The Next Step

Nov 1, 2015

Saying goodbye

Sunday morning. I swung the back door open, the door Rosie always used, but this time she circled the car three times, stopping at the door for a few seconds then looking up at me, and walking away. I knew what it meant. But the last time she circled she took a small jump into the car, dragging her back legs. As I picked her up, she flopped over onto her back, and looked at me, like Now what?

I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her up off the floor, enough for her to get enough leverage to climb up on the seat. Seventy pounds – my back was straining. I was talking to her the whole time, forgetting that she can no longer hear.

At the pond, where we have walked for the last six years, I open her door, and she looks down at the suddenly steep drop from the car seat to the ground, then she looks at me, apologetically. “Oh Rosie!” I touch her head, running my hand behind her ears, caressing her soft black fur. “Okay, it’s alright.” And I shut the door, returning to my seat, realizing we would not walk together again. She flopped against the back door, leaning her head out of the window and as we drove off I cried.

Wednesday morning. It was a long night. We could hear Rosie groaning, a strange new noise, unable to move. My husband got up and lifted her, helping her adjust, in the middle of the night, and I listened to her labored breathing, my heart aching. In the morning, she will not lift her head or thump her tail on the floor. She looks up at me sideways, panting, and looks away. I get ready for work, trying to entice her with food. Nothing.

At work I am distracted, which is not good in an ICU, so I ask to go home. I call the vet. Yes, they have one appointment at five, then nothing until next Monday. I circle the house, the yard, sobbing, stopping to talk to Rosie, who lies outside now. I lift her to her feet and she staggers, looking tired but attentive. She always knew when I cried. Her tail moves back and forth. There, there now, I am here, no need to cry.

My husband is painting the house, and trying to gently reason with me as I stand there, sobbing and shaking. She’s in pain, she won’t get better, just worse. He hugs me, and then picks up the brush. I call the vet.

I rode in the back seat with my hand on Rosie, who leaned out of the window, enjoying the fall air. It feels so wrong to kill what you have loved so much. CB lifted her out of the car to her feet, but she stumbled and fell going up the one step into the vet’s. I lifted her, now sobbing, “Oh Rosie, I’m so sorry. Oh Rosie!”

The Demerol worked quickly and she fell into my lap. Her breathing was easy and she slowly closed her eyes as I stroked her head and ears, and I realized this was the best time she has had in months. The vet sat on the floor too, and as we talked, Rosie slipped away. She was warm and soft in my lap but she was gone. I gently lowered her head to the floor and we went home.

So that you know, I am not Doctor Doolittle. When my sons’ gerbils began procreating, I took them and threw them off the back porch into the woods, two by two, with a final blessing of “Watch out for owls!” I have owned dogs that I wanted to kill. Rosie was different. (Read Rosie the Rescue Dog.)

Job, in the midst of epic loss proclaimed,

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

This is a posture I’ve tried to attain ever since I lost my son. I want to recognize first of all that everything that is mine is first God’s, and is a gift to me, as temporary as my own life, which he also holds in his hands. I want to love but also hold loosely. It’s a balance I strive for, knowing that I can trust my Father with this unpredictable ebb and flow of life.

And I knew when He took my son home, He would provide whatever it was I needed to survive. I couldn’t have even guessed at what that would be. But He knew, and one thing was a puppy named Rosie and nearly 14 years of faithfulness.

When we got home, I cleaned, which for me, is a crazy grief response. I bagged Rosie’s food and treats and C.B brought them to our neighbor, Will, whose two dogs are like his frat buddies. We were leaving in the morning for Maine so I packed, and cleaned some more, vacuuming up swirls of black fur and discovering two tennis balls under the car seats.

So much of life is just doing the next thing, taking the next step. We get caught and snared when we freeze. I know that sometimes the next step feels like a triathlon and every cell in your body is screaming, “Just lie down and quit!” Yet in the going is exactly where God meets us. Because the next step has another name for it: Faith.

I’ll be honest. Many of my steps in those haunting days of bottomless sorrow were more like running steps, escaping steps. I knew if I stopped it was over, that despair would swallow me whole, like the monsters I would run from in the dark as a child. So I kept running and Rosie would be beside me. As we aged together, the run turned to a walk, then a stroll and finally she had to say No, I can’t do it anymore. The Lord gives and then He takes away.

As I said when my cat died in May, I don’t do well with loss. You would think I would have a handy Rolodex, with coping skills in alphabetical order: Anger, Denial, all the way to Yada -Yada. But I don’t, it’s a big scrap pile and when I face another loss I seem to re-grieve the whole mess; my brother, my dad, my son, then the usual stuff like kids that grow up and no longer need you to help them with their Next Step. It’s tiring. I wake up to the stillness of another day and say, “Jesus help me.” And He does.

There are a couple of feral cats that have been showing up more frequently in my back yard. They must’ve mistakenly thought that Rosie, who was deaf and half-blind and liked cats anyway, would hurt them. I hid a bag of cat food behind the birdseed and I’ve been filling a little plastic bowl near the shed.

The other day C.B. said, “Have you been feeding those cats?” and I hid behind my magazine I was reading. I haven’t told him that in my spare time I look at pictures of puppies. It soothes, like cello music.

I want to get another dog someday, but first I’m trying to be grateful for Rosie, to seal every good gift from above with nothing but praise. I haven’t quite mastered this yet. I’m moody, prone to tears and sometimes cussing under my breath. But before we left for Maine, I drove down to the pond in the early morning, when Rosie and I would’ve walked, and I grabbed the two tennis balls and walked just a little ways, then rolled them both down the familiar dirt path, for the next dog who is maybe helping their Person walk off some kind of loss too. Then I looked at the mist rising off of the black pond, to the woods on the other side that I walked for six years, and the clouds dipped in orange lighting the eastern sky and not for the last time said, “Thank you Jesus” and turned towards the car, taking the next step.