On goodbyes and writing through the curves
“Expect the unexpected” is an axiom that never made much sense to me. I understand its basic principle - that any course of planned action is bound to meet with some obstacle or inconvenience, that assumption is not a firm rock on which to stand.
Some unexpected detours have happy consequences. Once, during a trip to Iceland, my husband and I came upon a flooded roadway, completely impassable, and had to chart another route to our destination. Along the way, we encountered the most incredible, untouched vistas we had ever seen, stopped to spend time in these breath-taking places that did not show up on any tourist map or list of sites.
The unexpected is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. Cancelled plans can lead to disappointment or to a great movie in your pajamas. Shifting friendships can lead to loneliness or to new connections and deepening of old bonds. A long wait for an appointment can be an annoyance or a chance to finish a good book. But sometimes, whether we’ve been cautioned to expect them or not, detours can be simply jarring.
This past week, our dog Scout, who has been battling minor but manageable issues of old age for a while, suddenly took a turn. This was not unexpected. It was a matter of time. What was unexpected was the speed of his decline. In a few days, he went from a relatively normal, yet slow, daily routine (a short walk, some food, a treat, yard time, laying with me while I did yoga, doing a little dance when he got a butt rub) to days and sleepless nights of hard breaths, no appetite, uncontrollable functions, and an unwillingness to move. After consulting with my husband (who was out of town with our son) and our vet, we knew it was time to let him go.
This was not the first time we have said goodbye to a dog, and it is not the first time I have had to do it alone, but this detour was particularly difficult. Perhaps it was the timing. My father’s birthday had been just a few days before, and I am still mourning his loss. Perhaps it was Scout’s caretaking in those last few days, the changing of diapers and pads that reminded me of the lessons from the hospice nurse on how to care for my mother in her last days. Perhaps it was my own advancing age, my 60th birthday recent enough to still glimpse in the rear view mirror. For whatever reason, I was thrown off-kilter by the loss.
And in that desperate afternoon of waiting to say my last goodbyes, I did what I always do to process what I’m feeling. I wrote it out. What I wrote is not a poem that anyone would want to publish. It’s too sentimental. It lacks craft. But it was what I needed to write to manage the unexpected. So I’m sharing it here, hoping that maybe it will serve as a fitting reminder that writing can be a compass and a map. A searchlight in the dark. A way to find a way back.
I am waiting for my dog to die. It’s going to happen
today, one way or another. Sprawled outside in the sun
on a blanket, refusing water, food, he is finally still after
a restless night of his insides releasing, his breath catching,
the body’s systems operating opposite from what is
required. I made a call to the vet, and they scheduled me
as soon as they could, four hours from now, and thank God
or global warming that it’s 65 degrees in Chicago in November,
and he can soak up some sun, his favorite pastime, though
the squirrels he used to chase now boldly scamper a foot
in front of his face and he doesn’t even flinch. As I’m sitting
beside him, waiting, I remember the first time I had to change
my mother’s diaper in hospice, how the nurse taught me
to fold it in half and place it next to the hip, roll her toward me
onto the pad, then pull the other side gently beneath,
a lesson I have used the past few days, shifting his furred
and tired hips back and forth to get a pad under his blanket.
When the dog refused his food, I recalled my father eating
less and less, the meals we made for him untouched
as he ate only lunchmeat and chocolate crumb donuts,
his appetite dwindling to near zero during his short time
in the nursing home. So much of living is dealing with
the mess of dying, waiting while someone or something
you love loses a grip on the world, the hardest and best
work one can ever do. So I pet his head, the only part
of him he will let me touch. I wrap him in his favorite
blanket, put down some plastic on the back seat of the car.
It’s a short drive to the vet. They will be waiting.
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