Outside The Box

One of my dear friends lives with just her dogs. She also lives with ashes.  She has a doggie shrine shelf. All of her past beloved dogs’ ashes are in beautiful urns gathered together. They are nestled like a family reunion photograph. The urns don’t all have names or tags, but she can tell you who everyone is and stories galore. Though it might sound odd, it is strangely comforting and gives her house a sense of family. Our friendship began sometime after I filled one of those urns.

The last thing I needed to do for Bronte was to be able to bring her remains back home. The hard part really was over, now was my promise to her to make her ashes the very best they could be. I realize that may sound odd. Truth is, most times perfect ashes are not what come out, but they are what I send home. I think we all believe in the “dust to dust.” I know as a child forming my first pictures from church readings, that is what I imagined “ashes to ashes” meant. Ashes are the fine pieces that simply wisp away off your hand at the slight whisper of a wind.

Lana waited for me in another part of the building, and I worked alone. I turned up the radio and diligently turned fragments to dust. Surprisingly I found comfort and tears simultaneously. Amazed how warm I felt to the process this time; how intimate it was to me. Suddenly Nat King Cole and Natalie were singing “Unforgettable.” Oh how my heart skipped, and I sang. My fingers sifted Bronte’s ashes for pieces. I found the metal pins from her knee surgery and I smiled. Eight weeks of carrying her up and down stairs, two and three times a day. Yes, I smiled and sang. And still cried.

Bronte’s ashes fit perfectly into the simple walnut box. Lana screwed on the bottom and I placed the brass nameplate on the top. I funneled a  small bit of ashes  into a tiny locket for her “Aunt Tracey.” Sunday night, the box was on the coffee table in front of the couch, almost as though she slept one more night with us.

Monday morning, I woke staring at it. Right there, eye level. I couldn’t get up. I was frozen and cried. The house was silent. David was still at the vet. There was no routine. No school day: Let Bronte out. Let David out. Me pee. Get Bronte’s breakfast and meds ready. Take my meds. Turn coffee pot back on from Lana. Run upstairs. Feed Sarton-Simone breakfast before Bronte back in. Run downstairs. Let Bronte in and feed. Get showered. Get dressed. Let David in kennel with treat. Leave Bronte with treat. Stop Harley and Erik from wrestling. Poor coffee to go. Gather stuff for schoolbag. Give treats to Harley and Erik. Wish everybody a good day. Grab my keys, my coffee cup and go. Instead nothing. Routine gone. What was I supposed to do?

I lay on the couch for what seemed ages, contemplating and agonizing on how to leave.

Bronte’s box went to the top of the entertainment center. I don’t know where else to put the box. I’m still sleeping on the couch. I don’t know why. I’m not sure what it means to return to my bed upstairs. I’m not ready to leave her ashes alone. I did the parts I know. I don’t know how to live with ashes.

Crossing Over (Part Two)

Lana, the good Dr., and my friend Coleen say kind sweet words to me. I don’t hear the actual words as I slip Bronte’s collar from her neck. How naked she looks without it. A pattern is left on her neck like the missing wedding band on the ring finger. Our commitment is complete. They leave me with my baby.

At that moment, all of me slips down between the cement walls of the hospital run, nothing is left on the ceiling. My chest falls forward and my head rests on Bronte’s side, her head still on my leg. Completely embraced and covered by me, I just let go and cry. (Even typing now, I’m blinking back wetness. Looking through a streaked camera lens). Bronte smells of her dogness and her cancer-mouth. She is warm and soft. She is my baby’s body, but not her heart.

Everyone comes back. We all curl around Bronte and pet on her and tell a story or just say what a good girl she was. The good Dr. leaves. I know it’s time to prepare my girl. A little white blanket that she liked to lay on seemed appropriate. There is also a little bandana. The bandana says “Teacher’s Pet.” Though Bronte was never really a bandana girl, the bandana had been a gift years ago from a special person. The friend had simply been out traveling, seen it, and thought of Bronte.

It is really amazing what we will do for the love of a good dog. I was lucky; everyone who knew Bronte loved her. Often I came second, and I knew that. Truthfully, I grew rather proud of the acceptance my dog acquired.  After all, I did have the “viscous” pitbull. So, at the last-minute, when I had just a trickle of “what if I can’t do for myself?”  It was a huge favor, but Coleen had said she would be there and do whatever, just in case. She said yes to me, but she was also saying yes to Bronte. Though Coleen works with me at the kennel, she hasn’t had to do any cremations. She was willing to sacrifice a lasting memory, a way that she would forever see ‘her’ Bronte.

Bronte could make herself look so very small when she curled herself up. There is a painting by Andrew Wyeth “Master Bedroom.” The dog reminds me of Bronte when she nestled into a pillow. I pull her back legs close to her belly; wrap her tail up with her legs. Gently I curl her front paws together. I curve her head into her chest and rest it on her paws. Her eyes are closed, but she has already lost the coloring in her lips. I move ahead while her body is fully still with me.

I pull one corner of her blanket tightly against her back. Then I pull the corner from the right, which tucks in her tail and back legs. Next I pull over the left corner, which brings her head into her belly. Lastly I bring over the top corner and tuck it around the bottom. My baby is now bundled like any newborn safe from the elements. I pick up my Bronte and cradle her to my chest. She is small crescent and yet feels heavier than her forty-two pounds.

I don’t have to whisper the usual good thoughts to this child, or say how heaven will take care of her, or how well she took care of her mistress. I don’t say any of these things. Bronte knows them. With all the grace in the world I lay my baby down in the cremator. I think of the old little children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep: Should I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  I make sure she is flat and centered and just right. Closing the door, I know my Bronte’s soul is no longer in her body.  I know what is in the cremator is what held my little girls pain. I say my blessing, “Peto Olympus in pacis. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

It is not until after I push the start button do I realize how dark it has gotten. There is a flood light on the back of the building that shines against my back.  I begin to cry and watch my shadow shake along side the cremator. For a while I can only hear my crying. When I gather back my breath, the sounds of the cremator, and the city traffic come back to me. The wind rattles the garbage dumpster and the tree branches overhead. I come back into the world, back into real time. I will go home and wait now. I know Bronte’s spirit left her body; her soul crossed over the “rainbow bridge.” I wait for her body to crossover into ashes.

Crossing Over (Part One)

I cremate pets. For about seven years or so, part of my job as a kennel attendant has been to perform cremations. I’m pretty good at it too. It’s not a hard job, not really. Mostly it takes, tack and compassion. And empathy. Lots of empathy.

I gather the bodies of beloved furry friends. I curl them up, holding their heads, making sure they don’t flop. I wrap their tails around their legs. Bend up their paws. Nestle their muzzle on top of those paws. I push down their eyelids and close up their mouths. I cover their back ends and wipe off their lips. I’ve wrapped them in the blankets, towels, beds, or any other special material an owner might have brought. No matter what they are finally wrapped in, it is if they are a baby wrapped in a bundle from the winter snow. As tiny, and tucked safe as I can make them. I always like it when I can make them small enough for me to carry alone, like they were again the kittens or puppies they once were.

One by one, I carry a tightly wrapped bundle close to my chest. It’s true. The dead do feel heavier. On the way to the cremator, I whisper to the bundled body. Though I know the spirit is gone from the body, I always figure it’s not far. I tell the pet how wonderful he or she was, what a great job the pet did, and now it was time for the heavens to take care of the pet. When I lay the pet’s body in the cremator, I say another short prayer. Closing the cremator door, I say a blessing in Latin, and then turn the cremator on.

Bronte liked going to the vet. She liked everyone there, and thought the place was hers. After all those years of training, that little girl would let you poke and prod her anywhere. Saturday evening was no different. Recently, the only place she went for rides to was the vet.  Even though, she had been a bump all day Saturday, as soon as I said, “You want to go for a ride?” she got up and wiggled out of her kennel. I took a deep breath, grit my teeth and off we went.

Bronte’s routine upon arrival was usually after greeting anyone and everyone, was to make a beeline for the backyard. On the way back it would be to meet and greet the boarding dogs. Then she would sniff and stopped at any opened runs thinking that maybe that would be a good room for the night. Saturday was no different. In her time, we make it back to treatment. We let her decide her choice of room for comfort. Bless my little dog’s heart. She picks a hospital run. So we put down a big comfy blanket and my good little patient just goes over and lies down. The good Dr. asks if I know what the whole process entails? She starts talking about holding off veins and tourniquets. For some reason, I nod.

All I know is that the doctors get the euthanasia “shot” from a special locked cabinet and that this drug is pink. Specifically pink, so it doesn’t get mixed up with others. I know sedatives, sleep, shots, and done. I think if I slow down my thinking to ask questions, I will fall apart. So instead, I say, “just tell me what to do.” I do what the good Dr. says, and I tell Bronte what a good girl she is. God, she was a good girl. One shot under her skin between her shoulders, already lying down and she got sleepy.

Then we try to find a good vein for the pink stuff. Neither front leg did well with finding a vein. We had to go to a back leg. So with my first practice at holding off a vein, I helped find the “golden” vein for my girl’s final destination.

Life may slip silently away but death is instant and heavy. I knew before the good Dr.’s stethoscope confirmed the absent heartbeat. Bronte’s head lying on my leg, suddenly felt like a brick. I knew stroking her neck and shoulder. She was gone. Just that easy. Leaning over her, that’s when the great big moon tears dropped. I watched them fall on her ears and collar. “I know,” I whispered.

To be continued…

Writing On The Ceiling

Be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being. Today is. Tomorrow was. I’ve always had a great respect for words. I taught my students that if they could control their writing; they could control their world. The ability to write meant they could frame their world the way they wanted when they wrote about it. I do believe that idea, just not so much today. Today, I would write differently.

Today I check what is the world I can’t control. Bronte’s cancer will not get better. It will deteriorate. Eventually, she will not look herself at all. She can no longer eat from her bowl. It bothers her too much. I imagine it’s that she can’t get her mouth opened far enough to lick the edges. She eats off a plate. She sleeps most of her day. While sleeping or lying down, she’s come to drooling. Her drools grow bloody. She has started coughing, not a dry cough, but one with something in it. Her breathing today sounds like how we would sound with a really bad cold, only it’s not a cold. All of this check list can only mean more pain and more meds.

Growing up, I learned an emotional survival tool. As a child, whenever I was in an overwhelming emotional situation that I couldn’t get out of,  I would simply let my inside leave and float up to a corner of the ceiling in the room. I would watch whatever bad or sad thing was going on, but I would be safe. I no longer was a participant; I was a spectator and could not be hurt emotionally. As an adult, I have continued to keep this tool in my back pocket. Up in the corner of the ceiling, I could see myself on the floor go through the motions. I was looking at a scenario being played out, like I was watching a movie. Up in the corner, what I was watching was not real; it was pretend and could not hurt me. And on the floor, what part of me was left in the situation had little or no feeling left. On the floor, I simply endured and persevered telling myself it had to end sometime. Telling myself, it will be over soon. I will deal with it afterward alone.

Bronte awoke and asked to go out at 5:30 this morning. While she was out, I prepared her latest meal of choice: scrambled eggs and doggie hash (her canned dog food). It’s strange, but the meal actually smells pretty good while cooking. I thought, “the last breakfast.” The tears started to come. I finished cooking and plated the meal. I cut up her “peells,” as we call them in our house. I put the plate aside, up high (away from Erik and Harley), so it can cool. I fixed Erik and Harley’s breakfast. Then I went to wait by the kitchen door. I watched and waited. I lost controlled and just cried. I cried enough that my shoulders shook. When I saw Bronte come around the corner from the shed, I stopped. “I can’t do this all day,” I thought. “She deserves a good day.” It’s raining outside; it doesn’t need to rain inside.

I take the deep breath, wipe my eyes, and decide the day will be spent up in the ceiling. I cannot control the cancer. I cannot control time and slow it down. I can give Bronte dignity. I can give myself good memories. I can lie here on the couch with Bronte sleeping next to me and write our day. I cannot write the day I want. Tomorrow I will slip back down from the ceiling and write, “the day was.” Today I can only write “the day is.”

Sharing Shadows

Today I am Bronte’s shadow.  All day, I go where she goes. I do what she does. I don’t want to be out of her sight. She seems to feel my need to stay close, so she helps me out. When I go to the bathroom, she comes and stands by the door and waits for me. Instead of sleeping so much in her kennel, she stays on the couch or the dog bed on the living room floor.

When I was forty-two years old, Bronte was forty-two.  I liked that we were the same age for that year. It felt like we had an extra physical bond. You know how it’s said about dogs and owners looking or being the same? I think that’s true. Granted sometimes it harder to figure the similarities because they may not be physical, but instead be behavioral. Sometimes I do think that’s Bronte and me.

On the surface, Bronte seems intimidating and stoic. The phrase, her “bark is worse than her bite” comes to mind. I mean she’s a pit right, who’s going to mess with her. Bronte walks down the street and grown men cross the street and go the other way. Though really we know she’s just a big sappy marshmallow who will lick you to death if you let her. Though I’m not intimidating like Bronte is, my height and quietness would sometimes be seen as arrogance or aloofness.  Like Bronte, we do so much better in small groups, and best one on one. But I will add what we both share is a great need to be stubborn and “bull-headed,” so to speak.

When she had her knee surgery I knew she was my canine twin. In fact, she had the surgery, I probly should have. Then the arthritis and back issues came. Yes, we were growing into one personality. Together we have come to share six legs with arthritic knees, a couple stiff backs, short blondish white hair, and one big heart.

Today was raining and rainy. During just a rainy time, Bronte and I took a walk around the yard. There were no shadows. It was too cloudy.  I liked the sun this past week with breezy skies. I’m glad that Bronte had so much time outside in the bright warmth. Depending the time of day we walked, the two of us would look so tall and thin in our shadows. You could barely notice either of  our “crickitiness.” I’m glad for rain today, and even more tomorrow.

Shadows let you know where the light is. Shadows mark time. After this weekend, Bronte and I will not have a shadow.

Creeping Wisteria

I like wisteria until you have to repair the wooden fence. The wisteria is beautiful and smells sweet. Still the vines spread around the crooks and crannies of the fence, twisting. The vines strengthen, grab hold and begin to crush and break parts of the fence. All these Bronte stories and sweet memories grow quickly in these entries, and just as fast as, they begin to twist with thoughts of the impending journey’s end. I know that’s what is going to happen; I know because as the days get closer I fight more to keep those thoughts from my mind and heart.

It’s getting harder to fend off these creeping thoughts. I’m terribly weak at her midnight med. I scramble an egg for her; watch her eat to get the med, and then let her out. That’s the moment, when I watch her just look for her “spot” in the yard. She then walks about a bit, checking on our safety. During the safety patrol, I tend to start losing strength. The reality that very soon I will lose my best friend. The phrase “this is the last….” is starting to slip in if I’m not careful.

I have such a hard time leaving for school in the morning knowing that it is time that I’m losing with Bronte. At some point, every morning on 95, I find tears at 60 mph. I’ve had to compose myself in the parking lot before going in. These past couple days I can hide a bit in my work because most don’t know. Except this morning, I show up at a meeting where a dear friend is also in attendance. I knew she knew. I knew she wanted to ask how I was. If I even opened my mouth, it would have gasping rivers down my face. My head down, I waved off my friend’s question.

Bronte is the trusted confidante that I never imagined. She is my first lifetime adult canine love really. There was a puppy that was with me only a few months and I lost to a car accident. Though I grew up with dogs, as an adult, I thought I shouldn’t have one until I lived at a house with a yard. A dog needed a yard. That’s how I saw it. I also had a pretty stilted idea of what I wanted in a dog. I wanted the equivalent of the “little new house with a white picket fence.” I wanted the cute little puppy, social and curious. A dog that played with everybody and everything. Trainable and well-behaved. Bronte arrived as none of those things. In truth, as anyone who knows me has heard, I didn’t want the scared abused little pitbull. She had too many issues, and well, she was a pitbull after all. Little did I foresee what she would grow into.

Well so much for all of that, a trainer, hours of work, and years later she became a wonderful work in progress.  Many who know her now, could never imagine the little weak puppy she grew from. And very soon, I will have to face the world without her. She will take with her all of my secrets and confidences for the past twelve years. Bronte is a fabulous listener. Oh and gives words of support. Yes, she talks. Really. Most people with dogs, the family member kind of dogs, will tell you the same. Their dogs talk to them. Some of my dog friends and I will even even sit around and laugh about which dogs swear. We talk about how much they swear or not. Whether it’s just a simple word or two, or maybe the dog swears like a sailor. For the record, I think Bronte can swear a lot if provoked to it. I mean she is a pit, and has a poker face. We do keep appearances along the front fence. Even now, many might not guess how sick she is, how much her cancer is gripping around her bones.

The waggy butt sideways dancing, snoring, happy-greeting, trusting, listening “vicious” marshmallow  “money” pit bull of my Bronte is going to go on without me because she got sick, and I have to let her go.  Before her cancer wrecks her body and all that makes her the stoic little girl she is, she has to leave with colorful dignity.  I can’t stop what the cancer started. This time before the beautiful wisteria completely destroys all that is and was the fence, I need to keep the choking vines from growing: sacrificing the beautiful wisteria

Greetings and Sighs

When I got home tonight, Lana was outside with David and Bronte. Bronte was way back near the porch, far enough away from the gate. David is pretty good about backing up away from the gate as you prop it open and drive through. Then close the gate behind. Lana never imagined that Bronte would suddenly dart across the driveway in her rabbit run to want to greet me. It was a surprise to me too, considering the past week. In fact, Lana had to grab hold of Bronte’s collar to keep her from running up along side the car. I didn’t bother closing the windows, getting my book bag or anything. I just turned the key and got out to meet her, wiggling and hopping up beside the car. I pet her, and she darted off to the porch for water, and then to the door.

I think any dog person would have to agree that to be “greeted” by a dog is pure joy. I believe it to be one of the simplest gifts from a dog. To know that no matter how bad my day might be, there would always be Bronte at the end of it to greet me with glee and exuberance.

When Bronte and I lived alone in our “Museum District” apartment, she would greet me with that same wiggling tail hopping sideways dance. But as soon as I would pet her, she tore off and raced a line through the apartment from the living room to the kitchen, and back again. How I would hold my breath, amazed that she never ran into anything. Later, when she was recovering from knee surgery, I had to move the dining room table to block her direct racing line, hoping to slow her down. What was most amazing was when she and I moved downstairs. It had never occurred to me, how loud her racing might be to the downstairs neighbors. We had all lived together in that building for over six years and no one had ever said anything about Bronte’s greeting ritual.

Another gift from Bronte is her sigh. You know the one. The one that says, “all is right with the world.” Bronte has checked everything. Then she begins to spin and finally collapses. Her breathing slows. Eventually, she takes a big breath and releases a deep loud sigh. It is at that moment, I know I’m safe. I know at that moment, my world has been tucked in for the evening and I can crawl in under the sheets, assured of slumber knowing that she has everything under control.

It is easier to write in this space, than to worry about how I will come to fill those voids. I don’t want to think about what won’t be. I’m really not so brave. Truth is, there is selfishness. A selfishness that wonders, how will I know I’m home?  How will I know my slumber will be safe?