Where do the souls go when the dogs and cats are laid to rest? I wondered as I sat in the Memory Garden for Pets next to Toby’s grave.
Sounds of cars and birds and limbs falling. In the past several years, I have sat by this gravestone many times. My hand softly sweeping back and forth over the granite headstone, fingering the letters in his name, I’ve looked out at the field – at the myriad bouquets of flowers, marking other graves, at the statues and the headstones, some upright, some flat.
Yet, today was the first time, in 7 1/2 years of visits to Toby’s grave, that it occurred to me: I am surrounded by souls of all the dogs and cats buried here.
Shortly after Toby passed away at home, on the same dog bed that Reggie died upon last month, I saw Toby – walking in the bedroom – I swear – I did, or at least, I saw his ghostly spirit, but it was him. I have not seen Reggie’s spirit, here in the house, and because I saw Toby, when he died at home, I hoped I would also see Reggie’s ghost – but it has been 5 weeks today since Reggie died, and no signs yet. No ghosts walking in the hall, just his brown coat on my pillow – and his scent is beginning to fade, which pains my soul.
It is early, and maybe, I will still see Reggie’s ghost, some time – I know his soul is in the house, I can feel him, and Lizzie, but lately, mostly Reggie, as if his spirit follows me from room to room, much like he did when his body was here with me.
Saint Francis Assisi, the patron saint of animals, watches over the garden – his statue stands in the back, with dogs and cats around him, watching over all the gravestones, all the souls of dogs and cats long past, guarding them, like an angel.
Last December, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I bought a new bouquet of flowers in soft fall colors for Toby – it was long overdue. There used to be a bouquet of pink spring flowers, already torn and weather worn after 5 years of exposure to rain, wind and sleet.
I hear another storm is coming tomorrow – and there have been many other heavy rains since December – it is miraculous that this bouquet still remains untattered, the colors still as brilliant as they were the day I bought them at the 75% off clearance sale at Michael’s. Now that winter is almost over, there will surely be thunderstorms – as there are every spring and summer in Georgia, but hopefully, Toby’s new faux flowers will hold their own against the elements.
The first time I came here, to the Memory Garden, was October 24, 2011. I said goodbye to Toby that day – he’d made a long journey from California to Georgia, to what was meant to be his final resting place, or so I thought. I did not see him again until months later, in 2012, long after he was interred.
On that first visit in 2012, a butterfly landed on the granite stone. In that moment, I was certain the butterfly was Toby reincarnated – it comforted me to believe his soul had traveled into another creature’s body and followed me from San Diego to Athens. I didn’t tell many people this, but the hardest part about leaving San Diego, was not leaving my family and friends, as hard as that was, for I knew I’d see them again.
But, leaving that condo, where Toby had died, where I’d seen his spirit walk the floor of the bedroom into his closet hideaway, I was scared that I was leaving Toby’s spirit behind, and that I’d never see him again. I feared his soul would be abandoned there, in the condo, trapped, unable to follow me, as he always had, close behind, or beside, his human companion.
That was actually the one, inconsolable thing – the thing that gave me the most angst about leaving for Georgia – that I worried I could not fix.
My counselor, Alicia, told me to do something that may or may not have worked, if such things are even true. She said to go to the closet, where Toby used to hide when he was alive, and where he passed away, on the day before I left, and tell Toby to come with me. To follow me, out the door, into the car, and all the way to Athens.
She said if his spirit, if his soul, was still in the condo, that he would heed my call and follow me to wherever I went from there.
When I sit by Toby, I do feel his spirit there, in the grave, under the earth, and I am certain, in my mind, that his soul did follow me, that he is not trapped with strangers in my old home.
Was he the butterfly? I don’t know, I will never know, but…since that first day, I’ve never seen a butterfly again, just the ants crawling up my leg, and around the edges of the granite – and inside the crevices of the letters and numerals carved into the stone.
Time stands still when I’m with Toby. Usually I talk to him, but having just retrieved Reggie’s urn and plaster paw print and pieces of his brindle fur, sealed in plastic, I am speechless.
The need for silence overcame me, as if I were at Reggie’s funeral, or maybe, I just had nothing to say.
Before I came to sit by Toby’s grave, I met with Mr. Myers in his office. After he greeted me and expressed his condolences in the compassionate way only he can, he handed me the black and white bag with black paw prints. Inside it there was a large package, the urn, a smaller package, the paw print, and a large envelope with paper certificates commemorating Reggie’s passing, including one with a golden tag, signifying that Reggie had been cremated and ensuring his cremains were being returned to me.
I did not read the documents until I got home, later, after I placed Reggie’s urn and plaster paw print by his framed photo, a gift from Suzanne, and the clay paw print Dr. Stoppe and Tristan made shortly before they put him to sleep. When I sat by the memory table, as I now call it, I took out the certificates and read them. Mr. Myers had accidentally used my last name, Hartmann, instead of Roberts, for Reggie, but no matter. Hopefully on Audie’s certificates, the name, Reggie Roberts, was listed correctly.
Either way, the sadness of losing him came down to pieces of paper, an urn, two paw prints, a photo, and a vacancy no other dog can fill.
Before I left Mr. Myers’s office to visit Toby in the garden, he and I had an awkward, albeit, brief, conversation I’d been putting off for a long time, since last August, but now that I was here, for Reggie, I knew it was time to ask him what I’d been needing to ask.
I asked Mr. Myers (stumbling through the words): was there a way for me to take Toby with me? I told him that I had never expected I would leave, or at least, I never thought about leaving when I first came here, and now here I was, faced with the possibility of leaving later this year, or perhaps in a year, or two, who knows, but nevertheless, most likely, sometime not too far in the future.
As the years have passed, since I came to Georgia, I hoped I would not leave, and that Toby also could stay, here, in Athens, but now that I know that dream has died, I cannot bear to leave Toby here when I go…and that was what I told Mr. Myers, that I could not bear to leave Toby behind, because, I was not sure if I would ever come back, and to leave Toby forever…was unthinkable (that last part, I did not say out loud).
Mr. Myers listened, quietly, and then he said, “Let me see if I can rephrase your question.”
He said, in his own words, that I was wanting to know if I would be able to take what was left of Toby with me when I leave, was that something he could do, and he said the answer was, “Yes, that is something I can do.”
Relief – I did not ask about the expense, I was too afraid to find out right then, but at least, I knew it could be done.
He said that Toby could be sent to me, but when I asked about the stone, he said if it was mine I could have it, but that it would be very expensive to ship. I told him I had bought the stone, but could I just take it with me, and not ship it? His answer to my original question slightly changed. He told me to give him two weeks’ notice, when I was ready, and I could take Toby and the stone with me, as I requested. He said he needed two weeks because of the weather, which is often wet and exhuming a grave in the mud was not something they wanted to do.
Holding onto Reggie, what was left of him (divided by two), was all my heart could take that afternoon, and yet, I still had to ask: what about the shirt and blanket I’d buried with Toby? Mr. Myers said I would not be able to take those with me, too (I could tell he was hesitant to tell me for a moment, but then he came out, and finished my sentence). “Because they would be too icky…” I said, and he added, “Yes, they would be icky.”
I get so busy with the business of life, I don’t come to visit the Memory Garden as often as I planned, or have wanted to. But when I am there, and time stands still, I feel closer to God, and to Toby, as I lay my hand on the stone, the protector of the sanctuary that shields what remains of the body of my beloved, my first dog.
Losing Lizzie and Reggie so recently, and so close together, has made the memory of Toby’s loss, however vivid, seem so much farther back in time than it did for these last several years. Somehow, now, after losing Lizzie and Reggie, it is easier to sit in the field of souls than it is to kneel in front of the two urns and framed photos and paw prints spread in a row along the wooden table.
I feel their souls, all the time, and I miss them, all the time. Sometimes, it is so intense, the reality that both of them are gone, that all of a sudden, I simply can’t breathe.
I am tired. I am tired of grief. I have had enough of grief. I am beginning to forget what it felt like, what life felt like – before the grief – life is divided into the time before, and the time after – the former being the time when all three of them were still alive.
The clouds are gathering now, the sun is hidden behind the trees, the light is dwindling – time to go. If the souls should follow me out of the garden, over the footbridge, into the car and out the open gate onto the highway, all the better. I’d be happy to take the souls of the dogs and cats laid to rest in this beautiful garden with me wherever I go.
Either way, they will be waiting for me next time I come to visit Toby.
When I got home, I carefully took Reggie’s urn out of the package and set it on the table beside his picture. I removed the paper protecting the plaster paw print and gently set it on the picture stand beside the urn.
And then, I sat, for a long time, staring. Just staring. At Lizzie. At Reggie.
Reggie has come home, home to rest beside his Lizzie…home to stay.
It was just supposed to be a donation. Part of the downsizing. Just a quick stop. Drop off the blankets, the sheets, the bedspreads, the old towels. Then turn around and go.
In honor of Reggie and Lizzie, I made two trips to Athens-Clarke County Animal Control this week.
Just to drop off sheets, towels and bedspreads.
But…it was much more than that.
No, I did not adopt a dog. But as soon as I heard the chorus of barking when I exited the car, I should have known, like the children hearing the flute of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would not be able to leave without looking at the dogs in the kennels.
When I got out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the redneck guy with a huge, macho-looking black pickup truck, stocked up to the brim with tires in the bed of the truck – doing what I hate most, what I can’t stand, what I fight against – he was surrendering his dog to the shelter. He handed his medium-sized, light-colored dog, on a rope to the shelter worker. The dog looked at him with its tail wagging, not understanding what was happening – he watched as his owner walked away without even petting him or saying goodbye. He just strutted back to his truck. He looked at me, and I looked away. (I won’t tell you what I was thinking or what I wanted to say – especially on my public blog, but if you are a regular reader of my blog, or if you know me personally, I’m sure you can imagine).
Thank goodness he didn’t just dump the dog on the road – or tie him up somewhere and just leave him – that would be far worse, and too many people around the world do just that.
I know for a fact he did surrender his dog because his dog, Scar, was one of the dogs I saw in the kennels not long afterward. He had not been there long, but he already looked terrified and lost and confused.
And Scar, you did not deserve that. There is always another way – but again, I remind myself, it is better than leaving him on the road. This way, he has a chance – someone, or a rescue group, may save him.
But this is not a no-kill shelter. That’s why they are closed every Wednesday.
When I entered the lobby, I brought the four or five bags inside and asked if I could also donate the wool blanket that Reggie had soiled before he died. Unfortunately, for health code reasons, they could not wash it there, but I did take it to the laundry on Prince where I went a few weeks ago, and Michelle, gladly took it and told me she would not even charge me to clean it since I am donating it to the animal shelter.
As I turned toward the door that led to the kennels, I took a deep breath. I could hear the dogs from the inside, and once I entered the walkway of the front kennels, it was strange – I felt like I was listening to a concert – but it was not soothing – the dogs’ howls ranged from desperate to agonizing to angry to sorrowful to hopeful. It did not bother me as far as the noise, it was more like music to my ears – hearing dogs barking does not phase me at all – they must truly be my soulmates in another life, as well as this one. I am very sensitive to loud noises, but not dogs barking. Though, the sound of the dogs in their emotional pain did create these waves in the center of my chest, where my heart chakra is – it drew me to them, and I could not help but bear witness to their pain and to their longing for someone, anyone kind, to take them home and give them a forever human to love.
The first two dogs were pitbulls, and I have to tell you, (I’m terrible with names), the smaller one, a female, tilted her head and looked right into my eyes with an expression I will never forget, I’m sure – it was like she was pulling me toward her, like a thread, a rope, connected her heart to mine. In her eyes, I saw her plead for me to love her, to take her out of this cage and give her a home. She jumped up, not in anger, but in eagerness, in hope, that I would be the one to open up the gates to a new life for her.
But I can’t. I couldn’t, and yet, I could not walk away from her.
I squatted down and approached her and looked at her, right in her eyes, and I told her, “I’m so sorry. I can’t take you with me. I’m sorry.”
The dog to her right was also very excited to see me and looked at me with that hopeful joy, the kind of joy someone feels when someone who might just be the one to love them forever, unconditionally, has just come their way.
But I couldn’t.
I continued walking down the row, in the front, very slowly. There were medium-sized mutts, some looked like Rottweiler mixes, some were Pit mixes, some looked like a mix of all kinds of dogs. None of them were very large, but none were small, either.
Even if there were a small dog, I could not take one home right now. For many reasons, but even if I did not have to keep my house immaculately clean, now that it is immaculately clean, for the first time since I moved in, I am not ready.
No dog, anywhere, can take Reggie’s and Lizzie’s place. I can’t even imagine another dog besides Reggie or Lizzie living in this house.
Some of the dogs, in the back kennel, looked at me with fear, with suspicion, and I knew – these were the dogs who had been abused, beaten, neglected, and they were the ones I was drawn to the most, and yet I also knew, they needed me to respect them, and give them space, at least, for now – if I was not going to take them home with me, it was not fair to do anything else.
There was one dog, an older lab mix, a girl, that leaned right up against her cage when I drew near, and I stuck my hand near her nose. She licked my hand and then pressed her body – on her right side, as close to the chain link as she could. I knew exactly what she wanted me to do and I was happy to oblige her. I stuck my fingers through the small space and began to pet her.
It was like coming home for me – to pet a dog again – even if she wasn’t mine.
She is the first dog I have pet, that I have touched, since Reggie died.
I have seen dogs, but I have not approached them, not even my neighbor, Pennie’s dog. I just feel like since Reggie died, I don’t want to do that, but somehow, being in the shelter, something happened, and I did it without thinking when she reached out to me, without words, and asked me.
There were some female students who were taking dogs out of the kennels to walk them and play with them in the back fenced-in area designated for the dogs to exercise and let out some of their pent-up energy – and who could blame them – being cooped up in those kennels with nothing but a tiny canvas cot and a floor made of concrete – no warmth, no love, no comfort of any real substance.
No wonder their cries fill the air with voices that are so ripe with hope and agony, they must be singing out to God to help them, and yet, so few of us hear them.
These last few weeks, this last week, especially, I have been lost myself, much like them. Really, I have been lost for almost 2 years now – since May 2017. In some ways longer than that, but most acutely since May 2017, and in some ways, it has consumed me, completely, since June 3rd of last year.
And then, as I knelt before the dogs, and looked into their eyes, I felt as if I could almost read their minds, and their souls, and I knew – I knew who I was, or more specifically, I ***remembered*** who I was – for the first time in a long time, I felt like me again. These lost dogs, who have been led astray, guided me back to me, the real me – the one who has a dream of a dog rescue of my own, the one who loves dogs with all my heart and soul, the one who would do anything to save a dog in need, the one who, after the worst heartbreak of my life, the one that I was sure would break me, is still standing – unbroken and resilient and stronger than ever.
Make no mistake, I am heartbroken – I have never, ever known heartbreak like this – but in their eyes, I remembered that my heart, though broken, is still beating, still alive and still open to love – to love my friends, to love my mother, to love the memory of Toby and Lizzie and Reggie.
And someday, when I’m ready, to come back, to this shelter, or to another rescue group, to open my home, my heart, and my life to another dog, who I know I will love as much as I love the three I have lost.
I did not intend to see the dogs. I did not intend to ask the front desk about how else I could help, but I did. I only intended to drop off some sheets and towels and bedspreads.
The universe had other plans for me. And I am so glad. I know I will be back. I used to be afraid to go to the animal shelter – afraid it would be too hard for me.
It’s not too hard – not anymore – having made it to the other side of “too hard,” “too painful,” and “too much to bear,” I have found I can handle more than I ever realized – I underestimated myself – and I’m not the only one, but I won’t do that again. I know where I belong – I belong with the dogs, I belong with other writers, I belong with other people who tell the truth, who keep their word, and who know how to forgive and let things go, when someone expresses remorse and makes amends. I belong with my music, I belong with my books, and I belong with my advocacy for those who have survived trauma.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I always have hated cliches.
Maybe I should reconsider that – losing my entire family, the future I dreamed of, the man who was the love of my life, my dogs, my home, it didn’t kill me. Not yet.
And I don’t plan to let it.
Maybe, there is something ahead of me so wonderful, so magnificent, so fulfilling, that I can’t even picture it – and then, maybe then, I will know why this happened, and maybe, I will be glad it did. It’s hard to imagine that I could ever be glad about that, but I am stronger than what others think of me, stronger than the false way in which they choose to define me, stronger than the black-and-white and distorted way in which they see me.
On the night he proposed to me, he read me the list of 32 reasons why he loved me, before he knelt down and said, “And for all these reasons, will you marry me, sweetheart?”
Even though that life, that future, is no longer, those 32 things are still true. They always were. They are the real me.
If the dogs at the shelter, if the souls I saw in their eyes, are the beginning of my journey to finding me again, then I can’t wait to meet her.
Bless the dogs of Athens-Clarke County Animal Control…and all rescue dogs everywhere. They are God’s gift to the world.
On Saturday morning, February 2, 2019, I went to Heirloom Cafe and sat at the brunch bar – I did not tell anyone that Reggie had died the day before. I pretended like nothing had happened when Rachel, the brunch server, asked me how I was doing. As I was spooning the creamy white foam off the top of a soy cappuccino, imagining what it would taste like if it were ice cream instead, the inspiration hit – and I had to write it down – a poem about my beloved Reggie. I pulled some paper out of my bag and began writing the words – they flowed without effort.
Tonight, the Athens Writers Association held our 5th Open Mic at Normal Books store on Prince Avenue. I was the last reader of the night. I did not tell the audience about the poem in advance, except that I wrote it at the brunch bar a few weeks ago. I read the poem, I didn’t cry, I held it together, which I was determined to do – it worked. At the end I told them, “My dog, Reggie, died on February 1st from colon cancer,” and then I sat down and thanked them.
Here is the poem, “Reggie,” that I wrote for him. I noticed a missed call from Loran Myers at Memory Garden for Pets on my phone. Sometime this week, I expect I will be picking up Reggie’s urn. I don’t feel ready. Right now, it feels better to have his spirit in the house, but it will never be easy….
By Jill Hartmann-Roberts
Your brown coat on the pillow,
Still full of your scent.
Your hooded brown raincoat laying on the floor.
Your empty dog bed –
The last night
I found you there,
Snuggled in the crocheted blankets.
Your favorite nyla bone chew toy,
Brown and worn down at the edges-
The blue rubber center still clean and intact.
Stains from your cancer on the sheets,
On the white down comforter,
On the carpet where I slowly set down my feet.
I rub the bottoms back and forth and push down,
Trying to ground my body back into the earth.
Trash bags, plastic bags, tied up,
Filled with soiled paper towels,
The smell beginning to fade after so many weeks.
A purple cushion where you took your last breath.
Your eyes were open –
They went glassy as you left me.
Her stethoscope against your chest –
You weren’t moving.
“He’s gone,” the vet said.
The rabies tag on your black harness,
The blue Star of David and chain choke collars
Hanging on a peg,
Your Georgia Bulldogs canvas leash with the broken latch.
On the last day of Reggie Roberts’s life, Friday, February 1, 2019, the sun was shining and the temperature was warm. When I woke up, he was sleeping in Lizzie’s dog bed, snuggled in the blankets, breathing air in and out, as he had every other day of his life with us, living in the moment, without worry, without fear – except, this morning, would be the last time. I’m glad he didn’t know…I’m glad that as he rested in the bed where his beloved Lizzie used to sleep, peaceful and fearless, he didn’t know that it would be for the last time.
I sat by the bed and watched him for several minutes – I did not disturb him as I went through my daily morning cleanup of the bathroom floor – but he stirred and woke up on his own and resettled on top of the plastic trash bags protecting the carpet, as he did every morning, with his head between his paws, watching me with that guilty look in his eyes. I wish he did not feel guilty – he had nothing to feel guilty about – it wasn’t his fault.
It was cancer.
If there is any fault, it is the fault of the cancer. But that doesn’t make anyone feel better, nor does it bring him back.
Downstairs, as I did every other morning, even though it wouldn’t matter now, I gave Reggie his medications and his canned food – he ate it the same as he did every day. And that killed me – he was still eating, he still looked at me the same way he did on any other day, he walked like any other day, wagged his tail when I put on his brown coat and his harness, ready to get into the car and drive wherever I would take him.
He was alive, and I was making the decision to end his life.
I don’t know how, or why, I’ve had to do this twice in the past few months, once for Lizzie in October, and once for Reggie at the end of last month, but I know, I’m not alone. My next-door neighbor, Pennie, has become a good friend in the past year, but even before we got to know each other better, we talked about our dogs all the time. I remember she told me the painful story of losing her rescue boxers all in one year many years ago, and recently, in the spring and summer of 2017, she lost two of her three dogs, Suzie and Daisy. She told me the story of losing one of her dogs at home, without warning, in detail, and it pained me to hear about what they went through. I have a friend I met through dog rescue circles in San Diego, named Lorri, and a few years ago she lost two of her beagles and one of her other rescue cats all in one year, just a few months apart.
This happens all the time. And yet like anything else in life, that happens to a lot of people, if not to everyone, until it happens to you, there is no way to know exactly how hard it is.
Even though I treated that Friday morning like any other day in front of Reggie, nothing around me looked the same – not the house, not the car, not the road in front of me, or the familiar buildings we drove by – every car around us seemed unreal. Walking into Jittery Joe’s felt like an out-of-body experience with Reggie in the stroller, looking around him. Every time someone looked at him in the stroller and smiled, I felt a deep ache in my chest, literally. When I ordered a latte, and asked for water for Reggie, I tried not to think about how he would not be back – I did not want to waste a single minute thinking about how many hours I had left with him before 1:30 pm.
It was about 9 am.
There was a man, maybe my age, with glasses on the end of his nose, short dark hair, wearing casual sports clothes sitting by the window across from the long glass table where I sat down and parked Reggie’s stroller next to me. I pulled it as close to me as possible. When I looked toward the window, the man looked as if he recognized us, but when he smiled and then returned his attention back to his laptop, I realized I was probably imagining that because I had gotten so used to people admiring Reggie, I usually never thought about whether or not I knew people or if they were simply other regular customers.
But today felt so different, like I had to take in every little detail with such attention and care. It all seemed much more important to not forget.
I leaned my head down on Reggie’s head and pet him and kissed him. I hope no one saw that tears started to fall, but I had to stop, I had to for Reggie. I did. I had brought my laptop but I didn’t feel like I could write. I lifted him up out of the stroller and put him in my lap and just held him, hugged him, kissed him, breathed in his scent, rubbed my cheek against his fur, and slowly rocked him back and forth. I may have even hummed the lullaby I hummed for Toby, and for Lizzie, the night before I put them to sleep, in 2011 and 2018, respectively. My voice was so hoarse from crying for so many days, so many months, I could not hear much of anything coming out of my throat. After a long while, with Reggie still in my lap, I opened the laptop. Somehow I found the strength to write…for Reggie.
Before I knew it, two hours went by. It’s all a blur now, but eventually I realized that I’d been sitting there with Reggie in my lap, sipping my latte, for a long time. With a heavy heart, I lifted him from my lap and returned him to the stroller and wheeled him out of Epps Bridge Jittery Joes for the last time.
From there, I drove Reggie to Bishop Park, where Audie and I used to walk both dogs often on days like this. I didn’t leave him in the stroller. I lifted him out and let him walk on the path for as long as he could manage, at his own pace. I took video of him walking, as I had many times in the past month on our trips to state parks. I knew from experience how much it would mean to me over the years to be able to watch him – alive and moving.
He took his time, sometimes trotting, sometimes walking slowly. He marked a lot, he pooped a lot. He stopped to smell trees and leaves and grass. Sometimes he sat, upright, to pause and rest. We did two loops around the park before he started breathing more heavily and I decided he’d had enough on his own – I wanted him to have energy for the next two hours, before the vet came to the house.
For the third and last loop, I returned him to the stroller and he lay down as we walked the path of Bishop Park for the last time.
It was ten after 12, less than 2 hours until we had to be back home to wait for Dr. Stoppe.
Time for Reggie’s last meal.
I’d been pondering all morning where to take him. Neither Toby nor Lizzie got to have a last meal, not the kind I wanted Reggie to have, the kind they all tell you to give your dog – ice cream, pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries…”the kitchen sink.” With Toby, I tried, but he was so weak, he could barely move, much less eat. With Lizzie, there was no time to think. She did not want to eat anything on the morning of October 13, 2018 and left the salmon and tuna in her food bowl untouched as I raced to get her to Hope as fast as I could to end her suffering.
With Reggie, he was calm, and there was time, not much, but this was my last chance to give one of my dogs that gift of a “last supper” so to speak.
When I thought about it, I realized that Reggie deserved the best, and the best was my favorite place in Athens – the Heirloom Cafe. No fast food, Five Guys Burger was not good enough for Reggie – he deserved grass-fed beef, the good stuff.
There were only a few other customers inside when I told the hostess I had Reggie with me in the stroller. We had the patio to ourselves. Henry, one of my favorite people, was working the lunch shift but he was not our server. John, who is a very nice person, works the bar on weekdays, I believe, I never have seen him there on a weekend in all the years I was a brunch customer. He had never met Reggie, and I didn’t tell him what was going on, just that we only had about 45 minutes and so he took our order right away – a grass fed burger with fries for Reggie – no toppings and the same for me without the bun and the cheese.
I took Reggie out of the stroller and placed him in my lap again, wanting to hold him for every single minute possible in this last hour and a half of his life. Before the food came, we had a surprise visitor – my friend, Mary, whom I met at the Heirloom brunch bar a couple of years ago, exited the cafe with a work friend. She came over to hug me and I did tell her that I was putting Reggie to sleep. She hugged me tighter. Mary is a dog and cat lover and a pet sitter – I didn’t need to explain to her how I was feeling.
I asked Mary to take a photo of Reggie and me at the table, she took several, and when our food came she watched as Reggie gobbled up a few bites of hamburger and about 8 French fries. It made me so happy to see him eating and enjoying the people food.
After Mary left, Reggie had more trouble eating, meaning he didn’t eat anything. I kept trying to feed him smaller bits of French fries and smaller pieces of the burger but he turned his head away, or sniffed the pieces and refused the food. I suppose the rich, heavy food hurt his stomach – it’s not as if the colon cancer or the massive, ulcerated tumor cared that he deserved to enjoy this kind of treat that would be his last. Eventually I stopped trying, and just picked at my own food. I didn’t have much of an appetite, either. As 1:00 approached, I asked John for a check and a box for all the leftovers and headed home.
When we got there, Audie’s car was parked on the street (I was confused as to why he didn’t park in the driveway, but no matter). He was sitting in the driver’s seat texting or doing something on his phone when I pulled into the garage, head-in (I usually back in, I didn’t bother to worry about it that day). Dr. Stoppe wasn’t there yet, and I told Audie I wanted to take Reggie on a last walk around his neighborhood. He agreed and I let him take the leash. Audie commented on how weak Reggie looked, which he had told me he’d noticed the day before when he was walking him during some of the visits I’d granted him with Reggie in the last several weeks before he died.
Reggie didn’t make it very far, and we walked at a snail’s pace. I couldn’t help but think about all the walks over the years when I could barely keep up with Reggie, as he pulled Lizzie behind, with the dog leashes that Audie tied together into one to keep the two of them together – Reggie pulling Lizzie along so she didn’t fall behind.
And now we were awkwardly, almost silently, taking Reggie on his very last walk, and with that ending the era of our life with our dogs, altogether.
When we saw the car driving down the street, I said to Audie, “that must be Dr. Stoppe.”
It was, the car pulled up the driveway, and Dr. Stoppe and Tristan, one of the head vet techs, exited the Subaru and flipped the trunk, removing the supplies they needed for the euthanasia.
I apologized for the mess and the odor when they entered the house. I showed them upstairs to my sitting room, where Toby’s dog bed waited for Reggie to say goodbye as he did at home, on the same bed, back in 2011. It was serendipity, in a sad way, that my first dog, and my last dog, would go to sleep in the same way, and in the same place, albeit in a different home.
I had hoped Reggie would feel more comfortable at home, and he was, but he recognized Dr. Stoppe and Tristan and was very aware something was going on that affected him, and he began to shake. It was very hard, but I knew it would have been worse at the clinic. At least here he was home, and Audie and I were there with him.
Dr. Stoppe had brought the clay to make paw prints for Reggie and we watched as a nervous Reggie allowed Tristan to press his paw in each circle of clay, one paw print for each of us. What was touching was that they’d already carved his name, “Reggie,” into the clay before they came.
We pet Reggie, while Dr. Stoppe prepped him for the procedure, though he panted and shook, and it was heartbreaking, but the worst part, and the best part, for me, was watching as Reggie walked over to Audie, his original human, and cuddled up next to him for protection. Reggie looked over at me, and at the vets, and back at me, as he huddled in Audie’s arms, and I knew, no matter what happened, or had happened, I did the right thing by bringing Audie home to be with Reggie when it was time to say goodbye. I knew it would be what Reggie needed, and what Reggie deserved, and I was right. I could not bear the thought of Reggie not saying goodbye to his daddy, and I knew that if our roles were reversed, I’d want to be with my dog when he died.
As I have often said, years from now, all that will matter to me is that I behaved in a way where I will look myself in the mirror, and know that when Reggie, and Lizzie, died, I did what was right.
For some reason, I felt much more stoic, or more resigned, or stronger, or more something this time. With Lizzie, I cried as I said goodbye, but this time, I did not. Neither did Audie. It happened much more quickly, there was less time, because Dr. Stoppe and Tristan had to return to the clinic. The whole process of sedating Reggie, which made him sleep, with his eyes open, happened quickly, although it was difficult to get the catheter in originally, which was why it was hard to see him so scared and aware – Dr. Stoppe assured us he’d be okay, once he was sedated, everything would be fine.
She was right, his breathing calmed down and he rested, although it was unnerving to see his eyes open as he slept. Lizzie’s and Toby’s eyes had been closed.
“Are you ready?” she asked us. I didn’t look at Audie but we both nodded and said, “Yes.”
I can’t speak for Audie, but I was never going to be ready, it was just that I knew there was no other choice but to resign to be ready to let Reggie go.
As Dr. Stoppe gave him the drug, Audie being the scientist asked them what drug they were giving him. It started with a “B,” I think, or a “P.” I don’t remember the name).
“It’s okay, Reggie. You’re going to see Lizzie and Toby soon. It’s okay, Reggie.” I pet him and reassured him as she administered the drug.
I knew when he was gone, even before she put the stethoscope to his chest and eerily, the same way she did for Lizzie on October 13th, said aloud, “He’s gone.”
His eyes had gone glassy, his chest had stopped moving, before I heard the words.
Last time, I cried with my head on Lizzie’s. This time, no tears came. The numbness came immediately. And suddenly I was thinking to myself it would be okay, that he was with Lizzie and Toby, and at peace, and I kissed him, and all I could say was, “He feels so warm.”
“It takes a while,” the doctor told me (meaning for the body temperature to change).
Audie kept saying to me we’d done the right thing in a very matter-of-fact way. It was strange. It was not that I didn’t know that, and yet, I think he needed to hear himself say it aloud. We all grieve in our own way. He seemed calmer than he did last time, too, and we only had a few minutes before Dr. Stoppe asked us again, “Are you ready for me to take him?”
I didn’t fight it, and I reminded her Loran Myers from Memory Garden would be picking him up at the vet later to take him for the after-death procedures. I told Dr. Stoppe I wanted to be able to pick out an urn this time (with Lizzie we did not get to do that, though the wooden box is very pretty).
Tristan wrapped Reggie’s behind in a giant gauze pad and put him in Dr. Stoppe’s arms – two-handed, they carried him downstairs and Audie and I followed. We watched them put Reggie’s still body in the trunk of the car, and the last thing the doctor said to me was to let them know if I needed anything.
Audie turned to me again to tell me that I had done the right thing, that Reggie was suffering, or that we couldn’t let him suffer, same difference. Audie did not hug me, he did not offer to stay and talk, he just said he had a faculty meeting and then a retirement party that night.
“Take care of yourself,” he said flatly as he walked down the driveway to his car.
I watched his car pull away and drive down the street, to the stop sign, right turn signal on, and then he turned right, and was gone.
I stood, standing there, for a long time, staring at the street. I couldn’t even move. My body had gone into shock, or my brain, or both. I didn’t cry. I felt as if I was in a dream, watching myself stand there. I heard the sounds of cars, the sounds of my next-door neighbor’s daughter, S.J. and her friend talking in their driveway, the sounds of Doug, across the street, getting in and out of his car, and opening and closing the garage door.
Eventually, maybe half an hour later, my feet hurt, and my legs were hurting so I sat down, right there in the driveway, not talking, not crying, not even thinking. I just sat, the rest of the day, with the sun on my face and the wind blowing now and then, and did not move, except to reposition myself from the pain of sitting on concrete, but I could almost not feel that, either. Eventually my neighbor, Pennie, pulled up into her driveway in her white car, into her garage, but she did not come over. I knew she knew I needed to be alone.
As it grew later, I could tell it would be dark within an hour or so. I stood up and stared at the sliding glass door and I realized why I probably had stayed in the driveway so long:
I did not want to walk back into that house. I’d be alone, without Reggie, without Lizzie, without Audie, without anyone.
I did not want to walk inside – I’d known for weeks every time I pulled up the driveway and saw Reggie waiting for me on the other side of the glass that this day would come, and I’d be dreading it, and now it was here. I wasn’t ready, I’d never be ready, so I stayed, in shock, avoiding it, for as long as I could, until I couldn’t anymore. My body hurt too much from the concrete – everywhere – and it was never going to get easier. The dogs, Lizzie and Reggie, filled that house up, still, in every way that mattered, except they were not there, and never would be.
And then, there were none.
Two weeks have passed, and Audie and I have each ordered our urns and paw prints from Mr. Myers. We have not received them yet, and unlike the day we ordered my gravestone and golden cast paw print for Toby, along with a digitized version in a silver charm, Audie and I will be going alone, separately, to pick up our respective urns and paw prints.
When Lizzie died, it took many weeks for me to touch her things, and for some reason, this time, I needed to collect Reggie’s things immediately to donate to Hope. The day after he died, that Saturday, February 2nd, I spent most of the day doing that, and then robotically cleaning all the surfaces of the house in shifts, of one hour at a time, since it hurt my body too much to do it all at once. When I went to bed that night, my body hurt all over from exerting more physical activity than I’m supposed to, but I didn’t care.
It was better than the emotional pain I felt. The grief hit me so quickly, so hard – and I needed to push it away, push it down, quickly.
On Valentine’s Day, I hired Certified Clean Care to take care of the caked on and hardened feces and blood left behind from Reggie’s cancer, along with the years of buildup of dirt and red clay and urine and feces accidents that had occurred when one, or both of us, didn’t get home in time to take the dogs out, or when we were on a trip and came home to find the pet sitter had not cleaned it up – which didn’t matter anymore, and didn’t matter much then. When you have rescue dogs, especially dogs with medical issues, these things happen. I knew there’d be a day, this day, to clean it all up, as if it never happened. And it worked, the floors and carpets look practically new, especially the hardwood floors and all the kitchen and bathroom tiles. The carpets look fairly new, and the air is clean to breathe.
I would have done it anyway, myself, because I promised Audie I would, and I always keep my word, but it also felt like a gift to myself, when it was done, for all the months and months of taking care of both Reggie and Lizzie at the end of their respective lives. I felt I had earned this fresh start, with fresh carpet, fresh floors, fresh air and a clearer mind. Or as close to that as possible.
A few days earlier, I had finally decided it was time to clean the bedding – my blankets and sheets that Reggie had soiled in the last few days of his life when he’d been on the bed with me. For some reason, this was hard – you’d think it would be the first thing I’d want to clean, even before the floors and the carpets, but for whatever reason, it was the hardest thing to let go of – I couldn’t smell anything anyway, but visually, you would think I wouldn’t want to see it – the spots and stains the tumor left behind. Or, more likely, I was just too exhausted – that’s probably it, mostly. My same friend, pet sitter Mary, had told me about a wash and fold on Prince Avenue that was willing to wash pet-related stains – a dry cleaners wouldn’t do it, she said. It took a couple of bags to fit in all the bedding – sheets and blankets and comforter. (Thankfully, there was no damage to the mattress or mattress cover. My tiny throw pillow – I just threw it away).
The lady who works at the laundry, Michelle, was incredibly empathetic and a dog lover. She told me she’d been through something like this once, too. Her kindness made a world of difference – I felt embarrassed walking in, thinking of how to explain what happened – and she took care of all that right away. When I picked up the bedding on Valentine’s Day, while the other guys were taking care of the floors, Michelle showed me the bedding and it was as if nothing had happened – there were no stains, no spots, as if the cancer – and Reggie – had never happened, either.
Many friends have sent kind messages and texts. Hope Animal Medical Center sent me a sympathy card, as they had done with Lizzie, with signatures and notes from Dr. Clifton, Dr. Jeni, Dr. Stoppe, Leah, Cheyenne and Nicole.
That was when the tears came the hardest.
It was not the first time they came. It took about 4-5 days, but one morning I woke up and Reggie’s brown coat was there, beside me, on the bed. I picked it up and cradled it, and put my nose to the material. I could still smell his scent, and then it came out, the grief, the screaming of his name, the anger, the loss, the emptiness of all the multiple losses: Audie, Toby, Lizzie, Reggie, my marriage, the life I had sacrificed everything for when I left San Diego to come to Athens, and everything in between.
And then, I got in the shower, brushed my teeth, got dressed, and it was over, for the time being. Until it happened off and on, the past two weeks, sometimes while driving, sometimes sitting in the car in the garage, sometimes in the bathtub, sometimes when I look at the photos sent by my friend, Suzanne, of Lizzie and Reggie, with their paw prints and Lizzie’s urn, waiting for Reggie’s to join it – and then I can’t stop crying. I look around the room, my favorite room in the house, the dogs’ favorite room, too, and all I see are paw prints and photographs and pictures and – nothing – nothing but memories of the most beautiful, most loving, most amazing three dogs this world has ever seen.
I know they are together, across the Rainbow Bridge, the way they used to be, since the day they came together as a family, with Audie and me, on December 22, 2009.
I believe in the poem, the legend, and I know someday, somehow, I will find my way back to them, as I cross the bridge myself. There they will be in the valley of dogs long past, and they will see me, our eyes will meet, their ears will perk up, their tails will wag, and suddenly, they will start running toward me. And pain free, like I once was, myself, long ago, I will run to meet them, and I will fall to my knees, opening my arms, as they jump into my lap, put their paws on my chest and lick my face until we stand up, together, and they follow behind me, as I walk into the valley to be with the creatures that I love most in this whole world…and always will.
I remember Madison telling me this the day after Lizzie died in October of last year. I remember how I felt empathy…knowing that feeling that nothing could happen to take my dog away from me, that Lizzie and Reggie would not die. I used to tell myself that all the time because the thought of losing them and saying goodbye was just too painful to bear.
I’m sitting with Reggie in my lap, at 10:30 AM on February 1, 2019, and in 3 hours, Dr. Stoppe is coming to the house to put him to sleep.
My dog is not going to live forever. And I’m sitting here working up the strength to face it.
Yesterday, I took Reggie to the vet one last time because I just needed to do that. I needed, one more time, for her to tell me that it was time.
I will keep this brief this morning because I want to spend more time with Reggie and take him outside in the fresh air. There will be plenty of time to write, from now on, without him sitting in my lap here at Jittery Joe’s.
I asked Dr. Stoppe if it were her dog, if Reggie were her dog, would she let him go now. She said she would.
I asked her to take his blood to check his red blood cell count and it was normal. But, she showed me pictures/X-rays of Reggie’s lungs and colon in July 2017. The lungs were black in the radiograph: normal. So was the colon.
Now, in January, the colon showed signs of the tumor growing and the opening to his rectum getting smaller. And his lungs were filled up with white spots.
Without a biopsy they can’t be certain she said, but given the biopsy of the carcinoma and the likelihood of metastasis, she was 99% sure that those were cancer cells spreading in the lungs.
I think I must have asked her the same question, “Would you let him go tomorrow if Reggie were your dog?” at least 4 times. Maybe I needed it repeated to me to sink in.
She said if he kept excreting liquids, the only thing he could pass, I could give him one more week, or the weekend, and check him Monday, but when I asked if she thought it would be more than a week before it became high risk, and/or he began to suffer, she did not feel it would be more than a week.
She said that when she was a tech, a veterinarian once told her that she’d rather let her dog go two weeks too early than one day too late. At the time, Dr. Stoppe thought that sounded terrible, but now, as a vet, she thinks that it often is better to let them go when they are having more good days than bad days, still, than to wait for the worst days.
Reggie is declining quickly, she told me, but she could not give me an exact timeline. Only what she would do, and what she thought was best for him, given the decline in his quality of life.
He’s still eating, he’s still walking, he’s still responsive to petting and affection, and alert.
This is hell.
If I had an Xray with my lungs filled with tumors growing and one in my colon, with a risk of perforation, I would want my mom to let me go, and I try to think about that. Not being selfish is hard at a time like this.
I told her to keep our appointment to come over and put him to sleep.
I asked her to take Reggie in the back to say goodbye to everyone, since he wouldn’t be back at Hope again. At least, not until she brings him back today after he’s gone.
Morgan at the front desk came up as we checked out and told me no charge for the visit or bloodwork. They are amazing, they didn’t have to do that.
She gave me a hug and told me I could come visit them anytime, and I thanked her for all they had done for me and the dogs. Morgan walked around the front counter and came up to Reggie, leaned down, and fighting back tears, like me, pet him and said what a good dog he is, and what a good boy he is, and then she said, “You’re going to see your sister soon, you’ll like that, you’ve missed her.”
I took Reggie to Barnes and Noble to the Read-In after that and everyone was so happy to see him, and he was happy to see them. His daddy came to the store to see him after it was over and I let Audie spend a lot of time walking him around the store, in the stroller, mostly by himself. I sat with them for a short time, but it was painful, and I know I did the right thing for them, but…it was extremely painful. Still, we decided on two urns and two paw prints, like we did with Lizzie. I have to follow up on that with Mr. Meyers at the Memory Garden, he was so kind on the phone. He is wonderful, and made me feel cared about, just like he did with Toby.
Toby went to sleep on his dog bed, on the purple cushion. I plan to do the same for Reggie. He was shaking and nervous at the vet yesterday. That’s why I want to let him go at home, so he won’t go through that. So his last memory will be in his home, where he feels safe, and comforted.
I do not know how to look at life ahead. When I woke up this morning, Reggie was in Lizzie’s dog bed, in the bedroom. I feel his chest heaving up and down against my stomach and my legs. He’s such a part of me now, and I hope someday, like the poem says, I will see all three of my dogs again…
“The Rainbow Bridge”
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.