Monday, November 9, 2015
"This isn't happening," was all my mind was capable of with my phone pressed to my ear, trying to make sense of the words. Ryan held my hand as we drove home as fast as we could, both of us crying intermittently.
We moved in slow motion across the dark road into the circle of lights from the police cars and the cars of the kind strangers who had stopped and stayed until we arrived. They shone on him as he lay beside the road, my beautiful Alex.
"Dear God, don't let his head be smashed," had been the only thought in my stuck brain as we drove. Mercifully, his body was perfect. Even his slender, iron-muscled legs were only bent in the familiar position of him asleep. He was still warm and his fur so luxurious and soft.
I tried to pick him up, but he was too heavy. Ryan gathered him, so oddly limp, into his arms and laid him in the back seat of the car. We took our boy home.
We lay him on a sheet on the living room floor and sat on either side, crying until our noses ran. We stroked and stroked him, trying to memorize him with our hands, occasionally laughing with tears dripping when we remembered his conquests and idiosyncrasies. We were shameless in our grief over "just a dog", because there was no way around it. He was a big part of our little family.
He was the dependable one, the one who let us know if there was something outside that needed our attention. While we lived on the prairie, I felt perfectly safe in our yard after dark because he'd calmly, fearlessly moved the cougar off while we watched, a bit disbelieving because we would have never known it was sitting in the dark at the edge of the yard had it not been for Alex's sharp nose and protective instincts. He got me running again, while recovering from a CFS low. He just knew what was needed, pulling steadily and gently on the leash so I could coast when I wasn't sure I could keep on. And he held his head so nobly and utterly glowed with pride when I thanked and praised him. He was the dog I'd dreamed of having, a dignified, loyal, intelligent partner who was almost an extension of myself. He'd been a rock for all of us, and we all depended on him. Ryan, Aliyah, and me.
And now he is gone.
We buried him the next day under the trees at the edge of the yard. His rope toy we'd spent hours fetching, trying to outwit each other in tug-of-war, and leaping on command to pull from our hands while carefully missing our fingers with his impressive canines was tucked between his front paws. The bone he had been working on gnawing lay beside him. Those had been His Things; Aliyah had very little interest in either. And he'd been so proud of them, quietly storing them in a safe spot if other dogs came to play.
He'd been the dog we imagined having until he was too old to move, the dog we imagined being the loyal companion and protector of our child. He was so much, and in a second he was gone. "Death is just messed UP," Ryan said.
Friends who loved him cried with us and patted him for the last time before we closed the box. Ryan and I lowered it into the hole Ryan had dug, and Ryan told me I should be the first to shovel dirt onto the board he'd cut to fit over the box. Elaine carefully spread a handful over evergreens over the first layer of dirt. "Life is everlasting," she said. Zac and Miriam took turns helping us fill the dirt to a mound. Aliyah whimpered and cried, too.
And you know what? It never occurred to me that we were being too sentimental. I never felt ashamed for being too emotional. We only acted out of the loss we felt, and treated his body with the dignity his noble self demanded.
When Ryan hugged me and whispered that I was the best owner Alex could have had, and that I'd invested and helped him develop into all he could have been, it's when I started to feel that honest grief is good.
It's cleansing. It forms in me a new resolve to love unabashedly. I have no regrets about how I raised Alex. The only thing that haunts us is that we thought the newly-rebuilt fence around our yard was impervious to Alex's intelligence and underestimated his adventurous bent. We simply underestimated him, as often happened in other areas.
We're so glad we'd taken the time to visit the dog park to let the dogs run in a big space off-leash the day before, trying to help ease the adjustment from freely-adventuring country dogs to play-in-the-yard and walk-on-leash town dogs. It hadn't been the most convenient evening to take them, but we made it work because Alex was restless. The evening the four of us spent tearing around happily is good to remember. Alex's eyes were bright with the freedom of exploring every corner of a new place, and he and Aliyah ran and ran, reading each other's maneuvers perfectly. We're so glad we gave them that evening, not knowing it was the last evening we'd spend together.
This is why grief is good for me: I tend to hold myself back from engaging with all my heart. A bit of emotional distance makes me feel loftier and more superior than the me that goes all in without apology. You know what? Grief teaches me that I don't care about being above caring too much. It reminds me that what I have today is all I have, and I cheat myself if I don't engage it completely.
Grief, even over a dog, is good. Because of it, I'm making today matter. Doing the inconvenient to love those I have. Making memorable things happen. Taking pictures of happy moments. And engaging without reservation or embarrassment over big emotions. Now is precious. Now is all we have.