It’s the day after the apocalypse at my house today. No one else is awake yet. I think both girls have to work today, and Big Daddy is off but has other work to do today. I have one final commentary due on Postmodernism and Rushdie (blech! there’s my commentary). I’m sure you’ve looked outside and realized the sky is indeed still in the sky, so you’re wondering to which apocalypse I am referring.
After two trips to the vet this week, I laid on the floor yesterday at about 3:45 in the afternoon with Manny as he took his final breaths. It was marginally unexpected. We thought there was at least one more trip to the vet in store for us. The girls were both getting ready for work, and Big Daddy was on the porch coming to terms with having to make that “one more trip” to the vet. Manny was on the floor near my side of the bed, and we just laid there together. I was stroking his diminishing fur between his shoulder blades, and he was fighting cancer. I told him everything would be okay, and that I loved him. He cast a sideways glance at me with his big brown eyes, as if to ask me if I was sure everything would be okay. I had to think about it before I could answer that gaze. And the truth is now and was then, that yes, everything will be okay. He laid down his sword.
He’s been battling an aggressive form of canine cancer which was only diagnosed in March. Having been through feline breast cancer with our 16 year old Russian Blue princess a year ago, I was dreading the long protracted hell that cancer in animals can be. But this cancer is apparently the Pale Orc of cancers, and it wiped out the line of Durin yesterday. We have lost three cats and now our dog to some form of animal cancer in just the last eight years. We’re not noobs when it comes to animal cancer, but experience does not make it any easier. I’m relieved Manny did not have to go somewhere else to die. I’m relieved Manny got to be in his favorite part of the house. I’m relieved he doesn’t have to fight this fight anymore. I’m very proud of him for fighting it at all, and in my opinion, he has won because he has crippled the cancer’s ability to whittle away at him.
Between the beginning of 2008 and the end of 2009, I had two miscarriages. Ironically, I blogged about some of this experience this past weekend. I suggested in that blog that I had dealt with my grief, and apparently the Cosmos felt I needed to have the courage of my convictions closely analyzed. Well, here I am Universe, accepting your challenge. I have mixed emotions about trigger warnings, but if I wholeheartedly believed in them, this is where I would put one. Losing children is no fucking joke, not for the faint of heart, and definitely one of the most heinous natural acts on this planet. I have watched documentaries about lionesses who lost babies and didn’t cope with it any better.
Big Daddy and I have long struggled with the faith of our parents, the one bestowed upon us or that we were indoctrinated with, depends on your bitterness scale how you want to look at that. I feel like Christianity is the worst kind of panacea. The circular logic involved in explaining the inexplicable is really where I have to pull the rope to be let off the bus. “It’s inexplicable because God.” “Well, why God?” “Because I’m God.” Okie dokie. That’s just not good enough rationale for me. Especially concerning death. When I was thirteen and death made itself very much known to me, God and I began to have these little talks about how I’m supposed to function with all the pain I feel inside when someone I love and need dies. I wasn’t finished growing and learning when death took a very important adult out of my life. In fact, my whole life as I knew it came unglued after this death because the person who died was important to more people than just me. I spent a lot of my adolescence angry at God but still believing in Him. I tried different religions, different paths, and sometimes I just hung out in between paths. I even once held to the belief that if God is omnipotent and he created us, then he surely knows that we won’t all find him in the same way, so there is no path, only belief. I liked that one the most, but it’s still just a band-aid for living, which can be a sucking chest wound in itself.
After the miscarriages, I really sought God because I thought there is nothing in this world that is going to make these losses okay at any time. It didn’t take me very long to remember that death is God’s kryptonite. It’s the one area of human existence where God doesn’t have a lot to say or do. It is so powerful a force that it even brings God to his knees. My struggle with faith was over at that point. Part of my recovery from those losses was about shedding the weight of the what if. The “what if” is that last vestige of faith familiar to most antitheists who were once theists. You feel firm in your conviction that there is no God, yet late at night or early in the morning, your indoctrination creeps out of the darkness of your subconscious and whispers “What if you’re wrong?” That’s not the still small voice of God. That’s how indoctrination works. I couldn’t keep asking myself why God had put this on me. I couldn’t keep answering that question with Christian platitudes about suffering in the name of something, or suffering as a witness. Life is suffering period, and there is no rhyme or reason as to why it is that way. We’re weak little beings that stand upright and are vulnerable to the elements. We suffer. I’m not here to suffer gracefully so someone else can see that the big placebo in the sky really works. Fuck that. I’m here to be here. I’m here to feel the rain on my face, the cold in my bones, the wind in my hair. I’m here to give you a hand, or a buck, or a sammich when you need one. I’m here to live, to love, to laugh. Crying is just a part of all that. It’s a part of all that I have to take with the laughing and the loving. Manny made me see this.
In 2010, while I was still struggling with all of the aforementioned epiphanies, my sister called to say that she found a dog that would be a perfect fit for our family. She’s always calling and saying that about a dog or a cat. She is here on this earth to protect and love animals. Usually I just tell her no. This time I asked her to send me a picture. She was volunteering at a dog kennel for a Boxer rescue at the time. Manny was picked up by some woman who called in and brought him to the rescue. He had heartworms, a gaping wound in his neck, and was severely underweight. My sister kept him at her house while he underwent heartworm treatment, as she had done with other dogs. When he was all better, I drove up to her house to meet him. Oh my but he was a mess! He was at least five years old, by best estimates, and still had his goofy glands. He leaped all over her house, peed on her stereo speakers, tried to put my whole face in his whole mouth more than once, and I said “Yes, that’s the spazz for me!”
He was already scheduled for a goofyectomy, so while he healed, I filled out paperwork, and when he was better, he came home. This is one decision in fifteen years of marriage that I consulted very little with Big Daddy about. The loss of children was faith shattering for him too, but he’s got a lot more to be pissed at God about. He is the son of a fundamental Christian preacher, so he and God had a lot of shit to work out before Big Daddy could say “I don’t believe.” We were really drifting apart from each other in that year. He was very angry, and I was very needy and full of self-pity. More than once in that year, we had long bitter conversations about the goals of our marriage, and what about the children, and it was not looking bright for us at all. We tried to cleave to each other in our pain, but our pain was so prickly and unyielding that the more we tried, the more it hurt. I realized that bringing this dog home might be the thing that pushed us over the edge, but I needed to have some love in my life. I needed to experience the unconditional, unprickly love you can only get from a big, sloppy, spastic dog. I needed it so much that I didn’t care anymore what the consequences were.
The day Manny came home with me and little Sunshine, Big Daddy was at work. I told him we were getting a dog, and he made me agree that if it wasn’t working we would give the dog back. Big Daddy walked in the door, got down on one knee and the magic of dog love worked on him instantly. The first night, Manny laid in the middle of the bed with us, and for the first time in a year, Big Daddy and I weren’t spiteful or snide with each other. We talked about what kind of life we thought this dog had run away from. The point was that we talked about something other than the usual horror of our current existence or our perfunctory getting-on-with-our-lives business. We imagined together what kinds of things could have brought this furry creature into our lives. For the first time in a year, while we stroked Manny’s side, it was okay to touch each other. And from that night, it got better and better without us having to say a word. After about a month, we were lying in our now usual positions with Manny in the middle, and Big Daddy says “It’s like he was always here and then got lost, and now he’s back home where he belongs.” And believe me, dear reader, I knew exactly what he meant. Manny’s unconditional love offered a bridge for me and Big Daddy. His presence helped us navigate through some of the most excruciating pain. Let me tell you about this exceptional dog of mine.
He never chewed anything he wasn’t supposed to. He never pottied in the house until a couple of times here at the end. He never bit anyone. He was never unhappy. He liked to snuggle with me when Big Daddy worked nights. He liked to lick Big Daddy’s bald head all over. Every time you came in the door, he greeted you with the most exuberant wiggling. He loved toys. He completely changed our vocabulary. He was brave and absolutely hated the mailman. He whined at the pizza delivery girls. He begged for people food like there was no tomorrow. He loved to sing. He was a non-stop talker. Bedtime was precisely 7 pm, and if you weren’t ready to go at 7 pm, he would cajole, snort, pace, and bark at you. We called it Douchie Time; he called it Bedtime.
The very kind and sweet lady who operates the crematorium said to us yesterday “Thank you for giving him a good home” because she knew he was a rescue. I told her “He gave us a good home.” It’s the truth. He was a rescue dog, but not like you think. He rescued us. He gave us a good home. He took away the nightmare of not knowing when our next meal was coming and the lack of any adequate shelter. He gave us a good home. 7 pm is going to be hard for a long time without him. Nights alone are going to be torture for a long time. Big Daddy went ahead and fed him last night at dinnertime because it was too hard not to. I have to throw that food away this morning, but I understand. I want to rip out our fence with my bare hands until they bleed. I want to tear my clothes and wander the streets of my neighborhood sobbing. The world lost its most phenomenal creature yesterday, and it will go on today as if nothing has happened.
For the first time in my life, I feel sharply the selfishness of grief. I told Big Daddy that I was feeling acutely selfish, and he said that’s what grief is. I don’t know what grief is. I know it’s horribly unpredictable, and that everyone does it differently. Manny asked me if I was sure it was okay, and I told him it was. For him, it has to be okay because I told him it was. He started the avalanche on Saturday while Big Daddy was working nights, and both the girls were galavanting. Yesterday was the first day since Saturday that everyone was home. I think he waited. He hadn’t eaten hardly anything since Friday night, but at 2 yesterday, he ate a bunch. He wanted it hand fed to him, but he ate. I think he wanted to share a last meal. He made an effort to give us some of those things that we can hold onto forever, and so I don’t want to make the last thing I gave him to hold onto forever be a lie. Nothing in this world lasts. Not joy, not sorrow, not pain, not grief, not elation. I can’t have one without the other in perpetuity. I thought when we found out Manny had cancer that I would have to go through losing my boys all over again. I thought about how stupid I was to put all this weight of responsibility for healing my heart on this poor dog. Big Daddy said yesterday that Manny showed us we still have love to give even though we were horribly robbed of our typical opportunities to show it. He said we were given the chance to raise a child together, just not a typical one, and in our marriage nothing else has been typical, so it was more than appropriate. This is how it’s going to be okay.
Death’s pervasive insistence on being a universal constant has upended my life on more than one occasion. Like a prima donna, Death has always done everything it can to overshadow life. Life wins this time. The beautiful life of this dog is brighter and greater than his death will ever be. I’m crying, and my chest hurts like I can’t breathe, but that will get better. So you see, Universe, I will see your Death and raise you one helluva canine and an immense, unending capacity for love and hope, and call you on all your shit! I promised my friend that it was okay for him to move on, and I mean to keep that promise. You can have your universal certitude, but this little tiny family will have its hero.