This short memoir, “The Last Christmas Tree,” was submitted to Flagpole Magazine. I wrote it for Reggie, knowing it would be our last Christmas together in our home, but also suspecting the truth – that he was dying of cancer, which was confirmed on December 14, 2018. The story was not published ( a different story of mine, “Chasing Fireflies,” was published under the pseudonym, J.L. Mirisch), however, I am including the Christmas tree story in the blog post ahead of an update on Reggie’s Christmas week – which follows the memoir below. Thank you to all my blog readers, and to everyone out there who loves, or has ever loved, Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts.
The Last Christmas Tree
By Jill Hartmann-Roberts
For three months, I wrestled with whether or not to fly back to California for Christmas. My $455 Southwest Airlines voucher made the prospect of a warm west coast Christmas that much more tempting.
But I knew if I went to California, there would be no Christmas tree. And I couldn’t imagine Christmas without my own tree – especially this year.
You see, this will be my last Christmas tree – my last one in the life I have known for the past decade, at least.
Before 2016, I spent every Christmas in California with Mom, but since then, I’ve stayed home in Athens.
I really wanted a tree for my first Athens Christmas in 2016. Coincidentally, my friend, Jay, drives the Cofer’s tree delivery truck. He suggested I check out their selection of fir trees and try out their state-of-the-art delivery service.
They did not disappoint. I picked out a beautiful 7-foot tree, with so many branches there was space for every single ornament with room to spare.
In 2017, I settled for a 5-foot tree; I didn’t even sign up for delivery – just packed the tree in the back of the station wagon.
I was happy to have a tree at all, but it just wasn’t the same.
I promised myself, “Next year I’ll get a bigger tree.”
It feels like last Christmas was just yesterday.
Jay advised me to get a jump on buying my tree this year to secure an early delivery time slot, so I didn’t waste any time. On November 16th, my French bulldog/pug mix, Reggie, and I set off on our quest. As soon as we arrived, anticipation welled up inside me, and I headed straight for the Christmas trees. We were met with a sight to behold: rows and rows of lush fir trees as far as the eye could see.
A gentleman approached us right away and asked what kind of tree I was looking for.
“I want your best 8-foot tree with the full delivery package!”
I was still determined to go all out and buy the biggest tree I could afford.
The huge selection was overwhelming, but when I told the clerk I have heavy ornaments, he led me straight to a tree with thick branches capable of carrying their weight.
“I’ll take it!”
After he tagged the tree, I set up delivery for the day after Thanksgiving, the perfect day to decorate a Christmas tree – with a whole month left before Christmas Eve to enjoy it.
When Jay and his partner, “Boo,” arrived at my home, Santa hats and smiles in tow, they had to cut the branch at the top of the tree; it was so tall it hit the ceiling. Almost immediately the scent – that fragrant scent that nothing else in the world compares to – filled the living room.
I love that Athens is small enough of a city that one of my friends happens to be the person to deliver the one thing that could make it feel like a real Christmas this year.
It has been a hard year: my pug, Lizzie, died in October, and Reggie has been gravely ill since 2017.
This will probably be my last Christmas with Reggie. Last year, I knew it would be my last Christmas with Lizzie, and so I stayed home with the dogs instead of going to California.
I’m so glad I did that. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d missed Lizzie’s last Christmas.
Reggie watched closely as I wrapped strings of multi-colored lights around the tree. He followed behind me as I searched to find the perfect branch for each ornament. (My favorite one has a photo of me holding Toby, my first dog, at his last Christmas in 2010).
Now, Reggie loves to sit under the tree and the beautiful lights glow on his dark coat and in his large brown eyes.
Every time I descend the stairs, the first thing I see is our glorious tree, illuminated in lights, and I immediately feel uplifted with the Christmas spirit. That’s the magic of it.
This may be our last Christmas tree, but it is no less beautiful, and I know it will be a joyous holiday for Reggie and me, if we let it.
A special thanks to my friend, Jay, and his partner, “Boo,” who work so hard all season long to bring that Christmas spirit into all of our homes and hearts.
(End of story)
Lately when I come home, or when I can’t find Reggie, he is sleeping on the red couch, in the space where his daddy always sat – it seems to be Reggie’s favorite place to be nowadays, especially when I’m not home. I’m not sure if this is recent, or if I wasn’t paying close attention before, but I have noticed how often I find Reggie there in the past two weeks. It makes me wonder if he knows the end is near, if he feels his vulnerability. I imagine that he does, to some extent. Animals are far more instinctual and intuitive than we humans give them credit for. I don’t know if Reggie knows that his body is dying, but I can tell he knows that something is wrong by how he feels – even if he does not have the words to define what is happening to him.
I’m learning by experience how rapidly things are changing for Reggie. Last week, he was responding to the medications: Metronidazole and Prednisone. This week, at least since Christmas Day, his symptoms have returned – meaning, I come home to a big mess, I wake up to a big mess, and I hear Reggie getting up several times in the night.
The good news is that I do not hear him wailing in pain, so I think that the other treatments, the holistic ones, are helping, so far. We are still waiting for the Chinese herbs that Dr. Stoppe ordered for him. He has been to acupuncture twice, and Anna, one of the techs, has told me that he does wonderfully – he sits quietly while the needles do their magic.
The first time (see above) Dr. Stoppe kept the needles in for about 10 minutes.
The second time, 10 days later, (see below) she kept them in for about 20 minutes. She said since he’s doing so well, she will try increasing the time towards 30 minutes next time, give or take.
It’s hard to know for sure, but I have a feeling that the acupuncture is helping with pain, as of now, and I hope it continues to do so. I know with human cancer patients, acupuncture and massage and other holistic healing is often recommended not only for anxiety, but also for pain management. Reggie does seem less anxious these days, albeit, quiet, most of the time. He gets feisty and fussy when I take him out in his stroller. He seems to have a lot to say when we go to Jittery Joes, and boy, did he really have a lot to say at the “Read-In With Us in December” meeting I hosted at Barnes and Noble Cafe on the 27th! I suspect the problem was that I forgot to bring his food with me, my bad, and he was letting me know how he felt about having to wait for his dinner. But, around the time our meeting ended, he went to sleep, and rather than wake him up, I let him nap in the stroller while one of my writer friends and I visited. He didn’t make a sound, and I was happy to see him rest so peacefully. He seems to sleep more peacefully in the stroller at the coffee houses than he does at home. It reminds me of infants who can sleep through anything when they are out and about, but have more trouble at home (I’ve heard this happens with some, not all, babies).
Reggie and I had a lot of fun at Barnes and Noble on Christmas Eve. It was a hard day for me (Christmas Eve this year, in particular, was a very sad day for me, and I needed to get out of the house for as long as possible). He loves to sit up tall in the stroller at Barnes and Noble. I’ve brought him there with me often, now that I think of it, and roll him around the store while I look at books – which is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world – even if I do not buy any books. It has been since I was a little girl.
Books (and dogs) have always been my “best friends,” so to speak.
On this particular day, Christmas Eve, the store was packed, and I mean, packed, with people, not surprisingly. However, one adorable little African-American boy, who was probably about 3-4 years old, absolutely stole my heart. He didn’t say a word, and his mom watched from afar, not too far away, at the information desk, as he shyly approached Reggie, with a coy little smile on his face, looking up at me with big brown eyes that silently asked me, “Can I pet him?”
“You can pet him. He likes people,” I said to him, smiling and enjoying the moment.
The little boy stayed with Reggie for well over 5 minutes, maybe longer, petting him softly, and Reggie was very accommodating, happy to have the gentle child pay attention to him. Reggie sniffed his hand and gave it a few licks. He never got close enough to lick the little boy’s face, which is one of Reggie’s signature moves, but I was ready to warn the child to watch out if Reggie stuck out that tongue – I wasn’t sure how he’d like a bath on his face, nor did I think his mom would want that, either.
But, you never know, some people, like me, love that. Others hate it. Better to err on the side of caution with strangers.
I wish I’d thought to take a photo, or ask the mom if I could take a photo, I should say, but I was enjoying the two of them together so much (it made me feel much better, too) that I didn’t even think of it.
Next time…and I hope there will be a next time with a gentle child just like him. I didn’t even get his name…
That night, my friend Lisa, and her husband, invited Reggie and me to her house for dinner. Much like two months earlier, with Lizzie, shortly before she passed away, Reggie rested calmly in his stroller, at Lisa’s house. He stayed beside me at the kitchen table, so quietly, in fact, that we almost forgot he was there with us! Lisa had been concerned that Reggie might try to get at the stew, but he didn’t even try, he was so well behaved. It was the first time I brought him to anyone’s house, as a guest, since he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was an absolute angel. I’m glad – hopefully we can do it again, not everywhere we go, but sometimes. I know many of my friends have very active pets, including large dogs, and it wouldn’t be a good idea. But, any time Reggie can come, I am glad I can bring him since we have so little time together, and these last days, or weeks, or however long I have him, are so precious – especially now, while he still has quality of life. I don’t want to miss a single opportunity to share my life with Reggie.
Christmas morning with Reggie was bittersweet. I took 2-3 videos of him, wanting to capture his last Christmas Day on camera, and not just in still photos. (Unfortunately I do not think I can attach videos to this blog post, but, if I figure out how to do that, I will update the blog post with at least one of the videos).
He struggled to open his presents, even though they were not wrapped in paper. I put his three stuffed animal toys in a gift bag to make it easier for him to get to them. He sort of picked at the bag with his paw, and sniffed at it a few times, stuck his head partially inside, but unlike past years, he didn’t go for it full throttle. His energy level was so low, it broke my heart. I could see that he was not feeling well, and like I mentioned, he’d had some accidents in the night, and so it was clear, he’d spent some of his limited energy dealing with his cursed symptoms.
I didn’t give up, though, and pressed the center of the toys’ bellies to sound that squeaker noise Reggie loves so much. He did become more interested in the toys at that point, and he even took the raccoon in his mouth and started chewing at it for a minute, or less. He didn’t shake his head wildly back and forth, as he once did, trying to kill the prey, and when I threw it across the room (along with the pig and the otter), he didn’t chase any of them. He watched them fly to the other side of the living room and then just looked at me, as if to say, “I’m too tired to chase them. Can you bring them back, please?” Which I did, bring them back to him, that is. He quietly sat by his toys, and rested against my feet, with his back to me, waiting to be stroked, as he does so often.
Later in the morning, he did trot into the living room (presumably feeling a little bit better), when I made another effort to get him excited about his toys and their squeaky sound. He’d been resting in the dining room, heard the sound, and answered the call. Slower than in past years, but he still came. He took the otter, or tried to, it was too thick, and played with it, paws and teeth engaged, only for a few moments, but it happened – and I thankfully captured it on video.
I had to leave Reggie home in the late afternoon when I went to my neighbor’s in-laws, and then to my friend, Jay’s, mom’s house. (I am so grateful to have had people to see on Christmas Day). I didn’t like having to leave Reggie, and I thought about canceling, but I knew that I had to take care of myself, too, and that it would sink me further into despondence about the loss of my family if I stayed home alone all day.
Thankfully, my friend, Marcy, who is a veterinarian, coincidentally, invited both Reggie and me over to visit her in the late morning/early afternoon, and that was wonderful! He rested and slept, didn’t fuss much, maybe a little, and when I took him out in her yard for a walk in the warm sunshine (lucky for us, the weather was beautiful) Reggie was like his old self, or, his old senior self, l mean, (pre-cancer) – marking the grass several times and sniffing all the bushes, rife with new scents.
This past week has flown by, which I was hoping would not be the case, but it has been quiet and peaceful in Athens, and I have had quality time, both in town, and at home, with Reggie. That pet stroller has been a Godsend (as I’ve said before).
I am grateful to Reggie and Lizzie’s daddy, Audie, for buying it for Lizzie, and I remember when he did that, Audie said that one day we would be able to use it for Reggie, too.
Little did Audie, or I, know how soon that day would come, when Reggie would need the stroller. I wish that day had been far off, very far off, and I’m sure if someone were to ask Audie, he would say the same.
But, thank goodness, Reggie has it, when he needs it, however too soon it happened.
I have yet to find a grant writing expert to assist in applying for some of the canine cancer grants I found through some Internet research. I hope I find someone in time. I have no regrets, and I never will, about spending what I need to spend to take care of Reggie’s needs and to make him as comfortable as possible, but I’m also worried about it. Worry does not mean I am giving it a second thought, though. I will not sacrifice Reggie’s well being for anything – he’s counting on me, and I love him so much. He is the only remaining member of my family, and I want him to be happy, and for his life to be as full as possible.
I have many friends who are trying to prepare me, to be able to make the decision, when I am confronted with it. I do not want this to be real – every day, I can feel the denial setting in deeper, even though I’ve had to set my alarm 15 minutes early again to clean up the morning mess, even though he’s slowed down so much. (He still has an excellent appetite, which is one good sign, for now).
But, I did get some bad news when he went in for acupuncture on 12/28: Reggie lost 1 1/2 pounds in just 10 days, in spite of eating his breakfast and dinner and taking all his medication like a trooper. (It’s unbelievable, actually, how he not only does not fight me on the liquid medications, he actually licks the droppers as if he’s drinking a treat – thank goodness for that because Lizzie and Reggie used to hate liquid medications. It was a chore to get them to cooperate in the past. Any tiny blessing…).
In any case, the doctor expressed deep concern at this rapid weight loss – 1.5 pounds is a lot of weight in a dog his size, too, which makes it even more dangerous. She told me to feed him more, but he needs moist food, because of the tumor, so I am soaking puppy kibble (per her recommendation) and adding it to his food. It is high in calories and nutrients. I remember, I had to do this with Lizzie, too, in the last couple months of her life…
As New Year’s Eve is upon us tomorrow, I am glad that Reggie and I will be together. I had hoped with all my heart and soul that December 31st would not end the year 2018 in the way that it will, but I am grateful that Reggie made it to the new year. I was worried that he wouldn’t, and that I was being selfish in asking him, or expecting him, to, for my sake.
But from all indications, he does not seem to be ready to go, not just yet. The vet did not say anything to that effect, either, so we go on, for as long as we can, for as long as he can, with quality in his life.
I am not ready to send my third, and last, dog over the Rainbow Bridge. When I think of it, I have to stop thinking about it, in order to go forward. I never let Reggie see me fall into that state of despair that is lingering below the surface, waiting to emerge when my conscience and my love leave me with no other choice but to say goodbye to him. There are other decisions to be made in the meantime, and other people who love Reggie, and I am trying my best to think of them, too, in terms of what is best for Reggie. It’s not easy, but I have said for a long time that in the end, we have to be able to live with ourselves, to look in the mirror, and be able to look in the eye of the person staring back without shame, or guilt, or regret, if we can. Years from now, when I look back on Reggie, and Lizzie, I want to be able to look in the mirror and be 100% certain that I did the right thing – for them, and for those they love.
Hopefully, there will be many more weeks to write about Reggie, but if there are not, thank you for reading my stories and for keeping Reggie in your thoughts and in your hearts, and a few prayers wouldn’t hurt, either. Know that Reggie is receiving the best care possible – he is loved, and safe, and he is living in peace. He loves to be with people, and people love to be with him. Whatever can be done, will be done. I am glad I elected not to pursue a dangerous surgery – his life, however short it may be, will be better this way – without pain or infections or whatever else could have gone wrong, and was likely to do so, according to Dr. Barker and Dr. Clifton.
Knowing I am willing to let go, gives me a little bit of peace of mind, for now, but every day that I wake up and Reggie is still here to greet me, wagging his tail, or barking at me, or smiling, or following me, or resting on my foot, to stay close to me, I am relieved that it is not that time yet.
As I used to say with Lizzie, “Every day that Reggie is alive is a good day.”
Happy New Year from Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts to everyone!