Death: Part I

For 34 years, death kept its distance from me. My grandfather died when I was a teenager. I remember sitting on the floor of my mom’s bedroom when she told me over the phone from wherever she was. I knew him and in recent years I had visited him, but we were not close, and the impact I felt from his passing was passing itself. Brief tears, a small bit of reflection, and very quickly I was back to focusing on that which better held my attention—friends, boyfriend, school, job, drinking, smoking, obsessing about my body. He was the first person I knew that died from cancer, and when I was at the grocery checkout and the clerk asked me if I wanted to contribute a dollar to research, I said yes and wrote his name on the memory card. But there was no grief.

When I was working as a hostess at the restaurant in Gainesville, FL where my husband and I met, a girl came in that I’d gone to middle school with and hadn’t seen in years. We exchanged happy college kid hellos and hugs, and then she asked me if I had heard about TJ. Smile evaporated, shoulders dropped, pulse quickened, no? He died recently in a car accident, she said. I took her party to their table, and went to the bathroom to cry. TJ was my first boyfriend, my first real kiss, and a boy with whom I shared a lot of experiences and made a lot of memories. He was also a mess, and when in eighth grade I started spending more time with new friends, our interactions became limited to him giving me shit for every bit of myself that had changed. Then he moved away. I saw him one last time early in high school. He was visiting and rang me, and I invited him over. We spent a few hours together, catching up and laughing over the absurdity of middle school, him still giving me shit. Then as quickly as he had returned, he was gone. Years passed tucking him ever further away from the forefront of my mind, and by the time I learned of his death, the youthful bond we had once formed was nothing more than a fond memory. And there was no grief.

I’ve been to exactly one funeral and one wake in my life. They were for two different people. The funeral was for the stepfather of my high school friend Rick. I didn’t know him, but Rick was one of Tony’s best friends and Tony was my love, so I went to support them both. It was sad because it was a funeral, but the powerful emotions experienced by Rick, and more so his mother, were beyond my capacity for empathy. I had no reference point and I didn’t understand. I went to Rick’s house. I ate and drank. I went back to my life.

The wake was for a six-week old baby girl. She was the second child of a couple with whom we’d shared a once active friendship, but ultimately lost touch with beyond the occasional social gathering. My first born was nine months old when we received the news from another friend, well beyond the high risk age range for SIDS, but still she tiptoed. The wake was held a day or so later, and we left Norah with Grandma so we could attend. Already deeply affected by the loss, nothing could have prepared us for what we encountered—the parents had chosen to present their baby girl to the attending mourners. Like a tiny doll, she lay lifeless in a basinet, surrounded by gray, tear stained faces. My heart throbbed with ache, my body felt cold and stiff, and I wept freely. Once home, I enveloped my darling daughter in my shaking arms, desperate to protect her from anything and everything that could bring her the slightest of harm. And then we went to bed. The next day, life as usual resumed for us and the distractions of routine and responsibility diminished the feelings of sadness surrounding our friends’ loss. Still, the memory of that day will live with me forever, and the chills I experienced just writing about it are a heavy reminder of the impact it had on my life. Grief had introduced itself, and I now had enough understanding to fear its return.  

Last Friday we lost Graycie, one of our two Weimaraners. She was 14.5 years old and had been declining slowly for a year or more—hearing loss, incontinence, mobility challenges, fatty tumors. As the parents of two human children with a lot on our minds and plates, we had become less affectionate and more annoyed with our pups as they aged. Nights brought multiple moments of waking to let one or both out, or worse yet, clean up the mess of not doing so in time. Always underfoot or in the way, stinking up the house, oozing or leaking or vomiting, and certainly not offering any sort of companionship, caring for them became dealing with them, and we simply lost patience. Sometimes we’d speak flippantly about their passing, and in moments of extreme stress or irritation, we’d secretly wish for them to move on. We were candid about this with our friends and family—these feelings of exasperation and the resulting irreverence. We gave our dogs a cozy life, they had lived well beyond their expected lifespan, and regardless of our struggles with their aging, we never stopped caring for them.

The Wednesday before Graycie died, she woke us up in the middle of the night and began pacing. We let her outside, our normal pattern for attending to this behavior, but once back indoors the pacing persisted. In and out of the room, from bedside to bedside, sometimes she would stop and lie down only to rise seconds later and pace again. We tried water, food, petting, pain pills, another trip to the backyard; nothing worked. After an hour of growing frustration, we left our bedroom and closed the door, finding sleep separately in other rooms of the house. The next day, exhausted and worried, I called and made an appointment with the vet.

Before leaving work I texted Pete that we were set to bring Graycie in on Friday afternoon, and he rang to let me know that her day had not gone well. Unstable in her movements, she had collapsed on the way to the back door, and then upon finally making it outside, she hid herself in a dirt hole under the back porch steps. For so long I had suffered anxiety from the uncertainty surrounding the impending death of our dogs. How will we know when it’s time??? They had lived long enough beyond the average age of death that we had stopped believing they would die on their own and were firmly convinced that the decision would have to be ours. Abundant ailments notwithstanding, until that Wednesday night, neither dog had shown any clear sign of suffering and so we couldn’t wrap our heads around this idea of reaching the point where you visit the vet to let go. But when I got home from work that night and went to visit Graycie under the steps, I knew.

Pete lifted her out and brought her inside. She was limp and her breathing was strained. For awhile we sat next to her on the floor, cradling her head, stroking her fur, talking through tears of the adventures we’d shared—Remember when we brought you home in the Vanagon and you slept on my lap? Or when you fell out of the canoe on the way to the island for a picnic? Remember the freedom of running through the woods? Rides in the car to the beach? Remember your nine puppies and the one that didn’t make it and how we buried him in the backyard and said goodbye? 

Just before we went to sleep she moved herself from the foot of the bed to the floor on Pete’s side. We placed a towel under her just in case she needed to go, and then we closed our eyes. At 5:30 in the morning, Pete woke up and she had gone. 

Grief.

I know that Graycie was not a person and that in my developing relationship with death the worst is yet to come, but that doesn’t change the fact that it fucking hurts. And in a few months or weeks or maybe even days when Jake decides to join his love in doggie heaven, it will fucking hurt some more. 

As for the kids, having only known the dogs in their old age, they never formed a bond with them, and the passing has been fairly inconsequential. Norah did express (tearless) sadness, but quickly moved on to asking (again) if she could have a bunny. Fuck no. Pete and I are perfectly on the same page about no more pets for a long LONG time. Maybe when Jake has passed and we’ve had some peace and rest from the stresses of aging and dying companions we’ll consider something innocuous like a Betta fish, but there will be no furry creatures joining our household for the foreseeable future.

We miss you sweet Graycie Mae. Jake fasted for two days and seems a little lost, but the latter is pretty normal for him and he’s hanging in there. We hope you found peace. And lots of bacon. Love, your people.