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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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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On Loss.

Our family lost a beloved member this week – Ted’s only cousin’s husband. He was in his early forties, a stay-at-home dad, and a caregiver to his grandma-in-law. He was funny, interesting, a great storyteller, into all the wonderful geeky stuff that I’m into (he was, for example, the only person in the family with whom I often had serious discussions about Buffy and Firefly); he was wildly in love with his kids and his wife, a dedicated family man, fun at parties…. and then, in a flash, he was gone.

And we miss him.

And so I’ve had several discussions with the kids about death and dying, about what happens to us when we die, and about the fragility and preciousness of the fact of our breathing and the fact of our living. Particularly Leo, who was most fond of our cousin’s jokes, who felt the strongest connection to him, and therefore most keenly feels his loss.

Each moment is a miracle, I told them. Though I didn’t entirely believe it.

Death is a part of life; life is precious because it is brief. Again, my words felt hollow and without meaning. I hoped the kids didn’t notice.

Last night, I woke up at about midnight to find Leo standing next to my bed. He had his hand resting on my forehead.

“What are you doing up?” I asked.

“You put on the flower blanket,” Leo said, ignoring the question. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “What are you doing up?”

“I was just checking on you,” he said.

I told him I was fine, and I kissed him, gave him a glass of water and tucked him into bed.

At two a.m., he was back, his hand on my forehead.

“Hey,” I said sleepily.

“I’m just checking on you,” he said again.

“Well, I’m fine,” I said. “But I’m a bit sleepy.” And I walked him back to his bed and tucked him in.

Then at four thirty, I was suddenly pummeled by a riot of arms and legs, as Leo scrambled over my body and wedged himself between his dad and I. “I though you might be lonely,” he said.

“How can I ever be lonely with such a nice family,” I yawned as I carried him back to bed.

Then, this morning, after breakfast, he went outside and gathered leaves. Red leaves, brown leaves. Leaves the color of mustard, and the color of gold, and the color of roses. He put them in the sink, pushed in the plug and turned on the tap.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“They lost their water,” Leo said. “So I’m putting their water back in and then they’ll be green again.”

“Honey, that’s not how it works,” I said, turning off the faucet. “They will never be green. We’ll rake them into the garden beds, and they will become less leaf-like and more dirt-like. Then they will become food for the flowers and the hostas and the vegetables. But they won’t be leaves again. In the spring, the trees will turn gold, then pale green, then the buds will burst open, and the world will be filled with leaves. Leaves as far as you can see. And everything will be green.”

“So,” he said, thinking. “The leaves become flowers?”

“Sort of. Everything is recycled. Everything becomes everything.”

“So.” He paused for several breaths. “Is Kurby a flower? Or is he everything?”

I picked him up. “Baby,” I said. “Every atom in your body was once in a star. Did you know that? And that star formed, and burned, and exploded into dust, and that dust spun, and collected and congealed into planets and our sun and your body and every blessed thing on this whole beautiful earth. When we die, our atoms become flowers and dirt and leaves and wind and worms and bunny rabbits and fire and stars. And we become memory and thought and song and stories and spirit and Word and children of God. I don’t know where we go, honey. But I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Will I know it?” Leo said. He wound his arms around my neck and hung on tight.

“Yes, darling,” I said. “I do believe you will.”