On Saying Goodbye

“She’s on borrowed time,”
I heard myself say today.
Tonight, I think about how grief
plunges me
into the preciousness of it all:
every potential last.
Then I remember,
gleeful and aching,
this was
always true.

This summer, anxiety has followed me around, somehow both subliminally and vehemently all at once. It lurks in the corners, room to room, hangs over me like a haze. I clean and vacuum more compulsively than usual, as though with enough external order, I could rid myself of it. But clean house, and the anxiety still looms. I know to recognize anxiety as an inhibitory emotion, an invitation and a sign to consider, what are the core emotions here? It’s not emotional rocket science for me to see that it’s grief. And fear. An omnipresent sense of dwindling time. I meet grief head on, back to anxiety and vacuuming, and there and back again. This grief feels premature, unfamiliar to me in the humidity of July. It came for me, insidiously so, and unprepared. Grief visits more typically in late summer, a feeling I’ve learned to welcome as the August ache. This summer, it colours everything too early, quickens my pace, and fuels a restless sense of arriving nowhere again and again.

My dear old dog is dying. She’s a large dog, ten years and seven months- “a purebred mutt,” I’ve answered when strangers, strung across the years, have remarked, she’s beautiful– what breed? The longer response: we know for sure she’s part great pyrenees, the rest is a mystery, but we speculate greyhound, too. We never did the DNA test thing, it seemed like an unnecessary expense to confirm what I already know: she is perfect. We did, however, once Google, “great pyrenees and greyhound mix” and to our delight, found “Larry,” who was without a doubt a close match in appearance to our girl, Piper.

As I write this, I hear the evidence of her late life stage, her laboured breathing as she sleeps in her bed beneath our large front doors that I keep open for her and for me as much as possible throughout the summer months. Her presence there is large and quiet, and so familiar that she’s part of the house, my life as I know it. Some things, I suppose, become so familiar that the law of life eludes me: the only constant is change. Routinely, I walk down the stairs to start my workday, and there she is, rolling over for a belly rub with a particular look of relaxed, patient insistence. It’s an invitation selectively asked of only me and her dad, a signal of trust, and most often from this particular place in a state of relaxation that comes preciously for her as a dog with many anxieties: Siri’s voice, driving in the car, thunder, dogs that approach too quickly, the sound of an iPhone notification “ding,” to name a few. I’m still haunted by the look in her eyes that pleaded help when a gentle and well-meaning veterinarian was doing an assessment and attempting access to her tummy by semi-forcing her onto her back. What else was he supposed to do? He was as gentle and kind as he could have been. It will all be over so soon, I told her. But the look she gave me spoke more than words can, pierced me to my core. I still feel it a missed opportunity to have protected her, if even only for an instant, an opportunity to prove myself worthy of her trust. Some feelings are meant to be left, perfectly unresolved. Consciousness is big enough to hold it all.

The short story of how Piper came into my life is a deeply personal and yet seemingly universal one, at some point or another for most. I was in my early twenties, lost, and desperate for a degree of assuredness, direction, and well-being. She came to me with her name, at one and a half years old. The name grew on me over the years. Her dad, Taylor, who joined us when she was five, has noted, “Piper” is a tie to our home in Nova Scotia, bringing to mind the South Shore’s piping plover. It’s cliché and true to say that as an adopted rescue dog, Piper saved my life. I was her “Home to Stay” as the rescue organization was aptly called, but in actuality, she brought me a sense of home that I desperately needed.

Piper is more motivated by food than she is us, and we don’t take it personally. Despite the offence of the unconsented belly exposure, she still loves going to the vet because they give her treats. She’s unlike a golden retriever in that she’s selective with her shows of affection and unlike the border collies of my childhood with her greater subtlety in expressions of devotion, but her love and loyalty still fill the whole house. Her more quiet displays of affection make those moments when she squishes her head into the couch for a morning snuggle that much sweeter. When she had a life threatening stomach twist and surgery two summers ago, Taylor and I anxiously awaited a call from the veterinarian into the late hours of the night, and with great relief, in a voice like that of Ms. Honey’s, we were told that she’d made it through and was recovering well. We read in her report the next morning, “eating liver treats ravenously.” Last night was the first night she declined her dinner, which as a highly food motivated dog, is alarming. She’s pickier now, either that or outsmarting us, settling only for chicken and other bits of human food. She still whines at mealtimes out of habit, forgetting it seems, that her appetite no longer matches her old routines. In many ways she is still like herself, exuding her characteristic contentment, but more tired and a little less here. Some nights, depending on her wobbly and tired back legs and how much she’s given of herself to the day, I carry all seventy-eight pounds of her upstairs, so she can be near to us while we’re sleeping, as she prefers. Stair by stair, she grunts at the weight of herself in my arms as Taylor cheers us on from up top. He laughs at the sight of us, and I know we’re both feeling the humour and heartbreak at once.

Though we consult our veterinarian often, we don’t know if we have days or (unlikely) weeks left with our sweet girl, who makes a duo into a trio that’s our family. She was the first walk Taylor and I had together, the hundreds of walks that have since followed, she is the back country hikes across the years, the exhausted human-like snores from the tent. She is the smiley loving girl that knows to give my childhood best friend, Deanna, a greeting like nobody else- a wink of knowing. She is the doggo that makes me laugh with her not-so-human-like farts and the way that she chases bubbles in the stream like a cat does yarn along our routine winter walk, too long and laborious for her now. She is the immediate approach and solace when I’m in tears, a declaration, I’m here for you while you’re hurting.

At times, I want relief from the anticipation of the goodbye and those days that appear to be too effortful for her. I absolve myself of the guilt entangled with these thoughts through the same counsel that therapist and client know well- we can feel both/and- or as oft-quoted Whitman said it: “I contain multitudes.” Simultaneously, I cannot fathom the house without her, I cannot stand the idea of her empty bed, and I know it will feel like I’ve lost a limb when she’s gone. Whenever I’m agitated by her increasing restlessness, or an unanticipated neediness while I’m trying to work- that is, by my resistance to how things really are- I bring to mind a particular teaching of Tara Brach’s work. I don’t remember where she spoke of it, which book or podcast, but it was a simple and poignant story that stayed with me. Her mother was visiting, and Tara was preoccupied with her work, stressed and inconvenienced at times by the pull of her mother’s interruptions while she was preparing her talks and upcoming meditation retreats. With the very tools and teachings of her life’s work, Tara softened into her vulnerability, recognizing the fears and fabrications of mind that were robbing her of opportunity to be with her mother. She spoke of how this awareness allowed her to be more deeply present to the love and connection with her mother at the time, and without regret in later years when her mother was gone. This is how I aim to be now with Piper, as much as possible; to love her with my presence.

Last paragraphs are often the hardest for me to write. I agonize over this one. Goodbyes are hard. Endings are hard. Some folks might say, just a pet. I won’t waste my words with any of that here. Piper gifted me with a sense of home, born of her unconditional love. Now, she gifts me with a deeper knowing of the preciousness of our days and the sacredness in bond that exists because of the truth of finitude. So when the anxiety creeps back, lurking in the corners that do not need to be vacuumed, I allow instead, for the grief that is oh-so here. I don’t want to avoid it, my heartbreak, because it’s the direct line to my love for Piper, for life, for the bond between two creatures loving each other, needing each other. Grief is synonymous with love. The bigger the love, the bigger the grief. I’ve learned that they grow in size together.

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