I went from two dogs to zero in the space of four months.
Their loss was the furthest thing from sudden. It was months--years, even--of build-up, dread, and anticipatory grief. Even so, their actual passing felt violent, jarring.
As they aged, there was always another thing they stopped doing or something that changed. Hearing loss. Not rolling around the carpet to scratch their backs. Increasingly slow walks, and then at the end, nearly impossible to get them to walk at all. Drop by drop, a slow leak of their vitality into the somewhere-else.
Merry died a year ago today, September 6th. And Pippin a few weeks later, on December 14th.
A few days before Merry passed, I caught a cold, or literally stressed myself sick, or something. Either way, my nose ran profusely, and I cried for--literally--10 hours a day. At a certain point the crying and the cold just sort of blurred together til my face hurt all the time. I was awash in a saline sea of grief.
Merry's last few months were a mess of change. He started sleeping more deeply, and for longer, to the point that it was difficult to rouse him at all. His circadian rhythm inverted on itself, and he became increasingly crazed at night time, the same way as humans with dementia. Then, as his pain progress, he couldn't sleep for more than a couple hours at a time at all, and what little he did manage to rest, it was only in increasingly awkward, contorted positions. He fell directly on his head unnervingly often, too sleepy and too weak to catch himself.
In spite of literally losing his mind, Merry wanted to be close to me til the very end. The night before he passed, I lifted him onto my bed, as I did every night since he was no longer able to jump up himself. He walked right over to me and sprawled his whole head and neck straight across my belly. He fell into a deep sleep instantly.
After the uncomfortable position I was pinned in became too much, I slid out from under him, gently cradling and lowering his head onto my bed. The movement didn't even wake him. I came around to the other side, curling around him til morning.
That Tuesday, the day he was meant to die, he slept on my bed with me again as I lay, emotionally and spiritually unmoored. He was restless and in pain, but he still rested his chin on my leg, stirred, and then found a new position, head still along my leg.
When the time came, I drove the boys to D's house, my ex, where the four of us had lived for years, and where the boys still lived half the time while we shared care of them for their last couple of years. The vet would meet us there.
I was channel surfing on the radio, as I always do when I drive. The first few synth chords of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem" crashed through the speakers.
I thought of an opossum meme I'd seen: a grimacing critter with the text "party rock is NOT in the house tonight" splashed across the photo in colorful Times New Roman.
Basically same, but you know, utterly sans humor.
The whole ordeal was bizarre: driving my dog to die. Along with my other dog, who would come home with me later, alive. Neither felt right.
We took Merry for his last walk, to a ritualistic turnaround point along the social trail behind the neighborhood where we always walked them. The Turnaround Rock, we called it. Months later, D would haul those several hundred pounds of rock a half mile or so to mark their grave.
We fed them a steak dinner. Merry loved it. The vet was running late. Merry was in too much pain to sit with us, as usual, so he just paced. We sat and stared into nothing, caught in an excruciating purgatory of not-yet-but-soon, haunted by the knowledge it was all down to minutes.
I hated knowing all the lasts. That I'd fed him his last dinner, taken him on his last walk, fallen asleep next to him for the last time. I resented it.
When they finally did arrive, we all gathered in the living room, Pippin included. It's a bizarre thing, consenting for some stranger to take your loved one's life. The whole time, part of me wanted to scream at them: get out of this house. What are you doing here. How dare you.
D and I took turns feeding Merry ice cream while the vet set up his line and administered the medication to put him into a twilight state. After he had fallen asleep enough to be comfortable, I gathered him into my lap. Pippin curled up with D, impossibly serene the entire time.
Of course I had known, rationally, that this was coming. But as I held him in his complete sedation, my body finally understood. He wasn't gone yet, but I felt him hovering on the brink.
I folded in half and sobbed into his magnificent neck ruff, his lion's mane, murmuring to him. When we gave the vet the final ok, I held him and felt his breathing slow, and then fade completely. The vet sheepishly reached out to check for his pulse, but it didn't matter, I already knew. He'd slipped away gently, peacefully, with no sign of his passing to anyone except me. Ever the reserved, secretive boy.
We covered him with a blanket, and they carried him out. When they drove away, D choked: "he's gone." I collapsed on the floor, curled into a tight ball against the furniture.
I don't know how I managed to drive home that night. The memory of walking Pippin after we got home, just the two of us, stands sharp in my mind. The moment Merry died, my body became a distorted, desiccated husk, and stayed that way for a long time.
The morning after, I woke up at 3:30. My head was full of bees, poisoning me with vivid memories. Pippin slept, cherubic, on his usual bed, and his presence was probably the only stitch that held me together at all.
After an hour of anguish, I clawed my way out of my dark, godforsaken bedroom, dragging my heaviest blanket with me out to the porch. Pippin didn't stir.
A few stars were still out as the sky remained flushed a dark blue. I curled into a ball on my patio chair, the mountain air still crisp. At first light, dawn's hummingbirds whizzed to my feeders, chirping in their breakfast frenzy. I stayed til the birds quieted, the noise of neighbors and commuters picked up, and the dawn warmed.
A couple days after Merry died, I was out walking Pippin. Every walk with him, walking with only one dog, felt like a sad, pitiful admission of grief.
A woman walked past us, and she beamed at Pippin: "awww, you have such a cute dog!"
No "s". The clipped edge of the word was a knife.
"There's supposed to be two," I wanted to scream back at her.
There's supposed to be two.
To say that Merry's death took my breath away wouldn't just be a metaphor.
For weeks, I gasped for full breaths, even while lying on the couch or trying to fall asleep. I noticed the small ways my body channeled grief. I chewed on my inner cheek aggressively. Muscle tension wracked my whole body. One night, as I tried to sleep, my back was so stiff it felt like a claw. Peeling myself out of bed to do even basic stretches was painful.
I threw up frequently. Some days all my muscles and skin would ache like the throes of a fever. My visual processing would lag behind my eye movements, the world sitting just out of focus. I would lie on the couch and feel something like drunkenness, stone cold sober. My short-term memory was hazy, conversations were clumsy.
Unlike my human relationships, the bond I had with my dogs wasn't verbal or cerebral, it was physical. I touched them, held them, fed them, slept next to them. We didn't share conversations with language, but with our bodies. And so my spirit expressed its heartbreak the only way it knew how: through my viscera, the same place my love for them lives.
I see Merry in the golden light in the sky.
I always celebrated their birthday on September 22nd. That morning, just a couple weeks after Merry died, it was overcast. I still planned to celebrate with Pippin. Early in the morning, I was walking Pippin, and when I looked to the east, a small pocket of light broke through the heavy clouds, the golden tone of Merry's fur. A minute later, it was already gone. A reminder that he still knows the importance of that day.
Then it was October 2nd, and I was on my patio while the sun set. I'd been dreading October. In September, Merry had been there. In October, he wouldn't. A full month, empty and untouched by my boy. The turn of the month was wringing me out.
As the sun dipped lower in the horizon, the sky lit up. I watched the northern sky over the peaks as it filled with color, awash in a golden so rich and lustrous.
Under the golden glow, I thought about how my boy was gone, how even his body didn't exist anymore. Just a box of ashes tucked out of sight on a closet shelf, my beautiful boy erased. I dry heaved over my porch rails.
Whether it was his voice or whether it was my own desperate grasp to reassure myself, I don't know and I don't care, but my heart stirred. I felt some visceral sense that he was ok.
Maybe Pippin heard it too. Maybe that's why a couple weeks later, he started letting go.
The boys' deaths couldn't have been more different. Both in the dying and in the actual death. Just like most other things about them.
Merry passed in the late afternoon light, on a blazing hot day, the start of a heat wave. Pippin passed at sunset, shortly after a December snowstorm. Frozen.
With Merry, he wasn't dying, not in the literal imminent sense. His suffering wasn't going to kill him in the direct sense, but it was irreversible and aggressive. With Pippin, he was dying, I am certain.
In September, in the aftermath of Merry's death and while I was at my worst, Pippin was an angel. Good on walks, eating well, sleeping peacefully most nights. On his best behavior, the tiniest mercy in the aftermath of Merry's death. In October, he started unraveling.
From late October until his death, my life was a fever dream of constant calls to the vet, new medications, and a poignant lack of definitive answers. Pippin had suffered from some brief treatable issues in the recent past, but he'd generally been quite healthy and serene. And so when he started to get sicker, I held onto the hope that we could claw our way to a few more good months with him.
While Merry's death broke me into shards, Pippin's death was closure. Grieving Merry was like grieving both of them--the loss of the unit. It signified the beginning of my final bout with death, the final anguished boss fight of their time in whatever the hell this dimension is.
And what a fight it was. Pippin was resistant to any treatment. Even getting him to take pills at all became increasingly difficult. His labs were wholly unremarkable.
As his symptoms worsened, we kept a shared document for each time he ate and whether he took his pills. I sank hundreds of dollars into trying any food he might eat. Salmon stew dog food. A couple bits of egg. A chicken nugget. Mini corn dogs. An entire slice of pumpkin pie. Nothing at all. We got more and more desperate while he got more and more picky. He lost control of his bowels and his bladder. My apartment slowly turned into a towel-covered, sheet-covered hazmat zone. I lay beds all over the floor, desperate to create comfortable spaces for him, desperate for him to be content for even one extra second.
But there was no comforting him. The final days before his death, I binge-watched Reservation Dogs in a daze, just passing the time, desperately wishing he would come sit with me for even a few moments.
There was no comforting either of us. I was sleep-deprived, constantly cleaning up urine and feces, unable to leave the house for more than a couple hours at a time, unable to find any solace in my usual outdoor runs. I sank into some of my darkest moments, my nervous system utterly frayed.
After a few weeks of decline against all medical intervention, I was convinced, this was a dog who simply did not want to be here. Of course it makes a lot more sense in hindsight.
The last time I held Pippin, I was at D's house in the last hours before the vet arrived. He said that Pippin was falling asleep so easily that I could hold him simply because he'd be unconscious. I sat on the couch and D delicately arranged P in my lap. Sure enough, Pippin slumped over in his twilight state and I softly stroked his fur. It lasted only a minute or so, til he woke back up, restless.
It was the most excruciating part of their deaths: that they weren't quite present to say goodbye.
I don't know when I said goodbye to my dogs, when my last contacts with their whole spirits were. But it wasn't September 6th, and it wasn't December 14th.
When the vet arrived for Pippin's death, she repeated a couple of times: "wow guys, he is so beautiful. I'm so sorry." As she said this, Pippin slowly sprawled, losing control of his legs, a slow-motion collapse on the floor, his head lolling. He was only 20 pounds, five less than he should've been. His fur was ragged, greyed, and lacking any of the usual luster. Still, she was right. He was so beautiful.
This time, D gathered Pippin up into his lap. The two of them had always been so inseparable. I sat at Pippin's head, cradling his face. Our boy was so brave, so calm.
The air felt dark, cold, and blue with the impending turn of winter. Not the frenzied heat of the final days of summer, but the somber darkness of what was nearly the shortest day of the year. Pippin was so fragile, he lost consciousness almost as soon as the sedation needle hit the port.
This time, at least, the process was less shocking. Even under the weight of the crushing moment, I was almost serene. Practiced. I gave Pippin what he gave us when Merry passed: gentleness, calm, understanding.
Go to Merry, I told him. Go see your brother.
He went so fast. They were finally together again.
We wrapped him in a soft blanket and D scooped his frail body into his arms, still murmuring softly to him, and carried him to the car. We sad goodbye to him next to a child's Cheerio-covered car seat.
What a battle it had been, and oh how those last few months had broken me, how their deaths had taken pieces of me with them. There, next to a minivan, my journey, my long march of life with them, my years of vigil over their precious souls, was finally fulfilled.
I've always loved dogs, since I was a little kid. I collected dog books and plushies, memorized dog breed names and trivia, pretended to be a vet, wore dog shirts.
And so of course I adopted my dogs as soon as I could, when I was barely out of college, with no car and nearly no money. It didn't matter. I was going to have a dog or so help me. No surprise one turned into two.
Loving my dogs taught me so much, but losing them taught me something even more profound.
I had always felt that my dogs were not so much pets as they were just some guys living in my house. What I mean by that is that my spirit didn't cast them as Other, but recognized them as the same as me, whatever I am made of. Just goofier, sleepier, and more pure.
My experience of their deaths validated that in so many ways. However deep my grief, and wow is it deep, it convinced me utterly and irrevocably that our love for each other was complete and without qualification. Species be damned, I recognized the divine in them and they recognized the divine in me, and we met each other there. Completely.
Maybe some day I'll find a better way to put it to words, but probably not, because it's simply not verbal. It's visceral.
I fostered a few dogs after mine were gone, their presence a salve for my frazzled nervous system. Fostering brought me full circle, back to the moment of taking in desperate, terrified, filthy animals into my home and seeing them soften.
I was standing next to the dishwasher with Noodle, my first foster, less than a week after Pippin had passed. I looked at this gentle creature, my heart still broken, and it all fell into place. This is it, this is the thing. There is no higher calling in life than the love I give to these animals.
Being there for my dogs as they passed on was both an honor and a scar I will carry forever. The last words I spoke to each of my boys as their souls drifted away was a loop of the same phrases, my face buried in their fur: "Thank you. I love you. Thank you."
Not a person who has dogs.