I fashion myself a person who isn’t scared of much. I play it cool even when shaking in my boots. I recount past horrors with a detachment that is borderline frightening in itself, and I recall the details with such intense detail that listeners often say they felt gripped, like they were watching a movie. What they don’t say is that sometimes the movie I show them is one that needs to be leveled out with a piece of pie, a slapstick comedy, or a cocktail on the rocks.
Despite my ability to talk and write about my life with distance and perspective—sometimes even when I’m still in the thick of it—there’s one thing that when I talk about or even think about springs tears to my eyes. It lumps my throat, twists my gut, and takes my mind down the darkest, dirtiest avenues. I suppose I’m emotional about it because it’s still very much in the abstract, the kind of thing that it’s wasteful of time to worry about in advance. But, simply put, I don’t know how I’ll survive the loss of my dog.
Despite my transparency on this, it makes me uncomfortable when people express worry about how I’ll handle the loss. Sometimes well-meaning comments don’t come across that way. They’ll tell me about their own beloved-pet losses, and how it was easier because of their husbands, kids, other pets. Sometimes they come straight out and say, “I’m worried about you.” One part of me hackles my Mohawk—as if I’m a dog myself—and thinks “I”ll be fine…” and another part says, “Jesus Christ, you’re totally fucking right.”
The part that bothers me, as is often the case, is the part that’s true. When Lucky dies I’ll be alone. I describe myself as a person who’s happy being alone, who can read or write for eight-hour stretches. I can eat alone in a restaurant without any awkwardness or discomfort, go to a movie, move to foreign countries. I do an awful lot of things alone, by choice, despite loving spending time with friends.
I grew up an only child, and am always proud to say that “I know how to self-entertain.” That’s all true, but the other truth is that ever since Lucky picked me up at that party in June 2002 I’ve not really had to ever fully be alone. I have my friends and my family, but I wonder what it will feel like to wake up without Lucky, to wake up alone. Nobody to walk or feed or say good morning to.
I used to say that I’d need all of my friends around me when Lucky goes, then I upgraded to a fantasy involving a vacation to someplace tropical and lovely where I could erase my mind and then come home to a house where a team of cleaners had meticulously removed every dog hair and evidence of him so that I could move on, I suppose, like nothing ever happened. This past year, as Lucky turned thirteen, I started to believe in a more dramatic ending to this love affair where I’m put into a medically-induced coma. I say this last bit tongue-in-cheek, in part because I have a hard time believing that my heart just won’t stop beating on its own.
This is absurd on so many levels. Why would I want to erase evidence of the greatest love I’ve known? Why would I want to numb the feelings of such an intense love when I’ve dedicated the majority of my life to diving intentionally out of my depths simply so I could feel everything deeply?
It’s safe to say I’m unprepared.
I am a prepared person. I pack for a trip with a precision that borders precariously toward obsessive. I’m rarely caught without a sweater or a raincoat. I travel daily with Band-Aids and a few other first-aid supplies. Mini scissors are my best friend. I’m currently packing (I’m also skilled at procrastination) for a five-day trip that includes camping, a river float, a country club wedding, and temperatures between 30 and 80F . I’m pretty sure I’ve got it all and more, but despite my neurotic preparedness, there are things in life we simply cannot prepare for.
A friend lost her dog a few years ago, and she told me, “It doesn’t leave a hole in your heart; it opens you up to a bigger love that you didn’t even think was possible.” I believed her because I wanted to. Another friend recently told me that when he lost his dogs a few years ago it spawned a mid-life crisis. “Yes,” I said to him, “Yes. That will be me. Mid-life crisis is already on my calendar.”
Right when I was visualizing said crisis and myself in a muumuu for days or months, he told me something that surprised me, something that gave me a little hope. “You’ll love your next dog more.” His words hung in the late-summer afternoon light, and I asked him, “How? How could that even be possible?”
“It’s simple,” he said, “You’re able to love more because you know how it feels to lose them.”
Some of my friends have lost their dogs this year, this summer, this month. Some of these people have husbands and other dogs, but some don’t. Some buy plane tickets. They all survive.
Summer is a busy time everywhere, but it seems that Montanans log more miles than most what with our two national parks and all of the rivers and lakes to be accessed. Winter travel can be tedious with all the hours of dark we have up north on top of the ice, snow, and blowing snow. I drive very little in the winter, but usually, like others, I get out and explore my pants off during the summer. This summer has been different.
When people have asked me, “What’re you up to this summer?” my answer has been both clear and complicated, “Not much, sticking close to home.” Depending on who it is that could mean barely leaving Missoula or barely leaving Montana or barely leaving North America. For me it has meant sticking close to Lucky.
I declared this the summer of Lucky. Nine months ago when we were heading back to Missoula I didn’t think he’d last this long. If he was still alive by August I’d have guessed he’d be more like a bag of bones that I had to lift to a standing position, help up and down stairs, and boost into the car. Nope. Not even close.
But the guy came alive as we drove back to Montana and he was a hiking machine this winter. He slowed down when the heat arrived, so we’ve limited our hikes to early mornings, late nights, and less than three miles, though on a couple of cooler days we hiked over four miles and he finishes with a smile every time, and even some last-minute disappearing shenanigans just to let me know he’s still got it. By far the best parts of his summer have been our days on the river. We haven’t done any boating or anything fancy or exciting. We’ve just gone to the river to be.
I always focus on his smile, though it’s hard to not also notice when his back legs look tired and rickety, when he needs a boost after hard playing. My friend Soph and I always spend Mondays together. In the winter and spring it was hikes and barre class, but this summer we’ve spent our Mondays at our favorite beach on the Blackfoot River. This past Monday the smoke had finally cleared, but it wasn’t really a “beach” day. We could have gone on a hike, though it may have been a little hot for Lucky. “This could be his last swim,” I said as we sorted out our game plan, and she said, “Yeah, of the summer,” and I said, “Well, maybe ever…” That sealed the deal with cement. “I’ll be right over,” Soph said, “And I have snacks.”
That’s the story I’m telling myself right now, the story that my dog is getting older and our days are numbered. In a way it’s ridiculous because three winters ago I thought it would be his last to get out and play in the snow, but I was wrong. I figured he was going to conk out last winter after he ate rat poison in NYC, but the kid got his groove back. The problem doesn’t lie so much in the fact that Lucky is aging (albeit gracefully), but the damn story I’m telling myself about how much time I have and how completely I’m going to come undone when he goes.
Brené Brown wrote a great essay that was published recently in O Magazine about the power we have to change our narrative. She said:
“In navigation, dead reckoning is how you calculate your location. It involved knowing where you’ve been and how you got there—speed, route, wind conditions. It’s the same with life: We can’t chart a new course until we find out where we are, how we came to that point and where we want to go. Reckon comes from the Old English recenian, meaning “to narrate.” When you reckon with emotion, you can change your narrative. You have to acknowledge your feelings and get curious about the story behind them. Then you can challenge those confabulations and get to the truth.”
I’m working on modifying all sorts of patterns and narratives I’ve grown tired of, and this weekend I’m doing a bit of an experiment: I’m taking my first road trip without Lucky. My guy definitely gets jazzed about traveling…
…but he’s become a very sleepy guy.
The pace of the five-day “weekend” is going to be intense, and even if Lucky was a younger dog it would be tough on him, but I know I’d have dragged him around. I have always dragged him around. But I have to be smarter now, less selfish. Yes, I want him with me. No, it’s not what’s best for him. He’s in very good hands with his dog sitter who lets him sleep in bed with her and who met him at the door this afternoon with treats and a hug. He was fine when I dropped him off and he ran to play with the young dog who lives there, but me…not so much. I sang my heart out on the way home, but even still I may have even sprung a few hives, which I know seems ridiculous.
Then I went to work and just about lost my footing when my first appointment slot was empty, leaving me with extra time that I would have used differently had I realized it. I had a few errands to run, so did that, and even navigated a small repair on my car. It was just aesthetic and I used double-sided tape to do the job, so I’m not exactly a mechanic, but I still threw myself a small “You go, girl!” because. Yep, just because.
Massage work is wonderful for a number of reasons, among them the fact that for an over thinker like myself it is a mental vacation. I’m constantly doing nine million things at once, but when I go to work I make a concerted effort to forget it all and focus on the one thing I have to do: give my clients the attention they deserve. Despite a mile-long todo list, work was a blessing in disguise today, and I was even surprised by Soph, who dropped by to give me a care package. She knew. It’s amazing how our friends know.
Every bit of the package was meaningful and came with a note. One part was a bag of goldfish crackers that we’ve used this summer to coax Lucky into coming to hang out with us. Even though we go to the river “together,” he usually waves goodbye at the car and tells us he’ll catch up in a few hours. He does his rounds, hunts, scores carcasses in the woods, and is so cute that strangers give him Doritos and friend chicken. We coined the goldfish “Lucky bait” and Soph’s note said, “Lucky’s always with you!”
And she’s right, as spot-on as it gets.
It was so sweet and thoughtful it nearly killed me, but it’s funny how the things that elicit that response also fill our sails with air. Unfortunately something else struck me, something that Soph most likely realized before I did. Not only am I taking this trip without my kickass co-pilot, but I’m driving a familiar route, a route that I took almost three years ago when I left for an adventure that was mostly unplanned and that took me on the ride of my life.
I didn’t know how it would feel to live and write in that remote cabin in New Mexico, or to retrace my roots all over New England, or to shack up with my mother and grandmother for a year of caretaking that was the hardest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t know I’d leave Lucky for three months and spend the summer in Spain, or that when I was in Rome—making my way slowly back to New York—that I’d wake up one morning knowing I had to put a plan in place to get back to Montana. I didn’t know how, but I did it. The not knowing is sometimes the best part of the journey.
I didn’t know that shortly after my arrival home from Europe Lucky would eat the rat poison. Prior to that day I didn’t know if I could carry him, but when he couldn’t walk that’s what I did. I carried him out of the house, into the car, into the vet’s office, and then down the long hall wondering if I’d be coming back down that hall with an empty collar in my hand. I remember exactly how I felt in that moment, how I didn’t cry, how I told myself that I didn’t imagine him going out like that but we’d had a solid run.
In the moment I was fine. Not great, but fine. I was appropriately emotional, but not crippled by it. I was strong, and not only because I was carrying my big dog. Most of my friends say I’m great in a crisis; I’m the one you want around when the shit hits the fan. It’s not the moments I’m afraid, of; it’s the anticipation. The anticipation gets me every time. That lesson is still in progress, but damn it: I think I am getting there.
A few months ago I may have jumped the gun a bit. I got a tattoo on my left wrist that says “luck.” I’d been pretty solid on the placement for a while, but wasn’t sure about size or font. I wasn’t sure if it was wrong to memorialize my guy before he dies, so I opted for “luck” instead of “Lucky.” I used my own handwriting, which I practiced, and I love it.
This is hands down the only tattoo I could get that wouldn’t piss off my mother.