I woke up early this morning with a short story coming at me fast. The characters were there, joking about things that weren’t funny, fleshed out and ready to come to life. I begged the story to go away for a few weeks. The timing was bad. I still have ten chapters on the novel to edit, and three AM is never a good time for anything other than dreams.
By six, I surrendered to note taking in bed. Surely I’d be able to fall back asleep as long as I didn’t open up the computer. When I finished, I set my notes aside and mushed my face into the pillow. In a few hours I’d wake up, the story would still be there, and I could go over my notes with Shadow, telling her the roughest draft, rewarding us both by the end with cheese.
Then I remembered, I couldn’t tell Shadow this story because she passed away last weekend.
Sleep never did come. Thoughts of the short story gave way to memories of Shadow. There would have been a time when I’d numbly make it to the shower before the tears. If sitting on the shower floor and crying until the water ran cold were an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist. Today, however, I ate breakfast then went for a morning run. Part of my DBT goals is getting in three days of exercise per week. Smiling is also part of DBT, but this just wasn’t a smiling type of morning.
It rained hard last night, and the gravel road was still muddy, so ‘knees to chest’ was out of the picture. It’s that time of year when the corn is taller than me and the alfalfa fields are purple, county fair, sunflowers open time of year. I didn’t mind going slow. Watching the clouds roll over the fields is one of my all time favorite pastimes.
As soon as I got on the road, there were dog tracks in the mud. For a moment I thought Shadow was just over the hill, out scavenging early, looking for decaying cow carcasses to roll in, ditch birds to chase up, padding along in the mud sniffing at bugs. Then, for the second time today, I remembered, she’s not here.
It’s coyotes I told myself. Just coyotes.
I knew better than to look back at my tracks next to the paw prints. Coyotes. Just coyotes. Shadow and I once ran the gravel until it turned black top. She was fourteen at the time and barrel chested from congestive heart failure. I couldn’t help but to think of the grade school story that traumatized nearly every kid, the one where a boy enters his dog in the Iditarod race and the dog dies from exhaustion. That has to be the first story you read that doesn’t have a happy ending. All the way up until the dog’s heart explodes you’re at the edge of your seat thinking holy crap he’s gonna win this thing. I tried to tell Shadow to stop, but there was no chance she would. If I was running, she was too. She made it the two miles in over ninety-degree heat. How? I’ll never know.
The morning Shadow died I couldn’t believe Husband didn’t cry. It made me angry. My friend, K, told me I had no right to judge the way someone grieves. Some people laugh during tragedy. I wish I were one of those people.
My therapist said it was better to grieve privately. That’s why today Bob Seger is on repeat and I’m chugging caffeine free Coke, alone behind the desk, ugly crying. Doing what I least want to do: letting her go.
She and I spent most of our days going for meditative walks by the river. She let me tell her all about philosophy, listened patiently to the books I’d been reading, wagged her tail at times I got excited with breakthroughs with my work. I let her smell anything she wanted for as long as she wanted. In the evening, she sat patiently at my side during dinner giving me sad Sarah McLachlan eyes until I caved in and gave her scraps.
One time she ran away. She used to run away at Husband’s parents’ house all the time. They called it a walkabout. But this time she was old and deaf and nearly blind and wasn’t familiar with our neighborhood. Husband made flyers. Hung them in the post office and the gas station. A car could hit her. She could fall into the river. Husband worried she set off to die quietly on her own terms. He knew about these things, he had country instincts. I’m city. My city instincts said she still had a good nose. We found her the next morning sitting by our door, wet, stinky, and stiff. Pathetic as could be. That was the last time she went on a walkabout.
Another time we woke up to find her caught in the critter trap. She’d eaten a tasty can of sardines and took a nap until we found her. The raccoons lived another day because of her.
I moved my desk to the living room when the stairs to my office grew too hard for her to manage. Everyday from that point was an inch further in the Iditarod race; both of us knew how the story ends. And still I kept thinking, holy crap, maybe she’ll make it to sixteen.
I spent the night with her the day before she died. Cuddled up next to her in my sleeping bag and told myself she’d be able to hold down food in the morning. I don’t think either of us slept much. Her breathing had become far too labored, so much so that she’d have to wake herself up to get a lungful of air. She actually got up and went outside that morning. I fed the cats while she did her business, but found her splayed out on the lawn. I was sure she died then, but she was still hanging on, maybe more for me at that point. I got her up, and she walked back to the house. She took several breaks for those ten paces. When she came in, she took some water, which gave me hope that she might be able to hold down the boiled hamburger and rice that was now her diet. She made it to her bed next to my desk. Unable to lift her head, I knew it was time. We both knew this was the end of the race.
Husband drove her to South Dakota, so she could be buried at the farm. K and I went to the Spam museum. I did not want to believe this was happening, but I couldn’t stay in bed all day crying because one day could easily lead to two days, and two to three. At the factory, I read that the Hormel Company lost over a million dollars to a rotten employee who embezzled the cash to build a mansion with a giant dance hall. When suspicions arose, he claimed the money came from a dead rich aunt. That should have been short story gold, but instead of laughing, I’m pretty sure there’s a couple’s panoramic vacation photo with me sobbing in front of a giant can of Spam.
She’s buried by the house next to a food plot. She can watch the Egyptian wheat roll in the evening breeze, or smell the deer grazing on beans come fall. Maybe it’s the sunflowers she’ll like most. I want to ask her if she remembers watching the beekeepers pack the bees this past fall. We sat by the side of the road in the last of summer’s sunshine. I didn’t let her get a closer look, and believe me she wanted to be near the action. I was too afraid she’d get stung.
Her death has me thinking about where we go after this. I talked a bit about it with K on the beach. K is the type of person who can let those questions go. What does it matter? You’ll never know. But I can’t let it go, not for a second. What if she’s gone, really gone, and exists nowhere but our memories? K soon grew tired of the philosophical. She didn’t want to hear about my dream wherein a book’s appendix had changed. Shadow would have.
The last thing Shadow ate was a hot dog. It’s funny to me, but I can’t say why. Death has a way of stirring up the mind, bringing forth memories and storing new ones as if suddenly everything is important.
I didn’t want to grieve alone because I’m letting go of the only one who understood loneliness the way I did. Shadow never left my side. Never. Not once. When I say she followed me everywhere, true to her name, I mean she followed me everywhere. She didn’t want to be alone either.
Our cat, Poe, sleeps in her bed. He’s taken to mewling around the house. A new habit I attribute to Shadow being gone. I don’t know what letting go really means. But I do know there will still be ghostly paw prints in the dirt road, her collar hung on the mount of the last pheasant she caught, and a space next to my writing desk for her, for always.