In retrospect, I must have been under for a very long time, until long after I tired of splitting my fingernails on the underside of the ice. Until I forgot what it was to have lungs that didn’t ache, forgot how it felt not to bleed warmth into the abyss.
I awoke in the desert, but that’s not news.
It’s a good indication that you might not be quite right when you find yourself taking the constellations personally. I woke yesterday far too early, took Heart out for her walk at 4:15 a.m., and as we stepped out the front door they were there: Orion, with the head of his dog Canis Major just coming up over the Wonderland of Rocks.
We walked together again, the four of us.
I have trouble remembering the first months after he died. I was numb, a dangerous and lingering anhedonia. After a few weeks I managed some semblance of recovery. I wore it like a hermit crab would, carrying it with me so I could hide behind it. I saw friends. I got a different job. I wrote things. I remember almost none of it.
It was years before the ice began to break. It took me a while of gasping on the bank before I could stand.
Look, I am broken. We all are broken. Again, not news. My whole life a bottomless pit of imagined loss, despite decades of astonishing fortune in love, in friendship.
For his last six months? I was content. It was enough. It was a frighteningly sad time, leaden with the expectation of certain grief, and yet it was a culmination, to be needed so completely. He asked for very little, but he asked for it constantly. To be held up when he tottered. To be reassured.To be carried when he could not make the last hill.
It was my sole focus, my sole purpose: walking with Zeke. I needed nothing else, wanted nothing else. He took 15 minutes sniffing and then re-sniffing the same tortured boxwood, walking a step away and then seemingly forgetting, then sniffing the boxwood again. I was content. He stared rheumily into the distance as admirers asked the same three questions over and over again, all of them ending with the same sad prediction. It was life. I awoke each hour to look in on him, to make sure he had not fallen or soiled himself. I was terrified and happy.
One night I woke to find him splayed improbably across a cushion, unmoving, and I was sure his time had come without me noticing. I felt for a heartbeat through his still-thick fur. I listened for his breathing and did not hear it. It took an endless 30 seconds for him to open his eyes, part his lips in a smile of greeting. I was eerily calm throughout. I kissed his forehead for perhaps the 50th time that day.
I’d found the third W in the Zen aphorism about what you do before enlightenment and after: Chop Wood, carry Water, go for a Walk. It was as complete and as content a time as I have ever felt.
And then he was gone, and the universe was a wilderness of mocking constellations. Orion kept his dog. Sirius was still a bright clear eye, Canis’ ears stlll folded back as he regarded his two-legged partner. The ice beneath my feet began to crack.
Zeke started his rapid decline ten years ago next week.
When a dog is broken, she does not hide it behind layers of subterfuge and curdled resentment the way a human might. Even a terrified dog is honest. Even a shattered dog will forgive those who never hurt her, in time. It took me longer. The universe built to culminate in those six months of my walking with Zeke, and then useless, an empty and discardable husk.
And Canis still chased Orion across the winter sky.
People will tell you it gets better. It never does. You might get better at pretending it does.
A phrase from a friend to describe her late dog: “one of your internal organs walking around on its own.” Then she laughed, and said “but you know. Look what you named yours.”
One winter night before Heart got her name, we walked out into the desert as Orion was rising. It was a few weeks after the hermit crab carapace I’d toted for years finally splintered. There was nothing between me and the constellations. The dog pulled at the other end of Zeke’s old leash, and I wondered what on earth I was thinking to consider getting back in line to ride the world’s worst rollercoaster. If all went well, I’d go through one of the worst losses in my life in my early seventies. And if it took another six years to catch my wind again?
I sat down suddenly, on the berm along a dirt road a mile and a half from the house. Sirius shone remote. Zeke panted behind me, unseen. And others, too. Gilgamesh. Kudzu. Dogs I’d never met. Shalom, Stella. Chupacabra. I knew the wrenching grief they’d left behind, though they never would have wanted it. I was not strong enough to go through that again, and I began to cry helplessly at the inevitability of betraying this sweet dog by handing her back to the rescue.
“Love isn’t worth it,” I told her. “It’s just a thing we tell ourselves we feel so we don’t have to think about how bad all of this hurts.”
She sat in front of me, sniffed a little at the wetness on my beard.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.