This is life.
This is death.
This is loss.
This is grief.
This is my sister.
This is Rusty.
Ten minutes after this picture was taken, he was gone. Just like that, he took the last breath in a kinda-long-for-a-dog-but-still-way-too-short romp on planet earth.
In many ways, this picture says everything about life and love; about him – and her.
This twelve pound force of nature came into her life 15 years ago when she and her three young sons needed him most.
The beginning of life with Rusty coincided with the death of her husband and their father.
A few months after a tornado of illness ravaged his body and ripped through their world; my sister and her young boys – along with my older brother and I – found ourselves on the bottom level of a dusty, 1970s style shopping mall in Portland Oregon.
Next to the obligatory pretzel shop and a stone’s throw from the food court in a cramped pet store – we found him.
We heard him first – imprisoned in a tiny cage he had already outgrown – barking, growling and 40% off.
Rusty was well past the puppy freshness date and was considered, what the clerk called, a hard-sell. Too old to be sold for full price, he had been placed on a shelf on the back wall. No wonder he was pissed.
We debated and deliberated. About an hour into our indecision, her middle son, cradling the fragile, frightened pup said flatly:
We want him. He wants us. Let’s get him.
This was his dad’s philosophy on everything from automobiles and electronics to dessert – you want it, you get it.
This boy, who has since grown into a man like his father in many ways, assumed the role of family decision maker that day and in his pre-pubescent voice just south of changing – he pleaded:
We gotta get him out of here. We can’t leave him here.
He was right.
We were sold.
And for a little over $400 bucks, so was Rusty. Finally.
The only glitch was my sister and her boys were leaving the next day for a much needed vacation – escape into nature – and the pet store refused to hold him.
No layaway plan. Not on this one anyway.
The Clerk raised an eyebrow as if to suggest the impending fate of this deeply discounted dachshund. Then she issued an ominous warning ‘He won’t be here when you return’ that told us all we needed to know. They were his last chance family.
So they got him.
And for the first week of his life as a cage-free wiener dog, I got him.
I was temporarily living in a loft in the not-yet-posh Pearl District.
The place was austere, stark and unfurnished which meant there were no hiding places for a little dog. In his few short months of life, he had already lived in a puppy mill, cargo departments of planes and semi trucks and pet stores cages – so this kind of wide open space was unsettling. He spent the first couple days trying to disappear into the corners of the loft – desperate to find a small, dark, safe spot.
The thing about freedom is this: After being deprived of it for too long or never knowing it in the first place – the sheer spaciousness of it can be terrifying.
What I remember most about those first days with Rusty is how small and scared he was. The opposite of the version of him that would show up periodically over the years – more frequently at the end – when he took to fits of rage.
A living example of what a friend reminds me of when I’m pissed off and need to hear it most: Anger is just fear all dressed up in armor.
For the next 7 days and 6 nights, I just tried to make the little guy feel safe.
We growled at each other and were both grateful for the company.
The first night that he was comfortable enough to join me on the pillow – his wet nose made its way from my neck to my ear and I swear I heard him whimper something that sounded like, thank you.
As he gazed up at me -his temporary caretaker – his new family was hundreds of miles away staring down into the majestic wonder of Crater Lake; a mirror to the ominous, bottomless loss that lay ahead of them. I looked down at him that night and thought, you have your work cut out for you.
When a pet dies, the loss is as specific as the intricate details of their being.
It’s not just a dog, it’s your dog. Their sounds, smells, and quirks – the gait of their walk, depth of their gaze, side by side motion and specific speed of their tail, the particular lilt of their ears, the feel and texture of fur and the smell of their breath (for better and worse).
At the end, Rusty had the breath of a dragon and the gait of a wizardy, wobbly old man.
Lumps like mashed potatoes had made their home all over his body – especially a giant one on his right side that gave him more of a wobble than of walk – but damn if he wasn’t still standing. Stubborn. Resilient.
My experience saying goodbye to two dogs was marked by the realization that I had harbored within me a belief (aka delusion) they were eternal.
I convinced myself that unlike their human counterparts, pets were protected from the ravages of age and disease.
I really thought they were never going to die.
But the inevitable reality came quickly and without warning. As Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking: Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.’
Soon after a dog passes, their essence starts to evaporate the way someone with a intoxicating perfume leaves a room. You can smell it on your clothes, your skin and in the air for minutes, hours, sometimes days, even weeks. It lingers just long enough to tease you into thinking they are still here. But make no mistake, they are gone – dissolving moment by moment, until nothing seems to remain.
It is as if they have disappeared into thin air.
Unless you are its owner – its human – you don’t really feel this loss; can’t possibly understand its depth and expanse.
This is a profoundly lonely passage – losing a pet.
Curious lived with me for 16 years until on a Wednesday afternoon in July, an overweight stranger with kind eyes, a Vet’s license and a ragged old backpack came into my home, rubbed lavender oil on her joints and behind her ears, on my wrists and temples – and quietly placed a thin long needle under her plush white coat and plunged a poison deep into her bloodstream.
Before I really grasped what was happening, she was gone.
Her death was sandwiched between two otherwise joyful events.
Just 9 short days between the time I returned from the wedding of my nephew in Hawaii and departed for the wedding of my goddaughter in Oregon, she lost her ability to walk, her appetite, control of body functions and sense of wonder. For a dog named Curious, who embodied that virtue, it was painful to watch.
She took the opportunity to schedule her decline in these days, knowing full well that if I didn’t have somewhere else to be, I would have held on for too long – and she would have let me.
That afternoon, just before the vet arrived to transfer the lethal cocktail into the veins just north of the hips that had been bringing her pain for so long, I got a knock at my door. A surprise visit from my friend Matt and his 2-year old daughter.
They had been driving home and she started to chant my name. Her dad decided to listen to her, he changed course and stop by for a quick hello – unaware what was about to take place. The thing I was at that very moment having second thoughts about – not feeling courageous enough to do. She toddled her way to where Curious was lying on her side and petted her so gently it as if she was laying hands on her – anointing her with some sort of invisible holy goodbye elixir.
Curious’ labored breathing eased and she lifted her head for the first time in days and the last time on this earth. A few minutes after they left, the vet arrived and – somehow by this child’s grace – I had been made ready.
The night before, I set up an makeshift altar on the bed, cobbling together items imbued with her favorite smells and totems from our life together. From our cabin in the small Georgia mountain town where I rescued her; our west village apartment in NYC where we pounded the pavement together; and the Oregon beaches and Hollywood Hills trails where she chased her last squirrel, faced off with her last coyote and had her final walk.
In the center was a piece of driftwood she retrieved from the river she played in on afternoons when she was a puppy and roaming leash-less and free in the Appalachian mountains.
Then this kind, but strange, stranger asked me if I was ready.
I asked Curious if she was ready and then…
It was both quick and long. Like her life.
Fleeting and never ending. Quick cuts and slow long takes.
The morning after, I got on a plane to celebrate my niece’s wedding – a beautiful young lady who lost her father a few years earlier. Surrounded by our tribe of family and friends, on a crystal clear day, it became crystal clear just how close together life and death – joy and sadness – are.
Or what my recovery and Buddhist friends call, living life on life’s terms.
Though, it seems that sometimes life is on death’s terms.
When the ashes come back – if you spent the extra 50 bucks for an impression of their paw in a cold, cement block that looks like a child’s bad Christmas ornament made at Sunday school – you don’t quite know what to do with them or the feelings that accompanies their arrival. Feelings like this:
I am responsible for her death; I let her go too soon. I have blood on my hands. I felt complicit in what, in the moment, seemed less like mercy and more like murder.
A vet friend reassured me that when it comes to releasing a pet from pain – it is NEVER too soon. He reminded me they are only here to serve us.
They have nothing to do on this planet but be here for us.
They are all service dogs.
When they pass, their service continues – they teach us about death and draw us into our hearts reminding us that we have loved and no matter what container holds a spirit – human or animal – this is what life is all about.
In the case of Curious, she more than served me.
And good old Rusty – well, he did his work fully and completely.
He helped raise a young family out of grief and back into life.
For my sister, there was a stark contrast – and deep connection – between the death of her husband so many years ago and saying goodbye to this little guy.
Then, she was a young widow in a small town and her loss was a shared tragedy. During his illness and the immediate aftermath, the community, church and family gathered. They brought food, built extra rooms, drove kids to and from school and sports activities, sent flowers, planted trees, cleaned the house, offered shoulders, showed up at just the right time and stayed far too long.
In many ways ,everyone and everything was too much, overwhelming, impossible to process this whole death business. Then they went away.
And that’s when the loss becomes a deep valley you are dropped into and feel like you may never find your way out of.
Losing Rusty, she tells me, was the exact opposite experience.
Without pomp and ceremony, cards and letters and eulogies and high calorie casseroles.
It was a private loss and part of a longer arc of grief.
Rusty had been a bridge – a 15 year long bridge – for her and her boys that stretched across their life – through birthdays, graduations, marriages, moves, seasons, Sundays. Through life’s biggest events and most mundane moments, he was there.
At times, it seemed like a rickedy old swinging bridge hanging over a mad, raging river of grief.
But on the other side of it, there are three very kind, loving men with lives, loves and dogs of their own – and a wise woman, awakening, and on her own journey.
The thing about the bridges is this:
When you get to the other side – no matter how long and lovely or hard the passage has been – you find something surprising. You got more traveling to do.
You are not at the ending, or at the beginning – but somehow uniquely at both.
Grief, like the death that brings it on, is a passage.
A few weeks after she said goodbye to Rusty, she took a trip to a group of islands near Seattle. As I’m writing this, she is on a ferry floating across the stunning, pristine expanse of the Puget sound, of life.
I like the image of her drifting into the next phase of life.
Thanks to the 12 pound rescue from a dusty pet store in the bottom level of a shopping mall that no longer exists – she has grown wise and courageous. And though it might seem like she was the one that had to let him go, in many ways, Rusty is the one that set her free.
This is life.
This is love.
This is death.
This is loss.
This is grief.
This is Rusty.
This is my sister.