Grief is hard. I was aware of this fact long before today. It first hit me, in a small wave, when my grandfather died. I was in middle school and it bothered me that the whole world kept going about its business as we rode by in the Lincoln Town Car, on our way to put my loving, fun grandpa in the ground.Then I felt it in a life changing way when my mom died. I was in my mid twenties, with two very little children. She was healthy one day and gone the next. I never knew what true grief was until that second day.
It’s a blessing and a curse that my own children have not known much of this thing called grief. We lost a hamster or two back when they were in elementary school. There was a lot of crying, many nights of having trouble getting to sleep because they missed him. But back then they had no idea what real sadness meant. Today, they know.On Friday our curly haired family dog got sick and was gone within 24 hours. She’d just been to the vet on Monday, our first visit in this new state. It was a visit to just get her in the system. She hadn’t been sick. We talked about her minor ailments - a fatty tumor that was growing on her shoulder that our NY vet had found to be benign, and some patches of skin where she’d lost her hair, probably from the extremely dry Colorado climate.
Our new vet, Dr. Amy, lovingly sat on the floor next to her for the examination. She gave her treats in between her yearly shots, and made her feel like the queen my kids believe her to be.Then Dr. Amy got real. She explained to me that Kylie was in great shape…for a dog her age. But the reality was, she was at the top of the charts when it came to longevity for her breed. I had noticed that chart on the wall when we first came into the room. It was hard not to notice that Kylies age put her in the ‘extremely geriatric’ category.
Of course we knew she was old. But loving a dog makes you wear blinders sometimes. Most of us assumed we’d get a few more years, maybe even five, if we kept feeding her the right foods and kept her active. My oldest son even admitted that he’d signed her up for the ‘Never Going to Die’ club. He’d also signed up his 84 year old grandpa while he was at it.Dr. Amy lovingly gave me the facts. Even being in good shape, a poodle just doesn’t live to be 14. Even 13 is a stretch. Kylie was twelve and a half. Those numbers hurt my heart.
That night as we sat on the back porch having our first barbeque of the season, I told the kids what Dr. Amy had said. There was some joking around, because that’s how teens handle hard to hear news sometimes. My oldest son, who is weeks away from leaving for the military, wondered if he’d have to get a phone call about her passing, and how it might be awkward, being surrounded by all the guys in his Army unit. We made plans for things we could do with her, to make her life more enjoyable for the short time she had left.
But I think we all got it. We were all a little humbled, knowing we had just a brief time with our precious puppy, who wasn’t a puppy anymore.
Even as I stressed that it was doubly important that we feed her only dog food and keep her exercised, the teens agreed amongst themselves that if you only have a year to live, you deserve a few extra treats now and then. Kylie scarfed up every nibble of grilled chicken that her kids ‘accidentally’ dropped that night.
We all gave her more attention as the week went on. She was her normal self, as healthy as always, and she ate up all the hugs, pats and verbal praise. We were seeing her with new, grateful eyes, and she couldn’t help but eat it up.
On Friday we got our first sign that something was up. Without getting too graphic, she started having drastic bowel troubles. This dog who normally did her business two times a day, religiously, was now visiting the yard every hour, and then six times through the night. By Saturday she had become a lot more mellow, spending long stretches in her doggie bed.
I knew it couldn’t be something fatal. We’d just been at the vet FIVE days before. She’d had the yearly blood work and examination. From what the vet could see, she was healthy. I was sure it had to be a reaction to the supplements we’d started her on. Thinking it would help her longevity, she started getting ‘treats’ to help her joints and her very dry skin. A phone call to her vet verified that this might be our problem.
We agreed to stop the supplements for the time being. The problem was, as Saturday evening came, we could see it was something more. This dog who adored food and lived for every last bread crumb dropped on the kitchen floor, had no interest in food. Forget the supplements, she wouldn’t even eat the tiny pieces of grilled chicken the kids so lovingly cut up for her.
When I’d been in Dr. Amy’s office, I’d asked her, bluntly, what were going to most likely be the signs that our dog was about to die. She’d said that either arthritis would kick in and destroy her quality of life, or a quick cancer or disease would take over and within days she’d be gone. With the second scenario, we’d notice that Kylie stopped eating as much, was drinking too much (or not at all), and was very lethargic. But, she assured me, in those scenarios, there was usually a pretty quick death, and very little suffering. That’s what we wanted most, for Kylie not to suffer.
And just five days after that little talk, I was watching it play out in front of my eyes.
Into Saturday evening she was unable to lift her head. At bedtime, Sam snuggled in next to her on the floor of my bedroom and cringed every time her breathing got raspy. I joined him as I realized this might be our last night with her.
The household had become solemn on Saturday evening. We all knew what no one wanted to say. We all dealt with it differently. Sam hovered, laying next to this buddy he’s known most of the years he’s had memory. My daughter hovered over her youngest brother, comforting him, and then, when it got to be too much, escaped to watch TV at her boyfriend’s house. Sam’s oldest brother periodically came over to pet her and remind her how much he loved her, then would disappear back to the bed, where he and dad were trying to stay distracted by TV.
My middle son, the one I call Dr Doolittle because of his bond with animals, did something that confused me at the time but makes perfect sense now. He ran off to spend the night at his best friend’s house. I should have recognized that the thought of losing her was too much for him to handle and he spent that whole night laying awake on a sleeping bag in his friend’s basement, wondering if she had died yet.
Then it happened. Her breathing got more labored. I stroked her head for hours, telling her over and over again how much we loved her, how lucky we were to have found her under that desk at the animal shelter, and how we’d never ever forget her. She looked at me with those huge brown eyes, the same ones that begged for scraps when I was making dinner every night, and eagerly greeted me every morning as she not-so-patiently waited for me to put my leg on, so she could have breakfast.
With a few last twitches, she was gone. The house seemed extra still. Sam had dozed off, after moving up to my side of the bed, but Jeff was awake, aware of the inevitable as he analyzed her breathing from across our small room. He came and said his last goodbyes, stroking that curly fuzzy head that we knew so well. Sam woke up a few minutes later, and without a word, knew it had happened. He came down to the floor and scooted himself in between his dog and me and let out a few sobs.
Eventually we covered her with some towels and crawled back into bed, the three of us huddled together in shared sadness.
The next morning the kids found out, one by one. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier for them to hear the news. Immediately I felt her absence. Her food and water dishes sat empty, no one hovering over them, strongly suggesting I get busy and fill them. No one sat outside the bathroom door, right up next to the door, so when I opened it I was always forced to literally step over her.
The thought did not escape me that she’d chosen to go just in time for one of her favorite people, my soon to be military son, to be around to say his goodbyes in person.
We took turns crying. Then we rounded up the troops and went for a drive. In the past week, after getting the reality check from Dr. Amy, I’d been doing some research. It finally sunk in that Kylie would die in Colorado (at the time I thought some day) and I was beginning to make plans in my head, because when things like that happen, everyone turns to mom to see what we do next. I’d discovered a beautiful farm just down the road from us, that had people and pet cemeteries. They also did cremations. In the fields around the headstones there are wild buffalo and reindeer roaming. We decide to go see it in person.
The car was unusually quiet. As a family we’ve hit some major road bumps along the way, many of them in the past year. But we’ve never had a major death. My mom and Jeff’s dad both died either before we had kids, or when they were just babies. In their memoires, my kids have never lost a grandparent. This was their first big loss.
Someone once told me that as a parent we should respect first love, and the depth of heartache that comes with a first break up. The reasoning was that one’s first experience with love and devotion are paving the way, and they are truly the deepest feelings a teenager had had, at that point in his life. Later they’ll see that love, and grief, can go deeper. But for that moment, it hurts more deeply than they can even believe. And it’s real grief.
I feel the same way watching my kids mourn for this special dog. She was rooted into our family. She survived a cross country move with us, being adaptable along the way, despite her age and tendency to be a Nervous Nelly. The love they have for her is as deep as it gets. The only loss that could hurt more, and be more personal to them, would be to lose one of their parents or grandparents. This dog, who they saw every single day, who they interacted with every single day, who taught them to look out for someone else’s needs even when that someone had no ability to speak her needs, was a cavernous part of their lives.
And now we all have to wrap our brains around the fact that she’s gone. She’ll never again sit by the back door, begging to be let in by politely scratching the glass of the sliding door. She’ll never rub her head along the edge of my bed, desperate to wake me so she could start the day. She’ll never again visit Sam’s classroom and be the hit of the day. We will never again walk her through a dog park, attracting comments and visits from every other dog lover there, because her tendency to look like some kind of small sheep just couldn’t be ignored.
We’ll take her to the mortuary this afternoon and then decide where we should spread or bury her ashes. My Dr. Dolittle casually mentioned (in the days before we knew we’d lose her this week) that it would be nice to take some of her ashes with him on all of his mountain bike rides, so he could spread them slowly around all the mountainous places he loves to explore. I’d kind of like to bury a few of them, and mark the spot with a cairn, so that in decades to come, these children of mine can take their spouses and children of their own to that spot, and tell them stories about a great dog named Kylie.
I’ll miss those dark brown pools of her eyes and the soft curls that met my hand every time I reached out to pet her. We all will. But as I keep reminding my kids, when the tears just won’t seem to let up, she’s happy now, romping around in some kind of paradise, eating all the dog treats she wants. She’s no longer old, no longer at risk for scary debilitating disease and ailments. She’s at peace.
It will just take a very long time for the family she left behind to feel the same.