My Dog Ate My Grief Homework

Between grief counseling sessions, I’m given homework assignments. The most recent was to create my “loss history graph” – a detailed report of each significant loss in my life, when it happened, and how intensely it affected me at the time. Needless to say, that wasn’t so fun to do, and once I completed the arduous task, I folded the page and tucked it inside a book for safe keeping.

A few days later, I noticed my dog Daisy munching away on a piece of paper. I sometimes give the dogs junk mail to tear apart, so I assumed that’s what it was, but closer inspection revealed the truth. She was eating my loss history graph. After pulling the soggy, tattered page from her mouth, I assessed the damage, which turned out to be minimal. While she’d chewed the edges and blurred much of the writing with drool, the only segment she’d removed entirely were the words: Dad died.

Later that week, my grief counselor and I both had a good laugh as I held up the pitiful remains of my loss history graph and explained what had happened. I mentioned how strange it was that Daisy had gone so far as to pull the page out of a book, which she’d never done before. My counselor, also a dog lover, spoke of dogs’ intuitive nature and suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) that Daisy might have sensed that particular piece of paper made me sad and figured she could help me out by eating it.

Her nod to dogs’ intuitive and protective tendencies reminded me of an incident not long after Dad’s death. I’d left Titus asleep on the couch and gone into the bedroom to cry. Soon after I left the room, I heard Titus plop onto the floor and prepared to be tackled by a giant, exuberant puppy, as was his norm. But the wild assault never came. Instead, Titus crept onto the bed, crawled up to my head, sniffed at my face, and gently licked the tears from my cheeks.

“Hello, human. We are here to consume your sadness.”

In light of these two events, I’ve concluded my dogs are super heroes. “Doodlebug” is my usual nickname for Daisy, but in light of her new hero status, she may need an upgrade. I’m thinking: Daisy the Grief Gobbler.

And Titus can be: Titus the Tear Terminator.

I’ve said it countless times over the past year of fear and misery, and I know I’ll say it again.

Thank God for dogs.

That’s What Happens on Monkey Island

At this time twenty years ago, I was just getting to know JR, my new housemate. We’d come to live together via a mutual friend, Kyoko, who had lived with JR previously and assured me, when proposing the three of us share a home, that not only would I love JR, but he would prove to be entirely unlike anyone I’d ever met.

A few weeks after we moved into our new house, I told Kyoko the story of Coconut Harry, a Golden Retriever in the Florida Keys who’d been swept off a sailboat and lost at sea, only to turn up over a week later on a remote island inhabited only by monkeys. At some point in the telling (I can’t remember the context) I said, “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

After a momentary, thoughtful pause, Kyoko said, “The next time we’re with JR, one of us should randomly drop that sentence into the conversation. Whatever we’re talking about, whenever there’s a pause, just drop it in. No explanation. I’m telling you, he’ll go with it like it’s totally normal.”

We got our chance that night, while chatting in the front room after dinner. Out of absolutely nowhere, Kyoko turned to JR and declared, “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

“I know!” JR enthusiastically replied.

Kyoko stared at him, her look incredulous. I sat on the couch, watching like a spectator at a tennis match.

Kyoko: “Wait. What? What do you know?”

JR: “That that’s what happens.”

Kyoko: “What’s what happens?”

JR: “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

Kyoko: “But what are you talking about?”

JR: “I don’t know. What are you talking about?”

It was perfect.

I’ve recalled that exchange a lot over the past ten months, as I’ve tried to channel JR’s bottomless ability to shift gears and adapt. These days, I consider “monkeys on an island” as a battle cry of sorts. New COVID variants? Monkeys on an island! Insurrection at the Capitol? Monkeys on an island! Jewish space laser conspiracies? Monkeys on an island! Yet another month of quarantine? Monkeys on an island!

This all-purpose declaration serves me in the same way “It is what it is” served my dad during times of unwelcome, jarring change. However, it’s much more fun to say. Also, it really takes the sting out of stressful events to picture a Golden Retriever, having just escaped the jaws of a watery death, joyously bounding around an island full of monkeys.

Oh, Coconut Harry. You must’ve thought you’d died and gone to Dog Heaven.

Welcome to My Unconscious

Alarm goes off this morning. I press snooze.

The next thing I know, I’m standing in the large, industrial kitchen of a luxurious domicile where I’m housesitting. For some reason, the kitchen is full of visitors. The people are unfamiliar, but I know they’re connected to the homeowners somehow. On the counter is an answering machine (apparently I’ve traveled back in time), and I press the play button, then listen to a message from a young man who’s looking after my place while I’m away. His tone is morose as he explains that Jasper, my dog, has died. The folks in the kitchen give me sad, compassionate looks while the message plays. I assume they heard him leave it, so they already know the news.

I don’t have time to linger over Jasper’s passing, however, because I have to get to a show. An acquaintance of mine has embarked on a comedy career and asked me to attend her opening performance. I walk through a door (conveniently located right off the kitchen) to enter an auditorium full of people. The lights have been dimmed, and I work my way through the dark to find a seat. It turns out we’re not there for stand-up comedy. Instead, we watch a sitcom’s pilot episode, and the budding comic I’m there to see plays one of the characters. Sadly, as the show runs, the laugh track provides the only laughter in the room. I wonder what I’m going to tell the woman afterwards, though I imagine the crowd’s silence is feedback enough.

Then I’m in another house that I know is mine, though it’s nothing like anywhere I’ve ever lived. There are no signs of Jasper – no food bowl, leash, etc. I walk around the house, trying to piece together what might have happened to him, when my alarm goes off again.

In the real world, ten minutes have passed. I wake with a deep feeling of melancholy, but it dissolves as I hear Jasper’s claws tick across the floor in the other room. My sweet dog is alive, I have no housesitting responsibilities, and I don’t have to tell whoever that woman was that her show was awful.

Whew.

The Libertine

A while back, I wrote about our old pal Jasper. Today I’ll write about his counterpart, Libby, affectionately known as Libby-Lou, and less affectionately known as Libertine Lucifer. For the sake of this piece, I will focus mainly on her “Libby-Lou” side, and less on the demonic traits that have made for some hair-raising events over the past 10+ years.

Libby’s first days in our home, back in March of ’08

Libby is much like her mama in that she’s not too stoked on members of her own species. When she sees dogs, she thrashes around like a 100-pound tarpon at the end of a line, and introductions to other dogs, when unable to be prevented, tend to include a swift bite to the face. Many years ago, after I explained to a man on a hiking trail why it wouldn’t be a good idea for my crazy dog to meet his nice one, he replied, “Got it. She’s not good with ice breakers.” I thought that was a lovely way of putting it. The one positive thing about Libby’s attitude towards other canines is that I don’t have to go to dog parks and have stilted conversations with strangers. After all, I didn’t get dogs so I could meet people. I got dogs so I could hang out with my dogs.

Libby’s murderous instinct carries over to other creatures as well. She’s killed gophers, lizards, squirrels, rats, and a pet chicken at my friend’s parents’ farm, an incident that earned her the nickname Dexter Dog. While hiking along a ridge on Orcas Island, a small animal dashed across the trail in front of us, and Libby went after it. If I hadn’t been holding her harness, she would’ve plummeted straight off a cliff. This incident made me realize that Libby’s prey drive is strong enough to eclipse her survival instinct. Pretty impressive.

Okay, enough about that! On to the good stuff…

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Libby loves, loves, loves to be outside. When she sees her leash, she dances around like she’s won the dog lottery. (This is in stark contrast to Jasper, who pouts at the sight of his leash. What, again? his sad eyes say. There’s a perfectly good couch right over there…)

In her younger days, she loved to run whenever possible and was incredibly fast. One of my happiest Libby memories is taking her to an empty beach on the Oregon Coast around 1 a.m. and letting her run to her heart’s content. Her violent tendencies made off-leash opportunities a rarity, and her joyful face each time she raced by was a beautiful thing.

Of course, all that activity must be balanced out with some serious resting, and Libby has the adorable habit of sleeping with her tongue stuck out. The best is when she wakes up with her tongue still out, then looks at me like, What? Why are you laughing?

Libby is great with humans of all ages. When I worked as a counselor at a construction pre-apprenticeship program where most of the students were young men, I sometimes brought her to work so they could tell their problems to her instead of me. The best example of this was when I got a heads-up that a particularly guarded, tight-lipped student was struggling with meth addiction. He looked horrified when I asked him to come to my office, but his eyes lit up the moment he saw Libby. For the next hour, I watched as he held her face, shared his fears, anger, and pain, and cried into her fur. In the end, he looked at me with a smile and said, “Libby thinks it’s gonna be okay.”

As a counselor, Libby works some real magic. She exudes this sweet sense of comfort that makes people know they’re loved.

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Libby didn’t come to us as a snuggler. While Jasper likes to sprawl his 65-pound bulk across anyone who’s around, Libby needs more personal space. For the first few months she lived with us, she wouldn’t even sleep in the same room as the rest of the family. Over the years, however, she’s gotten more comfortable with proximity.

Here are a bunch of pictures of Libby just lying around being cute. Do all dog owners take hundreds of photos of their dogs doing nothing? Because I certainly do.

I write this now because my sweet Libby’s light is fading. Arthritis and degenerative disc disease have taken their toll, she hardly eats, her activity level is almost nil, and her mind is muddled. I feel her preparing to make the big transition, and it sucks.

When it comes to the loss of my pets, I am not strong, brave, or resilient. I am a blubbering, inconsolable disaster of a person. That’s how the whole last week has been. Crying at the office, then furiously fanning  my eyes when I hear a coworker’s approach. Crying in the car until I can’t see a damn thing. Crying while I pet Libby and soaking her fur. Crying right now as I type. Princess Leia watched her home planet explode and didn’t react so pitifully. But I cannot help it. It’s simply a reflection of how much love I hold for these animals and the amount of joy they’ve brought to my life.

Dogs are the best people. I just wish they lived forever.

 

[P.S. ~ I’ve done my best to focus on Libby’s positive attributes in this post, but JR said I need to tell the chicken-killing story, so here goes: We were invited to a friend’s parents’ farm, and she let us know they’d had some issues with canine visitors in the past but had lifted the ban for us, so Jasper and Libby could come, too. We had a wonderful first day which concluded with a lavish dinner on the back deck. As soon as we all sat down to eat – before the napkins were even placed on our laps – I heard my friend’s mom gasp, “Oh, no.” I peered over the edge of the table to see Libby, looking quite proud of herself, drop a dead chicken on the deck, then sit beside it like: Look – I contributed! As my friend’s dad scooped up the dead hen and whisked it out of the mom’s line of sight, I looked at JR and said, “I wanna leave.” He looked right back and replied, “We can’t leave.” It was like a Southwest commercial. So humiliating. We kept Libby quarantined for the rest of the weekend.]

Sir Jasper of the Too-Large Heart

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When Jasper joined our family in 2006, only his head was too big. Still in his puppyhood (the pound predicted his age at around 1 year), he’d been found in a field in Salinas, California, then spent two weeks at the shelter waiting for his people to arrive. The moment I saw the giant block head perched on a skinny little pound puppy body, I knew we’d found our dog.

For his first few months with us, many of the people we encountered on our daily walks referred to him as “the big head dog,” but after plenty of regular meals, treats, and exercise, his body grew to match his head. By that point, he’d taught us (and anyone who entered our home) a great deal about the profound power of snuggling.

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When he was about two, Jasper was diagnosed with a heart murmur. The vet said it would likely develop into something more severe later in life but discouraged us from limiting his activities. We readily took her advice. Over the next ten years, Jasper had tons of adventures. He climbed scores of mountains ~

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Traversed many waters ~

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And wandered under rainbows ~

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He traveled across the country and up and down both coasts. As a road trip dog, he was an absolute angel from day 1.

1(After many years, he finally taught Libby how to win at road trips: go to sleep immediately & snooze through the whole thing.)

A lover of all living things, he made friends wherever he went ~IMG_2582Over the course of a decade, Jasper swam in both the Atlantic and Pacific, drank from countless lakes, rivers, and streams, rode the ferry to the San Juan Islands, went canoeing and camping, and hiked in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Carolinas. He even toured a vineyard in Napa and stayed in a yurt. When it came to family adventures, he couldn’t stand to be left out.2About a year ago, Jasper started to cough. The cough was prolonged and troublesome enough to warrant a visit to the vet, and we soon found out that the left atrium of his heart is enlarged, which pushes against his trachea and triggers a cough. This is a chronic issue that can be controlled somewhat, but not cured. At times, it gets really bad. He chokes, gags, and wheezes, unable to get a breath. It’s terrible.

My husband blames us. He says we love Jasper so much, we’ve enlarged his heart. I don’t know what he’s talking about. I mean, I may sometimes wrap Jasper in a handmade afghan because he’s looking a bit chilly… but doesn’t everyone do that sort of thing??20160125_124944While I don’t really believe we had anything to do with his heart issues, it is difficult to witness a dog’s aging process. It happens far too fast. Both of our dogs now gaze at us through eyes clouded by cataracts. They’re hard of hearing. Their bodies are dotted with fatty cysts. Their walks have been reduced from a brisk 3+ miles a day to a slow (maybe) mile. Libby has arthritis. Jasper’s heart is too big. As someone who loves them dearly, it hurts a great deal to see them grow old.

But it’s also worth it. Despite the pesky, encroaching mortality issue, dogs make life better. Jasper was the first dog I got to share my home with since I left for college at age 18, and he has been one of the best things about my adult life. IMG_3675I tell my husband that our home is a geriatric facility in which our pets now stand in a queue, waiting to cross the rainbow bridge. But I only joke that way to soothe myself, because I know how painful their passings will be. That’s why I chose to write a post about Jasper now, while I can still look at him across the room, snoring gently on the couch. If I waited until after he passed, I don’t think I’d be able to write this. It would be too hard.

My strategy for the remainder of Jasper’s life is to keep loving him as much as I can, even if it makes both of our hearts swell up until they burst. Because first of all, he deserves it, and secondly, what a way to go. 💖