In Memory of My First Canine Teacher

I am up on the meadow with Maisie, just at the top of the hill, right where the path starts winding in a graceful curve to gradually make its way back down. The sun is shining and it is unseasonably warm, in the upper 30s, but the wind is gusting, blowing hard and fast, and my cheeks are sparkling cold. Maisie is busy with her work in the field and I think about the words of Thoreau, the words I gave to last week’s post, “All good things are wild and free,” and then I think about how much I love language, its rhythm and its poetry, its power and its beauty. I think about how much I love music for the same reasons and I think about how much I love being alive and being up here on this meadow, my thighs feeling a slight burn from climbing the hill, my lungs vibrating from the wind and the effort. I can’t help but smile widely to myself, and then, with precious little warning, I can’t help but let the tears flow.

Because in that moment it occurs to me that it was exactly a year ago that we said goodbye to Henry, said goodbye after so many months of such a long, slow downward spiral. And as I cry, I call out to the wind, “I love you, Henry, wherever you are. Thank you for those 15 years, thank you for your love, your spirit, your sweet, kind soul, and thank you for sending Maisie.” And I am smiling through my tears, laughing actually, at just how beautiful and sweet life can be, even when you are thinking back to a day when you couldn’t have felt more broken and sad, deeply enveloped in grief, but also deeply graced with bittersweet relief.

There is still so much writing I need to do around Henry, around all he taught me about life and death, about what it means to be there with someone right up until the end. My husband would often say — when Henry was slowing down but while he was still a happy, active dog — that being there at the end was the price we would pay for all of the years of loyalty, of companionship, of love. At the time, we didn’t know what “the end” would look like, or how it would stretch out for damn near 18 months, or how our hearts would feel like they couldn’t take the ache and the sadness, the fear and the worry, wondering how and when he would go. But then they would expand a little more, to help all of us go on.

One day not long after Henry died, I was sitting at my dining room table. I looked up at the sun streaming in through my sliding glass door and noticed two sets of nose prints. There were the ones at the bottom, where Henry would sit when he needed to go out, little roundish spots the size of his nose on the glass. But it was the second set that broke my heart, the ones that were the height of my chest, from the many times I had to carry him outside, trying to hold him while I opened and closed the door against an often brutal winter wind, trying not to bang into the door while I did so. He would be so resigned, so accepting of having to be carried, and the nose prints he left were streaks rather than spots, his nose wiping against the door as we moved in one unwieldy, ungraceful mass. The day I noticed them for the first time — because up until then I had been so consumed with his care to pay attention to things like that — was so soon after losing him, and I couldn’t bear to clean them off. But Henry has been gone a year now and those nose prints are still on my back door. I do not know what it is in me that keeps from taking the glass cleaner to them, but I do fear the truckload of tears that will be unleashed if I do.

The heart-shaped log that I found in our woodpile, just days after Henry died.

So yes, clearly I’m not done with processing the loss of this dog (are we ever actually finished with grieving the loss of someone we loved so much?). But today I just want to celebrate his life and how much he still lives in my soul, even while Maisie fills me up with ever more love. Today I want to think about the Henry before the end, the Henry who was my constant companion, who went everywhere with me, who blessed me with his joy and his optimism, his unbounded love and devotion, the Henry who kept me from feeling the sting of loneliness and being single in a coupled world, and then opened his heart to my husband when he came into our lives. The Henry my husband nicknamed The Ambassador of Goodness.

In that spirit, I want to share some photos of Henry, mostly from the last few years of his life. We often tell Maisie about her brother and I so frequently mention him in my writing, I figured it was time to introduce him to all those folks out there who didn’t have the good fortune to know my Henry, my beautiful, incredible Henry. He was such a good dog.

One of my all-time favorite photos of Henry, when he was just shy of 14 years old.
He looks so tiny in this photo, like a puppy, but he was actually 11 years old. We took this photo on a trail up in Wisconsin.
We took Henry back to Colorado in 2011, back to the Dolores River he so loved as a puppy. Bringing him back to that river was one of the happiest days of my life.

I don’t know when I came up with my plan to take Henry’s ashes to the Dolores River, that place of so many perfect days, where we spent so much time in our early years together. I don’t know if it was when we moved to Seattle, when his death still seemed so far in the distant future it was as if it would never come, or whether it was in Iowa, when he really started to slow down and I had to let the idea that he wouldn’t be here forever sink in. But one warm and breezy summer afternoon, a few months before our winter of sorrow, when my husband and I were hanging the laundry on the line, he stopped mid-task, clutching the shirt he’d been about to hang, and told me with tears in his eyes that he didn’t think he could take Henry’s ashes to the Dolores, that Henry hated being separated from us and he couldn’t bear to think what that separation would do to him. So for now, he is still with us, his ashes in the container the crematorium gave us, its generic, innocuous floral pattern completely unrepresentative of my first canine love. But I know he is close by and that gives me some comfort. And when the tears well up, as they are wont to do when I see photos of him or write about him, I remember that my second canine love, my little Maisie, would never have found her way into our lives without Henry making his exit. She is his last gift to me and for that, I am so very, very grateful.

* * * * *

So dear readers, how do you honor the memory of loved pets who have passed? What kind of imprint have they and their memory left on you? I always love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment below.

4 Replies to “In Memory of My First Canine Teacher”

  1. With your writing, you know how to bring tears to one’s eyes! Beautiful beyond words to describe it. It gives the lie to the phrase so often heard and read in the media when, after a tragic death of a person, of “closure.” The loss of a loved one–human or animal companion–(is there really a distinction?) is a loss, and the deeper one’s love, the deeper the sense of loss, and the less likelihood of there ever being “closure.” Closure does not exist. It is a modern-day euphemism for the temporary repression of the emotional sense of permanent loss of what was loved dearly.

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    1. Interesting thoughts on closure; I’ve never really thought about what that really means and I do think you’re right that there is no such thing as true closure. I think time does soften the ache, but the loss is always felt on some level. There are times when I think about Henry and I am just filled with so much joy in remembering him and there are times when my heart is just filled with so much sadness at the loss. But I wouldn’t trade the years I had with him for anything. And I’m so grateful for all the photos I have of him, especially when he was younger.

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  2. Oh the nose prints on the window just about broke my heart. What a wonderful journey with such a fine, beautiful dog. I agree, there’s no such thing as closure nor would I want there to be. Healing yes, but not closure.

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    1. Thank you, Tara! The nose prints are still there. I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to clean that door. But fortunately, it’s not like I’m the world’s best housekeeper, so they do kind of blend in with the rest of the mess. Thank you for reading!

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