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April 16, 2014

Sometimes the enormity of my thoughts keeps me quiet because there isn’t any way for me to maintain the integrity of all that I want to say. And sometimes I need to let that go.

Dragging a sled behind me, I bent over slightly so the plastic jaws of the pooper scooper could reach the endless piles of dog shit peppering the damp, spring ground. It was one of those April days, the sun warm on my shoulders, that made promises of an early arrival to summer. It was also one of those April days when the snow melts and your lawn is suddenly covered with treasures once buried from sight and smell.

I dumped a sled full of said treasures in the woods and quietly resumed my hunt. I wrestled with the enormity of my thoughts, wondering how I could speak on what this act of picking up dog shit meant to me in the moment – and perhaps what it will mean to me forever. Both the gorgeous spring weather and the act of dragging a sled around the yard of my childhood home transported me backwards in time one year, almost to the day.

Spring Break 2013: I was on duty at the Youngman Dog Ranch. It was an eight-dog week and my first time running things solo. The day before my parents took off (for a well-deserved vacation), our golden retriever and my best bud, Lucy, wasn’t feeling well so we went in to see the vet. Meds were prescribed and taken as per the standard dog pill-popping procedure:

“Come here, [insert dog name]. It’s okay. It’s okay, girl. [owner forces dog’s mouth open, shoves fist with pills down the back of dog’s throat, removes slobber-covered fist, clamps dog’s mouth shut, and vigorously rubs dog’s neck to make sure the pills reach their destination]. There we go. [owner pries dog’s mouth open again to make sure dog didn’t regurgitate the pills]. Good girl! Good job, [dog name]! You want a treat?”

My folks left on Thursday and Lucy’s health was deteriorating rapidly by Friday. We all – meaning myself and a motley pack of eight dogs – embarked on our twice-daily loop around the woods Saturday morning. Walks were Lucy’s favorite. Watching her bounce through the fields entailed a repeated pattern of seeing above the weeds, haunches, smiley face, haunches, smiley face, haunches, smiley face, ad infinitum. It was a joy. Here’s an example:
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But on that warm April Saturday, Lucy did not galavant; instead, she lay down. We didn’t even make it up the first small, rolling hill before she told me she could go no farther.

I urged; I pleaded; I encouraged; I worried.

“Okay, Lucy Goosey, we’ll be home in a lil bit. I’ll see you soon,” I said as the rest of the brigade soldiered on.

All but Onyx, our black lab. He came back to check on her, sniffing around and peering at her with his dark, knowing eyes. When I told him we would meet her back at the house, he hesitated. She’ll be fine, I assured him. And he believed me, trotting ahead to take his place at the front of the pack.

Lucy was waiting for us on the porch when we returned. Again she waited that evening. And after the next day’s walks, and the next.

I slept on the living room couch those nights because Lucy wasn’t up to making her way downstairs to her usual post at my bedside. Lucy used to come down after I had brushed my teeth, when she knew for sure we were heading to bed. If I decided to stay up later or didn’t return to my room, she would sigh, head back upstairs and wait for my call. She was loyal like that: when she wasn’t watching over me, she was watching over the house.

I think Lucy and I became best friends when I first watched her eat. This dog was an absolute food hound. Her dish would be filled and she could have that thing empty in six seconds (we timed her – it was impressive). Wherever she was in the house, Lucy could hear food hit the floor. Didn’t matter if it was a piece of bacon or raw onion or an apple core, Lucy was on it immediately and swallowing without chewing. She approached eating food the same way she approached life: with raging enthusiasm and an open heart, without reservation and discretion. Nothing held that pup back.

And that was the worst part in those final days at Lucy’s bedside. It wasn’t that she stopped getting up or that I had to clean up after her or that I was staying up late because she wasn’t feeling well or watching her grow weaker. The worst part was when I would try to get her to eat. I would have in hand the most wonderful treats, her favorites (lunch meat, cheese, etc.) and she wouldn’t even lift her head. She had told me she could go no farther. And that’s when I finally listened.

I called my folks on Sunday to discuss our options. They wished they could be there with us but I just wished for more time. When they asked what I thought was best for Lucy, I asked for one more day. Maybe Monday would prove better, hopeful.

“She’s ready to go,” I told my parents Monday midday.

I awoke early Tuesday morning to dig the hole. My dad had always done that – for Ember, Bo, Gidget. There are some pine trees along the trail to our backfield where we buried our other pups. I picked out a nice high spot where you can see the garden and the farmer’s field stretches out below.

It was a bright spring day, one where the air feels clean and cool as it works hard to thaw the ground. But the sun was out and felt warm on my skin as I carried Lucy and her bed out to the back deck to get some fresh air. She looked happy there, life still in her eyes. I wondered if her smile meant she was on the mend, that I could tell the vet not to come.

One of my dearest friends, Meagan, told me I shouldn’t be alone for this; I said I would be fine but agreed to her coming over ‘at least when the vet is gonna be there.’ She watched as I carried Lucy to the front porch to her favorite spot, looking up the driveway. All three of us heard the truck, saw the dust cloud floating above the new leaves of the trees in our front lawn, and waited.

It all went very fast. The veterinarian’s assistant knew Lucy and gave her a hug before she prepped the syringes for the vet. I sat on the steps and held my sweet Lucy’s face. They left in the same cloud of dust.

Lucy had a favorite blanket I would lay down next to my bed for her to sleep on. I picked up my sweet girl and wrapped her in her blanket, tucking her in for the walk to her spot in the sun. Meagan and Onyx walked alongside me as I dragged the sled up the trail toward the back field. As we got to Lucy’s spot, I told Onyx to say goodbye (he sniffed her and looked at me, curiously) and asked Meag to take him back to the house. The weather was gorgeous.

Meagan and I cried and hugged, and I told her I was fine. I hugged Onyx and told him he’s not allowed to ever leave. I called my folks and we cried some more. “I buried my dog,” I said. “That’s a grown-ass thing to do.” I cared for something besides myself, irrespective of how gross it got or how tired I became. Unconditionally actually meant something in those moments.

I remember the weather was gorgeous.

Yet here I am burying my dog.

We all work so hard to get through the winter, to survive the cold and the gray skies. Spring is the reward, a promise, a relief, a moment to exhale and inhale that “sweet yet lucid air.”

But spring is also a time when I find myself in the backyard of my childhood home, pooper scooping dog shit. And on this day, the weather is gorgeous.

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