As you may know, I had to put my dear sweet Laddy to sleep last Thursday. While he’d been eating less and walking slower since July, last week there were drastic changes in his behavior and appetite and even in the look of his orange-brown eyes.
When Marika and Mabel were here visiting two weeks ago, the four of us enjoyed bluff walks and love fests and lazing around together in the RV. Laddy was being finicky about his food, but he had been since mid-July. He was leaving his kibble but loving the hot dogs, milk bones and home-cooked chicken that I added to his food.
A few days before Marika and Mabel returned to Phoenix, I noticed a wound on his foot so we took him to the vet. His blood work looked great and he was still happy to play stick toss every other day. But early last week, everything changed. He didn’t want to walk unless he had business, and crouching to poop was suddenly so uncomfortable that he had to lie down afterwards.
I scheduled an ultrasound to see what might be pushing on his internal organs. But while we were waiting in the back of my car for the radiologist to arrive, it was so clear that the test was unnecessary.
I could feel how many big, solid masses there were all over his abdomen. (It was hard to cuddle him in his bed under the RV table), and he was so uncomfortable, so ready. So the vet came out to the car where he felt safe and familiar and I thanked him and loved him, and thanked him and loved him. And then he was gone.
After I left the vet, I drove to the back bay and walked a bit, but then I just needed to sit and watch the terns and the tide coming in. I felt peaceful inside and out. No tears, no thoughts, just the chatter of the birds and the breeze. I could have stayed forever, but I knew I’d have to go home eventually.
When I pulled into my spot, my neighbor walked over and asked if Laddy was with me. He hugged me when I told him and the tears finally came. I hung Laddy’s collar on the outside mirror, like a flag at half staff for anyone walking by. I picked up his water bowl and emptied his food bowl and put his bed on the picnic table so I could truly feel the space of him gone.
I talked to Marika and read so many online prayers and condolences that my eyes hurt from all of the crying and I had to take a nap. I swear I heard him breathing when I woke up.
In the evening I took my first beach walk alone. I didn’t see anyone I knew so I didn’t have to explain. Pelicans were flying and diving and several shorebirds were skittering in the surf and poking the barnacles on the rocks. Again, I felt peaceful, but somber. I took many deep, cleansing breaths and felt my heart literally aching with love.
Several months ago, on a lazy afternoon, I looked at Laddy and said, no, I don’t feel like a walk. And then I heard a voice—when he’s not here you’ll regret not walking with him when you could. And so I put on my shoes and we had a great beach stroll together.
This is why I have no regrets, or should have’s, or wish I could have’s. Even on those last few days, knowing what was coming, I kept returning to the present moment where there was no room for grief because he was still with me.
I could still bury my head in his thick coat and complain about the fine hairs that stuck on my lip. I could scratch him on the white, star-shaped ridge on his nose and explore the wart behind his left ear, even though he hated it. And I could thank him and love him and love him some more.
And even in those last moments, I was fully present with what was, not how lonely I would feel to walk without him, or how weird it would be to have so much leg room under the dinette or how much I would miss him coming into the bathroom every morning for a neck massage while I was peeing.
This past year has been all about learning to be present, flexible, awake. To pay attention to the smallest sounds, the slightest shifts in nature, the quietest voices in my heart.
And through our twelve and a half years together, I learned how to really listen to Laddy’s needs and wisdom. He reminded me that even the skinniest stick is enough when it comes to playing. That sometimes just sitting together is activity enough. That walking is often the best cure for what ails you.
We were so alike: we both preferred shade over sunshine and thrived on routine. And we both needed our daily fix of social contact with others of our kind.
I am so grateful for everything he brought into my life and for being with me this past year on this great adventure of living at the beach. I honestly don’t know if I could have done it without his company. Even when having a dog drastically limited my house hunting options, there was never a doubt that we were meant to be here together.
And now that he is not at the ready to join me for a walk, to stop and meet new people, to share a peach or a bag of baby carrots, I have to muster the courage to do it for myself.
And this is the hardest thing of all.
We did everything together. In a world where I still have very few friends, Laddy was the one I went exploring with, watched TV with, told my secrets to. He went with me on my town errands, first to the park for a walk, then he waited in the back of the RAV4 while I went food shopping, did my banking and filled the water bottles. On the few occasions where he didn’t join me, he’d poke his head through the RV curtains and watch me drive away.
And now I have to create a new life by myself.
I know I am not alone. I feel loved and supported and held by such a strong, wide presence. But I am by myself.
A dear friend said she sees me, by myself meaning that I am walking alongside of myself, ready to care for my own self like I have cared for Laddy. Ready to cook for myself like I was willing to cook for him. Ready to nurture and tender my own heart with the same love and compassion that I offered my boy.
I am taking this all one breath at a time.
And saying thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Because this is what true and unconditional love is all about.
The other day, I was walking on the beach in the opposite direction than where Laddy and I always went. I had stopped to watch the fog, trying to find the horizon and just breathe. I wasn’t even crying in that moment.
A young woman stopped and asked if I was ok. “I lost my dog,” I said. She looked around the beach. “No not lost,” and I put my hand my heart. She said “I’m so sorry. Can I offer you some words from God?”
I turned toward her and she said, “Don’t think about the sad things. Remember all of the fun you had here together running and playing and being happy together.” I hugged her tight and said thank you, thinking of Laddy barking for me to find him another stick for him to chase.
Tomorrow it will be a week since I kissed my boy goodbye, and I have been riding the waves of grief with amazing courage and grace, crying when I need to and stepping forward when I’m able. I think having the ocean waves beside me as a literal reminder has been so helpfully healing.
I’ve received so many sweet notes and photos and condolences, all reminders of how much love Laddy and I shared. A friend even asked where she could send a donation in his memory. (Richmond Animal League, c/o Amy McCracken, www.ral.org)
I donated his medicines and dog bed and dog cookies to a local woman who cares for elderly animals. I vacuumed up a week’s worth of dog hair (and I still keep finding more.) I even started imagining myself with a new companion when I return from my September/October travels.
But for now, this time is for me to be with me.
I never walked without Laddy. And we walked at his senior pace, and his senior distance. Now I am walking for longer stretches, at a faster pace, going a little further each time. Some mornings I tear up, watching young dogs romping on the beach. Other times I’m delighted to rub a dog head and have my leg sniffed.
My conversations with people on the beach are different too. They’re no longer about how handsome my dog is, or questions about his breed. Instead, we talk about the birds, or the weather or just the simple gratitude we have for this beautiful place.
Of course, I feel his spirit around me. But more, I feel the love that connects us all. And I feel your best wishes and prayers that continue to surround and support me on this journey. And with every step, I will continue to say thank you!
Do you have an animal love story you’d like to share? Click on the comments below…