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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No One Will Ever Love You as Much as This Dog Loves You.

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Now, before I begin, and before any of you commence any kind of tear-eruptions, let me first just say that Harper, my one thousand year old dog, is perfectly fine. She’s old and creaky and slow and sleepy and arthritic and missing some teeth and sometimes she anxiety-pees on the floor, but other than that she’s doing great. I have to start out with this, because my dog is at an age (a thousand years will weigh heavily on anyone, after all) where people see me post about my dog and they instantly start sobbing because they assume that she is dead. She is not. We can all relax.

My dog loves all of us, but she loves my kids the most. She follows them with her eyes when they walk across the room. When they stand close to her, she closes her eyes and inhales. When they sit at the table, she shuffles between the chairs, finds a pair of feet to lay on, and, after the hard work of bending her old legs, lands upon a child’s slippers with a sigh.

She can’t climb up on the kids beds anymore (she was never allowed, never, but she did it anyway, usually at the request of a child who woke up in the middle of the night from a bad dream, and couldn’t get back to sleep) and I can tell she misses it. She makes her way up the stairs at night and worries at their doors until she nudges them open, and curls up in their rooms – all soft and damp from their open-mouthed breathing. She sighs when they sigh. She perks up her head when they talk in their sleep. She dreams in tandem with the kids she loves.

And she loves them. So much.

When my oldest was little, Harper – a sheepdog by nature – herded her like a lamb. I had moved from Portland to Minneapolis when I was pregnant with her, taking all of my last classes for my Masters in Education as Incompletes, and was desperately trying to finish my many, many papers to turn in for my degree so I could go back to work and support the family while my husband went back to school. And my daughter liked to crawl. A lot. And she was fast. And Harper kept her contained. She ran interference. She headed her off at the pass. And when my little sprogget pulled a fast one, Harper very gently grabbed her by the diaper and brought her back to me.

You remember Nana from Peter Pan. That is my dog.

When my middle child took her to the park behind our house and fell off out of a tree and sprained her ankle, Harper positioned herself right next to that crying girl and would not leave her side, and howled her head off until I heard and came running.

When my son was bitten in the face by another dog, Harper wouldn’t let him out of her sight for months after the incident. Even thought it happened in someone else’s house, something told me that Harper just couldn’t forgive herself. She kept herself pressed to Leo’s side, nudging his hands or his back or his tummy with her nose. She started following him from the computer to the bathroom to the lego room to the kitchen to his room to the back yard. Wherever Leo was, Harper was two steps away. Her ears were perked straight up. She was on the alert for danger.

No one’s hurting my boy, her ears said.

Lately, she’s been building kid-nests. She rotates which child she focuses on. Right now, it’s my son. She will gather the recently-worn clothing of whichever child she’s nesting with. She finds stinky socks and uniform pants and cast-off shirts. Sweaters. Winter hats. Anything that smells like her kids. Fortunately for her, my kids are slobs and leave their clothing strewn about their rooms until I go ballistic and make them tidy up. But lately, I’ve been slower to do so. Because of Harper.

The kids don’t understand what she’s doing.

“Harper!” they admonish. “I was going to wear that sweater!”

“Harper!” they moan. “Not my coat!”

Harper thumps her tail on the ground. Each thump means I love you.

“Harper, did you steal my socks?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

“Harper, how on earth did you get my pillow case off my pillow?”

Thump, thump, thump. I love you, I love you, I love you.

Her eyes are watery and dim. She makes a groaning sound when she tries to focus. She closes her eyes and flares her nostrils, seeing them more clearly.

“She’s doing this to feel closer to you,” I explain. “She can’t see you very well, and she can’t hear you very well, but she can smell you like you can’t even imagine.”

“Ew,” the kids say, even as they crouch down and lay with Harper on the nest. “It’s not polite to just go smelling people,” they murmur in her ears. Harper closes her eyes and sighs.

“It is if you’re a dog. It’s the most polite and loving thing for her. You know I love you and you know your Dad loves you, but nobody loves you like that dog loves you. Her love is the stars and the moon. It is all matter in the Universe. It is all Universes beyond. It is infinity to the infinity power. That’s how much that dog loves you.”

“That’s how much I love her too,” my kids whisper into her stinky fur. And they mean it, too.

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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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Fragile, and fading, and brave.

My kids, when they woke up this morning, bolted out of bed and ran to where their dog was sleeping, skidding along the wood floors on their knees.

Harper nested in a clump of blankets next to the heating vent. The kids had organized it the night before, and I had carefully lifted my fifty-pound beastie – built for running, leaping, and agile bounding from rock to fence to rock – into the softness of her sick-bed.

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She will not stand. She will not walk. And outside of some half-hearted lapping of a half-cup of water, she will not eat or drink.

The kids snuggled around her, putting their faces next to her nose, wrapping their arms around her middle.

“You’re still alive,” the kids said. “I knew it.”

Last night, when I put Leo to bed, I told him that Harper was in pretty rough shape. She’s been in rough shape before, of course (heck, she’s like a million years old), but this feels different.

“Is she going to die?” Leo said.

“Probably not tonight,” I said. “But it’s hard to tell.”

“But she is dying.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe we should sell her.” Leo turned his body to the wall.

This sentiment surprised me. I spoke slowly. “That’s an interesting strategy,” I said. “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t want to watch her die,” he said.

We were quiet for a long time. The lights were off and the room was cold and he and I pulled closer under the covers. “I can understand that,” I said. “But think about Harper. She’s hurting and fragile and confused. But the thing that makes her happy is her family. You and your sisters, especially. She has been with you for your whole life. Don’t you want to be with her for her last, important days?”

“I hope she doesn’t die.”

“Me too.”

“But she will, though. Someday. Right?”

“Everything that is alive is fragile and precious. Everything is stardust and dirt and spring green and the breath of god, and then it fades away. Harper is fading. And so will we.”

“Harper is fragile,” Leo said. “But she’s brave. She’s not scared at all. She’s brave and snuggly.”

“And who knows,” I said. “She may rally.”

“What does rally mean.”

“It’s when someone is looking worse and worse, and suddenly they are better. Harper has looked pretty bad before, and sometimes I thought she was dying. And then she rallied.”

“I hope she rallies.”

“Me too,” I said. The wind howled outside. My dog was downstairs. Breathing. Breathing. Not getting up. My poor baby. “And who knows. She’s made of magical stuff. Maybe she’ll outlive us all.”

Leo sighed deeply. “Mom,” he said. He spoke slowly. Like he was explaining something obvious to an idiot. “There is only like a two percent chance of that happening.”

I told him that I liked those odds. And then I kissed him goodnight.