Let Your Heart Break Wide Open

It is a quiet and fair January day, the light soft and muted, the sky looking like it’s been painted by Monet. The sun is out and it is trying, really, really trying, but it is low in the sky and far away and so it is still damn cold, in the mid-teens, but even at that, it is ten degrees warmer than it was the day before. My husband and I are out at a friend’s farm gathering firewood. The garage full of wood we let season over the summer, then split and stacked in neat, nearly perfect rows over the course of a week back in September, is just about gone, the winter having crept in early and hung on with a vengeance. We have sorely underestimated how much wood we needed, which is why we are out on this January day.

This cold, January day is the day after our dog Henry has died and that is also why we are here. Because for so long, for so very, very long, our wounded and weary hearts have been tied up with the care of an elder dog and cat (who died six days before Henry), have been tied up with the anxiety of wondering when they will go, have simultaneously prayed for a peaceful leave-taking even while we asked for just one more day, please hang on just one more day. We are raw and broken and unbearably sad, and a day on the farm, in the snow and the cold, tossing heavy, unsplit, powder-dusted oak and locust and elm into the back of our bruised and battered old Ford pick-up seems as good a way as any to pass The Day After Your Dog Dies.

Our friend is a Midwesterner true to his stock, true to someone who spent his childhood on a dairy farm in Minnesota. What this means is that he does not wax poetic about his animals, nor does he wear his emotions outside for all the world to see. What this does not mean is that he has a cold heart or is not attached to his pets or his goats (every one of whom gets a name) and I know this is his way — physical labor in the cold, sharing his supply of firewood with us — of offering us comfort. When he tells us the song he would like my husband to sing at his own funeral but that he hasn’t yet decided what he wants me to sing, I think of Iris Dement’s song, After You’re Gone. My tears start anew and I quietly bury my face in the rough wool of my husband’s coat while he puts his arms around me.

* * *

It has been ten months since we said good-bye to Henry and Bella and another winter will soon be upon us. But it is an unseasonably warm, summer-like day that reminds me of our winter of sorrow when we travel to Missouri to play some shows in late October. So many of the people who come out to hear us knew Henry. These are not large venues where there is a barrier between the audience and the performers, the stage and lights and large sound equipment keeping the audience at a safe distance. These are small, intimate venues, our favorites, really, because of those very qualities. Conversations, connections, and friendships develop in that kind of setting. The people who have come to hear us sing and play knew Henry, met him as a younger dog, when he would sometimes sit at our feet, just in front of our microphone stands, or wander quietly through the audience while we played, perking up when the audience clapped, because that was how I always called him to me. And they saw him the last time we were there, deaf and almost blind and needing to be carried up the stairs, sleeping while we played because he was just so very tired all the time, ignoring the applause because he could no longer hear it.

Maisie, of course, is with us on this most recent trip to Missouri and I am uncomfortable and awkward in my acute awareness that she is Not Henry. I suddenly feel like a traitor, disloyal to that amazing dog who was my constant companion for almost 15 years, feel like I have just thrown his memory away and replaced him with the first dog who came along. I feel like I need to explain her presence in my life, and then I feel disloyal to her, like she somehow knows she is Not Henry, like somehow she will know she can never fill his shoes.

Maisie does not lie at our feet or wander through the audience, but sleeps quietly back at our host’s house. My husband acquiesced when I wanted to bring her home eight months ago, but he has decided to draw the line with where she will spend our performance. When our show is over, I walk through the dark in this tiny town on the Missouri river, autumn leaves scattered along the gravel way, the crackling under my feet incongruous with the warm temperature. The town is a rustic relic with a population of 29, a little south of the capital, but for all the similarities they share, it might as well be a million miles away. Weeds and grass are growing up around old VW bugs and dry-docked boats, rusted bed frames and clothesline are sprouting up in the yards, the houses are high up on stilts, placed there after the town was flooded in ’93. It is a rather inauspicious setting for a music venue, but it is one of our all-time favorite places to play. It is a place of magic and possibility and all that is good in the world, one that always reminds us of why we do what we do.

At the house, I gather Maisie up to bring her back to the venue to meet the people who have stayed around to chat. Her ears are perked forward and her tail is on high alert as we walk the short distance and she seems to know she best get there soon, before she misses something special. We arrive back at the venue, where my husband is being professional and running our merch table. I introduce little Maisie. And then I proceed to do what I do best when I feel awkward and unsure of myself and that is babble and prattle on and on. About how I found her and why it was okay for me to adopt a dog five short weeks after I said goodbye to the Best Dog in the World. About how much grief I went through in the months leading up to Henry’s and Bella’s leave taking and how many tears I shed in the weeks following.

I’m fairly certain, though, that I am the only having issues with the fact of this new dog in my life.  This fact is confirmed when I see Maisie sitting on our host’s lap, getting her ears rubbed while he lets her kiss his face, the two looking like new lovers lost in each other.

It seems to me that there are two schools of thought about how to handle losing our pets. On one end are the people who advocate getting another animal as soon as possible, bring another being into your home to assuage your grief and comfort you, and besides, there are so many shelter animals who need homes. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who were so attached, so convinced that no animal could ever replace their beloved pet, that they remain pet-free for months or years, or possibly even for the rest of their lives. I was pretty sure I fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, but I knew for sure that I needed time to heal, to grieve, to process the very large hole that was suddenly in my life. What I envisioned was a year, nine months, maybe. Not five weeks.

But in many ways, I’m still grieving. When I was beginning this post, I went back and read through my journal to jog my memory and I was completely sidelined by how the grief still wells up in me, how the tears just live right there at the surface, and how the smallest reminder of how hard that time was brings them tumbling out fresh, every time. It could be a photo or a plastic bag containing clippings of his fur, the little plaster mold of his paw print that lives on my dresser, something, anything, that reminds me that he was here and now he is gone.

Perhaps the hardest thing we did during that time was take Henry’s lifeless body to the vet to have him cremated. He was already gone, his spirit having vacated his broken body, but leaving him at the vet’s office, knowing that once we left, we would never again be able to rub those velvety ears, pet his thick, golden-red-brown fur, look into his cloudy blind eyes, was unbearable. What I wrote in my journal was this: “And then he is gone. And we are left with an empty drive home and an empty house and hearts so full of grief there is no container big enough to hold it.”

And there was no container big enough to hold our grief. But what I am learning is that there is also no container big enough to contain the love our hearts are capable of experiencing. Because when Maisie showed up in my life, when she wormed her way into my soul so soon after Henry left, I saw the infinite capacity the heart has to open. Henry and Bella’s deaths devastated me, even though I knew they were coming, even though I had been bracing myself for the sorrow I knew I would be handed. I was exhausted from grief, my heart ripped open and emptied out, my chest just a hollow cave. But then Maisie showed up and immediately opened my heart even more, and then proceeded to fill that emptiness with more love, which she continues to do, each and every day.

The night before Henry died, and for so many days after, we spent a lot of time looking at old pictures of him. Some were from just a year earlier, when a walk around the block was a big deal, but still a regular daily occurrence. When carrying him up and down the stairs was not a necessity. Some were from a few years ago, when finding a stick and begging you to pick it up and throw it and then running with all the determination and enthusiasm he’s ever had, but maybe not so much speed anymore, were still just what Henry did when you walked in the woods. Some were from a decade and a half ago, when he first came into my life, a scared, squirming puppy trying to figure out how to teach this neophyte how to be a dog mama. But all of these photos, all the memories just reminded us of how little he resembled that dog in those last few months.

Henry taught me how to love, how to be firm. He taught me what loyalty was, what devotion and unconditional love were. He taught me patience and how to stay beside him, every step of the way, to the bitter, heart-breaking end. And now he is teaching me that it is okay to let go. It is okay to love another dog because the heart has infinite room for love. The heart knows how to expand and expand and expand, exponentially and infinitely. We just have to be willing to let it break wide open.

* * * * *

So dear readers, what’s your take on grieving a beloved pet and when to welcome a new one into your life? Have you allowed your experiences with loss to break your own heart wide open? I love to hear from you, so feel free to use the comments section below. (And if you’re shy, feel free to drop me a line via email!)


4 Replies to “Let Your Heart Break Wide Open”

  1. I remember the day well — now, your writing may bring up more emotion than reality did back then. I hope Maisie will soon earn sufficient trust so that she can visit the farm — and I will have to apologize for the seeds in her silky coat.


    1. That day was a blessing to us, Jim. It really did help to get out in the cold, even if the tears still flowed. And Maisie is definitely ready to come to the farm, just not sure if she can roam leash-free yet!


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