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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Moving Forward

It's been four months now since Abbey passed away and three months since I wrote about my singular experience of peace, rather than grief, after her death. It is the nature of grief to come and go in waves, so I'm no longer occupying that same surreal space of serenity, but this is not a bad thing. Life has resumed. For a couple of months, I had the sense that Abbey was not gone, but, rather, simply not here. That's changed. Abbey is gone now. But it's okay. I don't talk to her every night anymore, either, and that's okay, too--I've found that I've said everything to her that I needed to say. I do still usually give her urn a brief caress when I go to bed and as a family, we still talk about her all the time. In December, I finally managed to donate her leftover dog food. I got notecards with her photo printed on them and sent a thank you note to our regular vet, the vets that handled her euthanasia, and one, along with a donation, to the shelter where we got her. Donating the food and sending the notes were both emotionally demanding, but those tasks were necessary to my mourning and my process of letting go. I bought a pretty storage box for the things of hers that we are saving--her Disintegrating Christmas Reindeer and some of her other favorite toys, her collection of rope bones, the various collars she had over the years--and will be packing them up this week. And I finally, finally washed the stinky bedding in her crate. Overall, it's been okay.

Abbey with presents from Santa.
(She generously shared that jar
of peanut butter with the rest of
the family.)
What was hard was Christmas. I think we were all rather taken aback by how hard it was to have Christmas without Abbey. Abbey loved Christmas and we got such a kick out of how much she enjoyed it. She knew just what was happening when the stockings were hung up on Christmas Eve! The family tradition has always been that my sister and I would wait at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning until given the signal that we could come down, a ritual we largely preserved as adults. Abbey would wait impatiently with us, eager as a small child to charge down the stairs to see what Santa brought her! She'd get some chews, some kind of treat, and her yearly stuffed toy. She'd also "help" me with my stocking, of course, and play her first game with the new stuffie before we moved as a family out to the living room to open presents around the Christmas tree. Abbey love this part, too. I think she liked how everyone was there, sitting on the ground, and how everyone was happy. She did some assisting with the unwrapping of presents, but mostly lounged in our midst, radiating satisfaction. But this Christmas, there was no Abbey to run down the stairs, no stuffies, no interested wet nose pushing through my hands as I pulled off a present's wrapping paper. That was not the only change. My sister, who married over the summer, spent Christmas with her husband's family. It was the first Christmas since I was born where there were just three of us, not four. No Abbey, no sister, no stockings--it just wasn't the same.

I also found myself thinking more about Abbey's final days of illness in ways I hadn't before. For several weeks I couldn't seem to stop myself from seeing her climbing the stairs, vomiting as she went, on the final evening. I hated thinking about her that way: she graced our lives for 4,389 days and that penultimate day was not who she was or how I wanted to remember her. It did eventually lead to some more curiosity about what disease had killed her. When it was all happening, there'd been no time and really no point in picking apart what caused her intestines to fail--it was enough that they failed. I'd never researched canine intestinal cancers because the subject didn't come up until that second-to-last day and then, within twenty-four hours, she was gone. When I finally checked, it was somehow reassuring that unless a mass is detected and removed early, mortality rates are high. In one type of cancer, once it metastasizes, it can prove fatal within as little as fifteen days. It's not as if there was something that we could have done: if Abbey had been feeling sick for a long time, she hid it well. In retrospect, we wonder if the fact that she'd started choosing to nap in her crate instead of on my bed during the day for a month of two before the end was indicative of something starting to go wrong inside her, but fourteen year-old dogs sleep a lot and Abbey had always loved her crate and preferred to sleep there at night instead of on my bed, so it was hardly a matter to bring before the vet. Cancers often proliferate silently in dogs; in some ways, I was lucky to have had as much time with her as I did after she got so horrendously ill. And even if I'd taken her to the vet on Thursday or Friday instead of planning to call on Monday, it would still have been too late. Test results wouldn't have even come back by the time all hell broke loose on Sunday evening. There was nothing else I could have done. Modern veterinary medicine kept her as comfortable as possible during the last days. Modern veterinary euthanasia philosophy meant that she could slip away in my arms on my bed surrounded by her family. Everyone did their best, just as she always had.

I missed her keenly.

A rabbit at silflay.
But then I reread Richard Adams' classic novel, "Watership Down," about the trials and adventures of a group of rabbits finding and establishing a new home. I'd last read it nearly twenty years ago and remembered only that the rabbits called a motorized vehicle a "hrududu." This time around, I was struck by the final passages of the novel, which I share below. (For clarity, in rabbit mythology, the great rabbit folk hero El-ahrairah has ears containing starlight, in rabbit society, an Owsla is a warren's ruling council, and in rabbit vocabulary, "silflay" means to feed outdoors.)
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way--something about rain and elder bloom--when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him--no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, "Do you want to talk to me?" 
"Yes, that's what I've come for," replied the other. "You know me, don't you?"
 "Yes, of course," said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger's ears were shining with a faint silver light. "Yes, my lord," he said. "Yes, I know you."
"You've been feeling tired," said the stranger, "but I can do something about that. I've come to ask whether you'd care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you'll enjoy it. If you're ready, we might go along now."
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
"You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be all right--and thousands like them. If you'll come along, I'll show you what I mean."
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom. 
"It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more..." When I saw that, I understood, and my grief once again melted away before my sense of awe. Abbey did not need her body anymore, so she left it lying on my bed in my arms.

She did not need her body anymore not just because her bowels no longer functioned, but because her work, her life, her time here were done.

She gave everything to me, her heart, her life, her love, and left her body behind. I hope that she is now running alongside Hazel, matching speed for speed.

Who could want more than that?

Well, perhaps I want this:
In My Good Death

I will find myself waist deep in high summer grass. The humming
     shock of  golden light. And I will hear them before I see
them and know right away who is bounding across the field to meet
   me. All my good dogs will come then, their wet noses
bumping against my palms, their hot panting, their rough faithful
     tongues. Their eyes young and shiny again. The wiry scruff of
their fur, the unspeakable softness of their bellies, their velvet ears
   against my cheeks. I will bend to them, my face covered with
their kisses, my hands full of them. In the grass I will let them knock
     me down.
                                                                     --Dalia Shevin 
There had better be nose nibbles in heaven.

But all this, Abbey's passing, it isn't how it ends. It is just one more thing, one more story, one more memento, one more gift, one more grief, one more love, one more dog. One of many.

My dog-sitting work has resumed. I've spent some time with Sable & Scruffy, Pipsqueak, Curly, Cutie, Teddy & Roo, and a new client, Jazzy. It's mostly been drop-in visits, but some overnights, too. It has made me happy to be with them, though one of the times when I miss Abbey most is when I'm returning from an overnight gig and know my own dog will not be there to welcome me home.

Sable found a really great stick washed up on the beach.

A wind-blown Scruffy sniffs the air for prey.

Little Miss Pipsqueak.

Curly just turned two!

Cutie just turned six!

I got Cutie and Curly together for a couple of playdates. They had so much fun!


Teddy and Roo have just turned twelve.

This is Jazzy, a Mini Australian Shepherd!

This boy was the first I considered.
And then there's my new dog. Abbey, I feel, has settled into her final resting place and I decided it was time to start searching in earnest. After the first meet-and-greet I did, the emotional enormity of both the task and its implications gave me a massive migraine. However, I persevered. Thanks to my years of dog-sitting, I knew how critical it was that my next dog have certain attributes in order to protect my health, the single most important thing being the dog's energy level. I needed a low-energy pup that would be fine without being walked and perfectly content to snuggle on days when I had to spend most of my time in bed. There are scads of dogs in need of homes whose adoption profiles say things like "would make a great jogging or hiking partner!" or "perfect for an active family!" That's shorthand for "high-energy, needs lots of exercise." It's much, much harder to find dogs with lower energy levels, so I felt it would behoove me to keep my eye open for any such dogs that might become available. I also knew that I needed to adopt a dog that was living in a foster home because the way a dog behaves in the shelter is not a guarantee of how it will behave in a home. Much sooner than I expected, I found a profile for a dog that seemed to meet all of my criteria: low-energy, sweet, easy-going, and good with other dogs. My family went to meet her this weekend and it was clear that she's the one.

This is Nala.

She'll join our family in the middle of March and I'll wait until then to tell more about her! But she needs me, just as Abbey needed me, as much as I need her, and I know we will become dear companions.

She's a very gentle soul.

This is not the end of Abbey. This is just a new phase, the one where I use the heart that Abbey opened for me and everything she taught me to give this new girl the best possible home. I had a long chat with Abbey, in fact, after we got home from meeting Nala, and told her all about it. I asked Abbey to help me watch over this girl and make her feel safe and loved and cared for.

Keeping an eye on things.

I dreamed of Abbey the other night. She gave me a joyful yodel-bark, licked my face vigorously, and suckled on my cheek as if she was nursing. Abbey will always be one of the great loves of my life, but there is room in my heart for many more.

My beautiful brindle beast.

If you love Abbey, you can see many more photos of her on her Pack page!