There is a sad irony in today’s date: a date I have celebrated annually for 17 years:
October 20, 2001, I adopted my first rescue dog: Toby “Tob-er” Hartmann.
And, a week ago, today, I said goodbye to my precious rescue pug: Lizzie “Lizzie Bear” Roberts.
Toby is buried in the Memory Garden for Pets in Bishop, Georgia, about 15 minutes from my home. When asked why I chose to bury Toby in a pet memorial park instead of cremating him, which is easiest if you move around, I replied, “I could not bear the thought of them burning his body. I just couldn’t.”
At that time in my life, I was not able to think about pragmatism or logistics. All I could tune into was the feeling of losing my first dog. For years, I had been in denial, playing this mind game with myself. Just this morning, an acquaintance of mine said to me, “My dog is never going to die. Maggie is going to live forever.”
I know that game. I played it with Toby. I played it all year with Lizzie.
I know I will play it with Reggie, too.
We can’t help it.
It’s called true, uninhibited, unconditional love.
How do you say goodbye to that?
What I have been telling my friends, my wonderful, kind-hearted, dog-loving friends, all week is that after having gone through it a second time last Saturday, I have found that although it was not easier the second time, I learned something – something that I’m grateful for, something that has given me some small semblance of peace all week:
When you see your dog suffering, and you know there is nothing you can do to stop his or her suffering, except to say goodbye, you will find the strength to let them go, because you’d rather suffer the grief yourself than watch them suffer the pain they are going through…I promised my dear friend, Jennie, whose first rescue dog has crossed that point into senior dog years… that when it’s time, you will find the strength to do the right thing, because you love Baxter so much, you will not be able to bear seeing him suffer.
The new normal, the empty spaces, are not as easy to bear. But, just like with Toby, I am finding a way to bear it.
I have not been able to touch, much less move, or sort through, any of Lizzie’s things yet. Everything remains exactly where I left it a week ago when I rushed her to Hope Animal Medical Center, with Reggie in tow.
Eventually, I will go through her medications and her food and her toys, one by one, because there are other dog owners out there, who are not as fortunate as I have been, who cannot afford all the things I’ve been able to do to keep Lizzie alive as long as I did…just as I did with Toby…and I know I will do it again…and again…and again….
I do not think I can ever let go of Lizzie’s favorite beanbag (which was once in my classroom for the kids to lounge on), or her favorite chew toy, or her crate, or her dog bed, or her stroller. I know Reggie will eventually want to snuggle in her bed, or sit in her crate, all the things he used to do when she wasn’t paying attention, as a sign of sibling rivalry, so to speak. Someday when Reggie’s legs do not work as well, or if he, too, loses his eyesight, that stroller will allow me to take him everywhere with me, just as I did with Lizzie.
Really, I want to keep everything of Lizzie’s as a sort of shrine, but the right thing to do is to pay it forward, and help other dogs in need.
I have been lucky: the first two times I had to say goodbye to my beloved dogs, respectively, I had to pull myself out of my own sadness, my own emptiness, immediately, because I had other dogs, or in this case, another dog, Reggie, who needed me to be there for them.
I can’t afford to fall apart. I have to keep going, for Reggie, who has taken a backseat to Lizzie’s medical crises since late September, even as he has a medical crisis of his own that I refuse to put off dealing with any longer.
Reggie needs an expensive colonoscopy, and after losing Lizzie, I decided: I’m not waiting anymore. It’s been a year already. I’m not losing another dog, not now.
Dr. Clifton has done all the traditional things, the conservative things, that she can try: all the scans, all the lab work, the meds, the change in food to a hydrolyzed protein, everything – the only way to diagnose Reggie’s gastric condition now is a colonoscopy.
I feel confident, and at peace, with that decision: I’ll figure out the money later.
I always do.
Having any peace at a time like this, the first week after, is some comfort – I’ve been told by many people that making a difficult decision, no matter how it plays out in the future, automatically lifts the weight off of your chest.
I definitely notice that peace with moving forward with Reggie’s treatment – no matter what.
Partly, I feel guilty, about what happened to Lizzie…maybe there was something I could have done, and the doubts are sinking in again, much like they did with Toby the first week after I lost him 7 years ago.
Lizzie had a cough when I took her to Hope on Monday, October 1st, but her trachea(airway) was open. Her lungs were not great, but they were definitely clear of any sign of pneumonia.
I was on pins and needles, not knowing what Dr. Clifton would find in the tests, thinking this might be the end, but I was spared that pain that day.
Hydrocodone and the low dosage of Prednisone did the trick…for a little while.
Her cough improved significantly over the next 2 days, and I honestly thought that she was in the clear: crisis averted.
But, on Wednesday night, October 3rd, Reggie, who has always been a sensitive dog, and who often gets jealous, without any immediate provocation, suddenly attacked Lizzie when I lifted her onto the bed with us. It happened so fast: when Reggie lunged at her, I pulled him away from her neck in less than 10 seconds, but she was hyperventilating and gasping and coughing for several minutes afterward.
The damage had been done.
It’s not Reggie’s fault. He feels lost and confused and abandoned – his human, his daddy, is not here with him, and he does not know why, even though I tell him all the time that his daddy loves him, and he will see him again, and that his daddy has not left him.
Reggie does not understand – I can see his broken heart in his eyes as I pet him. It’s almost as if he’s crying, without tears, behind those big, sad, brown eyes.
When Reggie is upset, or jealous, or feels threatened, he sometimes acts out. He did it with Toby, in San Diego, a few times. And he’s done it with Lizzie, too – more than a few times in the last several years.
I have no way of knowing for certain what triggered Lizzie’s rapid decline. The vet cannot tell me for certain, either.
But, after that night, Lizzie’s cough got much, much worse, and on Monday, October 8th, after living through a second difficult weekend of waiting, the X-rays confirmed that Lizzie’s trachea had collapsed, again, her airway was closed up, and her lungs were filled with fluid – she had pneumonia, and I thought: she must have aspirated when her throat closed from the attack, or more likely, during her panic in the aftermath of it.
Within a span of five days – or less – everything changed.
It’s not about fault, or blame – but it is about doubt.
I honestly thought Lizzie was doing so well all year, that she could make it all the way through the holiday season. I felt filled with hope that I’d spend another Thanksgiving and Christmas, maybe even New Year’s, with both of my dogs.
It’s hard to avoid that denial, that mind game, we dog owners play with ourselves. She’d cheated death, and gained so much quality of life, in the last 7 months, that I’d stopped recognizing her true age of 16 years, and I only saw the energetic, happy, alert and resilient “miracle baby” that lit up every moment of my life every day.
Knowing that we had all this extra time with her, just one day short of 7 months’ extra time, has comforted me, and yet…
I still have that doubt, that nagging doubt….
What if their daddy had been here?
What if Reggie hadn’t attacked her on October 3rd?
It’s not fair to do this to myself, and every time it comes up, I push the doubt away, because I know, that I’ll never know.
And even if I did, it would not change the fact that Lizzie is no longer with us.
When Toby died, 7 years ago, I received many cards from friends and loved ones, and from Governor Animal Clinic, his dermatologist at VSH Hospital, and of course, from Dr. Ford, his internal medicine specialist at VCA hospital.
To this day, I have never opened any of them.
(To my friends, who sent them to me, I do still have them, in sealed envelopes, please forgive me).
In all these years, every time I start to pull them out, I put them back again, unopened.
I have not been able to.
I think that for me, it is a sign that the pain is so great, the grief is so frightening to feel, that I can’t read the cards – on some level, they have always represented the proof that Toby left this world – and facing that is different than sitting with it, and truly feeling it.
I have been thinking, today, the anniversary of the day that Toby came into my life, and the one-week mark since Lizzie’s passing, that it may be time.
It’s time that I read those cards.
Today, when I celebrate the life Toby and I shared, is the time.
When I go to Toby’s grave, I am going to bring the cards with me. I am going to open the envelopes, take out the beautiful condolence cards, and read them aloud – to Toby.
I am going to celebrate the life Toby and I began together, 17 years ago. And I know he is still there, right there, with me, wrapped in his favorite blue paisley blanket, with the shirt I placed beside him in the casket, that shirt I proudly wore, the pink beaded shirt with the huge red heart that says, “I ‘heart’ my dog.”
And, in a way, maybe Lizzie’s passing, after 7 years of being afraid of it, has given me what I’ve needed to fully feel the grief of losing Toby.
I don’t know if that’s the ultimate gift, but I do know that Lizzie’s strength has given me strength every day that I’ve been her mom.
Maybe I will be able to do what I could not do in 2011.
Which is not to say I will forget Toby, much less stop thinking about him every day, even if just for a moment.
But, maybe, I can finally be at peace with why Toby died, and when he died…that doubt, those questions, have held me back from being at peace…all these years.
Everything I have been feeling today, and the past seven days, also tells me this: that grief is not linear.
Grief is personal.
Grief is private.
Grief is complicated.
Grief is universal.
Grief is human.
Without grief, we cannot love.
And without love, we are without life.
Reggie and I are starting over from scratch.
We are getting to know each other, again, after 9 years together, in a whole new way.
I’ve taken Reggie with me everywhere I can this week, not only because I need it, and he needs it, but because for both of our sakes, I need him to bond more closely with me.
Now, I know that Reggie is bonded to me, but not in the same way he is bonded to his daddy. Most dogs in a family of more than one human have their person, their human, their pack leader – and for Reggie – that human is Audie.
But, at the same time, I spent more time with both Reggie and Lizzie than Audie was able to – especially considering all of the time Audie spent traveling for conferences, both in and out of the country, on top of the long hours he worked every single day – even on weekends. During those times, when Audie was not home, Reggie has always wanted to be with me, Lizzie, too, of course, and it definitely helped that I usually was the one to give food and treats. And walks – this year Reggie and I have taken many walks together.
Unfortunately I cannot walk him as far as I’d like to in our subdivison. I took him for a walk yesterday for the first time in over a month. I’ve missed it, and it made him so happy.
I do have to avoid the street that I now call, “Loose Dogs Lane,” so we took a shorter route, that still filled the need to get us out of the house, without having to get in the car.
Since I began taking Reggie with me around town all week, he has become very spoiled – and he deserves it. Now, when I do have to leave the house without him, he follows me all the way to the door, and gives me the saddest look when I tell him, “I’ll be back soon, Reg,” and “I’m sorry I can’t take you with me this time.”
I can’t wait to have him officially certified as my emotional support service dog so there will be nowhere that I can’t take him, and I will never have to leave him behind again.
In the meantime, Reggie has been quite the dog about town in Athens. He’s been to Sipz and Starbucks and Five Below and Best Buy and Earth Fare and Marti’s at Midday Cafe and Robins Financial Credit Union and the list goes on…
Today, I took Reggie to Memory Garden for Pets to visit Toby’s grave, and to commemorate this special day, the 17th anniversary of the day I adopted Toby.
I was 30 years old on that day, teaching Kindergarten in a low-income neighborhood school, and living in Murrieta, California.
And as you will read in my memoir, on this day 17 years ago, my life changed forever…
Reggie and Lizzie and Audie changed my life forever, too, and I long for the times, the happiest times in my life, when the five of us were a family in San Diego, looking forward to a lifetime together.
Even though I knew the dogs would not live forever, I never thought of it that way. I remember those days, when Audie would take the three of them out walking in our gorgeous neighborhood around Capri condos, across the street from a beautiful park with waterfalls and ponds and ducks, and a nearby public library. I could not even imagine life being any different, much less see life without our blended family of 3 dogs.
We met so many wonderful neighbors with our dogs, and of course, we always remembered the dogs’ names, not so much the people’s, or at least, not at first. But you’d be amazed how easy it is to make new friends when you have a dog, much less three of them. Last Sunday alone, I met four new people, two of whom had lived in San Diego before! Here in Georgia, 2500 miles away from San Diego, that is a crazy coincidence I did not expect.
It reminded me of the days when it was just Toby and me. People would come up to me all the time and ask to pet Toby.
Everyone wanted to do that with Reggie, too. It was especially funny at Sipz. Reggie was on the patio, waiting for me, and I could see a young girl, a student, eyeing him and trying to get his attention. I was watching from inside and I smiled, thinking about myself, and how much I love to pet dogs, any dog, I meet.
I opened the door between the store and the patio and told her, “It’s okay you can pet him, he loves people.”
He really does.
Yesterday, when Scott from Best Homes Gutter Cleaning drove up the driveway, Reggie got so excited, he ran out to the truck so fast: thank goodness I caught him!
It was the same when James, our pest control technician from American Pest Control, drove up on Tuesday morning. Except this time, I did not let Reggie out. When James parked the truck, I sighed, opened the door, closed it, walked up to his open car door, and told him, “She’s gone.”
He knew exactly what I meant. James had been one of the last people to see Lizzie alive the previous Thursday, October 11th, two days before she passed away.
It was raining that day, and James could not administer the mosquito treatment, so he came back 5 days later, only to find that Lizzie was no longer there to greet him with her wagging curly tail.
I was glad James came back, and even more glad that I could tell him in person. He’d been coming to treat our house for so long, and I knew he loved animals. His eyes were sorrowful, but kind, when he said, “I’m sorry. I’m glad I got to see her before she passed. I’m glad I got to see her for three years.”
I know I’m not done making calls, but the essential ones have been made: to Dr. Pentlarge, Lizzie’s ophthalmologist, for one. Three days later, I received a beautiful card from them in the mail. Hope Animal Clinic sent one, also, that I received in the mail yesterday – and each one of the people who signed it had written their own individual note to me. I will treasure that card forever.
This time, I opened the envelopes and read both cards right away.
This time, I am not afraid to face the pain, and the grief, of losing my pet.
It is not any easier. But I am stronger.
And I’ve still got Reggie. He needs me. We need each other. And with all I’ve learned in the last 17 years, I know I will do right by him.
And just like with Toby, back in the days when it was just Toby and me, Reggie is going to get my undivided attention…and my unconditional love.
Because when it really comes down to it, nothing else in life matters more…than the people and pets you love.