The thing about grief is that it is unpredictable. It sneaks up on you out of nowhere. It makes no sense, but then it does. It can turn one memory into hours worth of memories, which then turns into tears and pain. You think you’ve got it down. You think you understand how you feel about something, and then everything changes. And then nothing makes sense again.
This time of year has been hard for me since I lost my dad in 1992. A memory from the past settles in and the smile it brought is washed away by the longing for what will never be again. It can be triggered by something that doesn’t relate at all to the actual event, but has enough to bring a piece back. It can be the glimmer of a red Christmas light in the dark twinkling on a tree and I am six years old kneeling on my grandmother’s living room floor opening gifts with my dad. That is a memory that comes yearly, like clockwork. I spent the least amount of time with my dad and his mom at Christmas, and then only a handful of years, yet this moment in time is etched into my mind.
I long for the magic from that night. For just the three of us to sit around a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve and open gifts together. To have my dad’s undivided attention. To feel special and loved. To feel like I was the most important person in his life. To see the joy on my grandmother’s face as she watched her son watch his daughter. I don’t remember any of the gifts I received, but I remember the moments we spent together. I remember the magical feelings that filled me as I watched my dad open the gifts I carefully made for him, and wrapped with scraps of paper. I remember the love. I remember the safety that came, when it rarely was present.
I think about how different life would have been if he had lived for more than ten years of my life. I wonder if he would have been a gentler grandfather, or what he would have done if he had found out about the people that hurt me. I wonder if he would have found his true love, or at least happiness. The small moments leave the most impact.
Thoughts about loss always stir up other losses. When I think about my dad’s death, I think about his mom. I think about my grandfather, and then my uncle, and my gram, and then my mom. I think about how many people I no longer have in my life. I think about the traditions we used to have, and the predictably that came from them. In a life filled with chaos, predictability is an unfamiliar, and much needed break.
As I tried to recall some of the good memories, few came. The harder I try to conjure them up, the deeper I fall into the memories that I have tried to put to rest. Memories so hideous, they make me not even want to remember. The joy quickly washed away by shame from an incident that happened more than thirty years ago. And then, I question everything. Every smile and every laugh. Every fleeting moment of safety. Was it all a lie?
Of course it was.
Of course it was never as it seemed. And that realization gets me every time. I reach for the giant pencil, the pink eraser intact and try my hardest to undo what was done. As I walk through the pink rubber shavings, I spin the pencil around to try to rewrite the story. I try to hang on to the sparks of joy that were not tainted by abuse, by molestation, by hate, by anger, by fear. I try to hang on to any little glimmer of happiness I can find in the darkness the memories have created.
And then it crashes down around me. It was that bad. It was. I can make my heart believe it wasn’t, or that I was making it up, or overrating, but my brain tells me I am wrong. Logic says I am lucky I survived. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to not fallen into the hands of addiction. Lucky to be able to force a smile when there was no reason to.
And that, that is why the Holidays will never be like they are on TV. That is why as hard as I try my joy this time of year will always be a little false. That is why I may disappear when everyone else comes together. Because the joy I try to hold onto is covered in thorns from the past. As many gloves I can protect myself with, there will always be one thorn that will reach my core.
I will not stop picking the roses, because even through the pain, and even through the darkness, there is enough light to keep me on my journey onward.
If you notice someone is a little quieter than usual, or choose to keep to themselves, know that there could be generations of painful memories swarming their thoughts. Something as simple as a candy cane can bring someone pain. Be gentle with them. Be gentle with yourself.
We cannot heal what we do not allow ourselves to feel.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had a dog, sometimes many. My childhood was not filled with happy memories; but it was filled with love and lots of fur. There were many times in my life where I didn’t have friends, well not the human kind, but I always had a friend in my dogs.
I was lucky to have dogs at home and at my gram’s house, and even at my dad’s house for much of my time there. Some of my earliest memories are of times spent outside playing with my four legged friends. My gram had a hound dog, Daisy, who she adopted when she failed to make a great hunting dog. She was tall and lean and brown spots covered her silky white coat. She was older when we met, and to escape from some of the other dogs my gram had, she would rest on the floor of my gram’s closet. She made the perfect companion when I needed to escape from the world with a book. I remember many days when we sat together under coat tails and slacks.
Another friend was Jake. He was a handsome red Golden Retriever. He was gentle and patient and made a great friend to lay on the floor under a comforter in front of the television while I colored. He was a calm old guy, who could always make me feel safe. When he went for rides with us he loved to sing. A favorite song of ours had lyrics that went sort of like this: We’re going for a ride, and we’re never coming back, and the train goes choo-choo. A little darker than I remember as a kid, but he loved it and howled along with us. I can still see his smile as he sat in the back seat between my brother and me.
A sleek black Doberman Pitbull mix was one of the many dogs that lived with us when we moved in with my dad. She was my guardian, and tried her hardest to keep me safe. This often resulted in her getting hit or kicked out of the way. When a neighbor boy broke into our home as a joke, she was the first to greet him with a fierce bite…he learned to never try that again. She came to Bob’s house with us when we left my dad, and her fine judge of character skills was sharp…he knew the easiest way to get away with being miserable was to get rid of Zuul. He pulled her tail and when she growled at him we had to find her a new home. That was one of the hardest goodbyes, because she didn’t understand why she couldn’t come home with us. I felt like I had let her down. In hindsight, she probably had a much better life without him in it.
Candy was a sensitive Husky that lived with my dad and his mom. She was white with grey course fur. She loved me as her own, even though we didn’t see each other that often. My dad could be cruel, but she loved him no matter what. After he died, she would sit at the end of her leash on the top of my grandmother’s lawn waiting for my dad to return. She eventually died of a broken heart. She was my savior when I visited my grandmother and dad. I didn’t speak unless I was hungry, thirsty, or wanted to go to the bathroom, but Candy didn’t care. She sat with me and let me pat her as anxiety and fear circulated my insides.
Lady, a slender Golden Retriever with long red hair came home with my mom one day she went to the grain store. She came to us with two names because her previous owners were in the middle of a custody battle over her and couldn’t even agree what to call her. My mom said the man said if she didn’t take her he was going to shoot her. My mom could never resit a new pet and Lady came to live with us.
Lady quickly became my best friend. There were many days she was my only friend. She was sweet and motherly, giving me the love and comfort I couldn’t find in my mom. She played hide and seek and tag with me. Some days when my sister and I were at school Lady would walk the half mile to see if she could find us. Teachers sent her home, but she was always looking for us. When I moved in with my gram, a scratch at the door would let us know Lady was there for a visit. She would sit on the couch with me or even lay on my bed with me while I listened to sad 90s music. She would stay with me until my mom yelled over for her to return for the night.
When I was seventeen Lady was at the end of her life. She had Cancer and we were told we had to say goodbye. I went to the vets with my mom and stayed with her as they administered the dose that would stop her sweet, gentle heart. I lost my best friend that day, and vowed to never let any other dog past my wall because I never wanted to feel that pain again.
Toby was an early Christmas gift the year my dad died. He was a long haired mix with big brown eyes. His brown, white and black fur never stayed neat, much like how I wore my hair. He was my first dog I could call my own. He loved me and helped me through my first real loss. He came with me when I went to stay at my gram’s house, and later, when I was in foster care, he was able to live with me too. He got me through many emotional days and nights. He knew all of my secrets and loved me just the same. After losing Lady, I still loved Toby, but I distanced myself enough to not feel the pain. I honestly do not remember now how or when Toby died.
Abbie and Scott are the dogs that came into my life as an adult. After a few years of not having any dogs in my life these two became part of the family. The vow to not get too close still stood, and even though their love and sweetness exuded from them, I did not want to let myself get hurt again. They have been through a lot as pets in a domestic violence household. They were both abused and still give as much love as they can. Abbie was depressed and Scott has anxiety due to the environment they were in for the first few years of their life.
When we were able to escape the domestic violence I started dating. I knew I didn’t want to be with someone like the man we escaped. I knew right away George was different. He had a best friend, Belvedere, a sweet, intelligent yellow lab. When I met Belvedere I was impressed with their relationship. George and Belvedere loved each other and I knew when I saw them together my initial thought was correct.
Belvedere’s love was strong. His big, brown eyes held so much love and he was eager to share it. Right away he let me share George with him, and as my love for George grew, so did my love for Belvedere. The wall I had built so many years ago when I lost Lady slowly began to crumble. Maybe it was because I was finally in a safe relationship, being loved for who I was, or maybe it was because Belvedere was so much like Lady. The same gentle spirit and enormous heart. It was impossible to keep his love out.
As my wall crumbled I was able to receive Abbie and Scott’s love. Now three dogs held my heart after so many years of closing it off. With great love comes great pain. That was something I knew, but chose to forget.
On my birthday this year we took Belvedere to the vets because he wasn’t acting right and it looked like he had gained a lot of weight. We were told he had a large mass in his belly area and the outcome was most likely poor. We scheduled the needed ultrasound for the next appointment, the day after the Holiday, and it was confirmed he had a mass on his spleen. Emergency surgery was the only option that we were given that could possibly save him. We were leaving for New York for our wedding just days away. An opening for the surgery was available the very next day, which would allow him to travel with us to be part of our big day.
The day of his surgery I waited for the call to let me know he was OK. I waited. And waited. And waited, until the phone finally rang. It was the vet telling me they had him in the operating room and found that the growth had spread to other parts of his body and asked if we wanted her to continue. I knew in my heart he would make it through surgery, and she had to continue. A few hours later we got the call that he did make it and we were allowed to bring him home to recover.
Four days after his surgery he took the six hour drive to New York with us and he was able to share the day with us. He even wore a matching bow tie. When we returned from our trip we had a message to call the vet, the results from the biopsy had came in. It was now George’s birthday. It was the day we learned Belvedere had cancer. It was the day the hope we held that he was going to be OK faded away. We made an appointment to talk about treatment options, and tried a few. Still the cancer was spreading, and we were told it was only a matter of time.
How do you live everyday knowing it might be the last day with one of your best friends? The first few months after his surgery he was like his old self. He wanted to play ball, he wanted treats, and he gave lots of love. His eyes sparkled and his tail wagged. As the days passed, his energy drifted away, but his appetite didn’t leave. He was changing, but he was still full of love.
A couple weeks ago we knew his days with us were limited. George’s one wish was for Belvedere to make it to Thanksgiving with us. It was his favorite Holiday, because he loved turkey so much. The Wednesday before Belvedere’s appetite had left and he was having a hard time walking. As he laid on the kitchen floor I sat with him and gave him Reiki. I sent the intention to take his pain away and let him enjoy his favorite day. When we went to bed he came with us, and early in the morning he got sick. A few hours later, after he took his medication, he became his old self for a few hours. He was in the kitchen with me as I cooked our Thanksgiving meal, and he napped by the oven as the aroma from the turkey circulated around him.
When it was time to eat, he was by George’s side, something he had stopped doing before. His happy eyes and smile returned as we gave him turkey and ate our meal. Thanksgiving was a good day, for him, and us.
On Saturday morning he stopped eating and started having a hard time walking. He didn’t come up to bed with us. His tail still wagged, and he used all of his energy to give as much love as he could. We knew the time we didn’t want to come had arrived. We hoped we were wrong, but on Monday morning, we knew we had to let him go.
Because Belvedere hated the car, the vet was able to make a home visit the following day. We spent as much time as we could with him. When I had to leave the house to get the kids, Abbie left the comfort of the couch to lay with Belvedere on the kitchen floor until we returned. Even Abbie loved Belvedere.
On Tuesday we all spent time with Belvedere to say our goodbyes. When I returned home that morning, he took the last of his energy to greet me for the last time as I returned home. The day was gloomy, cloudy and snowy. When the vet arrived the sun came out, and as we sat on the floor with Belvedere a rainbow danced on his back. As sad as I was, I knew he was going to be happy and free. He was going to play ball and eat as many treats as he wanted. He was going to be the early Christmas gift for my gram and George’s. The image of my gram’s loving smile was all I could picture as I gave him Reiki in his last moments.
The pain is raw, and much like the day I said goodbye to Lady. The thought of the love and happiness he took with him leave me with tears. The house is empty without him, even still full with the five of us and the two dogs. We are missing a huge part of our life. It always amazes me the amount of space one person, one dog took up energetically. While we have them, it is hard to see their true impact, but when they are gone, it is all you can see. I know he hasn’t left us. I know he will be with us, waiting by the treat bag. Today, the first day I returned home and wouldn’t see his wagging tail and happy eyes, I found a tuft of fur on the floor in the mudroom before I opened the front door. I know it was his way to let us know he hasn’t left, and bring us comfort. Because even when he was hurting, he still gave his everything to make sure we were OK. His love is endless. His heart was pure. He was one of the greatest losses of our family.
As the pain floods me, I can’t help remember the vow I took to never feel this pain again. I think about the times I pushed the love away, and then I think about what I missed out on. I am grateful he was part of my life, our life. I am grateful he taught me it was OK to love again. I am grateful that the love was worth the pain.
It’s hard to understand why creatures with such big hearts have such a short time in our lives. It’s hard to understand how people can be so cruel, and judging, and evil, where there are pets who love with all they have. It doesn’t make sense, but I am grateful for the lesson.
Until we meet again. Thank you for the love. Thank you for the lessons. Thank you for being you. As Tom Petty says, “You’ve Got A Heart So Big.”