so then that happened

As of today I am something I’ve always wanted to be, ever since I was a little kid: A PONY.

No, wait, no. That’s not it.

Oh yes. I am now an Official Freelance Writer! Which I always wanted to be, ever since pretty much ever. It has all paid off: all the staying up nights and reading, the thorough degradation of my eyesight, the fact that most of the letters on my computer keyboard are totally worn off. I’M A REAL WRITER NOW, THERE SHOULD BE COOKIES. Laud me with cookies. I could murder some double-chocolate-chip cookies right now.

It happened because of Riley. Of course it did. That dog saved me so many times, gave me so many things, and even now she’s gone, good things are still happening to me because of her. (Somewhere Saint Riley is saying, “That’ll do, boss. Happy birthday.” Because, like in that movie Babe, I was the boss of the house.)

It feels good, somehow, to get that story out into the wider world, to have so many people read it (although I feel a tad guilty about all the crying I inspired), to see that incredible outpour of shared love and loss, all those stories about all those people and their Best Dogs Ever (but you know, every dog is The Best Dog Ever). It’s like saying to the world: Riley happened. She existed. She was important, and she was loved, and she was taken away from me way too soon, and I will raise a gigantic stink about it if I want to, because that is all I can do for her now. She’d be happy with that; girlie always did like a good ruckus.

There’s a quote I found that helps, so much. I wish I know who wrote it.

“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”

If that’s true — and I want to believe it is, even though it is hard for me to believe in things, I want that — then it means that no matter what, where we go or what becomes of us, we always have a little piece of them with us, and they always have a little piece of us with them. So we’re never alone, never lost, never left behind.

Here’s a thing I wrote somewhere else, that I wanted to save here:

I remember lying on the grass in my back yard with her, one spring day years ago, when the air was warm but the ground was cool. She was having an uncharacteristic moment of calmness, flopped out on her side. I was on my back with my head on her chest. The sky was blue. My bare feet were cool in the grass. Like that song says: Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.

I don’t know what I believe in anymore, but that’s what I want, if I can have anything happen to me after I die. I want a cool-warm day with sunshine and shade trees and bare feet and all the animals I’ve loved so much, and nothing at all happening to us, because everything already has.

Next… what happens next is, of course, Logan will do the same thing as Riley, and as Buster and Piglet and Sadie before, and turn a piece of me into a piece of himself, by whatever magic dogs do. Along the way he’ll tug my sleeves and drive me crazy and make me yell and sometimes be disgusting and sleep on my legs and fight me when it’s bath time and be as wonderful a dog as he can possibly be. I’ll write about it. That’s what happens next.

sisu, gravity, momentum: what came next

When death happens it’s almost an offense that everything else keeps going. You want it to stop and take notice of your loss. You want to be justified in feeling like the world has gone irretrievably wrong.

That’s not how it works, of course; you don’t get to have time off. Everything you had to do before, you still have to do. The world spins, the chores pile up, gravity keeps tugging.

That last was the one that got me.

It was, I think, about two or three weeks after the failed surgery day that we had to call in a repairman to look at my confounded air conditioner. The thing had gone very wrong, and there was a dripping crack in the ceiling. I had a sad line of coffee cans along the floor, to catch the dripping water, with wads of paper towel stuffed into each one to muffle the noise. Plunk. Plink. Thonk. Thwap.

If I had been caring more about anything, I might have noticed and acted sooner, but I didn’t. That happens. You get distracted, when everything hurts like a blow to the head, when you’ve been shredded by sudden and permanent absence. Waking up was the worst, because I’d forget, at first, what had happened, and my instinct as soon as I wake is to locate the dog. Oh yeah. Ouch. That was hard.

The repairman came and went, and I made Doctor Who jokes about the ceiling, and then out of nowhere, a bit past one in the morning on Sunday night or Monday morning, the goddamn thing came down. I had a gaping hole in my ceiling, about eight feet by four, replete with bugs and shreds of cellulose insulation and enormous pieces of the ancient 1950s rock plaster that was used for ceilings. It smelled horrible. It would have severely injured anything underneath it. It landed right where Riley’s bed had been — was still, because I couldn’t bear to put it all away yet. Too bad I wasn’t under the goddamned thing, I thought, more than a couple of times.

Gravity. It’s not just a rule, it’s the law.

We’d called for an insurance adjuster to come check on things when it was just a crack; the day he came was two days after things fell in, and I’m not sure he expected what he got, which was me in a determined Not Thinking About Things mood after a horrible sleep on a too-small couch and, god, whatever else. I don’t even know. Me in a machine fog. Lock it all down, get it all done. That’s a place, a thing, I didn’t ever want to be again.

“Ya got good shoes on?” I asked him. I led him through the kitchen and around the back of the house, since the bedroom door was impassable with fallen sheetrock blocking it. I took two of my collection of flashlights from a shelf in the kitchen and handed one to the guy. “You’re going to need this.”

It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s just that I didn’t care. My dog was dead, too soon. So what if there was a gaping hole in my bedroom ceiling? So what if the insurance guy was baffled by my carelessness when I clomped in motorcycle boots across snapping pieces of sheetrock and plywood? It’s interesting, when you get to the point when you’re fresh out of damns to give. Kind of freeing, though it’s not a freedom you want to have.

Lucky for me, my self-proclaimed handygal friend was all over this: she made plans to come out and repair things and told me what I needed to do or acquire to get things ready. I dropped in at the hardware shop (where they ought to recognize me, at this point) for one thing and another, and ran into the mother of two of the neighborhood kids I’d grown up with. It was interesting to see her, this enormous and intimidating figure from my memory, now with steel-shot hair, shorter than I am, not as loud as I remembered, not scary in the slightest, and delighted to see me though I could not figure out why.

“She was a weird kid, but she turned out all right,” I remember her saying, almost to herself, and I wondered whether she was talking about me or her own daughters. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, really.

Cleaning up all of the mess was easy enough, with the heavy electrician’s leather gloves I use for gardening (along with a machete; yes, this is a Florida thing) and a respirator with barbie-pink filters on the sides, and a kerchief tied over my hair. I filled several heavy contractor trash bags with the stuff, and wound up filling my enormous county-issued trash bin to capacity.

It went easily because I was still numb, because numb was better than the alternative, hurting and bawling my face off until my eyes looked like they’d been modeled after Peter Lorre, because numbness is a relief, at a certain point. Lift all this heavy heavy shit. Throw away the dog things that got caught in the wreckage, the towels and the pee-pads, the little plush pig toy I’d repaired so many times, the knuckle bone that was the last thing she enjoyed before she died, the bed she’d laid on, that funny little ball with feet that smelled of rubber and vanilla: it was all mixed in with plaster and shreds of plywood and rubble and insulation. So it all went.

(I took Riley’s baby tag and put it on a chain along with two other pendants, lucky talismans of a sort, and waited for the first idiot to point out I was wearing a literal dog tag. Hasn’t happened yet.)

Then Jen came, one bright Sunday, bringing her Finnish determination and an infectious good mood, and I wound up having a lot of fun helping her patch everything. I fetched and carried, retrieved things that fell, kept the music coming, took notes and made lists, while she smoothed the gigantic ceiling hole, determined what needed to be fixed with the air conditioner (as it hadn’t, actually, been repaired in any way) and measured twice because we wouldn’t want to have to cut more than once. I watched her bounce up and down the ladders, into and out of the ceiling, as confident as a squirrel in a tree, and wished I was that good at anything. Maybe I will be, someday.

The interesting part of it all, and the part that made her so proud, was when we put the new piece of sheetrock up. It took two ladders, one next to the other, and each of us holding an end of the enormous patch piece. The first time we tried to fit it in, it wouldn’t go because there was a part of the ceiling that stuck out where it shouldn’t. The second time, I thought about yoga, and when I went up the ladder with a gigantic piece of sheetrock above me I did it barefoot, my monkey toes gripping the rungs carefully. That time was better, I was noticeably steadier, and I held the thing up for an arm-aching time while Jen did the same thing one-handed behind me, bolting it into place with a drill that had a light in the front.

Sisu, she says: sisu is the Finnish word for strength, for gumption, for chutzpah and determination and help-or-get-out-of-the-fucking-way, and I like this concept. We’d toss it back and forth: Sisu! Sisu! Check that sisu you got going there, girl!

Sisu is calling the aircon repair company and determinedly telling the chauvinistic manager that the repair was unacceptable and you refuse to pay, and then sticking to your guns even when you slip up and say “she” when you were carefully saying “my contractor” until that point, because of course a woman knows nothing about machinery men make money repairing unless she is carefully repeating what she’s been told. It was amazing how I was suddenly not taken seriously at all after the “she” slip; before it was agreement and apology, while after was “You know, I wouldn’t send a plumber in to fix a car, if ya know what I mean.”

“What I know,” I pointed out, “is that she fixed it and your repairman did not, and that sixty-year-old sheetrock would have put me in the hospital with multiple skull fractures.”

(If only, I’d think, sometimes.)

Sisu is writing the thank-you letters I’d been stalling on writing, to the Vet Who Scanned A Shark and his incredible big-hearted assistant, late in the night or early in the morning, and then picking up my dog’s ashes (too soon, too goddamn soon, but closure of a sort), only to have the bottom fall off the fucking seventy dollar wooden urn box thing when I tried to put the photo in. It’s finding spare masonry screws in my own toolbox, and repairing the stupid thing, and calling the crematory the next day to let them know what happened, “and some people, you know, might be freaked by that.” It’s trying so hard not to remember how small the bag of ashes was, how lifeless and baffling. That isn’t her, that’s nothing I want, that’s all I have left, that’s priceless because it was her, once.

You keep moving. You have to. There are things to do. You don’t have the luxury of completely falling apart and hiding until you’re ready to face the world again. Sisu: you keep moving.

After a while the numbness gets less necessary, and the pain stops being a suckerpunch and starts being soreness, like an old injury. Something that never healed correctly or competely. Something I get used to carrying with me, and it’s not the first hurt of that sort I’ve got, and sometimes I think I’m held together by baling wire and duct tape and some sort of perverse determination.

My neighbor is – or was, then – a friendly guy who does landscaping. He’s got a pit bull with a head like an anvil and a tail like a whip, brindle and friendly and very very calm. He’d come by to do the yard, and I offered him the last of Riley’s kibble because I needed it out of the house. One amusing day he weed-whacked my jungle while I cleaned the hell out of my whole car, stem to stern, because what Cool Neighbor Guy identified as a mess of pharaoh ants had built Manthattan in the trunk. I fobbed an old CRT monitor off on another neighbor that Cool Neighbor Guy knew; “Think of it like a Godfather thing,” I said, “I’ll ask you for a favor someday.” Likely not. I’d recognize him by sight, but I forgot his name, and now there’s nobody to ask, because Cool Neighbor Guy has moved.

Pain doesn’t stay the same, though sometimes a thing reminds you and rears up and punches you in the jaw, when you didn’t see it coming. Other days I’d find myself thinking that instead of needing my dog back, what I needed was a dog, because things were so thrice-damned horribly quiet around here. It hurt less, or differently; it does get easier to carry. And at one point I knew that I wasn’t ready to get another dog, not that day, but I was ready to start looking. So I looked at websites and I made some calls.

People talk to me, and I don’t know why — Cool Neighbor Guy came over one evening and asked to use my phone, then wound up telling me damn near his whole life story. It’s not a new story, not exactly, and not mine to tell here either. It was his and it was real and he was hurting, and sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger who isn’t going to judge you than to a friend or a relative who already has ideas about who or what you should be. I know how that works, and I know that sometimes people need to talk. I know that a lot of the time they wind up needing to talk at me, because, as I said then, cheerfully, “I’m a good vent!” He told me his story, and I listened, and did not in any way say or suggest that those things made him a bad person (some would, I’m sure) — instead, I was genuinely impressed that he’d noticed these problems in his life and figured out what needed to be done to fix them. I told him that, and offered similar stories from my life, or the lives of people I knew. I sat listening to him, in my pajamas, in a rocking chair with the fifteen year old Boneless Cat in my lap, wishing so badly that I could help and annoyed, again, at the world: people are hurting all over the place and mostly there isn’t a goddamn thing that can be done about any of it. Sisu. Keep moving. Laugh when you can.

I called one shelter and spent an hour talking to their adoption person about the dogs: this was a no-kill place where they could be selective and they knew their animals. I checked the website of another, which was a high-kill last resort shelter, which took dropoffs and all strays. I made lists and talked to friends. I had an idea of what I wanted in a Next Dog, and didn’t know when I would find it or what it would look like. I wanted a temperament, I wanted a solid dependable smart dog: the kind of dog who jumps when you say jump, because it doesn’t occur to them to do otherwise. All I knew for sure was that Next Dog couldn’t look like Riley. Not even close. It could not, in any way other than being a dog, resemble Riley. I wouldn’t be able to handle that.

(Do something for me, Riley-girl. You go find this dog. You make sure I get the right one.)

I spent an afternoon visiting at the no-kill shelter, filling out paperwork, wondering why everyone was so impressed at my fifteen year old cat (it’s not like that’s any accomplishment of mine: she keeps being alive and I keep feeding her!) and visiting with dogs who were, none of them, Next Dog.

I spent another afternoon at the high-kill shelter, not expecting to find My Next Dog, because I wasn’t ready in a thousand different ways, but then I stumbled across him anyway. It was flashing neon signs and being whacked upside the head with too many coincidences: there are some woo things I believe in that I don’t talk about – everybody got their something – that have me half convinced Something was At Work Here.

I recognized this dog, is all. I didn’t fall in love at first sight. I just looked at him and felt, inside: Oh. There you are. I filled out the paperwork before the place closed, got myself approved, and waited.

The last-minute scramble to get things ready took exhausting days, and somewhere in the middle of it the heat broke at long fucking last. Somehow I’d held onto a healthy not-numbed Lack of Damns, a peculiar sense of determination that is the absence of the anxiety that’s plagued me my whole life — this isn’t permanent, but I caught a few glimpses of what that life could be before it flickered away.

Sunday it was sunny and breezy, with the highs in the mid eighties. My Cool Neighbor Dude was moving out, and I said goodbye to him while I stowed things in the car: an old martingale lead, a packet of paperwork, a bottle of water and a mental to-do list.

I had to go see about a dog.

i took your pain into myself

When the doctor called and explained the bad news – and I started crying then, because of course I did, because it was you – he had one question for me. There was one decision I needed to make about you. For us.

“Should we wake her up?” Because, he said, you would never walk again.

You made me cut my hair, when you were a baby. I had long hair my whole life, down to my hips, long enough to accidentally tuck itself into my jeans when I put them on. I kept it in buns and braids; I remember wowing a college class into silence one day before you were born, when the heat broke and I pulled the sticks out of my hair. They had no idea.

But you saw it as a toy, and me rightly as your playmate, and that one morning I woke with you standing on my back, with my braid clenched firmly in your jaws, and you were shaking, shaking. Wake up. It’s time to go have fun. I cut it, not long after that. I haven’t had it long since. I doubt I will again – I like it better this way.

I want to shout at someone, or at something. I want to scream. I want to throw a chair through a window. I want to break things. I am angry, not at you, never at you, but because this should not have happened to you, because it is wrong that you are gone, and there is nothing I can do to make it right.

I am angry because you shouldn’t be gone. It’s too soon. It’s all wrong. It’s wrong and it will never be right, never be okay, never again.

Close to the end though I didn’t know it – I thought we had time, I thought we had so much more time left – I remember rubbing your neck where the pain was, where the tumor was hiding, and I told you: if I could take the pain out of your body and feel it myself, instead, I would. I suppose I have, because whatever or wherever you are now, you’re not hurting, and I am nothing but pain.

It’s so strange that the tumor hid like that, in your spinal cord; I think the vet said C-23, but I probably misheard, maybe C-two-and-three, maybe that was it instead. That’s the only place it could have escaped my notice. I knew your body better than my own: I knew the little skin-tags on you (left leg, left shoulder, right side over the ribs), I knew how many spots were on your skin underneath the white fur on your chest (eleven, or thirteen, if I counted that one as one or three); I knew where the quicks in your black claws were; I knew the texture of the scarred skin at the docked end of your tail. I knew that one spot on your right cheek, where no fur grew in a pinprick circle, was because one day as a puppy you had something sticky in the fur there, and I tried to pick it out, but I tore the individual hairs with it, and it never grew back. I knew where the scars were on your belly from that mysterious puncture wound; where your navel was; where the extra nipples were (left armpit, ish); the weird rippling fur texture along your right shoulder; I knew the marks where your dewclaws had been removed. I knew, as the woman who bred you had said, precisely how “her butt pops out a little right before she goes.” I knew exactly how your snub face fit against mine when I kissed your forehead. I knew those weird growths in your mouth, extra flesh on your gums like a goldfish’s wen, that came and went. I knew all of this because that was my job, that was one of my parts of our partnership, to keep track of you so that I could take care of you.

If the tumor had been in any other part of your body, I would have found it.

When you were a baby – and it only happened once, that I saw – you managed to catch your own ear in your mouth. Writing this I do not remember which ear it was. I remember rubbing your ears, constantly, compulsively – rolling the flesh between my fingers, never harsh, just because my hands need something to do and your head was so often pressed into them. I never considered cropping them. I couldn’t do that to you.

“So what I need to ask you is, do we wake her up?” I don’t know if I made the right decision. I didn’t want our last memories of each other to be you watching me watching you, as they wheeled you away into the back, after I kissed your face and for once in your life you didn’t tongue-smack me in return. You were so tired, so tired. So hurt. I think you knew it was the end, but I didn’t. I told them to wake you up, and I listened while the doctor told me you might be sedated and disoriented, and I said that was okay.

When I got there, when I sat down in that kennel with you and I called your name, clicked my tongue against my teeth, you glanced up at me. You still knew me, I think; you still knew enough to respond to me. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.
You were breathing heavily, from pain or sedation or both. You had a catheter in you, and an IV in your right foreleg; you were covered with a ballooning blanket that had hot air pumped into it to keep you warm. You had a shaved square on your lower back, I assume where they had done the spinal tap. I had to look under the hot blanket to see these things; I had to reach down into darkness to pet your side, your belly, your back. Your tongue, which usually hung out of the left side of your mouth, hung out the right instead. There were no licks, no kisses. Breathing was hard and hot and heavy, and you were limp, though your eyes met with mine when I called your name.

“Their momma broke her puppy teeth, chewing on her crate,” said the woman who owned your parents, who caused them to make you happen. “So her tongue hangs out the left side like that, even after her grownup teeth came in.” Yours did too, and I thought that was so funny, that you took after your mother that way, even though you never broke a tooth.

I remember when your milk teeth fell out, you would grab a toy, and try to shake it, and it would go flying because both of your top canines had fallen out at once and you couldn’t get a good grasp on things. That was so funny. So many things you did were funny. You loved it when I laughed; you’d wag so hard that the entire back half of you shook, and you’d lick whatever you could reach, and sometimes you’d bark or yodel or whine, and your mouth would fall open in a dog-smile.

It feels like there’s an empty space inside me, like I left a piece of myself on the floor of that kennel with your body. I hope you kept it with you, wherever you’ve gone. It’s yours. That part of me is for you. It is you.

You sucked at fetch, and at catch, and thought retrieval was beneath you. We played a game that was not unlike Calvinball, or OMG THROW THE STICK, and I’d go outside barefoot in the back yard and kick around a shredded soccer ball for you. You liked to chase. I’d say Immagitchoo and you’d dodge off in the other direction, lightning-quick; you could turn on a dime and leap six feet without a thought. You were all muscle and bone and tongue. You liked it when I hid behind the a/c heat pump, or in the bushes, and you had to look around to find me; you wagged and panted so happily when you did, like it was the best, funniest trick ever. I’d stomp through the house with my arms waving above my head, making grr-rargh monster noises, and you’d run off, only to turn and chase me once I retreated, and then I’d monster-growl at you again and you’d rear up and swat my knees with your forefeet: do it again, you’re so funny.

You weren’t my first dog. You knew my other dogs; they were all there when you arrived, and you watched them go one by one. You were my first puppy, and my first purebred dog, my first pup chosen from a litter. My first Boxer. I’d always wanted one, and I got you, and what I got was better than I ever could have imagined. You were the first dog that was entirely mine. I could swat a bug over your head and you didn’t flinch, because you never learned to fear an upraised hand.

I sat down on the floor of that kennel with you and I pulled your unresisting head onto my leg, because that’s what you did, you’d put your head on my leg for comfort, or to get my attention. Because that gesture was uniquely yours, of all the dogs I’ve ever known, and I wanted it one last time, the weight of your head on my leg. You panted heavily and drooled and soaked through my jeans to my skin. It was the last time you’d slobber on me, and I knew it, and I remembered all the times I’d gotten annoyed and told you to stop it, and I regretted every one. All those times you’d fill your mud-flap flews with water, after having a good drink, then come wipe your chin clean on my jeans. It left such funny spots: this blob was the left lip, this was the right.

You liked car rides. When you were a baby, I had a small two-door car; I’d taught the other dogs to jump through the front into the back, or squeeze through the space between the front seat and the car’s wall. You didn’t like that. You wanted to sit shotgun, you wanted to be up front with me. And I allowed it, because I loved you, and I’d think “Dog is my copilot” and smile to myself, and I’d drive with one hand on the wheel and the other petting your head or your neck or your back. I bought you a seatbelt so that you could ride shotgun safely. People stared, smiled, waved. I would pet your head and smile back.

The top of your head was so soft, velvety fur on loose skin, and when I wrapped myself around you before they gave you the shot to end your life, I rubbed my left hand against that fur, and I focused on it because I want to remember that feeling as long as I can, the feel of your head under my hand.

I had to tell them to do it, to kill you. They didn’t put it that way, of course; there are words like euthanasia and putting to sleep to make it sound easier, to make it sound humane, to make it sound like a good thing. And maybe it is, or was, for you. But the truth of the matter is that you were alive and would have stayed alive, albeit a half-life, a hurting confined motionless life, until I told them to do the thing to kill you. I didn’t give you the shot, but I told them to do it; I might as well have done it. I told them to kill you. I can only take comfort in the knowledge that I did everything else that possibly could be done, first, to keep from having to do that to you.

I counted it up, in the last week of your life; if you count the halves of pills individually, I was cramming seventeen objects down your throat every day. Prednisone, AM and PM. Tramadol, methocarbamol, guy.. guyabera, guanacaste, whatever, all of those three times a day, one point five tabs for the first two. I didn’t wrap them in bread or treats. It was easy, and I’m almost embarrassed I only figured it out during this last part of your life, that was all pills: it was so easy to hook my left forefinger behind your right top canine tooth, and press down on your undershot jaw with my thumb, and your mouth would pop open so I could tip the pills past your tongue and into your throat. I wrote it all down, in a little notebook, the meds and times, every day, so I wouldn’t forget. I missed a few doses, but not many. I wrote them all down every day for two months.

I am not quite sure what to do with myself now that you don’t need me anymore.

When you could still walk, during the early parts of it, I took you outside and walked with you on leash, with the leash clipped to your seatbelt because that was the only harness I had and I didn’t want to hurt your neck, so you could relieve yourself. I had you on the leash because the early vets who didn’t know it was a tumor told me to keep you as quiet as possible. “You do realize we’re talking about a Boxer,” I think I said to one of them, at some point. Then walking got harder, and I would lift you up: one hand under the wasp-waist end of your belly, the other under your deep chest, and hoist you up to be at a level with my own chest, and carry you outside: to the deck, at first, and then helping you walk down the stairs; later, I’d go down the stairs with you, and put you on the ground. Sometimes you walked back to bed on your own power. Sometimes not. Sometimes you climbed into my bed from your bed on the floor.

I don’t remember what the last night was that I slept with you pressed against my leg, shoving me for space as always. I wish I knew; I don’t wish I knew. I remember you waking me up, so many times: as soon as I made a sound, as soon as my breathing changed, you knew I was awake and there was no time to lose, because there was an Outside outside, and territorial peeing to do, and squirrels to chase, and food to eat. You’d roll onto me, with your noisy snorting face in my face, or pressed into my ear, madly licking my neck or my eyes or my hair, until I got up. And then you’d stand on the bed and brace, and I’d push against you as I stood up, because I keep my bed low on the ground so that it is easy for dogs to come and go.

For the last week, when you couldn’t walk, when you could barely lift your head, I would feed you in handfuls, one at a time until you ate it all. You never nipped or bit, never even chanced it, because I’d taught you how to be careful with your teeth, how to avoid human skin, and because of that it was easy to feed you, to medicate you. I would lift you and brace you against me, in a sad reversal, so that you could drink from the bowl yourself. Sometimes that hurt. Sometimes it didn’t. I would press on your bladder to get you to urinate, catching as much of it as I could in a plastic coffee tin, which was dumped into the toilet, rinsed with soap, and left in the bathroom until I needed it again. I’d change out the pee-pads under you, and collect the feces you tried not to leave, and swab you down with baby wipes if you needed it. Every time once you were cleaned up you looked like you felt better, and I’d pet you and talk to you, sing sometimes, encourage you.

You liked my singing. You were weird like that. I have a voice only a dog could love. I would sing to you all the time: in the car, in the bath, while we were outside, while we were snuggled in bed, and you’d wag your body and lick me, because you liked it when I sang to you. And I did, Beatles and Zeppelin and Spearhead and the St James Infirmary Blues, because I can’t help but sing to a dog who loves me.

After it was all done, and the vet apologized and left, I stayed and kept petting you, because I knew I never would again, and my hands were fearing the emptiness that was coming. The tech who had kissed you so much that day — “Every time I gave her a kiss I’d say, that’s from your mama,” she said — got a piece of clay, and we pressed your lifeless paw into it so that I would have your pawprint. A piece of you. I asked for the right paw, because it was the left that was the first sign of trouble, the left foot that knuckled and dragged and failed you. I didn’t want to remember you by that paw.

I taught you how to shake with one paw, and then the other, and though I gave you specific words for each — “shake” for your right, “paw” for your left — you got it hopelessly muddled and never did untangle it. Offer one paw, then the other, then the first, because you knew I wanted one of them.

I do not regret a single bit of it: the meetings and appointments and hanging-out I canceled; the people and things I didn’t see; I don’t care that I missed protesting at a convention; you had been there every time I needed you for my whole life, and I could do no less than to be there for you and with you, do everything you needed, keep you comfortable, keep you company, take you to the vets, give you the food and medicine, clean your body, rub the muscles under the thick loose skin of your neck, over that fucking fucking tumor, until the spasms stopped and you’d relax, and wag your little nub tail at me to show that I had done something right. I did it all willingly, and I never got angry or frustrated, I was only ever patient to you, and I am glad that I could do that. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t.

I don’t know if there was wagging at the end; you were covered by that blanket, to warm you. I know they kept coming back and asking if I was ready yet, or if I needed more time: what they were asking was if I was ready for them to kill you. I kept saying no, and they told me to take as long as they needed, and they went away — and that other woman came in and took the pictures of us, I wonder if she’ll send them to me — and I kept saying, I’m not ready yet. I need more time.

I needed much more time. I needed years. You were eight. You would have turned nine next Wednesday, four days from now. You were only eight years old.

When I brought you to the hospital that morning I was cheerful: we had managed to land the best damned animal neurologist in the state, and he was confident about how everything would go, and that confidence had infected me. I wonder if you felt it. I was scared underneath, of course, but I tried not to be. You probably saw it anyway. It was all planned out: a CT scan, then the surgery, because we thought there was a problem with a disc between the vertebrae in your neck; after that you were to be in ICU for one day, then general observation for two, and I would have collected you and taken you home on Sunday.

I was going to bring you home tomorrow. That’s what should have happened.

When the vet called, it was late enough after the last time I’d called to check on you that I thought he was calling me to let me know everything was done and you were quietly healing. I really thought you’d be okay. I didn’t expect to hear what he told me. He didn’t expect it either. He did as many tests as he could, but there was a tumor in your spinal cord, hidden inside the bones in your neck, and there is nothing that can be done about something like that.

“Do you want us to wake her up?”

When I finally told them to go ahead, to do it, to kill you, I wasn’t ready for it. It was clear somehow that I never would be ready, and in light of that, they might as well go ahead, now was as good a time as any. You were so out of it. I don’t know if that was pain or sedative; I hope it wasn’t pain. You looked up at me when I called your name, your eyes met mine. I know the vet clambered into the kennel, behind and over the two of us: I know he told me what to expect. I pressed my face against your face and told him to go ahead. I didn’t want to know when it would happen, exactly; I didn’t want to know when the needles emptied. I didn’t want to anticipate the stilling of your body. I wanted to share the suddenness with you.

“She can still hear you,” said the woman who brought me water and tissues, who told me to take as much time as I needed, who pressed your paw into the clay for a print I could keep. “Keep talking to her, she can still hear you.” I did, until you were gone.

I love you I love you I’m sorry I’m so sorry Riley I’m sorry I love you I’m so sorry. I love you. You come back someday, you come back to me somehow. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s all wrong, and it will never be right. You shouldn’t be gone. We should have had years left. I did everything I possibly could, because you deserved it all, because after you gave me your life, cleaning you and carrying you and feeding you was so very little in return. Giving you that two months was the least of what you deserved in return for what you gave me. My wrist and back hurt from carrying you around, and I didn’t care; I spent hours on the phone with vets and pharmacies and I didn’t care; I staggered across the house, sweating and panting, after carrying you in and out during the hottest parts of swampy Floridian August, and I didn’t care. You earned it all.

I finally hauled myself to my feet, pulled my sweater back on, and that woman who was so sweet, who told me to keep talking, looked pretty shredded herself, and I told her: “You need a hug,” and she clung, so hard. She put your pawprint in a padded envelope, and told me how to bake it in the oven later. Some more people already had the gurney waiting, I suppose to move you to…. wherever… and I ran back for the box of tissues, and then I left that place. I didn’t look back because I knew what I was leaving behind: you, and the piece of me that you took with you.

People keep telling me, as though to comfort me, that now you’re not in pain anymore. Of course not, because now you’re dead. It must have been so bad, the pain you felt from that monstrous tumor inside the swollen cord of nerves in your spine, because you were such a stoic dog, it must have been so very bad to leave you incapable of walking, of lifting your head. I told them to do it, and now there is no more pain for you, and so much pain for me. So I kept my word, I suppose; I took the pain from your body into what is left of my self, whatever that is without the pieces that were you.

There aren’t many things I believe in anymore; if there is an interventionist god then he or she or it and I are no longer on speaking terms, certainly not after I had to tell the vet to kill you. But I still believe in reincarnation, for some crazy reason, and I mean what I said to you when they killed you on my order, when you left me, when you finally stopped feeling that pain.

I’m so sorry, Riley. I love you. Come back someday. I love you. I’m sorry. I love you.

I HAVE A SHOVEL OKAY.

This has not been my best day ever. Most of what made the bad day bad I am not going to go into, but this story (with beasties, of course) was just the WTF icing on an OH GOD STAB ME IN THE BRAIN WITH A SHRIMP FORK sort of day.

It was time to let Dog out for her evening constitutional, which sounds nicer than “out to shit,” so that’s what I say, and as usual there is a routine before I do so. I take one of the big flashlights I have lying about the house – ostensibly part of the hurricane kit, they get used all the time; they are enormous plastic boat flashlights that take those big square batteries with springs on top, are waterproof, and if left to float, will float so that the light points up. Useful. I take the gigantic Boat Light out and I shine it along the perimeter of the back yard fence, because I have to check for prey.

Dog likes to chase, and to catch, and things that squeak. She hasn’t got much of a prey drive; she’s content with a fruitless chase when it comes to squirrels and cats, but if there is a possum outside, may the Lady of Canis Familiaris help us all, because Dog will have that possum, and there is nothing anybody can say or do about it.

I checked along the usual hiding places for possums, and finding none, released Dog. I ran back inside and grabbed my phone as I had a message to reply to. I came outside, took a seat, and then Dog hit the fence.

I mean this literally; Dog is nine going on ten, but she is a Boxer and her rear assembly is made of rubber and springs. She can easily leap high enough to nip a slow-moving marsupial off the top of a six-foot-tall privacy fence. She’s done it more times than I can count, at this point, which is why I check for the fucking possums.

It was in the one place I hadn’t checked, an oak tree tucked into the corner (next to a grapefruit tree behind it, which I think is why the stupid animals are always risking life and limb out here), very dark, covered with low-hanging branches. Perfect for a possum to hide in. But there is no hiding from Dog on a hunt.

She snagged the animal and brought it down, while I shouted ineffectually for her to BACK, OFF, LEAVE IT, KURAT, YOU GO DEAF WHEN THERE ARE POSSUMS, I SAID LEAVE IT, LISTEN TO ME. She is good at “leave it” in most circumstances, but live prey is something we really can’t practice with, so it’s more a question of wrestling the hairy beast off the other hairy beast and then towing her back indoors while she drools possum hair, and possibly blood, and definitely gobs of drool, all while yearning and pulling and aching to get back to that horrific possum and kill it dead.

Which is what happened – the chomp and the wrestle – she doesn’t seem to try to tear them open but she chews on them, going for the spine I suppose, and this dog’s not inconsiderable jaws can easily crack open a beef bone to get to the delicious marrow inside. Possum doesn’t stand much of a chance, so I have to get to her before she gets it open.

This time, somehow, the commands and instincts got mixed, and she lifted the thing and tore off away from me, possum hanging limply from her mouth, to maul it somewhere that I wasn’t shouting. I caught up with Dog, and then caught hold of Dog, and – still with that big yellow boat flashlight in my hand-  examined the victim. It lay limp, playing dead as possums do, shellacked with dog-slobber, and bleeding lightly in one or two places.

Dog whined and protested but I frogmarched her back to the house, praising her as we went for a good leave it. (One takes the training opportunity where one can get it.)

Thus: it’s about 10:30 at night, I have a possibly injured possum bang in the center of my back yard, and I have to get it the hell out of there before Dog goes out in the morning. If it can’t move, she’ll finish it off; if she has finished it off, then there’s carrion to deal with and I would rather avoid all of that.

Anxiety is a funny thing. It means that I am often irrationally afraid of things that cannot harm me. Nobody ever died from awkwardness, though you wouldn’t know it, to spend a day inside my head. And yet, when it comes to things that could be hazardous, I have no problems whatsoever.

The solution, clearly, was to scoop the possum up with my rusty old shovel, then tip it over the back fence into the field. Yes. Pick up an injured, frightened, wild animal on a shovel, carry it forty feet, and pitch it over a fence. Phone calls are scary. That is not. That is just a stupid thing I have to do, and besides, they have a remarkably low rabies occurrence.

I just ain’t right, is what.

So off I go, trying to get the shovel under the possum, without touching it – they have rather a lot of teeth – and grumbling at it the whole time. Why are you so stupid? You are a stupid suicidal possum and if this kills you then it is not my fault. You are supposed to smell predators, and if my dog is not one for you I do not know what is. Stupid fucking marsupial. It didn’t help get the body on the shovel, but it helped me not get annoyed at the difficulty involved in getting about twelve pounds of defensive thanatosis with a lolling head onto the business end of a very old shovel.

Finally I got the damn thing on there and hoisted it up, holding the shovel so that the possum was as far away from me as possible, in case it – I don’t know – suddenly awoke from its slumber, decided it would not be having with shovel transport, and then tried to claw my face off. A full-grown possum at the end of a shovel held as far as is humanly possible from one’s delicate flesh is not light, let me tell you.

I was about ten feet away from the fence, possum in tow, when I heard it: a voice, and then another, a pair of them, male, amused. The field is pitch black. The house next door was broken into, a few months back. Ordinarily I may have been worried about that, but at the moment… at the moment? Something just snapped, inside.

I HAVE A FULL-GOD-DAMN-GROWN POSSUM ON A SHOVEL HERE AND THAT MEANS RIGHT NOW I AM NOT AFRAID OF ANYTHING. I AM DUMPING IT AND YOU ARE GOING TO JUST STAY THERE IN THE SHADOWS AND NOT BOTHER ME. YOU SAW WHAT MY DOG CAN DO, YOU SAW ME CALL HER OFF. I TRAINED HER. AND I HAVE A SHOVEL. DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.

I didn’t say that, but I thought it, as I wrestled the heavy shovel (having to rest it before I dropped it) up to the fence and tipped the unresponsive animal over. My chore done, I brought the shovel back to its place on my deck, and then stood there by the back door, arms crossed, glaring daggers into the darkness: Try it. Come on, try it. You stupid creepy probably laughing at me voices. Fucking try. Behind me, indoors, Dog paced and whined, wishing to get back outside and finish the job on that delicious crunchy possum.

They did not, so eventually I went inside and placed an excessively polite call to TPD’s non-emergency line, asking them to please check back there and oust anyone who shouldn’t be in the palmettos.Stupidly polite, because my bravery had, of course, upped and fled when I swapped shovel for phone.

“Ma’am, it’s free to call, and it’s free to send us out there, so don’t you worry.”

“I just don’t want to waste y’all’s time, is all.”

“This is what we do, it’s okay.”

They popped by, checked back there, told me everything was clear. I asked if there would be any way to maybe get some lights back there, and the cop said he’d look into it. Thus proving my long-held police theory: cops are only good when I summon them. If it’s them coming to me, I puff up with defensive Alinsky stubbornness like a radical blowfish.

Tomorrow, or rather Monday: call the city and raise a stink about getting some sodding light back there. I dislike big dark open spaces when people keep getting burgled and there are creepy voices. And maybe while they’re at it they can demolish that godforsaken grapefruit tree so the Stupid Suicidal Possums stay the hell away.

In the meantime, I need to figure out what the hell training tool works for me to teach my noble idiot Dog how to release the goddamn prey when I tell her to.