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Where did she go? Sometime before my waking, she just went away. What’s left is a tired old shell, discarded like a molted snakeskin. The worn-out machine of flesh and bone that no longer served its purpose.
To be bereaved is to be abandoned.
It’s my dog that died today. This morning, she did not wake up.
I’m floored. I saw it coming, of course—she was at least fifteen. I had even hoped for something merciful like this, rather than that anguished decision and the last trip to the vet.
So why am I bewildered?
I sat on the floor, next to her bed, which is next to mine. I touched her paw. Already it was stiff. Tentatively, I stroked her head, but her muzzle was cool. Her eyes, partly open, were blank. So very obviously, it wasn’t her.
I just don’t understand.
When the spark goes out does it just go out? Or does it go somewhere else?
I sat there, not stroking the fur because it had no warmth and didn’t rise with breath. I was surprised to feel the tears trickling down my cheek. I wiped them away quickly with the back of my hand, as if someone could see.
Already the room smelled of death. Not decay exactly, not yet, but maybe the release of fluids, of urine and something else, in those last seconds of bodily malfunction. The small carcass left behind did not look asleep. It looked dead: the glassy eyes, the lip curled back, the drool accumulated at the muzzle. Instinctively, in the final moments, the body struggles.
Later, we dug a hole. Our San Francisco duplex has no large yard of course, but there is enough space in the back, close to the shrubs that separate us from the neighbors, to bury forty-five pounds of dog four feet deep. The pickaxe unearthed from the corner of the garage where the unused tools are stashed broke up the hard clay. Anne then helped with the shovel. Her tears streamed unabashedly down her cheeks, and she wiped them away with stained palms when they dripped, leaving smears of dirt on her face. I did not point them out.
We said no pretty words over the small grave, only shared a rare hug. I was remembering all the things you remember when it’s been a family dog, so every memory comes with mental snapshots of when the kids were little and of course still at home, the whole-family pics you share with the world at Christmas, and the private, funny blurry ones you don’t. I was pretty sure Anne was remembering the same thing. It brought us closer I think, at least for a moment. So that I asked tentatively whether I should postpone the flight this afternoon, thinking that maybe she should not be alone with the absence.
“No, Mike, you should go,” she insisted.
She said my dad would expect me, that she would be alright, that there was nothing I could do anyway, not really. She was right, of course, although it did not feel right.
And so I found myself on the familiar route over a continent laid out below me in the muted colors of impending fall. The crinkled foothills, then the mountains, the drought-stricken West in all its almost-empty immensity. Briefly we passed over sunlit billowing clouds and I smiled to recall how as a kid, whenever I flew, I always imagined how you could walk on them, bouncing from one to another. They looked so solid from above. Maybe, I would think, when you die, you get angel wings, and you really can take a walk on the clouds.
The clouds cleared and the fierce grandeur of mountain and desert gave way to the flat checkerboards of fields crisscrossed by the grids of country roads and dotted with farms and small towns.
It is a journey I make repeatedly these days, combining checking up on Dad in Chicago with work meetings on the East Coast. After a few days’ layover I will move on to NYC, visit with my brother, take care of any work obligations in our East Coast office. Sometimes I move on to travel assignments across the Pond: Iceland, Malta, Casablanca, Dakar. A travel writer travels, more urgently now than ever, making up for pandemic time.
Logistically, it works. In practice it’s exhausting. I guess I am no longer young. A cross-country flight no longer feels like an adventure, it just feels like another cross-country flight.
I still wear a mask on these trips, even though most passengers don’t. My father is approaching ninety. I cannot risk bringing the virus to him, and despite airline assurances of safe and filtered air, I find the close quarters disconcerting. The pandemic won’t be willed out of existence just by speaking of it in the past tense. Even three or four jabs—I lose track—don’t spell safety, not fully, not for Tata, Dad, at the threshold of nine decades.
I’m startled out of deep sleep at touchdown, the jarring of the uneven landing and the captain’s blaring voice the definition of a rude awakening. I was dreaming that Millie was very much alive and wagging her tail and sniffing my hand for a treat and Anne was saying she was better, that her arthritis was controllable with the pain meds, she might yet have a good year or two. Even in sleep I knew it wasn’t true, but I did not want to tell her so, and worried that the time would come to make the cruel decision and that it would have to be mine to make. And I chafed at always having to be the one to face the truth alone. She would have called me negative, a downer. Just like your family. I would have said she was in denial. And we would have retreated into the separate and resentful silences of our convictions.
Just a dream I think with relief. But it leaves a sour taste that makes me wish I could brush my teeth. Nothing like wearing an N-95 to make you the dismayed companion of one’s own bad breath. I slide a stick of gum under my mask.
Belatedly, I hurry to adjust my seat to an upright position before the crew can admonish me to do so. Even at sixty the habits of a child reared sternly to follow the rules are so ingrained that I feel foolishly at fault not to have adjusted my seat sooner. Even though nobody noticed. Hometown Chicago brings on the habits of guilt so powerfully that I can only endure it a few days at a time.
I stare groggily through the window as we crawl to a distant gate.
I am too tired. Grief is exhausting.
It’s just a dog.
I can hear the unnamed voices in my head. Already I feel the need to dissimulate because it would seem unacceptable to be so undone. It’s not just a dog, of course. It’s Millie. Millie who was over fifteen and was going to go and went, mercifully, in her sleep.
You should be glad.
I’m not, of course. Relieved maybe. But the hole she left is so much deeper than four feet I dug for her that I get vertigo just peering over the edge.
Mercifully, the taxi driver, a skinny, pleasant man named Ali, is polite and quiet. After just the right introductory niceties, including the lovely fall weather, we relax into our separate spaces, relieved of small talk.
It does appear that the weather is indeed lovely. One of those late September days finally freed of summer heat, just tinged with the first colors of autumn in the crowns of the youngest maples. I will take a long walk later today, call Anne from the park down the street from my father’s apartment. I realize with a pang that I will not fully miss Millie until I am back home, a week from now. Her absence will not be real in a space where she was never present. Once again, I have abandoned Anne to cope alone with the worst of it. Perhaps it is this lifelong betrayal that is at the bottom of our current distance.
Tata’s apartment is the last one at the end of a long dim hallway. I hate the impersonal ugliness of these corridors, but the apartment itself is bright and spacious, with expansive views that I know Tata rarely admires. He misses his old third floor walk-up in the neighborhood where Bill and I grew up, where I’m told we moved just after I was born, when Mama and Tata were young newlyweds. Only hip replacement surgery and the insurmountable obstacle of three steep flights of stairs could pry Tata and Mama from that place. It’s been three years now since “our” neighborhood is no longer ours, but I will always think of this as the “new” apartment.
I hear the loud exchange of Polish words before I’m even at the door. Tata is hard of hearing and Jadzia, the live-in caregiver, knows well the pitch and volume with which to address him.
It is Jadzia who opens the door. She beams with pleasure, grabs my bag despite my mild resistance and rattles off her greetings and her questions. How was the flight? Seems all on time. We will have supper soon and am I hungry…?
But she does not pause for answers, and I already know from experience not to muster any. Jadzia’s questions are always rhetorical. Before I can thank her, she is gone with my stuff down the hall and Dad shuffles in accompanied by the light tapping of his cane. He is even smaller and more bent over than I remember. I don’t know if it is my memory or the lapse of two and a half months. But I do my best not to show concern.
We are soon sitting at the dining room table, enveloped by the sweet steam of tea, with Jadzia urging pastries from the Polish deli on us.
Mama would have had another birthday just a few weeks ago. It is Tata who brings this up. Can it possibly be two years since COVID took her in those first dark months of the pandemic, one week short of her birthday?
“It was just her birthday recently,” he reminds me. And then, “I wish it had been easier at the end.”
The nursing home where she was recovering from a broken hip went into lock down. Tata, who had not been following the news at all, overwhelmed as he was by the details of her recovery, arrived one day and was not allowed in. He raged, powerless, against the bigger drama. Our own ordinary crisis collided suddenly with the world’s and was forced to take a back seat.
Already before the virus, she was blind, nearly deaf, and locked within the fuzzy cloud of dementia. We dared hope for a gentle end, knowing she would have hated being so diminished. Then, barely into the pandemic, she was ill. The virus swept through like a biblical plague, infecting half the patients. They never told us the death count.
COVID robbed her of taste and smell and us of the rituals of passing. When she refused food there was no one there to coax her to it. At least a third of the staff was sick too. In the ensuing chaos, her hearing aids got mislaid. So when I said my goodbyes from a strictly enforced distance of six feet on an open-air patio, she did not hear me call. She left quietly, alone, a few days later, in the wee hours of the morning, and I could not hold her hand.
“I always think,” Tata tells me now, “that there should have been something more I could have done. But what?”
“There was nothing,” I hasten to reassure him, appalled that two years later he is still thinking that. “You did everything, everything you could.”
“But you wonder,” he says. “You wonder what she thought. I hope she didn’t think we had abandoned her there.”
I have wondered too, but again I rush to tell him that she passed peacefully. Although honestly, I am not so sure. I remember the seventy-pound tiny skeleton she had become, curled in a fetal position on that wheeled stretcher, on the rehab facility patio that was too breezy for her, her hand clawing at the sheet, the unkempt hair in her eyes.
“But here,” I say, “I brought you some pictures.” I want desperately to remove that image from my mind and the guilt from his. I have printed out some photos of his grandkids, both adults now. I hurry to describe their various and sundry young lives, significant others, first real post-college jobs. He nods, making an effort, but not fully engaged, I can tell.
At dinner, he is drawn to it again, the birthday, the passing. This time I let him talk. I can see now that he needs to sort it out, if such a sorting is even possible. September weighs heavy on us both.
In those pre-vax early days of the pandemic, so fraught with lurking peril, the church memorial was a peculiar thing. There was masking tape on the pews to set off spacing and mandatory sanitizer at the entrance. And no slow drive to the cemetery, no words over a coffin, no dinner after with old friends and family. We just went home and placed the ashes on the small table in the living room, where they still sit behind the photo my brother took of Mama some thirty years ago. I notice there are always flowers of one kind or another. This time it’s a single rose.
I pull out Tata’s best bottle of Remy Martin and three tiny liqueur glasses, each a different smoky color. I remember them from childhood. I liked that they were of many colors. The three of us, Tata, Jadzia and I, toast Mama’s birthday and her departure.
Mutely I toast also the million-plus, like Mama, snuffed out untimely, imagining the outward ripples of such massive, sudden, and uncelebrated passing. We Americans do not deal well with sorrow even under ordinary circumstances. The enforced optimism of a young nation urges us forward with false smiles plastered to our faces and without a backward glance, leaving sadness to the privacy of the therapist’s office. The answer to “how are you?” is always “fine.” Depression is as decidedly rampant as it is un-American.
Not so the old-world knowledge of my Polish elders. The celebrated traumas of centuries of war, invasion and plague are all about remembrance. Both private loss and historic pain are worn proudly and stoically, like battle scars. Nobody ever sees a therapist.
I suddenly want to tell him about the dog. But I don’t. When I was growing up, we had a family dog, oddly named Victor. When he died, it was the only time I saw Tata cry. He did not cry at Mama’s memorial mass.
As promised, I call Anne, but she does not answer. I text and she lets me know she is with her friend Mara, at dinner. I am glad. For her.
I do not say anything to Tata about the dog after all.
In the morning I am woken early by a noise perhaps, or a dream. I’m not sure which.
I brew the coffee in the darkness before the dawn, guided only by the glow of streetlights. I like it this way, it is restful to feel like I am the only one awake. I lean my elbows on the kitchen windowsill and watch the empty streets below. Then I stretch while the coffeemaker sputters at my back. My joints are stiff, it takes a while each day now to limber up, a fact that never fails to surprise me. It is this time well past middle age but long before you wish to admit you are old, when your body begins to remind you daily of the downward slide. For me mortality has lodged primarily in my knees.
“’Old’ is always at least ten years older than we are,” Anne quips wryly if we are on the topic.
“’Old’ is my Dad,” I tell her.
But my joints think otherwise. I am the tin man frozen with rust and no oil can in sight, no Dorothy to the rescue. I march in place, lifting my knees high the way my PT demonstrated. I squat. I touch the floor. I stretch my arms overhead. I promise myself a jog later in the day.
The coffee is hot and black and strong. I sip and watch the first light creep into the sky where I know the Lakefront hides behind the skyscraper condos. Then I power up my laptop and check my messages and learn about the latest outrages and upheavals of the world and the best bargains on all the things I didn’t know I needed until they outmaneuvered my spam filter. A few messages from friends from here to there grab my attention above the clamor.
By the time I look up the sun is just bursting over the edges of the world. I jump up as excited as a kid. Sunrises are always some kind of revelation, and this apartment, with its east-facing windows, has front row seats. Mama always said I was the early riser. She would say it proudly as if it were some kind of positive attribute, as if it boded well. Probably because she was an early riser herself. It was how I knew I was her favorite—that some little fact like that would make her proud. It’s not that she loved Billy, Bolek, my little brother less, of course. It’s just that she and I, we were two peas in a pod. Just like Tata and Bill.
Don’t we always visit our self-love upon our children?
“Did Millie find you?” I mutter, half joke half hope. I imagine them walking together, their younger versions of course, light springy steps on fluffy clouds. Agnostic’s prayer.
The stream of sunshine casts its light upon the western wall, and on it I see the tall stranger that is my shadow. I stretch and sway to make him move and that life-size shadow puppet dances to the dazzling light. It’s then I catch the glimmer of amusement in Mama’s face, in the old picture from when she was younger than I am today. I’m almost sure I caught her smiling.
The author is a native of Chicago, a graduate of the University of Chicago English Department and the University of California Berkeley Law School. She has lived and travelled extensively from California to New England. She currently makes Rhode Island her home and spends her daytime hours as a legal services attorney. She has published in Subnivean (Issue 3), Euphony (Spring 2021) and Two Thirds North (a journal of Stockholm University).