that mark the difference between sunshine and clouds. I know it’s coming, but it hasn’t reached me yet, and I think about how people have told me it will get better. They promise. Time heals all wounds. But this time that heals all wounds also takes me farther away from Jack and Sadie.

I snap a couple pictures. Feel the sun on my back while it’s still out, before the clouds reach us. Remember the 18-year-old girl who stood here 17 years ago, whose questions I now have answers to. And I get back in the car.

As I pull out of the parking lot, the sunshine dims and the rain, like time, catches up to me.

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A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss

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Jack and Sadie on a trail along the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids on April 11

April 11

It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.

April 13

I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.

I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again. I like its message. I find it somewhat comforting.

April 15

Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.

It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.

April 16

It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.

The medication is not doing its job.

I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.

“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.

I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.”  Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.

Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.

When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.

April 19

Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.

Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.

Alone.

I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.

April 20

The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.

April 22

Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.

We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.

April 23

It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.

When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.

Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.

April 27

In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago,  several weeks before we lost Jack, I  scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”

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One of the many “Be Kind” signs I began seeing around the Richmond area in key locations. This one hangs at the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed several levels of agility classes and I held a reading and book signing to raise funds for the shelter.

April 28

This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?

May 4

I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.

 

After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”

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The “Be Kind” sign at Millie’s

Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.

And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.

An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.

A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”

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I love you, Jack. Forever and ever, my whole life long.