Good dog. My good, good dog.

Harper, my one thousand year old dog, died last night. My heart is very broken.

By the time you read this, the shell of her body will have transformed: heat and light, vapor and smoke, ash and wind, then wide open sky. I miss her. Oh, you guys. I miss her.

The fact is, death is weird. Even when we know it’s coming – and we all know its coming for every living thing, though for some it’s coming faster than others – it still seems sudden. My dog was twenty years old. At least. We have prepared ourselves for her last days on several occasions. Still. This seems sudden. We are not surprised, and yet we are surprised. And in the face of the most banal fact of life we are wide-eyed, and astonished.

We almost lost her in mid-January. But she rallied. She always rallies. Or she did. Past tense. That’s going to be a hard one. Yesterday morning, I fed her, but she was annoyed at the inadequacy of her dog food. She gave me the stink-eye. “Fine,” I said, and opened another mini-portion of the fancy wet stuff – the one with the picture of the fluffy white, vaguely jerkish-looking dog on the label. Not nearly as cool as my dog is.

Was, I mean. I mean was.

“Be careful,” I said to her. “Someone’s going to think you’re one of those fancy hounds, with assistants and butlers and perhaps having some old guy leaving you their entire fortune in his Will. Is that what you want?”

Harper just stared at me. She never gets my jokes.

Got, I mean.

I took her on a walk before the ice storm hit, and marveled at how well she was doing. How strong she was. “Good dog,” I said. “My good, good dog.” Three weeks ago, she couldn’t even go outside to pee on her own. I had to hoist her in my arms, croon soothing words into her ear, stand her up on the snow and tell her to let it rip. Two weeks ago, I was praising her with all the treats on earth for making it to the end of our half-block and back. And here she was, walking next to me, sniffing every patch of yellow snow, keeping a keen eye out for the occasional squirrel.

There weren’t any squirrels out, though. Not one. They were hunkered down in their dens, waiting for the storm to hit.

When we got to the field behind my house, I took off her leash and let her go. And she ran. It was the first time I had seen her run since she got sick. I’d seen her scamper on occasion, but never run. She wasn’t particularly fast, but she was joyful. A vision of fur and nail and clever paws, motion, intention, and the thrill of success. I was so proud of her. “Good dog,” I called over the snow. “My good, good dog.”

We came in, had more snacks, and she took a nap. She spent the rest of the day drinking her water, finding new places to lie down, asking to go out, barking up the neighborhood. A regular day. A good day.

And then last night she had a seizure. A long one. And then she was fuzzy and weak and out of it. And then she was tired. And then she was gone.

And we touched her and talked to her. We read stories. We sang songs. We didn’t really think she’d go. Not really. She always rallies. It’s what Harper does. “My good, good dog,” we said over and over and over. We had put the kids to bed, but we woke them all back up to say goodbye.

She was so soft. Had she always been that soft? She must have been. But I couldn’t stop petting her. Even though I knew she was gone. “My pretty girl,” I crooned. “My good, good dog.” After the kids had said their goodbyes and went to bed, we put Harper in the car and drove to the clinic for the last time.

This morning, by instinct, I checked the landing as I went downstairs in the dark, making sure I didn’t accidentally step on her. I chided myself. She’s gone, I told myself. Don’t be silly. And then I had to stop myself from putting food in her bowl. I had to stop myself from opening the back door, knowing that just the sound of the knob would send my Harper running, anxious to get back in her yard. My behavior patterns, the rhythm of my day, were written by my dog. How long before they get over-written? How long before I stop searching for her with my foot while I’m writing, seeking a warm body to warm my toes. She was always there, right next to me. Always.

My dog was old, loud, stinky and scrappy. She loved her family. She had terrible breath and was sometimes abrasive. She practically raised my kids. She loved camping and hiking and canoeing. When she was at the shore of a lake, she tried to herd the waves. She loved stinky socks and sweaty shirts and sheets that smelled like the kids. She lived longer than most, stayed active longer than most, and was, by all measures, a marvel. And she was a thousand years old. And she built my husband and I into a family.

And I loved her. Oh, you guys. I loved her so, so much.

ETA: Here are some earlier posts about Harper. You don’t have to read them or anything, I just thought it would be a good idea to put them all in a list.

“The Barnhill Family’s Disaster in the BWCA”

“Regarding my 1,000-year-old dog”

“No one will ever love you the way that this dog loves you.”

“A Quick Update on my 1,001 year old dog”

“On Slowing Down”

“Stay”

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Stay.

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My dog is bathed and dried and wrapped up and next to the heating vent. I got her to eat a little this morning. She drank some watered-down unsalted beef broth (organic, because she is worth it), and it felt like a miracle. I’m sitting next to her, my computer on my lap, pretending to write my book, but really I’m just looking at my dog. Keeping close.

“Stay,” I say.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. She closes her eyes and groans she pushes her nose against my leg with a sigh.

When we live with dogs, we have a set of words that our animals are trained to obey on cue. We say, “Sit”, and they sit. But that isn’t always what we mean. When Harper was young – a gnarly, snarly, scruffy little street dog, narrowly escaping Death By Dogcatcher – I would say “Sit” and it would mean something very specific. “Sit” meant “Oh My God Stop Being Such A Crazypants, You Crazypants.” Sit meant “No, You May NOT Remove The Mailman’s Leg!” or it meant, “Bashing Your Head Against The Door Doesn’t Actually Open The Door!” or it meant, “If You Don’t Stop Barking At That Squirrel, I Might Actually Explode The House And Then You Will Be Sorry.”

Later, when we had kids, “Sit” meant “Keep Close To The Baby,” or it meant, “Stop Pulling On The Leash Or I Might Accidentally Knock Over The Stroller,” or it meant, “No, You May Not Climb Up Onto The High Chair Tray; You Must Wait For The Baby’s Food To Fall.”

And later than that, “Sit” meant, “Yes I Know Our House Is Overrun With Crazy Boys; Sit And Lean On Me And Know You Are Safe.” “Sit” meant “Everything Is Fine, I Promise.”

Today, she is having trouble pulling herself into a sitting position. She did it for a little bit this morning. “Sit,” I said, and I meant, “Please.”

“Sit, honey,” I said. Please, oh please.

“You can do it,” I said. Oh please, oh please, oh please.

She did it. For a little while. But eventually, her legs splayed out in front of her and she pressed her belly to the ground. She sighed.

When she was young I used to tell her to stay. It took a while for that one to stick. She was a ranger – it’s how she came to us in the first place. And no matter how tightly we had our fences and how high, she managed to find her way out of them. Usually at night. She’d trick us into letting her out claiming she had to pee (what a trickster!) and two minutes later she’d be gone. We’d hear her scratching at the door in the middle of the night (she’d climb over the fence), and there she’d be – shiny coat, bright eyes, a wanderer’s grin about her mouth. Sometimes she’d have something with her – a ham bone or a squeaky toy. We figured she had regular folks that she’d pay visits to.

“Stay,” we told her. What we meant was, “We’re worried about you. We know you’re smart and savvy and no car would ever squish you and no street dog would ever best you in a fight. We know you’re street smart and gnarly and canny. We know you can take care of yourself. But we miss you when you’re gone. And we need you.”

“Stay,” we said again and again and again. And, finally, she stayed.

Now “Stay” means something else.

She is pressing her back against my leg. I am leaning against the bookshelf and it is uncomfortable. I should get a pillow but I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave her.

“Stay,” I say. She thumps her tail.

Don’t go, my heart says. Please don’t go.

She thumps her tail.

“Stay,” I say again. “Stay, stay, stay.” Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go.

I love you, thumps her tail.

“I love you, too,” I say. “Don’t go,” I say out loud.

She thumps her tail.

I might have to, she says.

The vet is coming at three. I’d appreciate a kind thought or a prayer, if you happen to have an extra one lying around. Harper would appreciate it too.

On Slowing Down

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A lot of people have contacted me recently, offering hesitant inquiries regarding the health of my dog, Harper. The hesitation is understandable. She is, after all, very, very old. And every day she gets older.

The good news is that she is still very much alive, and still enjoying herself on most days. She has been in our family now since 1998, when she came to us, filthy and scraggly and thin and sick, from the street. At the time, the vet guessed that she was somewhere between 3 and 5. Which means she is now . . . old. Really old. Like, I’d have to do math to figure it out.

She can’t move as quickly as she used to, and can’t see as far as she used to, and sometimes she gets anxious and nervous because the world doesn’t feel the same – and that can be scary. We had a pretty nasty scare with her this summer. Part of inviting a former street-dog into your home and family, is that some of that street-dog-scrappiness still remains. She is, was, and will be, super gnarly. And I love that about her. This summer – on July the first, to be exact – Harper got it into her head to self-surgery a small tumor that had been on her bottom for quite some time. The doctor theorizes that perhaps it had gotten a small cut on the edge, allowing for bugs to get in (I know. Gross. And you didn’t even have to see it), but in any case, it got uncomfortable, so she removed it.

With her teeth.

And she nearly bled to death.

This all happened right before my darling husband and I – after fifteen years of wedded bliss – decided to take our honeymoon at long last. Which was difficult to do with a beloved dog on death’s doorstep. The next few weeks were expensive and exhausting (and did I mention expensive? good lord, I shall be paying those vet bills forever), but Harper, being Harper, despite the blood loss and the shock, despite the infection and the maggots and the open wound – well? She rallied. She healed. You can take the dog out of the Street, but you can’t take the Street out of the dog. And now she’s doing great.

However.

There is no doubt that she is slowing down. It takes a long time for her to go from standing up to lying down and back again. She sleeps more than she used to. While she still finds ways to sneak out of the fence, her solo excursions are far from wide-ranging – she goes down the block and comes back, collapsing in a heap on the front stoop until someone notices her. She likes to lay on my feet, reminding herself that I am still here. She eats more slowly and drinks more frequently. Her walks are slow and thoughtful and plodding.

And there is something to this notion of slowing down. Because it’s not just Harper slowing down. I have to slow down with her. And she is teaching me how to do it.

There, I have learned, an incredible beauty in moving slow. We can know the Infinite in stillness, in quiet, in standing still.

This summer, we took the kids and the dog and the minivan and the tent to Madeline Island in Lake Superior. And it was wonderful. We slept under the stars and swam in the big Lake and jumped off cliffs into the waves and hiked through the forest. Now, Harper loves hikes. Always has. This particular hike was four miles, and while she kept up pretty well for the first three, she slowed WAY down in the last.

The kids and my husband kept their regular paces, and quickly disappeared into the green, and Harper and I were alone. She didn’t complain, and she didn’t seem to be in any distress. She was simply walking very, very, very slowly. And so was I.

There is a meditative quality to walking very slowly through the forest. You are aware in the minute changes in the texture of the ground from footfall to footfall. You watch the dappled light wobble and wave each time the wind blows. You unpack the language of birds. And bugs. You listen to the rhythm of the waves hitting the cliffs – swell, crash, bubble, swirl, swell, crash, bubble, swirl. You listen to the creaking wood and the hum of insects. You notice that each tree produces a particular sound. You notice that moss squeaks when you walk on it. You notice that there are infinite shades of green and infinite shades of brown and infinite shades of blue. The water seems boundless – but it is not. This life feels boundless – but it is not. Each step my dog takes is one of a finite number of steps. As are mine. And yours. You notice the strawberries hiding under green leaves and the gathering of blueberries across the peat bogs and the deep shine of the raven’s wing – the one who shouts at you when you come too near to his tree. Harper would pause from time to time, looking expectantly at me for a treat. She always deserved it.

By the time we got back, the kids had already gone with their dad to the water, and Harper and I were left alone. I could have gone swimming, I suppose, but instead I laid down on her blanket and she put her head on my belly. She slept while I stared at the sky. The weight of her – hot and firm and heavy – seemed so stable to me, so sure. But that was an illusion, too. One day she will be gone. And there will be nothing left – nothing but memories.

I walk with my dog every day. We don’t go very far, and we don’t go very fast. Usually, we just go into the fields behind my house. We look for Great Blue Herons – or I do anyway. She pretends to look for rabbits. We slowly make our way to the old cottonwood tree by the creek. She sniffs the tall grasses. She sniffs another dog’s poo. She is startled when the red winged black birds fly too close (they always fly too close). I notice the sponginess of the ground and the sound of the traffic. I notice the smell of the creek. I notice the conversations of the bikers going by on the paved trail on the other side. I notice the gurgle of the water as it slowly makes its way to the sea.

We spend so much time rushing. We spend so much time trying to fit every blessed thing into the day. We spend so much time worrying – about the mortgage, about how are kids are doing, about our careers, about why I can’t fit into those jeans, about the company that’s coming in an hour, about how to get the kids to their nine million activities, about the bank account, about the leaky faucet, about the lists that our books are and are not on, about numbers and deficits and the ever changing goal-posts indicating our success as a human being. We spend so much time trying to outrun failure.

Today, I went for a longish run – eight miles initially, but at mile seven, I simply could not go on. My asthma was kicking up, and I couldn’t breathe. So I stopped and watched the creek. The leaves are just starting to change. The greens have paled so they may give way to scarlet or tangerine or gold. Their edges are browning like bread. And so I walked. Very, very slowly. I walked the way Harper walks. I breathed through my nose – mud, dust, leaf mold, algae, blossoms emitting their last breath of sweetness before collapsing to the ground. The world smelled green and gold and delicious. Autumn offers itself to us like a feast, and we gorge ourselves mightly, before the world is shoved unceremoniously into the freezer. I listened to the sound of my feet. I listened to my breath as it unkinked itself – wheeze to whine to rattle to sigh to quiet breathing. I missed my dog. She was waiting for me. Sleeping again. My little dreamer, curled up in my office. Dreaming, dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

My dog is doing well, all things considered. We love her every day. We will hang onto her until we can’t. That is the way of things.

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A quick update on my 1,000-year-old…. actually 1,001-year old dog.

The internet is a funny place. I wrote this piece about my ancient, beloved, sometimes foul-tempered, and often stinky, but always utterly herself, cattle-dog-mix – gosh, almost a year ago – and suddenly it has gotten approximately one skillion views over the last two days. Randomly. And people are commenting like mad and sending me beautiful, passionate, and soulful emails, telling me the story of their own beloved pets – those still hanging on, and those tenderly carried into their next grand adventure in that dog park in the sky.

And people are asking: how is Harper? Is she still alive?

And it’s a good question. On my block there are a lot of kids and a LOT of dogs. And this year, two very beloved animals left us, and we are all incredibly sad about it. (One of them, Gebo, just passed a couple weeks ago. My little son is heartbroken. Here is his tender tribute. Be careful clicking. You will smile through your flowing tears.)

As for Harper – she’s great! At the very youngest, she is 18 now, but she is likely over 20. That is friggin’ old. But she is tough. And she’s hanging on. Still kicking, still stinking up the place. Still barking her head off at doggie passers-by (my sweet Alpha female, though enfeebled, is still a dang Alpha – and she makes sure the world knows it). She is slowing down, for sure. She snuggles up at my feet while I write. She still gives the stink-eye to the gaggles of boys who tear up and down our stairs and pretend to be slain by lasers and fart on purpose and for no reason. (She is not alone in her stinky-eye, I have to admit.) And while she can’t go as far as she used to, she still enjoys a hike in the forest, and still enjoys her yard, and still eats her food (and the occasional peanut butter sandwich crust, should the Universe provide) and still seems perfectly happy to be here.

There is a truism among parents that one of the benefits of pet-ownership is that it helps to teach kids about death. I think this is true, but it is not the most important lesson that our dogs (and other furry family members) teach us. They teach us about compassion, too. They teach us to be patient. They teach us that life isn’t just short, it’s also fragile. They teach us that it’s important to be a noticer. To put into words what we see in others. Leo is incredibly aware of Harper’s good days and bad days. Sometimes Harper moves more slowly than others. Sometimes she shakes. Sometimes she is in pain. On those days, Leo slows his feet. He asks me when the last time she had her pain meds. He sits down on the floor and rests his arm on her back. Sometimes, he reads her a story.

Having an aging animal teaches us to hang on to each day.

Having an aging animal teaches us to find moments of grace in very small things.

Having an aging animal teaches us to take our responsibility as pet owners incredibly seriously. They look at us, these animals. They see us to our centers. They demand that we do the same.

Look at me, Harper’s eyes say. I’m counting on you.

I know, honey, my eyes say back. I’m here. I’ll be here with every wobbly step. I’ll be here with every good day and bad. I’ll be here with every rattly breath and every contented sigh. I’ll be here when you’re sick. I’ll be here when you’re well. And I’ll be here at the very end.

I promise.

When kids love pets, they learn how to promise. They learn how to care. They learn how to notice. They learn how to empathize. They learn how to nurture. They learn how to tend. They learn how to love. They learn how to say good-bye. These are good things to learn.

Haper is still alive. For now. As we all are. We will hang on to each day until we can’t. It is a blessed thing, really. And I am grateful.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in and told me your stories. I really appreciate them. I honor them. Thank you for sharing your great love with me. Honestly, it means the world.

Much love,

KB

Hooray for Etsy!

So I’ve been complaining a lot lately about the impact that my daily writing habit has on my hands. Not only (being that I am now at the ripe old age of 37) am I noticing the first inklings of early arthritis, but what’s even more problematic is the cold.

Typing makes my hands cold. Really, really cold.

I imagine them crystallizing, cracking, and shattering into bright, sharp shards.

Writing longhand makes my hands cold too, but I don’t notice it as much because I can tuck my left hand between the chair and my thigh to keep it warm. I’ve also done this with my right hand, too, opting to write (slowly) with my left. I can’t recommend this. It makes the editing process an absolute nightmare.

Still, though I write my first drafts of my novels in longhand, I do all of my revisions on the computer, I compose blog posts on the computer and I compose short stories on the computer as well. The point is: I type a lot.

And so my hands are ice cold a lot. Thus my ceaseless complaints.

Enter: MY MOM.

First of all, for those of you who don’t know my mom, let me assure you: she rules. Second of all, after poking around on the internets for a while, she finally stumbled on Etsy.com and for that we can all rejoice.

Oh, Etsy! How I love you! How I love your gentle pull towards time wasting! How I love your persistent insistence for beauty! How I love your assertion that beauty has a place on all things – on the body, in the nooks and crannies of the home, in the yard, in the world. How I love your simple democratization of beautiful things – from my hands to your hands and back again.

So my mom found these.

Fingerless gloves. Soft wool. Beautiful colors. Made by a lovely lady from Lithuania, hand-wrapped with an inscription on the package, and sent to me.

To make me happy.

To turn my pain and discomfort into an occasion for beauty. An occasion to that which is pleasurable, body-affirming and good.

Thank you, Etsy! And thank you, my wonderful mom.

On Birthdays (mine, specifically)

Tomorrow, I turn thirty-seven. I’m particularly excited about it.

Now, I’m typically excited about birthdays – that prospect of newness, that feeling of standing at the cusp of limitless space, that sea of possibilities. (Except twenty-nine. Turning twenty-nine sucked immensely. In retrospect, I think that twenty-nine – as an age, as a concept – can go screw itself) Anyway. In general, I like the age that I am, and always have. It has never occurred to me to lie about my age or to pretend myself older or younger. I’m proud of every blessed day I’ve had on this earth, and I will wear them like a badge.

Still, there’s something significant about the step between thirty-six and thirty-seven.

When I turned thirty-six, I was ridiculously thrilled about it because thirty-six is a unified number – a square that is also the product of squares. It is solid, amenable, and sure-footed. It gets along well with others. Thirty-six is wide hips and floured hands and words spoken carefully at a PTA meeting. Thirty-six carries weight. It fits into pre-existing groves and keeps things moving along. Thirty-six is a team player. It is an integral piece. Thirty-six is an age that isn’t likely to get kicked around. And while it hasn’t been perfect, I’m very happy with thirty-six. All in all, it’s been a good, good year.

But.

Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven is prime. It cannot be cut, diced or broken. Thirty-seven is a singularity. It asserts itself, announces itself, and does not bow. Thirty-seven accepts its edges – sharp, jagged, and lovely. Thirty-seven resists classification. It is shadowed, inscrutable, and vaguely dangerous. Thirty-seven is both promise and sting; it is a curve and a blade; a beacon, a comfort, and a threat. I think I’m going to enjoy this age.

Yes. I think I’m going to enjoy it very much.

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