There is a place next to me that is empty.
No matter where in the house I am. At my desk, there is a spot next to my chair where she liked to lie. Next to the big easy chair where I often take my laptop when I need to write, a lot and fast, to capture the impressions flitting to and from my mind, there is a dog bed that has no dog on it today. In the kitchen, just the other side of the invisible line in the tile that marks “out of the kitchen” where she would sit at attention, watching dinner preparation or waiting for me to fill her food bowl. On the deck in a puddle of sunshine. Next to the bed, so close that when I inched my toes toward the floor this morning I forgot not to be careful that I didn’t place them on her solid shoulder. All those places, empty.
Mishka has his own places. Near me, but he isn’t inching into Miss Moira’s spots. Not yet. Even though he used to steal them sometimes when she was here to move him off, now that she’s not here to challenge him he leaves them for her. In case.
He still goes to “his corner” at meal time. The place where he would wait for the food bowls to be placed and for the human in charge to say, “You’re free.” But he doesn’t rush toward the bowl when he’s released from his “stay.” There’s no one to race, no big Sis crunching and slurping her way through the meal. Moira was always the hungry one, the one who started the dinner dance promptly at 7:30 and sometimes before. In her last days she wasn’t so enthusiastic, but her ears still perked if we asked, “Are you hungry?” We ask Mishka and he cocks his head and ponders the question, but he isn’t sure of the answer.
When he’s eaten his food, slowly, he comes back to his place near me. Hers is unchallenged. And unfilled.
My mind is confused at the lack of her. The empty place is a constant distraction. I look, as I have done thousands of times in the five years since she and I moved to this house, at her spot. My eyes are so accustomed to seeing her there, the black gloss of sleek fur, the stump of a tail that waggled when she felt my attention on her, the laughing face and chocolate eyes that looked up at me in hopeful resignation that I might be working, but I might also be ready to take a break for some pets, a bit of a scratch, a romp, or a walk. I measure my time by how often I look at that place next to me.
She used to remind me, when it was time to get out of my head. She’d tuck her nose under my wrist as it lay on the mouse pad and she’d flip it. Gently, but firmly, as if to say, “That thing you hold, that links you to the hum of the artificial brain and the glow of the two dimensional screen, that thing is not you and it’s time you came back to being you. Here. With me.”
That was her place. To protect me, to remind me. To be next to me. And that place is empty.
There is a place inside of me that’s filled. Brimming over. Painfully pushing at my self understood boundaries, demanding to be recognized. That’s become her spot. The urgency she used to communicate to me about dinner, about play time, about going outside right NOW, is now an urgency about freedom, about momentum, about breaking out of my shell and remembering how to fly.
We all took her last car ride with her. We didn’t know, Philip and I, when we shopped for a new car – nothing big because we don’t like big cars, but big enough for Philip’s massage table and chair, big enough for boxes of books when I travel to signings, and big enough for two dogs and all the stuff you’d need at the lake – we couldn’t know that it would need to be big enough when the back seats are laid down for one dying dog to stretch out with her human “momma” and doggie brother next to her. Six weeks ago we bought the Fiat, in time for all of us to fit into it on the 30 minute drive.
Philip and Tom up front. Miss Moira laid carefully on her blanket in the very back. Mishka sitting more quietly than usual behind the front seat, and me reclining awkwardly where I could cradle my Dragon’s head against my chest and stroke her smooth head and velvet ears.
We talked, my murmur barely audible to she and I, her answers only in my head. Maybe imagination, maybe spirit voice, I’ll let you decide what you believe. I know what is true for me.
We talked about why a dragon would come to this world as a dog. Because, of course, there is a lot of confusion in this time-space continuum about dragons – most people don’t even believe they exist. So showing up as a dragon would have been awkward, for all of us.
We talked about why she came to Tom and I, and why we separated soon after. Because, of course, we’d passed the point where being in a romantic relationship served either one of us, but we needed something that we both loved enough to remember how much we still loved each other so that we would always be family, which is what we really were.
We talked about how afraid I’ve been, loving someone as young as Philip, and how ridiculous it is to think that time in a body defines wisdom, age, or desires. Because, of course, fear is the enemy of love, and it is time I let that go.
We talked about how alike we are, she and I. Because of course, like spirits find each other in any form. And we needed each other to see ourselves. And maybe, to heal ourselves. I knew how to help her heal — surgery after surgery. She knew how to help me heal as I dismantled the pain in my body and in my past.
So I said to her, “We didn’t choose easy paths, did we Miss? Why do you think we’ve chosen so much difficulty, and abuse, and pain?”
She’d been holding her head near my chest, nose next to the necklace I wore that held a brass cage filled with a bit of frankincense as well as a chip of raw amber and a dangle of copper spoons. She’d kept her eyes looking up directly into mine for our conversation. But when I asked that question her eyes left mine and her head turned, slowly and deliberately, to look toward the front seat, taking in all the guys; her two “dads” and her little brother. And slowly and deliberately she let her eyes come back to mine as if to say, “Did you really have to ask?”
Ah yes. For the gifts. The experiences we choose in our lives determine what we get to learn, what we have to teach, who we have to love, who we are loved by, what we have to give, and what we are able to receive. I should have asked, “Why do you think we’ve chosen so much wisdom, so much overcoming, and so much love?”
Finally I asked why she decided to fly, so soon. I’d had it in my mind that she’d be with us another three years. Or more. We’d done all we knew to do to keep her knees and hips healthy, since we thought that would be the challenge we would have to meet to keep her healthy and enjoying life. We had not anticipated this disease of rogue cells, of her body turning against her. I felt betrayed, as though I had diligently guarded the front gate against the giant only to lose the battle to an invasion of mosquitos that came in through the cracks.
Her eyes focused even more intently on mine, her ears pricked forward then laid back against her skull in her best dragon imitation, and a voice in my heart said, “I’ve done what I came to do. Now when are you going to get on with what you came to do?”
Then she laid her head on my arm and closed her eyes.
She looked peaceful there on her blanket. The same cheap leopard print blanket that got thrown on the ground for us to pile on when we went to the lake, the same one that got washed, and dried, and thrown on the floor or the couch (or even on the bed for special occasions) so that we could all pile on it to watch a movie, have a good wrestle, or just fall asleep together in a dog pile that happened to include two humans and one cat. She didn’t move again until the car turned onto Manchester Road, and then she lifted her head again and stayed alert as we pulled up to the back door at Banfield Hospital.
Mishka got to go around to the front door, we checked him into the “day camp” at the hotel there. He’s played there many times and we hoped it would give him an outlet and a distraction, and it seemed less cruel than leaving him at home by himself.
It was our first time of going to the back door, Moira had always loved going to the front door, pulling us down the aisle in her excited anticipation of love and treats. But today we were at a new door, and there was Vicki with a cart, already heavily padded for Moira’s comfort. We lifted her out, still on her own blanket, and she rode to her last appointment.
They consider her family at Banfield. Doctors and staff wanted to get their last bit of love in before she slipped away. But finally the three of us sat with her alone, Tom, Philip and I, sitting on the floor next to her. Stroking her and calling her the love names she’s heard from us all her life. Crying because we couldn’t not weep any more. Sending all the warmth, love, and faith in her spirit that she’s felt from us for as long as we have known her. Holding her safe, but holding her lightly, because we knew we were about to let her go.
They said the anesthetic they used would be the same thing as they use before surgery. Always before, that would end with her waking up better, with her human family taking her home to heal. I think she knew that this time she would wake up healed, just not to go home with us. But she laid her head down slowly and gently on her front paws, and closed her eyes for the last time.
When her spirit was no longer there we left. We drove to the first park where Tom and I had ever taken her to run and we walked and cried until we couldn’t cry any more. Finally we admitted that living bodies had needs, and we hadn’t eaten much since lunch the day before. So we went to a little café and ate what might well have been cardboard, but was hopefully more nutritious. And we told Moira stories. Like how she got to be scared of storms because of the time she was being stubborn and wouldn’t come in when she was called even though it was starting to rain then, just as Tom yelled at her, a huge one-two punch of thunder and lightning split the sky and she couldn’t get inside fast enough. And how she accidently bit through Philip’s lip one night in the park when we’d gone to watch the full moon rise and they got to wrestling too crazily. We spent most of the night at the emergency room getting him stitched up, and when we got home, at six in the morning, she was clearly so afraid that she was in trouble. She apologized over and over and we spent the next few hours reassuring her that we knew she didn’t mean to and we still loved her.
We ran out of words before we ran out of stories. But suddenly we wanted Mishka back. We wanted to go home. We wanted to put our lives in motion, however haltingly. Our lives have been touched by a dragon, and we will never be the same. And yet, our lives continue, and we have work to do and a family to care for.
We went back to pick up the “little brother.” Who is learning to be an only dog. And Misty brought out Moira’s blanket, which they had lovingly laundered and wrapped up for us. And we had another cry and hugs. And we went home.
Home, where the empty places distract me. And that full place pushes at me.
If I could pull the fire out of that place I’d paint a dragon in the night sky. I’d surround her with bonfires of roses and lakes of lava and when my eyes went to the empty places I’d see instead a fiery wingtip, or a winking rose red eye.
But I think that is not what that fire is for. It would be temporary comfort. And another distraction. I think the empty places next to me are there to remind me. And the fire inside me is there to move me. And to use the one to fill the other would squander the gift.
We’ve been touched by a dragon. Now the dragon is flying free and it is time for me, and for all of us, to find wings of our own.