Seven years ago today, I lost my first child. I chose Autumn the day she was born from a litter of twelve. For the next 11 years and 11 months, she was by my side through travels across country, marriage and divorce, and the birth of a new human baby. In honor and remembrance of our lives together, I am posting a piece of the book I wrote about her. I miss my dear friend, my love.
The day Autumn died, I woke up and did not immediately know this would be the day. She was lying in the living room, half on the hardwood floors and halfway on the rug. She barely looked up to acknowledge my entering the room, a sure sign something was off, but she had been listless for days because of the unusual heat.
The night before, she had been so hot. So hot that after I removed her from the tiles on the bathroom floor and placed her in a cold bath, the place where her tummy had been touching the floor remained warm for hours. Literally hours. A sick and dreadful feeling filled my stomach when I walked into that bathroom so long after putting her in that bath and could feel the warmth in the floor where she had been.
The heat of those summer days finished her off, I have no doubt of it. She could not withstand the hundred degree temperatures. The last few days before she died, I would come home and find her inert with exhaustion. She would not move. Her stomach would feel like an iron. I would then run a bath of cool water and lay her in it. This perked her up because she needed that cooling off. I don’t know whether her body was incapable of regulating its temperature anymore. The diabetes did so much else to her body; I could see it killing her thermometer too.
That morning, she was lying there and I didn’t immediately register how badly she was doing. I began to get ready for work, roused Milla out of bed, was busily doing my thing, when I made a horrific discovery.
Neon green ooze had leaked of Autumn. It looked like she had peed and was lying in it, but it was not yellow. The color was not anything I had seen from a living thing before, the color of a summer lime popsicle. My entire body went cold upon seeing that ooze. I carefully cleaned it up and moved Autumn into the kitchen. She was more listless than ever. She could barely stand. My throat was tight. It was beginning to dawn that she would not reach her twelfth birthday.
What was that, the desire for her to reach another birthday? All along while dealing with this wretched disease, I had wanted her to reach another birthday. After her initial diabetic episode, I was not sure she would ever reach her eleventh birthday. Then it was Christmas. Then I began to think maybe she would just keep living through a few birthdays, just looking like a skeleton.
I realize now she was gradually worsening, but having her there with me every day I did not notice the decline. Up until three weeks before her death she still liked chasing things. She couldn’t see while she was chasing things, so we had to accommodate, but she still liked doing it. She even seemed to enjoy looking for the ball or stick or toy she could not see.
That’s the trouble with living with a degenerative disease; you don’t notice the degeneration because you’re so busy managing it. And when the good days completely outweigh the bad, which Autumn’s did, it is easy to forget that the one you’re taking care of is on her way out of this world.
And for some reason I had arbitrarily decided that Autumn had to make it to August 16 and her twelfth birthday. It was like that day could save her somehow, even though I knew in my gut it was not true.
While lying in the kitchen, more neon green ooze came out and she just laid in it. It was this that made it clear to me that Autumn was finally really dying. I gave her an insulin shot. I tried to feed her, but she would not eat. She would not even eat wet food. More dread. More tightening in the throat and drying in the mouth.
I debated taking her to work with me, initially deciding against it. Then as I bustled about, fitting into the routine that made forgetting easier for the moment, I realized that if I did not take her to work with me I would not see her this last day and I could not do that.
I worried about the office, whether anyone would care that I dragged in my skeleton dog. I worried about her needing to go potty. I finally decided to bring a towel and tell anyone who cared that this child of mine, my first baby I picked out the day she was born, was dying and if that person was heartless enough to tell me to take her away I would tell them to go to hell, but no one did. No one said a word. If I hadn’t had clients, I would not have gone, but I’ve figured out working on my own that I am the only backup, the biggest drawback to self-employment. The clients who came to see me that day were extremely sympathetic. One woman who came in shared a similar story of losing her own beloved pet.
I still have the bowl Autumn drank from the day she died. I cannot bear to put it back in the office kitchen. The day I returned to the office after she died I bawled when I saw that bowl. I had heard people speak of feeling “raw” and I now know what they meant. I felt absolutely exposed those first days after she was gone, like nothing was protecting me. Vulnerable. Words I had heard and sort of experienced, but not like this. No, this was worse.
Watching someone gradually die is the epitome of the expression a blessing and a curse. You are blessed with having your loved one there with you, but you are cursed with their disease. One minute you are wishing they would just finally go, the next minute you are thrashing yourself for the thought, the guilt a cloak you wear constantly. When they finally go, those moments creep up on you, those moments when you had ardently wished the afflicted would die, and you curse yourself, wondering whether your wishes contributed to their demise, knowing intellectually this is not possible, then reasoning emotionally that perhaps the dying one felt your anger and this brought their death sooner. Guilt: a horrible, ugly poison.
I know guilt is not one of the traditional stages of grieving, but they ought to add it to the list for those of us who have lived with someone who has a degenerative illness. It has to be there for all of us. I cannot imagine anyone being a one-hundred percent perfect nurse to a degenerative patient, and those moments when you are not perfect come back to haunt you. Maybe only a little bit, but they are there. I like to think I’m an emotionally healthy person. I’ve managed to talk myself out of those moments, but they came up nonetheless and they can be brutal during the first days after the loved one dies. Like little bits of acid spray on the raw wound of grief.
Mostly though, I remember Autumn with tenderness and affection. Her body was so decrepit in the end, such a mess. A few months after her death, I watched a video I took of her two weeks before that day and her body was an emaciated skeleton. So sad. I took the video that morning because I thought that was her last day, rather than the day she actually died.
Throughout her life Autumn followed me wherever I would go, no matter how trivial or short the trip. Going into the kitchen for a glass of water? There was Autumn, at my side. Going for a short visit to the toilet? Autumn would rise from wherever she had been lying, follow me in, sighing heavily as she laid down next to me, then rising again thirty seconds later to follow me back to wherever I had been.
On that last day, when work was over, I picked Milla up from school and we headed south out of town for Dr. Fletcher’s in Albany. Debbie and Robert maintained a phone link, planning to be there for me in the end. I called Dr. Fletcher as well, to let him know we were on our way.
It was a warm day, hot and yellow. Autumn lay on the front seat, curled up. I kept petting her and sobbing. During those moments I kept thinking to myself that in an hour and a half, she would not be there anymore, that I would drive home without her, that I would never see her again. Ever. The finality was like a cement brick to the head. I could barely drive through my tears.
When Autumn was little and she rode in the car with me, she would lay her head across my forearm as I held the gear shift. As we drove, I placed my arm on the seat next to her and she rested her head there, our last moment a microcosm of our life together, our last hour.
The sun was still fairly high when we arrived at Dr. Fletcher’s near 6:00 that evening. The air outside the car was hot, so I left Autumn in the air-conditioning while I went inside to let Dr. Fletcher know that we had arrived. Debbie and Robert had already arrived and were waiting for us.
It’s odd. Since that evening, I’ve had many moments of extreme stress where my body felt like it could barely handle taking another step, but my mind knew it had to and forced it to keep going, but that night I had not experienced anything like that in my life before, and it felt overwhelming, that forcing myself to go when I did not want to.
I returned to the car and carefully lifted Autumn from the seat. I held her close and walked over to a grassy spot next to the parking lot. She was so light, barely fur and bones. I held her closely in my lap. She did not lift her head or try to walk around as she had the many times she’d been there before. I just held her, and pet her, and told her how much I loved her. Milla crouched at my side, her hand on Autumn’s neck. Autumn had been a part of her life since birth. Debbie and Robert stood next to us, and Robert snapped a couple of photos.
Dr. Fletcher held a large syringe filled with pink liquid as he walked from his office and across the lot to us. He did not say anything, he just walked up and put the needle in her forearm, then whispered to me to talk to her.
She died almost immediately. I pictured her spirit fleeing that prison of a body, flying off into the ether, she left so fast.
Earlier that year, my mom had to put her dog to sleep. It took him several minutes to die. Autumn died so quickly, it just seemed like an escape. I truly imagined her flying away.
Dr. Fletcher helped me to place her body in the wooden box I had brought to bury her in. It’s a strange experience, carrying a box with you to hold the body of someone who is alive when you start out, but whom you know will be dead, so you carry a place to put them when it’s over.
I buried her in Debbie’s back yard. I wanted her in a place I knew I could come to for as long as I lived. I wrapped her in a special blanket and covered her with a shirt of mine. She looked curled up, like she was sleeping. I have seen a dead human once; that person did not look asleep to me, but very dead. Autumn was not like this. I know it sounds almost trite, but she just looked peaceful, resting. Useful words to describe how it is.
It took a long time to dig the hole, longer than I expected, plus it was hot and the ground was really hard. I had to pick with a pickaxe, then dig with a shovel, then pick again. It was after dark by the time the digging was complete.
Before I lowered the box into the hole, I opened it, and pet and kissed Autumn goodbye, even though she was not really there. I knew once she went into the ground, I would never, ever see her body again. Months later I would imagine losing control and going there, digging up the grave, and opening the box, just so that the last time I saw her wouldn’t have to be.
I found a perfect chunk of stone to place at the head of her grave. I surrounded it with bricks. A couple of weeks later, I came back and planted flowers all over the spot, a floral island in Debbie and Robert’s weedy back landscape.
When I visited the grave the following spring ten months later, the yard was full of wild and brown grass and weeds. Yet Autumn’s grave was covered with green, a grass that was a foot taller than the rest of the grass in the yard. It was a soft, green rhombus, Autumn’s little bed in the middle of the field.
Autumn was the first major death in my life that I actually remembered. My grandma died when I was two, and apparently I missed her, but obviously a death at that age is nothing like death as an adult, or even as an older child. The only other death I have experienced since Autumn is Robert’s, which broke my heart. He died five years after she did, nearly to the day, of complications due to kidney failure.
Having now experienced the death of a close human, I can honestly say that Autumn’s loss was no less for me, and in many ways even more. I grieved her closely for years. Eight months after she died, I wrote in my journal that I was still mourning:
I ask myself why this grief can return so fresh eight months after her death. Then I realize that if she had been human, no one would begrudge my feeling this way, and I’m questioning the depth of my feelings because she was a dog.
I sat on the floor last evening near the couch and thought of Autumn and realized again that she will never be here. Ever. I hate the finality of that. I hate missing her so much. I hate the way it makes my heart hurt. I hate that I’m not allowed to feel this much pain because she is a dog and not a human. I loved her so much. I loved her more than any human until Milla was born. She was my first child. Of course I grieve. And I should not question that it has been eight months, or that she was a dog.
The idea for a book about her life tickled my brain shortly after she left me, and so I wrote down my memories of her death and illness while the pain was still fresh so I would not forget. Then I had to put the book aside. I could not write about her as a puppy without crying so profusely that I could not continue. Every so often I would remember something and take a note: Don’t forget this about her! the note would read, whether it was the way she hopped up and down when I toweled her dry after a bath, or how she liked to hunt beetles. Autumn, killer of domestic bugs.
Autumn’s death was the first in a series of life events that nearly brought me to my knees, metaphorically speaking. Sad but true, the timing of her death in relation to everything else was actually fortuitous. Things went rather south with Bjorn once he entered a new relationship, and we suffered a rather protracted court battle for the better part of a year. During that time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Bjorn’s new partner filed a bar complaint against me that lasted nearly a year. The area of law I practice changed drastically and my earnings plummeted to zero. Rather than lose the lovely little house into which I had poured so much of my energy, I sold it shortly before the economy crashed.
I am not so sure I could have managed Autumn’s illness while handling so many difficulties of my own. Yet perhaps I underestimate myself. It is amazing what one can endure when one has to, simply by placing one foot in front of the other, from one day to the next. Perhaps too, in living with her various degenerative ailments, I acquired the discipline necessary to meet further challenges.
Two months before Autumn died, I adopted an older greyhound. Her name was Edna, and surprisingly, she was a source of comfort in the months after Autumn’s death. She came to us having spent the bulk of her life in a kennel on racetracks. She had raced eight times and failed miserably at it, whereupon she was turned into a breeding dog. Edna had no idea how to traverse stairs or eat anything but kibble in a bowl. Teaching her these things and watching her make new discoveries was an utter delight. She brought us joy during those sorrowful days after Autumn’s death.
In April 2009 Molly suffered a severe seizure. The seizure was horrible. When I woke to her twisted body writhing on the floor, her eyes rolling in two different directions, feces and urine everywhere, I thought for sure she was dead. But she did not die. Three hours later, to the surprise of everyone who had seen her, especially the vet, Molly was 95% better. And she stayed better. The vet warned me that more seizures were to come, that she likely had a brain tumor and would continue to seize until one of them killed her, but that never happened. She never had another seizure.
Then four months later, Molly seemed to deteriorate before our eyes. She fell down the stairs to my then-boyfriend’s basement. She had been having difficulty with stability on slippery floors for some time and those stairs were covered in linoleum. She stopped wanting to eat. We thought maybe hard kibble was bothering her so we bought wet food for her. Molly gobbled that up like a starving beast and we thought things would improve, only the next day she did not want to eat wet food either. We fed her some by hand and she ate that, but the next day she wanted even less. Two days later when we took her outside to go to the bathroom, she slipped and fell going up the back porch steps, and the next day when she went out to go to the bathroom, she urinated, then lay in it. Clearly something was dreadfully wrong. My dear, sweet, fastidious dog would never go anywhere near her urine if she could help it. We bathed her and I made an appointment with our vet.
Molly died the next morning. The vet said she had a large tumor in her spleen that had burst and her belly was full of blood. She said we could operate to remove the tumor, but Molly would likely not survive any surgery — there would have been no benefit in trying to save her life. She was fourteen years old. Her body was old and worn out. Trying to keep her alive would have been selfish and cruel.
I am so blessed this creature was a part of my life for almost twelve years. She was always there, quietly in the background. Molly loved a lot of people. She was always so excited to see my mom or my good friends. She loved my boyfriend and enjoyed his company, following him around the house for a snack or to have her rear end scratched. She took a bit of time to warm up to a person, almost like she was sizing them up to determine whether they were worth her friendship. Yet once she decided she liked you, she always liked you and would remember someone after months or even years of an absence.
Upon hearing of her death, a close friend of mine said to me, “She was such a good friend and such a polite and gentle dog. What a blessing to have had her for so long – she loved you all dearly.” These words were simply true. I am grateful Molly came to us. In her quiet way she was a fixture in my life for over a decade. Of the hundreds of dogs I could have chosen from the humane society that cold, winter day, I am so thankful I chose her.
In winter of 2009 I moved to New York. I had been telling Milla for months that after school let out for the summer, I would get her a small dog of her own. During the school year, we would prowl shelters and pet stores, seeing what was out there, looking for a new friend.
One afternoon in April, we stopped in a dog store after going out to a movie. While there, a small, impish, white maltipoo greeted me with enthusiasm and delight. She climbed up on the railing to the display area, hanging over the bars begging me to pet her. She was utterly charming.
The store owners brought the little dog into a fenced area in the middle of the store so we could play with her. Milla and I sat and enjoyed her company for a half an hour before she wore herself out and settled in for a nap. As we rose to leave, I reached over the bars and lay my hand on her side. Something traveled between us in that moment. I felt her entire body relax beneath my fingers. She sighed and stretched her legs. I fell in love.
After we left I could not get the little dog out of my head. She was ridiculously expensive and I had determined we would be adopting a shelter dog. However, I kept thinking of her and early the next morning, which was Easter, I decided that I would call the pet store. If they were open, I would offer them less than half their asking price for her, the same price I would pay to adopt a dog in New York. If they accepted, I would go and get her. I called the store, they were open, and they accepted my price immediately. Milla and I rode the subway north to Washington Heights and brought her home with us. I named her Ava.
I was already in love with this delightful creature. There are some just dog things, such as the way they trot in front of you with their ears back, heading where you’re heading, that I adore in this dog of mine. I love how wherever I go in the house she follows me, like Autumn did. It was one of the hardest things to lose when she died.
Ava also has her own unique quirks that I specially love about her. She sits on my feet. If I am in a place and standing and talking or sitting and talking to someone else, she perches on my foot. She will do this when I am saying goodbye to Milla as she leaves the house to go do something and I am staying home. Ava sits there on my foot, as if to say I am staying here with her. You go have fun. We will be here when you get back. Then as I move into the house to do whatever, she follows me. She likes to sit on the corner of my bed look out the window or watch me while I’m sitting at my desk. She hovers with her paws over the edge of the bed frame, her head rested on them, looking at me.
Ava makes distinct faces all her own. The most common is what I call her happy face, her mouth slightly open, tongue out, eyes bright, often one ear cocked. She’ll turn her head slightly as if to ask Do you want to play? In these moments I stop what I’m doing and play with her. In the morning, when she wakes up, she has the most incredible bed head. Her eyes are all sleepy, her hairs all akimbo. She’ll crawl to the top of the bed, as if the effort is more than she can bear, then sigh and relax as we snuggle and pet her.
Later, wild dog comes out, chasing bears and fozzies, rattling them mightily from side to side until they are dead. Sometimes she brings them to us and requests that we throw them. We do, because watching her little sheep butt run away to get them is one of life’s greatest joys. She does not like these stuffed creatures to see anything. Within a half an hour of getting a new stuffed toy she removes its eyes. Perhaps she does not want it to see her remove all its innards piece by piece. More likely she loves that the pieces are hard and fun to chew.
After Ava has a bath she runs through the house like she’s on fire, ears back, bolting from room to room. What is that, dogs running after baths? I understand their desire to rub themselves dry on the floor, but the running around after, I wonder why. Almost every dog I have ever owned has gone running after getting a bath. However, none of them have run like Ava does. The others have all just gone for their run to dive into their rubs. This one just runs like a bat out of hell from room to room, then comes and stares at me with the happy face, tongue lolling out, eyes bright. Then off she goes again to make another round. It’s hilarious.
Ava isn’t thrilled with the bath itself. She is actually one of the more obnoxious dogs I have had to bathe. It’s a good thing she is small and easy to hold down because she really hates it and tries to escape. Yet she is intrigued by the bathtub, or rather, people showering or bathing. When Milla takes a shower, it is a guarantee that Ava will be in the bathroom standing on the edge of the tub, peeking around the shower curtain, her little sheep butt wagging its mini tail. When either of us bathe, she comes and stands and looks in. Maybe she is curious why we would want to do something so hideously awful. Or perhaps she just wants our company. Maybe it’s a little of both.
Ava truly loves to snuggle. She is thrilled at her ability to jump on the bed. She could not always do it by herself, but she grew and figured it out, and now seems to take great pleasure in both jumping on and jumping off. I can jump on the bed! I can jump off the bed! See? I launch myself many feet past the bed! Aren’t I skilled?
She will jump on the bed if I am lying there and come and lie across my neck and sigh. She’s my little doggie stole. She’ll snuggle there a while and get kisses from me, and strokes and rubs. She knows I do not like her to lick me. She does not even try anymore. My ex-boyfriend lets her kiss him — I think it’s gross — but Ava knows he doesn’t mind so she licks him all over. The only time she licks me is when I get out of the shower. She will come in and lick the water off of my feet until I dry them.
This dog makes me happy. That’s the simple fact of it. She came along when I was very sad. There were so many reasons, many of them huge, for my sadness. One the biggest was grief over the loss of the dogs who had lived with me. I would have dreams about them, dreams they were still alive or still lived with me. Vivid dreams. Then this little dog came to live with me and I suddenly felt the desire to laugh again. I laugh every day living with her. She’s a happy, wonderful little spirit. Frankly, I’m completely smitten.
Years and years ago, I may not have even been out of my teens, I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I don’t remember much of it at all. I read it because it was a bestseller, and I don’t even recall its premise beyond the title.
However, I remember one thing vividly. Peck argued that humans can never really love a dog, or any other animal, because to love as he defined it requires reciprocation in kind. My feelings in response to his position are unchanged: I wholeheartedly disagree. Life is full of different kinds of love. Some loves are equally reciprocal, usually with the person we choose as a mate, but also with certain friends or even family members. By Peck’s definition, I could not truly love an infant or a small child or someone who does not love me back in the same way and with the same articulation.
What a limiting view of human capacity. I absolutely loved my dog. It did not matter that her adoration of me was different. My love for her was there, and it still is. Autumn was a gift and I will love her forever. She helped to teach me selflessness. She brought me joy. She increased my humanity. For this and so much more, I will be forever grateful.