It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.
Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.
The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.
I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.
A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.
And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.
Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…
And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.
It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.
It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.
I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.
After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.