Finding the Courage to Say Goodbye
I wrote this essay last summer in response to Real Simple’s 2013 Life Lessons essay prompt: What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done? As today marks the anniversary of my sweet pup Dusty’s passing I wanted to share the story for the first time. This itself takes a mess of courage to do, but I try to remember Nelson Mandela’s advice that courage is in the triumph over fear rather than fear’s outright absence. There’s a lot here, and much of it infused with very personal insights and opinions the likes of which I’ve never been compelled to share publicly, usually for fear of judgment or simply due to my introverted nature. My motivation for sharing it is really for my own peace of mind (which I hope to find after the raging anxiety wears off), but should you find any interest in reading it I’m very thankful that you chose to share the time with me.
When I was a child, someone told me that my name meant “Brave”. It made me hopeful that someday I might no longer be anxious for weeks over School Picture Day or feel unable to breathe at the thought of traveling in an airplane. Things didn’t work out quite so easily, but sometimes courage can take unexpected shape and we can surprise ourselves in our strength. For me, courage came with having to say goodbye to my childhood dog just months before I turned twenty-five.
He came to my family on an October morning when I was eight years old. Born on a farm in Oklahoma, he was rejected when birth defects barred his acceptance into the AKC registry; he somehow ended up looking for a home in our eastern Michigan town, one of several pets available in the pet shop my sister and I loved to visit. On this particular day, an enterprising employee brought the object of our delight out to meet us: a skinny little Shetland Sheepdog with short hair and bouncy legs. He looked fragile and innocent and I adored him. My sister and I spent some time with Dusty (I named him then and there) while the employee told my father, “Oh, Shelties don’t bark and they don’t shed”. It was an outright lie, of course, and we’d laugh about that later, but I don’t think anything would have stopped us from making him a part of our family that day.
Dusty and I were inseparable. I would ride my bike with his leash in one hand while he trotted along beside me. When I sat on the couch he would jump up onto the very back above my shoulder and sleep there, one leg hanging lazily over the edge. In his later years when jumping onto couches wasn’t an option he would simply stare at me and bark, my cue to sit on the floor so he could cozy up against my legs. During the emotional rollercoaster of my teenage years, I’d slump on my bedroom floor in tears and it wouldn’t be long before I heard the padding of his footsteps. If my door was closed, he wasn’t having that; he’d scratch and bark at it until I opened up. He became the companion to my unconventional journey through life with anxiety, and for sixteen years he was my best friend.
He was a trickster; he knew exactly how to twist his head in just the right way to slip out of his collar and he fancied pulling that move on me when we were out walking. I see the scene so clearly, me chasing him around our subdivision, my heart frantic with the thought of losing him. When he turned twelve I realized he was drawing closer to his breed’s life span, and I wondered how I’d ever figure out the rest of my life without him.
I knew the inevitable would someday come and I was already caring for him full-time – the escalation of my anxiety leaving me often housebound – when he was diagnosed with kidney disease, nearing the third of its four stages. It was shortly after his sixteenth birthday. This form of punctuation on his little life filled me with renewed determination to make the last of our time together as happy and comfortable for him as could be. We carried on, he almost completely blind but still indulgent in the bliss of sitting outside in a cool breeze – and, of course, his enduring love of dinnertime and naps. As winter was beginning to thaw into spring, he stopped eating. The deterioration of his hind leg muscles made it a struggle for him to stand for more than a few minutes. Even his blindness required help in simply finding his water bowl. I had worked relentlessly to give him quality of life, and I knew my efforts were becoming ineffective. It was on my shoulders to make the hardest decision of my life.
Like Emily Dickinson was known to flee from a ringing doorbell, it was a well-known fact that I avoided telephones at all costs. I had often considered what would happen when this time came. I imagined myself and Dusty in a stark white office, a far too stark and clinical ending to the warmth and happiness of our sixteen year journey. I wondered how I would carry the burden of missing him with the knowledge that he had been scared and unhappy as I said goodbye. I knew only one thing: I would be there. Others tried to convince me not to, saying that I would never get over the experience. But somehow my conviction didn’t stray for a moment – me, the girl who ran away from ringing telephones. I had no doubt that I would do the thing no one thought I had it in me to do.
I made the phone calls. I went through the details, asked all the questions. I made the decisions and requests. I asked for the appointment to take place at home, and our vet – a very kind and accommodating man – made it happen. I asked to be able to hold Dusty and sit in our favorite chair, and despite the poor lighting for the man to do his work, he agreed. I did everything I could possibly think of to make this moment of parting comfortable for both Dusty and myself, and I did it on my own. I did it without submitting to my fear.
The appointment was set for a Tuesday, and my family spent the weekend celebrating Dusty’s life. The morning of the appointment, Dusty slept for hours in his favorite spot while my sister and I sat around him, reminiscing on this sixteen-year blessing in our lives. We recalled the day we brought him home, when my sister sat primly on the kitchen table, cooing at Dusty from a safe distance while I splayed out on the floor (unladylike, I’m sure, in my black dress with its scattering of purple flowers), relishing every moment when he would bound over to me. We mused over the miraculous day when he’d jumped from our car in parking lot and how a ten year-old me had followed him out onto a four-lane road, boldly stopping traffic to snatch him up. We talked about his many goofy habits, how he could hear the neighbors with a basketball from all the way down the street, his deep appreciation for popcorn and Muenster cheese. We didn’t talk about how much we’d miss him. We weren’t worrying about the future; we were embracing the memories of the past.
Later, as I held Dusty while we waited for the vet to arrive, he kissed my cheek – something he usually did with repetition when he wanted me to set him down. But this time it was just one kiss, and then he looked at me serenely. When I told this to my mother some time later she imagined that was his way of saying, “It’s okay, and thank you.” As I held him in my arms that day, he yipped in discomfort only once as he felt the poke of the anesthetic injection. Then he settled himself, rested his head on my arm, and drifted to sleep. I noticed that his stomach no longer rose and fell with breath even before the vet quietly whispered, “He’s gone”. And as I convulsed softly with tears the only thing I could do was silently send up a prayer of thanks. It was, I knew, the most peaceful way we could have parted.
Religiously, there is much debate about what happens to the souls of our beloved dogs, but I left the politics of religion behind and held firmly onto my faith through this time. Once, sometime before the appointment, my mind drifted off and I saw a scene in my head with almost divine clarity: Dusty was walking toward someone – the someone was Jesus, and He bent down to run His hand over Dusty’s head with a smile, both figures radiating warmth and light. Shortly after Dusty’s death, I wrote that I could think of no better earthly representation of God’s love than the selfless joy of a dog. “I am grateful”, I wrote, “to have been entrusted with the spirit of my little angel while he was here, and I know God is welcoming him home from a job well done”. I realized that Dusty’s last gift to me was to show me the extent of my own abilities, because it was well later that I looked back and realized how purposefully I’d gone through that difficult time, and how I had fearlessly trusted my own strength to get me through. I’m reminded of this every night when I gently pat the urn in which his ashes rest and whisper my nightly, “Good boy, I love you.” Even now, he helps me to remember that what I once hoped to grow into has been in me all along: courage. Like his spirit, I may not see it, but I trust that it’s there.
If you read all that you probably need a laugh, so here’s a never-ending repetition of us in all our glory. (: