Many of you only know part of the story of what happened a day short of one year ago, so here’s the whole thing. Ready your Kleenex, kids. Because this is a long post, and because parts will be familiar to some of you, I’ve annotated the paragraphs to optimize skimming. If you want, skip it all and just watch videos: one of Beatrice and one of Tabitha.
The wreck>> Last November 17, Beatrice and Baloo got out of our back fence and were hit (and left) by a car only one block from our home. They were picked up by separate good samaritans; one person stopped for Beatrice and the person behind him got out of his car to see what was happening and saw Baloo in the woods. The one who found Baloo called Drew, who followed him to the emergency animal clinic, where Beatrice was no where to be found. He had called me immediately, and I was at the Trader Joe’s near UNC. I got in my car, cancelled dinner at my professor’s house, and started calling other vets near our home. Beatrice hadn’t had her collar on; we’d taken it off for a photo shoot the night before because Campbell was having a “cutest dog” contest. We had puppy pictures like these, but I didn’t want to cheat.
The nurse at the third place I called told me that she might have one fitting her description, and put the vet on the phone. It was dark, and I was driving home in such a state of panic/disbelief that I was utterly, utterly calm. “She didn’t make it,” I heard. Ok. That’s fine. I’m driving, so I have to make this work. Can’t lose it now. “Alright,” I said. “Can I come see her?” I called Drew to tell him what happened, and I frankly don’t remember the exact order of things from then on. I went to where Beatrice was, and waited for Drew before I saw her. The people could not have been more kind, and kept asking me if I needed anything, or if I wanted a drink, or if I wanted to be in a room alone. Absolutely not, I thought. The presence of others was the only thing keeping me together.
At the clinics>> After we saw her we had to figure out what to do with her. Not owning our home in Cary, we let the vet cremate her– an act which still to me seems so violent that it’s nearly inconceivable. I wanted something of or from her; there was a very strange urge of materialism involved in those last minutes at the clinic. I knew she had died. I had seen her. And when the nurse had brought her in, Drew moved to touch her and I had snapped at him, as a reflex, without really knowing why. She was just that way, and I didn’t want to disrupt her body. It was as if our touch would have profaned this perfect object. I’m still not sure why I felt the way I did.
Nevertheless, I didn’t want her ashes; even for me that’s a bit morbid. But they had the PERFECT solution. They made a little paw imprint in wet cement for us and wrote her name at the bottom. It was so appropriate– a physical, palpable, visual impact of her little body on our big human world.
Then we went to the second clinic, where Baloo was in pretty bad shape. Drew was understandably distraught, but being in my hyper-objective state, I could tell that, big picture, Baloo would be fine. I couldn’t stand that Drew was so stressed out, and the vet asked me if I were ok. “No, I’m not. My dog just died. His, however, will be fine. She was just over a year old. He’s five. I’m not ok, but thank you for asking.” This cruelty on my part (and the utter breakdown I had upon seeing Beatrice) belied my ever-useful, if still insufficient, coping mechanism of performing well through trauma. I was totally unsympathetic, and I couldn’t understand why my husband was all up in a bunch about the dog who would live. Why couldn’t he understand the vet’s tone like I could? I was certain that Baloo would survive, but Drew seemed so much more doubtful. I was right, but in the most trying night of our marriage so far, I was shamefully self-centered.
That bit of academia>> Those who have known me for a while will know that I’ve been fascinated with the rituals of death and burial for years. This interest comes out in almost all of my papers, and has since college. I don’t think there’s anything more illuminating about a cultural time and place than how people within it deal with loss, the afterlife, and the logistics of getting a loved one from one to the other. What I notice in retrospect is, despite pretty drastic changes in the Church in England (which is what I study), what stays the same is the communal aspect of it. Words in the service change; burial practices change; processions change; prayers for the dead change. It all changes, except the assumption that no one mourns alone.
Intervention of saints >> We had no body, no service, no preparations to make. There was no check-list of things to do; we faced coming home to a dark house with a lonely dog. However, we arrived home to a scene so incredible that it still makes me all teary to remember. We walked into our home with lights on and arms open. Lucy and her roommate Casey met us at the door with Bojangles and ice cream– and most importantly, hugs and sympathy. They were in disbelief, too, and clearly upset. They stayed with us for a bit, being heartbroken and mad as hell and utterly confused with us. That camaraderie was absolutely what we needed; these were our fellow mourners, gathered in our kitchen and helping us search for solace in this extraordinary moment of sorrow. I found great comfort in this late-night, impromptu wake.
Self-reflection about how selfish mourning is/was for me (irony acknowledged) >>What follows is a reflection of my first experience of really mourning, and things I learned about myself in the process. Grief is SODAMNLONELY. It sounds horrible, but I needed others to be sad. I regret sending a mass text with “please don’t call” in it; what I needed more than anything was the voices of friends and family who were so sweet to let me be upon my request, but to whom I was too proud to say “actually, scratch that, call me all the time.” I don’t know why I needed that– why I wanted others to miss her like I did, not just be sad because I was. I remember sitting in front of my computer refreshing Facebook like you wouldn’t believe, hoping that one more person had reached out, had been affected, was hurting. Again, my mourning manifested in excruciatingly self-centered ways. Where was the outpouring? Where were all the phone calls? Why did condolence cards not arrive that night at midnight? It was a strange, strange desperation that still overtakes me from time to time.
Amazing friends and family support us>> We received incredible gifts of condolence, like an enlarged version of this photo, which we see in our kitchen every day.
We got a children’s book about “dog heaven” from Brianna, who helped me find Beatrice and reason with the bizarre adoption lady at Petsmart; she and her sweet Daisy accompanied Bryant and me (and then Beatrice too) on countless walks over my two years at SC. The very next day we got a goody basket– for us and, even more kindly, for Bryant– from the amazing staff at Dogtopia Cary. My sisters were extraordinarily sympathetic, and I live on their advice every day. Drew’s Campbell friend, Carson, came to sit with me when Drew couldn’t be home and I wasn’t at school. We got wonderfully sweet cards from friends all over the place, with plenty to do besides write to us. It all helped. I am especially thankful for Nicole Fisks’s emails, which helped me feel justified in grieving, less alone in sadness, and empowered by the remaining choices I had.
Our next step>> Yet when it came down to it, the house was quiet. We’d always said that we wouldn’t have three dogs again, assuming that we would eventually lose one to old age. But losing the puppy was bizarre. One lab was immobile, the other confused. Neither of them was playing, and it was too much to bear.
We’d gone with a friend to a shelter so that he could find a puppy, which helped us get back in the mindset without any pressure. And then, on the day after Thanksgiving, we went to Wake County (yes, the Wake County shelter that’s been in the news) for their “black Friday” sale (all dogs were discounted in preparation for the holiday influx). They only had one litter of puppies, so I knew we had to go then or else they’d all be gone.
We found a sizable litter of white fluffy things– some with black spots about to come in, some with little brown patches. And among this white fluffiness was one little grey thing. She had very deep scars and scabs all over and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. We sat by their kennel, playing with most of them for nearly an hour. Others came and fell in love with the one who might be spotted, or the one with the eye patch, and I watched as our choices dwindled, which is what I wanted, since we couldn’t decide. I was fixated by the one who was different, but Drew rightly worried that she might be sick and didn’t want to see me lose two puppies in so short a time. Yet I just couldn’t let her go; she was the only one with grey fur, the only one with blue eyes, the only one with these horrible scabs (which we now know are the result of liquid burns). As I wrote in my email introducing her to family and friends, we couldn’t save Beatrice, but we could save her. I realized that losing something I’d meant to protect– not just to love, but to rescue– was still haunting me, and indeed does to this day.
If I had felt alone in grief, she was alone in her pain, too. She was the outlier, the injured one, the dark one. We brought Tabitha that very morning, just days before the first snow fell, and her sweet grey fluff was both striking and salvific against the silent whiteness all around us.