My husband, a full-fledged Beatles fan, often quotes the legendary John Lennon – “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” Recently, we had a plan. “Let’s travel to Calgary,” he said, “to visit Kev and Ger. We haven’t been there in 9 years.” I am a teacher and made a commitment to myself when I first started my career to go one place every summer I had never been before. “As long as we visit Banff and Lake Louise this time,” I replied. Excitedly, we arranged for dog sitters, booked our flights and accommodations, and were all set.
It was wonderful! The weather was sunny and warm. We ate well, drank well, enjoyed good company. We hiked, geocached, and kayaked. We visited our friends’ log cabin on a lake in British Columbia where I paddleboarded for the first time and admired hummingbirds. Not following a rigid schedule, we often commented on how perfect our timing was. Right down to our last evening there. Before we left to catch the red-eye home, a thunderstorm passed overhead as we ate dinner. I love thunder and lightning. What a great plan we had.
In the car on the way to the airport, life happened. Our son called. From the vet. At 11:30 pm in his time zone. He was with one of our dogs, Ringo, after she experienced what appeared to be a stroke. Her hind legs had given way beneath her and she vomited and defecated while lying down. Her heart rate was 180 beats per minute, down from 192. We have Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, known for heart murmurs. Both our 10 ½ year olds were no exception. We knew it would seriously affect them at some point. However, when we left home two weeks prior, there was no indication that death was imminent. Otherwise, our plan would have been very different.
I had to pass the phone to my husband, unable to listen clearly through the tears or make any decisions. The vet didn’t know precisely what was happening. Exploratory testing would cost $1200. We were 8 ½ hours away from home. It was decided that our son would bring her home for the night and we would make a further decision when we arrived. A text from him before we boarded our plane indicated she was coming around.
I ran from the car to the front door as soon as it stopped in our driveway. I was expecting her to be alive and unwell, preparing myself to make a very difficult decision that day, hoping from past experiences with this wild and wacky dog that she may have just recovered enough to stick around a little longer. I heard the pitter patter of doggie paws and my heart leapt. She was ok! It was our other cherished dog, Mia, excited to see mommy home, tail wagging, tongue licking. No other doggie paws could be heard. I met my son in the kitchen. “Where is she?”
The look on his face said it all. With a deep breath, the moment he was dreading, he had to tell me she didn’t make it. She died at 5:15 am. Just three hours earlier. Three hours. I was three hours late. I collapsed in his arms as my husband entered the front door with a suitcase in hand. Knowingly, he joined our tearful embrace and our grieving process began.
That number haunts me. I could accept her death. Their life expectancy is between 10-12, she had a heart murmur. I get it. What I couldn’t accept is that I wasn’t there for the last two weeks of her life. My grief was a self-inflicted torture chamber. I wasn’t there when she died in our home. I abandoned my dog when she needed me most. I wasn’t there to hold her and comfort her as she took her last breath. I selfishly took a vacation and explored the Rocky Mountains while my dog was home, dying. I could have somehow prevented this from happening had I been home. She didn’t know I loved her. We should have done the testing. She must have been wondering where I was. She had no idea I was on my way. Timing. The timing was so wrong.
I know in my head none of that is true. The truth is she died peacefully and naturally with our son and she was loved. For she only knew love. But that is hard to feel right away.
The first two weeks of her life with us were dreadful. She was a very anxious dog and reacted to every new sound in the house. When the fridge would cut in, the dryer buzzer would sound, the phone would ring, the doorbell, the microwave, the furnace, the filtration system. Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark! Bark! She didn’t sleep for more than two consecutive hours. It was like having a colic infant with no maternity leave. We took turns sitting up on the kitchen floor throughout the night with her in our lap, trying to console her and catch a few minutes sleep wherever we could. Finally, after I broke out in tears one morning for dropping my hairbrush on the floor, I called in sick just to get some sleep. We called the breeder who informed us this was atypical behaviour and we could return her for a full refund. It was a difficult decision to make, but we knew we couldn’t go on. It was a Friday. My husband would bring her back after work.
Later that evening he picked me up from a social engagement. I cried in the car on the way home, sad that she wouldn’t be there. When I opened the front door I heard the sound of TWO sets of pitter patter paws, the sound I longed for just a week ago. I scooped her up and looked at my husband in surprise. “Let’s see how she makes out this weekend,” he said. That night, she started to sleep through the night! That was our Ringo. She had a quirky sense, an understanding of sorts I had never known in a dog.
She recognized and reacted to all animals on television. Even commercials featuring animals that didn’t make a sound sent her leaping and barking from the couch to the tv stand.
She explored. Anything new she had to be a part of. When I started doing yoga at home, she would lay on the mat. When I started meditating, she sat upright on my bolster with me one morning to test it out. If my husband went to the shed, she was on his heels. When he barbecued, she was underfoot, barking at the flame. She would literally catch embers when we had a fire. Yes. Jump in the air and catch them, getting so close to the fire her whiskers would singe. But she never stopped. Sticks? Bones? Nope. Not for this dog. She chased and gnawed on rocks. Rocks. Whenever we walked her we would have to find a rock that she would carry in her mouth. When she found a puddle, she would put her face down in the water, dig up rocks, large ones, carry them to the edge of the puddle and go back for more.
When our other dogs were spayed they succumbed to the drugs and slept. Not Ringo. On the way from the vet, she stood up in the car and howled several times while our other dog, Mia, slept soundly. When we got home, they slept in their beds in the living room. From the next room in the kitchen I opened our treat jar for our third dog, Reilly. By the time I turned around to give it to her, Ringo was at her side having somehow heard the jar opening from her drug-induced sleep. With groggy, bloodshot eyes she stared expectantly at me, wanting a treat as well. All the while, Mia slept. We sat in the living room that evening keeping a close eye on them. At one point, Ringo woke up and jumped on the couch before we could get to her. No jumping, no stairs, the vet had said.
At some point Ringo developed anxiety while riding in the car. The first few years were fine. We could travel easily with her. Then she started to bark at every passing car and every passing dog and every passing person. It was annoying and dangerous. We endeavoured to find a solution. The Thundershirt came recommended. HA! When I returned that there was an aromatherapy spray on the counter, guaranteed to calm your dog. HA! HA! Preferring a holistic remedy, we tired valerian root. Nope! Desperately, I went to the vet for meds. Anything that would make our annual 8 hour drive to Gros Morne bearable for everyone. Due to the heart murmur, the good stuff was out of the question. I was given something else to try. We had to give her one pill an hour before leaving that would calm her and another as we were about to leave. During that hour when she was supposed to be calm she followed us around the house because whenever suitcases came out, she knew someone was going somewhere and always wondered if she was coming too. She would even get in the suitcase sometimes while we packed, sending her message loud and clear. The drug had some effect. She stumbled several times, face planting on the floor, only to get up again and watch every move we made. The second pill, surely, would help her to relax and sleep during the car ride. HA! HA! HA! Not a chance. Mia slept soundly, while Ringo barked at every passing car, every passing dog, every passing person. This dog was full of life and vigour. What drove us crazy is what we loved most about her and what we miss now.
She defied death and permanent injury a couple of times. That’s why I really thought she would come through this time as well. During one of those aforementioned trips to Gros Morne, another strategy we tried was to kennel her to shield her from the stimulation, hoping she would lie down and sleep. She barked and scratched intermittently for a couple of hours. When we arrived in the town where we stop for lunch I urged my husband to continue on. She was quiet. Sleeping. He insisted we stop to let the dogs out for a break. When we opened the kennel door and she didn’t come out we initially thought we hit the jackpot. She was loving it! A closer look indicated the opposite. She couldn’t get out. The blanket we put in the kennel had four short strings on each corner that you could tie together. However, they weren’t so short that they couldn’t wrap tightly around an erratic dog’s hind leg. How she managed that we’ll never really understand. We had to remove the blanket with Ringo firmly attached and unwind it from her. When we laid her down, she limped. That hind paw grazed the ground furry side down, padded side up. Something was terribly wrong. After a Google search for the nearest vet, an hour wait, a $400 bill and a prescription for steroids that may or may not help restore the nerve damage, we were on our way again. This time, she rested comfortably on my lap in the front seat. My husband I are were sick with dread and regret, hardly speaking a word for the rest of the 4 hour drive. What had we done? Not only was the kennel idea a complete disaster, now our energetic dog may have mobility issues for life. Our vacation just turned into 24 hour watch over our dog. We did this. Not only that. Here she was asleep on my lap. Was that the solution all along? Never did we consider that was all she needed to ride in the car. Happy vacay to us!
True to form, Ringo completely recovered, and day by day our three-week vacation saw marked improvement in her condition. By the time we were leaving to drive home, you could hardly notice an issue with her paw. We decided she would travel home on my lap considering how well it worked on the way out after the vet visit. HA! HA! HA! HA! She barked for 7 straight hours. The final hour of our journey she laid down, but didn’t sleep. All the while, Mia slept in the back seat.
Eventually, we did find a solution for the car. It involved me in the backseat against one window, a cooler against the other, luggage on the front seat, my husband behind the wheel. No judgement! I wouldn’t care anyway. It worked! What I wouldn’t do for one more car ride.
Then there was the time she fell through the ice. As we were finishing a skate on a pond near our house that we had visited several times before, I called for the dogs. Mia came running. No Ringo. Then I heard the barking. “She’s through the ice!” my husband yelled. He was already in the opening where the river meets the pond in the small corner that never freezes when I arrived. Skates on his feet manoeuvring over rocks underfoot, chest height in cold water, he stumbled towards our barking Ringo who was facing me, front paws stretched before her over the ice, body submerged. I couldn’t approach any closer without risk of falling in myself. I watched anxiously as he reached her, pushed her up over the ice and she ran towards me. I removed my coat and wrapped her snuggly in it, worried about her imminent fate. What had we done? Guilt. Regret. Then it occurred to me that I should be more worried about hubby! By now he was out of the pond and skating hard to warm himself. Turns out, the RCMP one piece insulated winter suit his buddy had given him for snowblowing was possibly a life saver. His body stayed warm and dry. Only his waterlogged feet were cold. Nonetheless, getting home was of top priority. We were a 40 minute hike away with no phone. With Ringo still wrapped in my arms, we started for home. I knew there were a few houses along way. I intended to stop for help and call for a ride. A couple minutes later a young boy aged 13 or 14 came by on a quad. I flagged him down to ask to use his phone. Seeing our situation, he immediately offered to bring us home. My husband got on back with Ringo tucked into the chest of his suit, leaving dry Mia and stunned me to finish the walk. The young boy circled back for us, but I declined the ride. A beautiful sunny day, knowing hubby and dog were home next to a roaring fire, I took the opportunity to walk and process what was happening. We watched her closely for the rest of the day. Guess what? She was perfectly fine.
We now grieve the death of this dog who was so full of life and curiosity. She had such a strong presence that there is an undeniable absence in our home. A void of something that was that is no more. Having another dog to focus on helps. Mia and I have put everything into one another. Having never been without a furry companion she follows me around more than usual. I think she hopes I will lead her to Ringo. Twice she has noticeably searched the house for her. I smother her with kisses and hugs and cuddles, making sure she knows I love her. She gets a car ride every day, something she loves that was impossible with Ringo. We are getting to know Mia as Mia now. Ringo overshadowed her. For the first few days I felt her impending death and restlessly watched over her, determined to keep her alive. That is easing now. I am beginning to trust again and allow the course of life to be as it is.
Mia came in the car when we drove Ringo to the pet crematorium. She sniffed the box where our son had honourably laid Ringo, who looked as if she were peacefully asleep. With only three hours having passed, her body was still warm. I am grateful we were able to pet her one last time and soak her with kisses and tears without getting the face licked off me. I guess our timing wasn’t so bad after all.
I am learning about grief. From this experience I know the importance of feeling it wholly. The physical pain of it. The emotional ache. The obsessive thoughts. I want to accept death as a part of living. I want to trust the ever changing ebb and flow of life. I have been consciously observing the perennial summer blooms, some of them already starting to wilt, only to produce new seed that will encourage more life next year. They are interspersed with annual plants that open in an array of colour and beauty that once gone, are gone for good. Their short lives having helped to enrich our planet’s natural wonder. Not a single one without purpose, yet temporary.
I recently listened to a podcast about death that explored the notion that we are all dying. The speaker explained that if you are talking to someone on their deathbed, the last thing you do is bicker over something trivial. She challenged us to live life that way. Imagine if every encounter with someone started with, “Hello. I’m dying. So are you.” How more authentic and real would our interactions be? I want to remember that.
For the first day I couldn’t remember Ringo vividly. Maybe it was self-preservation. Maybe I couldn’t see through the foggy anguish. But now I can see her running the wooded path with Mia but always coming back to find me when she realized I was out of sight. I can smell her paws. How I love the smell of doggie paws. I can hear her sigh as she finally settled for sleep at night right next to me. I can feel her heartbeat in my hands as she sat upright in my lap, paws dangling in front of her, completely trusting where she was. In the end, memories are all we have left. I will continue make them. I will continue to capture them. I will continue to notice them as they are happening. I will continue to remind myself that I am dying. And so are you.
To grieve is to have loved. Let’s love one another now so we can be lucky enough to grieve each other later.