Walking together always
I have spent the last weeks in shock, dumbfounded by intensity of the sadness and pain of loss I feel with Mia’s passing. I thought I had prepared for this, having spent so many years with her in ER’s and hospitals, she had been to more types of specialists and doctors in her short 6 years and 5 months with me than I have seen in 37 years. I used to expect her to pass on the regular, placing my hand on her curly blond torso for the rise and fall. This was so familiar, from nights with pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, surgeries and unnamed scares, that when the breath went out of her the final time in the hospital I found myself utterly unable to fathom that her tiny body was truly still.
We had dodge death so many times, how did it finally catch us? And how had I been so unprepared to let her go when we lived so vibrantly with gratitude every day knowing every stolen day had been a gift against the odds.
But her absence is palpable, a physical loss that reverberates through rooms now empty of her breathy wuffling sounds and the blond fur that floated on every shaft of light. Her satisfied gnawing noises as she half finished bones are gone, although I can still hear it if I forget to remember. I cannot manifest her disproportionately loud and unladylike snore which sometimes woke both of us up. When I push my front door open no weight pushes back against it, Mia is not there waiting patiently for me no matter the hour.
I know this tangible absence is the hallmark of loss, and have heard many stories of the loss of four legged family members in the days since Mia’s passing. Somehow their wordless but deeply expressive presence in our lives makes their passing so very loud. I have found myself unable to process that such a vibrant being, so joyful and loving, is simply gone.
Of course people have said Mia was lucky to have found me, someone willing to go through so much with her, a dog who had suffered before she came north, like most, and although my bank account certainly was depleted, I was always clear that I was the lucky one. Although Mia realized within moments that she was loving her new foster home, and had plans to stay, I remember the distinct moment when I realized that I owned a dog.
We were at the beach in Minot, my true north, and she was running down the beach with absolute joy reveling in the totally freedom and newfound trust in the universe. Then she ran through a tidal pool and dropped almost entirely out of sight, coming out the other side with a look of betrayal and shock on her face at the bottomless puddle, but quickly regained her dignity. Instead she took a huge drink and developed what would become a bizarre lifelong habit of drinking seawater. And as we neared the end of the beach, she looked back at me with a wide canine grin on her untrimmed wooly blond face, and I could hear the words “this is the best moment ever” as clear as if she had said them aloud. She got it. She got all of it, and I had a wingpup.
Her shameless enjoyment of all things, her resilience, presence in the moment and her openness to the world made her my guru. I was the lucky one, because she came into my life just as I would need someone to guide me, to the daily small joys which make the biggest difference in times of great challenge. Little did I know that the ensuing years after Mia chose me would be the hardest I had ever encountered on a multitude of fronts, but as with the best pups with humor or kindness she was always there. And growth never comes from the easy path, things break, grief and challenges cause us to become more, but my luminous blond helped me stay whole.
But while Mia loved everyone, she hated to be separated from me. In the early years she climbed baby gates, destroyed harnesses and leashes, and busted through screen doors to correct my error and rejoin me. She was a dream as a road trip buddy except that she hated being left in the car, a situation that alarmed her less I think because she imagined I wouldn’t come back, but more, because like me she was a being of action and she could not correct that situation but had to wait, and she hated it. When I left her for the day, with friends or at home, she sat at the door or wherever I was last spotted and waited with relentless faithfulness for my return. I once made the error of zipping her into a tent at a campsite so I could keep her dry while setting up the last of the gear in a gale storm. The tent, sleeping pad and all uprooted from the ground, stakes flying into the bushes as the tent came hopping after me like something out of a Disney movie. I never made that mistake again.
And generally I learned my lesson, where I went, Mia went. For years we drove the powers that be mad but Mia and I walked off leash, neither of us enjoyed being on a leash at all, and she would answer to my voice. She would sniff and meander as her pace and I could walk steadily. We were connected by an intense invisible leash that we both felt, and that never failed, well (except for a rabbit or squirrel early on) because Mia’s greatest fear was misplacing me. If she didn’t pay attention and I walked out of sight the look of panic on her expressive face was akin to a small child in a mall who cannot find its parents. She would break into a catapaulting run and once we reconnected she stuck like a shadow.
When I walked into my parents house my mother used to say, “you have something stuck to your foot” and when I looked down for toilet paper or gum, I would see she meant Mia who always stood there looking up with an open mouthed smile and her charming crooked teeth. But of course she was there, she was my canine spirit animal and I could feel her presence there, it was the most natural thing in the world. A delightful cartoon of a dog with her spaghetti chef eyebrows and comical body. I still find myself reaching for her in the car, expect to see her lying at my feet frustrated by the boredom of my work, forever trying to lure me to the bakery for a muffin.
Her slightly absurd dimensions, and expressive face, and goofy ears made her a magnet to almost everyone, something she quickly learned to bask in. And she was a brilliant starter dog for children. She was patient with them from day one, and up until the end allowed children to pet and poke her, giving them the back end if they were too aggressive with tiny fingers in the eyes. I remember Mandy the Scottish Terrier who was my introduction the dog world, patiently allowing 3-4 children to hold the leash and walk her. She was a petite senior dog who would probably preferred sleeping over walking, but Mandy is immortal to all of us in that generation, and I hope it will be the same with Mia and her many inductees into the joys of animal friendship.
And so when Mia’s beautiful little body lost its animation and deflated to the table in my arms in the awful hospital room all I could do was gasp. She was gone and I wasn't ready for her to leave. But most of all, I know her, and there is nowhere, no rainbow bridge, no field of dogs, no place that Mia would choose to be but beside me.
And while I have been slowly giving away Mia’s physical belongings, having spent many nights sobbing into her dog bed, what I have come to decide is that she could not have left. Not truly. Even a copious amount of steaks would not tear her away from me - okay it absolutely would, but not for too long. When we went to dog parks, she sat by the bench with the “other humans” watching the dogs play. She loved to eat grass, and dirt, man did she love to eat dirt, but she never went into the yard or a field without me walking by her side. Where I went she went, where she went I went.
So when the bright light that is truly Mia left her curly blond body, I know that she left my side and she came truly and entirely into my heart. There is no other place Mia could have gone, no other place she would go. No bridge she would wait at or field she would play in until I join her at my passing, as the dog myth of the Rainbow Bridge goes. My lovely girl who had bb gun pellets in her but relearned to love everyone, who destroyed doors to be by my side, would not wait patiently somewhere else for me.
I am grieving that she no longer walks beside me, my partner in crime, my ride or die road trip buddy. But now she is truly a part of me, a part of the heart which she helped expand and shape. I hope that now I will be even more Mia like, that her silly humor, her shameless love of life, her fearless openness and her delight in the simple things will only manifest more now that she walks as one with me.
I think if there was ever a wish of every dog, and every dog owner, it might be this; that I will no longer have to regretfully tell her to stay when I close the door of my apartment while she sits her face crestfallen to await my return.
Now I will no longer hide my packing from her, or fill a suitcase full of clothing all around while she sits in the middle of it with a look of impending doom. Mia will come with me around the world now, planes will no longer separate us, she will be with me on every journey, every road trip, on every project and adventure.
When we love someone so ferociously, selflessly and joyfully, and that love is mutual, perhaps losing them this way is the final step to them becoming truly a part of us and us them. Even as this last changes break our heart, we create room for them to be forever truly in it and with us. Walking together always.
When I put my hand to my heart, I can feel it beat, and I know she is there too. As long as I am, she is, and I am grateful for that, even if I do miss her fuzzy little footstool of a body and quirky lopsided grin a great deal. This is what I have come to believe.