The other day, I went for a walk around campus and found myself at the foot of my favorite tree, a centuries-old Giant Sequoia. I sat down in the cradle of its roots, my back against its rugged bark, and I looked up into its reddish-brown and green canopy. What is it about trees that is so restful, reassuring? Maybe it’s that they have no choice but to be patient, to maintain perspective as people, animals, the wind, even the seasons pass them by. Usually when I commune with a tree I can let my own frenetic humanity go, to some extent. But that day I couldn’t seem to absorb the tree’s peace. Instead I felt tears threatening.
I don’t do limbo very well. Then again, many people don’t, I would imagine. Unfortunately, I seem to find myself in that position a lot. Right now at work a new quarter has just begun and I’m in the middle of a position reclassification inquiry. At home, we’re waiting to see if Kris’s newest medication will be effective. If it isn’t, it’ll be the third clinical fail in two and a half years. But it wasn’t just those things pressing down on me as I sat under the tree. It was losing Maggie, our dog. It’s been almost three months since the tumor in her heart made itself known and more than two months since she died, and yet some days I still dissolve in tears at the thought of losing her. She is gone and has been for some time now, but I still haven’t fully adjusted.
I know that the last blog I posted was about losing Corona, and I’m sorry about that. I drafted a post on the SCOTUS decision at the end of June, but we were too busy watching the World Cup for me to spend much time on it. And then Maggie got sick and writing pretty much got tossed out the window. What follows is my account of losing Maggie this summer, so if you’ve had enough talk of dying pets on my blog, you probably won’t want to read on. Just skim through the pictures, or, you know, come back another day. Fingers crossed my next post will be of a less weighty nature.
Anyway, it all started the week after the US Women’s National Team won the World Cup. Talk about a roller coaster—Kris, my parents, my best friends from Seattle and I bought tickets last minute and drove up to Vancouver, BC, for the final. Four goals for the USA in the first sixteen minutes left us and the rest of the distinctly partisan crowd in shock. Happy, thrilled shock. Out of the eight or nine World Cup games I’ve attended (mostly women’s but a couple of men’s too), I had never witnessed such a rout. The crowd was lovely, though: female dominated and family friendly. The men in the crowd around us were soccer dads, gay men, and metrosexual Vancouverites. In other words, a surprisingly pro-women crowd for an international sporting event. Everyone around us was happy, happy, and we were full of joy as we watched the best women’s team I’ve ever witnessed (sorry, ‘99ers!) win a well-deserved world championship—at last.
Happy day – the World Cup Finals in Vancouver
That was Sunday, and for the next few days I floated through regular life, still on a World Cup high. Still on a high, too, from the Supreme Court decision two weeks earlier that had legalized gay marriage across the land. Three days after the USWNT won the World Cup, I walked Maggie through our forest as I did every morning before work, watching her nose through the ferns smelling every interesting scent the neighborhood dogs had left. I stood at the edge of a clearing not far from our house looking up at the sunlit morning sky, and I could feel happiness both inside and around me. I was just plainly, fully happy.
We finished our walk and ate breakfast with the kids, and then I got ready for work. Just before I left for the day, Maggie came and leaned against me. And then I realized—she could barely stand. Something was seriously wrong with our elderly canine companion. Had her auto-immune anemia come back? Or was it something else?
Instead of going to work, I carried Maggie out to my car and took her to the vet, where I waited a while with her to see our vet, and then waited some more for an off-site cardiologist to evaluate the chest x-ray. Glad for once that I am small, I stayed with my girl in the procedure room in a crate stuffed with blankets and hot water bottles to keep her core temperature from dropping. Finally our vet returned. As soon as I saw her face, I knew it was bad. She told me that Maggie’s heart cavity was filling up with blood, a situation likely caused by a tumor in her heart. An ultrasound machine was required for the procedure that might save her life, but the nearest facility that could take her was an hour away.
Within minutes I was carrying Maggie out to the car and bundling her, blanket, water bottles, and all, into her travel crate. As I drove to the emergency hospital, I remembered that morning in the woods when Maggie and I walked happily along enjoying the summer morning. And then I remembered my dream from the previous night. In it, Corona had come to visit us. She had come in through the open front door, greeted us happily, stayed a few minutes to visit, and then she had herded Maggie out the front door, down the steps, and into the forest that borders our front yard. When I woke up, I thought what a nice dream it was, that Corona had come to visit. But as I sped down the freeway to the emergency hospital, all I could think was that Corona had come to get Maggie, to lead her away to whatever was next. Maggie, I understood, was dying.
The emergency vet confirmed the diagnosis and performed the procedure, and Maggie stabilized. The next afternoon a cardiologist confirmed a large tumor had infiltrated the right ventricle. Our sweet girl could die at any moment, or she might stick around for a few weeks. No one could say for sure how much time she had left.
As I drove her home from the hospital, I wept uncontrollably. Not my little Maggie. She wasn’t even fourteen yet. I’d been sure we would have her a little while longer. And yet, she’d begun to pull away the year before, a few weeks before Corona died. Instead of draping herself across our laps, she’d taken to avoiding physical contact. Kris and I had discussed the possibility that Maggie was ill with our vet, but tests hadn’t turned up anything. Now I understood—she had been sick all this time.
Home from the hospital
I didn’t go to work the next day, the Friday before a planned, week-long vacation. Kris’s family was about to converge on us in for a reunion in the San Juan Islands. With Maggie so ill, though, I couldn’t bear to abandon her to a dog sitter. For the next week, I split my time between the island and home, with more time spent at home. My parents, who had just moved to Washington State to be near the grand kids, watched Maggie when I couldn’t be there. That way, she was never alone.
The time simultaneously crawled and flew. Maggie got stronger every day after her surgery, and she and I spent some good quality time together. There was more snuggling than she had allowed in the past year, plentiful kisses, and even some nice woods time. I started to think that maybe she would beat the odds; maybe she would stick around for months rather than weeks. One evening on the ferry back from the island, I looked up into the darkening sky and caught my breath. Above the water, a feathery cloud stretched midway between island and mainland. I recognized it immediately: The shape resembled Corona’s head and body in alert, waiting mode. Here was the universe again, reminding me that the letting go was coming whether I was ready for it or not.
Corona and her cloud doppelganger
The vacation week passed and I went back to work, hoping that Maggie would hang in a little longer. I have August off each year, and August was only a couple of weeks away. But then it happened. The Saturday morning after our vacation, I heard the click of Maggie’s toenails in the hallway and the clink of her happy tail against the metal child safety gate at our bedroom door, just like usual. Alex had crawled into our bed a little while earlier to snuggle. I extricated myself, lifted Maggie onto the bed, and went back to reading my iPad, my feet gently curled against her warm, curved back.
I don’t remember every detail of what came next. I do remember that I got up to get the twins and we all snuggled a little longer. But nature called, and soon I was nudging Maggie, trying to convince her that it was time to take our morning walk. Reluctantly she uncurled, and I lifted her off the bed. She landed with a groan, and it gave me pause. But then, she was dying. Of course she would groan here and there.
I do remember that it had poured during the night, and that the earth looked and smelled wonderfully clean and fresh after the much-needed rain. I took Maggie down to the end of the driveway to do her thing, but my timing was off—some neighbors pulled up in their car and stopped briefly to chat. Maggie alerted, but she didn’t so much pull as lean away from me, tightening the leash. I tugged her gently, and after a few tries she followed me back up the driveway. She didn’t seem to want to go up the deck stairs and inside, but after a couple of gentle tugs she seemed to sigh and acquiesce.
On the deck I used a towel to dry her feet, and she wagged her tail sweetly as I bent on my knees beside her. She withstood the cleaning process patiently, and then I let her in the house. I told Kris that I was going to bring in the garbage bins and that she should wait a few minutes to feed Maggie. Then I headed outside.
When I returned to the house, Maggie was lying on her dog bed in the living room, a pretty typical spot for her. I washed my hands and then went to check on her again. She was still stretched out on her side, but her breathing was all wrong. I sat down on the floor beside her, concerned. She looked like she couldn’t get a full breath of air. Her eyes were narrowed, and she grimaced with each shuddering breath.
“Kris,” I said, “come in here!”
“Just a minute,” she said from the kitchen, where she was getting the kids into their breakfast chairs.
“I think Maggie’s dying. Come now or you could miss it.”
So she came and sat on the couch above us while I sat on the floor beside Maggie, our vet’s words from an earlier visit ringing in my head: The worst that could happen would be that Maggie dies at home. And that is exactly what she did. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t long, either. She stopped breathing after a few long, labored minutes, and then her body kept twitching and shaking as her brain slowly shut down. I was relieved for her that she didn’t have to go anywhere, that she could be at home, but I was also disturbed that this painful, messy process was happening in our living room. Alex came in once, but we sent her away without seeing Maggie in her death throes. I’m glad we did. I wouldn’t want her last memory of Maggie to be of those harrowing moments.
After it was over, the kids said their goodbyes and I carried Maggie out to the car one last time. Kris and I arranged her on her dog bed in the back of the van and then I drove to the vet’s office, crying and wanting to turn back every inch of the way. This couldn’t be happening. This couldn’t have just happened. Maybe I’d walked her too far. I shouldn’t have forced her off the bed and outside at precisely the moment the neighbors would pass us and alarm Maggie. Maybe we should have had her put down. It was my fault she had died a difficult death, without sedatives to ease her journey.
As my therapist would say, though, I’m just not that important. And as our vet pointed out shortly before Maggie died, we can’t control life or death. Our sweet girl had a tumor in her heart and that’s what killed her, not the fact that we ran into our neighbors during our morning walk. But just like with Corona, I am left with guilt. I wasn’t home enough in the last couple of years. I spent too much energy on the kids and ignored Maggie, my first baby. I spent too much time building my studio office and not enough time paying attention to her. I failed her.
The first twenty-four hours of grieving were hard, made more so by the fact that I couldn’t seem to fend off the same doubt and self-recrimination that had leveled me after Corona died. But there was one bright spot. When I awoke at four a.m. the morning after Maggie left us, the last minutes of her life—the jumbled images that had made it nearly impossible to fall asleep the night before—immediately started replaying in my head again. I couldn’t stop them no matter what I tried: deep breathing, meditation, worry about work, family, health. Finally I took my iPad out to the living room couch, turned my back to the spot where Maggie had taken her last breaths, and tried to read myself back to sleep.
I dozed fitfully until, at last, I fell deeply asleep. Then, in the room where Maggie had died, I dreamed. Only it felt completely real. I was certain that I really was walking into the kitchen, certain that Kris was in fact standing at the sink. I opened my mouth to say how much I missed Maggie when all at once I realized she was there, too, standing at Kris’s feet like she always did waiting for a piece of food to drop from above.
“Oh my god,” I cried, and ran over to her. “She’s here! Maggie, you’re really here!”
“Where?” Kris looked around, confused.
“Right here,” I said, and reached down to rub her fur. It was just the same as ever, and she was warm and, I realized when she turned toward me with a doggy grin, YOUNG. She looked like she had when she was five or six, more pink and brown than gray and white. After nosing around the kitchen floor like normal, she trotted with me into the living room, and we played a little with toys from her young dog days, resting occasionally on a comforter that the dogs had loved to snuggle on back in Massachusetts. We were together for an indeterminate time, and then I sat down on the couch. She jumped up beside me and climbed onto my lap the way she always used to do, back before she grew deaf and skittish, back before Corona died. She claimed me the way she always had, and I wrapped my arms around her and held her as tightly as I always had. She leaned her head on my left shoulder, just above my heart.
“I love you, Maggie,” I murmured.
Then it was like I was outside myself, watching this last embrace from across the room. And I heard a voice, maybe mine, probably mine, say, “I will always love this dog, and I will always hold this dog in my heart.”
I knew in that moment that Maggie had come back to me in my dreams because she didn’t want our last minutes together to be so fraught. She wanted to snuggle, which was her favorite form of bonding before she got sick, and she wanted me to remember her as she had been—healthy and happy—the majority of our nearly fourteen years together.
Maggie in her prime
And then I woke up.
I was alone in the living room again, summer morning sunlight beginning to filter through the windows, and I could hear the girls and Kris beginning to stir. The previous day came back to me, but when the movie of Maggie’s final minutes inevitably began to play in my mind, it didn’t last long. Soon a stronger track overrode it—the image of Maggie all pink and smiley and snuggly, and the voice intoning the power of our connection. And I, in turn, smiled, thinking of her younger self. Her true self? At least the self I had known and loved the longest.
At the beginning of my novel, Flight, the narrator ruminates on the temporary nature of life: “[T]he human body is made up mostly of water that is replaced on a monthly basis, while many other human cells have a life cycle measured only in days or months. Our bodies are constantly changing, evolving, shedding bits and pieces of who we once were. We couldn’t remain the same person from year to year, decade to decade, even if we wanted to.”
This biological reality means that in a few months, I won’t have any cells left in my body that came into direct physical contact with Maggie’s cells. And her body? Well, her body is gone but still with us. Like Corona, we had her cremated. And like Corona, her ashes currently reside on the bookshelf in the living room.
My parents’ dog, Torrey, died at the end of January, exactly midway between Corona and Maggie. The three dogs met when Torrey was ten months, Maggie nine months, and Corona almost three years old. Over the years, the three dogs became good buddies. In fact, we often said that Torrey was Maggie’s only dog friend because of our otherwise sweet girl’s dog-reactive tendencies.
Torrey was named after a valley in Wyoming where she lived much of her life. A few months after her death, my folks sprinkled her ashes into Torrey Creek, which eventually feeds into Torrey Lake. I was envious that they had the perfect spot to lay her remains to rest when Corona had died months earlier and I still couldn’t imagine where to spread her ashes. When Maggie died, I realized why: Their ashes should be together, just as they were in life.
I’ll end this post with a video I made to remember Maggie as she lived, not as she died. This is the short version; just like with Corona, I made an original that’s close to twenty minutes long, but I’ll spare the readers of this blog.
Maggie Moodle, Magster, Maggie Moo, we miss you. But we know how lucky we were to have you in our lives. You brought us so much joy, and you made us happy for so many years.
Love you baby dog. Goodbye for now my sweet, sweet girl.