Monday, April 30, 2012

In Death, I Saw You

Some lessons in life come easily, almost instinctively, while some slowly and steadily emerge like the drip, drip, dripping that eventually fills the tub.  Others yet, come rushing in like a flood that drenches and drowns you as you gasp to draw one last sustaining breath.  And it was within that unyielding deluge that I learned I loved my dog.

We got her as a puppy when my mother in law realized she couldn't care for a sick husband and a new puppy.  To me, she was cute but her shiny new tag had "peer pressure" written all over it.  "Mom, we can keep her, right?!" Yeah. Right. But she can't come in the house.  We decided to name her "Lucky" if,  and that's only if, Chief's cancer results were good news.  Right from the start, we jinxed her. Like they say, "One man's luck is another dog's demise."

The kids adored Lucky and I must have also somewhere deep in my heart.  I just made sure I never really showed it.  I was the first to yell from upstairs, "Get the dog out, she'll pee!" whenever I heard the scrambling of her nails slipping on the hardwood floors.  She slept in Nick's office and spent many of her days there during the winter.  Sometimes I'd feel guilty when she'd timidly peek her head in the dining room door to join the family, daring to gingerly place one paw over the forbidden threshold only to hear, "Luuucckkkyyy..." in that "oh no you don't" tone only a mother can perfect. The kids thought I was heartless but they soon accepted that having a outdoor dog was better than no dog at all.

Some mornings Nick worked from home and would rub Lucky with his feet as she lay under his desk. She lived for those moments and appeared content in her simple life. Though I didn't pet her much, I knew we had "lucked" out with such a cute dog and was grateful she was constant and kind and would never dream of lashing out at one of the children.  She was a tender-heart and I often wondered if she instinctively mourned the puppies she never bore as she wandered the yard with stuffed "babies" in her mouth-- whining, whining for what was amiss. 

Over the years Lucky grew on me and I liked her quirky ways, though not enough to change my own.  I chuckled at her obsession with real food and took secret pleasure in letting her finish the leftover eggs from the kids plates. I wondered at the way she'd sneak in the house when someone left the door open, creep upstairs, steal a sock and bolt!  Always the same story:  steal a sock or shoe and bury it in the yard. Every time we pulled in the driveway, midnight or not, Lucky would run like a bullet around the outside of the house--so happy to see us.  That mad dash around the perimeter must have been her way of proving it.

It was ten days before Christmas when Mitchell and Natalie dashed up the stairs, "Mom, Lucky's sick!"  I told them she had probably eaten something bad.  "But she's breathing weird, and barely getting up." The last thing I wanted to do was go to the vet with so much to do.  I assured them she'd get better in a few days and they gave me the usual, "you don't care about Lucky" look. As I passed in and out of the office that day, I looked at her under Nick's desk and gave her an encouraging word or two.  She did seem sick but I figured it'd pass.  But by the next evening the kids found me again. "Mom, you and Dad have to take Lucky to the vet, she's really sick!  She's breathing worse.  She won't eat anything. She won't lick my hand."  Feeling a little guilty that I hadn't even noticed, I went down to the office and yelled for Nick.  Her breathing was shallow, rapid and she only barely lifted her head to greet us.  An electric pain seized my heart as I realized something was terribly wrong.

The vet at the 24 hour clinic was young and fresh out of school.  Once admitted, he softly carried Lucky away on her pad and didn't come back for a very long time.  When he finally returned he looked pained and hesitant to speak but said, "I don't have a lot of experience but I think it's bad. I think you should go to your regular vet in the morning." He walked us to the car and Nick carefully laid Lucky in the back.  Before leaving, the doctor leaned in and circled his arms around our dog, put his cheek against her face and whispered, "Good-bye sweet girl."  His tenderness crushed me.  His compassion, so authentically given, made me call into question my own.  I panicked like I was missing something I might be too late to find.

It was nearly midnight when we pulled into the driveway.  "Do you think she'll die in the night?" I asked Nick with fear in my voice.  He didn't know but decided to sleep with her in the living room by the fire and keep her warm.  "Go wake Natalie, she should be with her," he said. Over the past four years of having Lucky, she had really emerged as Natalie's dog.  The other kids would take this personally, but truly, Natalie loved her best.  I warmed as my darling girl nestled right alongside her pup and tried quietly and gently to get her to lick her hand or drink some water.  Nothing.  Just the rapid breathing and the pure expression in her eyes.  I knelt down close to her, unable to hold back my sobs.  I rubbed her head softly and held her face in my hands, I looked steadily into her eyes and into her very soul.  "I'm so sorry, " I cried.  "I love you and I'd do anything for you.  I know that now."  Her eyes stared back and conveyed an expression shared only by the innocent, who depend so completely on our compassion and I knew she loved me too.  How did I not see you?  I marveled, in the early hours of morning. You've been here all along.  Waiting, for me to see you. 

The next morning I awoke with a thud to the heart as I remembered our dog, lying by the fire.  I tentatively tiptoed down the stairs, afraid of what I'd find.  I found Lucky, still lying in the same position, her breathing rapid and shallow with Natalie there beside her. She was alive.  "Guess what, Mom.  In the night something woke me up and it was Lucky licking my hand, over and over and over.  It was so sweet." 

An hour later we pulled into Peachtree Veterinary Clinic. Nick carried his girl inside, wrapped in a blanket; we were relieved they brought us straight back.  As she lay on the table, I held her paw and stroked her head as her eyes went back and forth from me to Nick.  When Chet came in, his concern was visible as he managed to get Lucky to her feet.  He gently felt her stomach, took note of her breathing and slowly helped her back down.  We knew now where this was heading.  The slight burn of hope we felt earlier that morning, was now extinguished by the slow shake of his head and his heartfelt, "I'm so sorry."

Nick carried her to the floor and laid her on a pile of blankets we had brought from home.  Together we shared our disbelief, sadness and shock that our dog was dying and that she was so young.  We crouched beside her and the tears fell; we stroked her back, her ears; we rubbed her paws.  I held her close and waited for the nurses to come in.

Lucky always had the most expressive eyes; they were her most endearing feature.  And in her last moments she met my gaze comprehending my pain, and a knowing look passed between us. I'm okay, she radiated, You'll be okay.  Her breathing remained fast, labored and steady as the needle went in. Then a breath, and another, her eyes locked with mine, and just like that, her light was out.

I could hear the children wail through the car windows when they saw our puppy draped over Nicks arm, warm and lifeless like the soft throw on our couch. With tears dropping into her fur, Nick curled her into a nest of blankets--her nose touching her tail. We all sobbed the long way home.

Standing in his office later that night, Nick said, "What I dread, is the day I don't expect to see her in here; that means I've forgotten." I thought for a moment and knew for me, forgetting would be impossible.  Not until her eyes drew closed, did mine at last rise open.


Jek said...

Thank you thank you for the snot that just entered my mouth. WOW! Amazing writing. I feel like utter H--- becuase my story could basically echo yours exactly. I didn't get to say goodbye which made me feel so awful and guilty. In death I saw you is a perfect way to describe my experience too. Job well done. BAWLING LIKE A BABY, or better yet a dog, that just wants to go on a walk. See, more guilt. While I stay awake all night bawling maybe you could come babysit while i take a nap tomorrow.

partii said...

You did lucky justice. Great post, great dog.

Snif, snif............

Mitch said...

wow, that was a disaster to read. My tears were flowing a little too freely during that one. I think it hit me so hard because Charlie really changed my whole perspective on just how much these little creatures love us. They really do worship the ground we walk on. So many elements of your story, about how she just wanted you to see him really made me love my little dog even more. Since having Christian we have kind of put charlie on the backburner. He isn't always the most obedient, but no matter how mean we may be to him, or how much we ignore him when he's being loud, he just keeps on giving nothing but love back in return.

I really am a dog person now. None of us Miller's are born with that gift or ability. It's something we slowly learn. I really am grateful i learned the easier way(not your way; That's just hard). I'm glad you finally got to see what a good dog she was. It's never too late to see that. Charlie is eying me right now, so i'm going to go give him some love, in memory of Lucky. Thanks for the great read. Made me grateful for all the love I have in my life.

Anonymous said...

I could have written the exact same story about our beautiful white german shepherd, Daphne. I loved her protection; but, I hated her smell and fleas (good old California climate). I fed her and cleaned up her poop; Susan took her for walks and bathed her (wearing her bathing suit no less) in the walk in shower; Tom played with her. We all had our "jobs". There will always be a hole in my heart for my sweet Daphne. Aunt Nancy

Ann Marie said...

What a beautifully written ... and heartfelt post.

So beautiful.

Even though I am far from being a dog/animal lover.. there is something so tender and sweet about the relationship they have with people.. and the compassion that they continue to show us each and every day. -- Even when they are yelled at.

I am grateful for you sharing your experience.. and your writing.

I am always happy to see a new post from you. Thanks for taking time to share your talents and heart today! ♥

Anonymous said...

I got emotional reading this, and I am not even a dog person. What a sweet read. You are a fantastic writer!

Dayna Magleby

Anonymous said...

Sniff sniff. I'm gonna go hug my dogs now. Love you, Jenifro. :) Monica Murray Brink

Anonymous said...

I've had to do that many times Jennifer and you've discribed it beautifullly. I've always said that your dog loves you like Christ loves you and I'll always need that constant reminder by my side. Aunt Sherie

Anonymous said...

This made me cry! Beautiful and true.

Kari Schriever

Anonymous said...

WOW, that was beautiful! Oh, tears go away. Praying for peace for your family's loss. Allyson Jones Fleugel

Anonymous said...

That was beautiful, Jen! Definitely brought on the tears for me too. Even though I'm not living at home anymore, I know I'll be sad when the animals I grew up with die. Jordan Haynes Clark

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I wanted to write you and tell you yesterday, my husband and I both read your blog and cried our eyes out..We are both dog addicted..You need to write, you have the gift and share with others. We thought of you all day yesterday. I had to do that with my first dog, Polo and it was the worst..Best thoughts, xo

Jodee Krantz Smith