My little black shadow is following me silently today.
His toenails are not clicking on the hardwood floor, paws shuffling after me. He is not scratching at the door to be let out. Or in. Again. He is not barking for a cookie. He is not coughing, struggling to catch a breath, his little heart working increasingly harder but accomplishing less.
I hear clearly what I desperately miss – the thump, thump, thump of his wagging tail against the side of his crate every morning, always excited to see me. If he was awake, that tail was wagging. Sometimes even before the rest of him was awake. When that tail got going it wagged the entire little black dog, from tail to hips to shoulders. Even his feet got happy.
I can hardly focus at all in the midst of all the noise the little black dog is not making.
He spent most of his days by my feet or at my heels. I’m not an excellent sitter. It’s one of my challenges as a writer, keeping my own tail in the chair. I pop up when the washing machine goes silent. I pace. I heat up my coffee or grab a snack. But when I do sit, my little black dog sleeps at my feet. A closed door separating him and me distressed him so much that he put long, desperate scratches in the bedroom door. And the kitchen door. And especially the front door. In recent weeks, he moved noticeably more slowly, so I waited for him, holding the door open a few moments longer to allow my constant companion time to join me.
He was everything the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is reputed to be – affectionate, playful, loyal, gentle, and prone to overeating. When the kids started kindergarten and elementary school and their confidence increased, along with their time away from mom, the little black dog stayed home with me. When Sam died, the little black dog, with his therapeutic spaniel ears, comforted us through long, dark nights. We called him “Love in a dog shape.”
He also suffered from the heart murmur that commonly afflicts his breed. His little heart worked overtime his whole life; in the last year, he started three different heart medications. Yet his tail still wagged. I didn’t look to his head for confirmation that he was well, I looked to his tail. Between his declining health and hearing, his ears did not always respond to the first noise of my homecoming. But his tail always did.
Until yesterday. When I walked in after my morning run, no part of him wiggled or wagged at all. Not at the beeping of the house alarm, not when I called his name, not when I knelt to touch his head. The worst part was not the silent tail or the still heart or the unmoving ears or even the blue tongue, evidencing his heart failure. It wasn’t his final piddle on the floor. The worst part was the long, teary day, waiting for my boys to come home from school. Their first puppy. A faithful friend. Always up for a game of fetch. Or a cozy nap. Or sharing a snack. That little dog with his soft ears and gentle heart carried their sorrow and lifted their spirits when they were sad. They had that little black dog in their lives longer than they had their own father. My heart aches.
When I do tell them, I worry that I will not hold up under the weight of their grief. We sit together silently, tears running down our faces. We stroke the cold spaniel ears for the last time. We hold his hushed tail. His furry little body is so cold, the first dead body that the boys have touched. It is not creepy or morbid, it’s just sad. There is a sense that the little black dog simply got up and walked away while we weren’t looking, leaving his body behind to let us know that he had gone. We have learned so much about how to love and how to live from the little black dog whose heart was marked with a congenital defect.
Ours may not be a culture comfortable with death and grieving, but ours is a home where broken hearts are seen, and heard and nurtured. None of us ever saw Sam after he died. It is a question that, not surprisingly, the boys bring up now, as they face death once again. The boys were so angry with me when I did not allow them to see their cold, dead father. There is research that supports the idea that children who have seen the body have an easier time coming to terms with the death of a loved one. I cannot now remember where I read that theory, but it does make sense to me. For many, many months, one of the boys wanted to believe that his dad was on an extended business trip. On the other hand, Sam’s body was so terribly disfigured by the trauma of his death that I feared this visual was likely to do more harm than good. I remember asking the police officer whether I could see the body myself, and he looked at me with great sympathy. The words that came out of his mouth were, “You can,” but as he held my eyes with his, willing me to understand, he began to shake his head slowly back and forth. I had never told my sons this story, and it gives us an opportunity – once again – to talk about their dad.
These are not necessarily easy judgment calls to make, and there is no one right answer. For me, I decided that I did not want that grisly picture of Sam to be imprinted on the boys as their last memory of dad. They were so little, and their father was so much more than that one terrible day. In this regard, the little black dog has given us his final gift – a gentle, tender death. The end of his life was not tragic or traumatic. It was just his time to go.
We are, of course, heartbroken.
It is hard to believe that the little dog who was all heart could have died of heart failure. We sit next to him, tenderly stroking his cold hears, but he is gone. His heart no longer fails him, and his love does not fail us. The little black dog is no longer love in a dog shape. He is, simply, love. But we do miss his wiggly waggly self.
I had forgotten how distracting an absence can be. My favorite reading chair has a permanent divot across the top. No amount of fluffing or patting will reinstate its original shape. It was his favorite chair, too. He rested his chin on my shoulder while I read, his tail flopped over my other shoulder. Now I sit with a book open in my lap, staring out the window. The clouds are gathering, growing darker, sunlight dimming and hidden, branches are bending and bowing to the approaching storm.
The raindrops fall gently. I hear his heart murmuring still, mimicked by the thump, thump, thump of his beautiful black tail.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little black shadow.