By Kate Abbott
I don’t want to take my socks off. I have been wearing them since Friday morning. I put them on and they made me smile. They are striped, purple and white, knee high compression socks. They matched with the t-shirt and running shoes I chose to wear and I even cuffed my jeans so they would show. They made me smile.
I put the socks on after my run, a run where my imagination took me to a place where you and I were older and greyer and riding in my car with the light streaming in through the sun roof.
Now it is Sunday afternoon. There is a spot of your blood on the top of the left sock. I had put these socks on a few minutes before I knelt down next to your body, shiny black coat still warm with your life, glowing in the bright sunlight. I kissed your face, your silky ears as I assured the guilt stricken man who hit you with his car that it wasn’t his fault. I thanked the woman with tears in her eyes for being with you when you took your last breath, before I could reach you, as I ran frantically through the woods to find you. I looked into your amber eyes, eyes that saw straight into my essence. But the calm was gone.
My husband stormed up to us, ignoring the strangers who had tried to help us. He lifted you up and took you away from me, blame flaring in his eyes and voice. I wanted him to stop, so I could wrap you in a blanket, so I could carry you. I wanted to scream, to strike my face with my fists, to pull at my hair.
I walked home alone, refusing to get into the truck and trudging down the leaf strewn streets that I had walked with you countless times. Halfway home, I remembered the kids and I began to run. I could hear them before I saw them. My youngest, calling your name brokenly. My eldest, shrieking in panic and rage. I had to lean against my truck to support his 17 year old frame, to keep him from collapsing. And my middle son, still grieving the suicide of a cousin, shouting that he wants to die, too.
I moved from child to child, trying to absorb their pain into what was surely already the most broken of hearts. I stuffed my tears and my sorrow deeper, so as to make space for theirs. My hands shook as we dug your grave in the soft earth.
I went to your side and covered you with a quilt, the same quilt you slept on the night before. I planned to carry you to the spot we chose in the backyard, but my middle child took you from my arms. He reminds me that the first thing he did for you was to carry you into the house when you were so overwhelmed by your journey to us that you couldn’t move. He must be the last to carry you now.
My youngest picked what little was left of the fall flowers to place on your broken body. One last look at those ears that streamed behind you in the breeze when you ran, turning inside out with the bounce in your stride. Aero dog, I called you.
My youngest had been outside with us, a few minutes before your life ended, watching you play with the neighbors’ puppy. He had remarked that your coat was so beautiful, so soft. Weeping, he reminds me now that he had said the same first and last words to you, the first time said in wonder as he stroked you while you cowered at our feet.
You were broken when we got you. Timid and fearful and dragging a useless leg. A stray from a high kill shelter. My first foster dog. I was going to help you on your way to your forever home. But everyone knew you wouldn’t be leaving our family. Once you were on three legs, you ran faster and farther than your four-legged brother. Your face melted hearts and your hopping gait stopped traffic.
But not on Friday. The driver into whose path you and the yellow dog ran couldn’t have stopped in time. And just like that, the life force that propelled you into my soul was halted. And with it, all my beautiful plans. I was going to have you trained as a therapy dog. You were meant for it: one touch from that nose never failed to brighten the lucky recipient. I never heard you growl, except when you play wrestled. You got away with things most dogs wouldn’t, like standing on the dining room table or chewing up a favorite stuffed animal or not always being completely housebroken. Sometimes I cleaned up your messes and didn’t tell anyone. And I was never mad.
It was going to be you and me. Kids off to their own lives, me retired to a life of full time writing, you a little grey just like me but happy to sit with me on the porch, take a walk along the lakeshore. Something about you just made me feel right, like the world was a good place. When I looked at you, you reflected back on me your radiance and an uncommon grace.
Can’t think of that now. Youngest can’t stop calling for you, even in his sleep. Begs you for a sign that you are watching over him. Oldest keeps telling me how we failed to keep you safe, how you didn’t deserve to die, not when you were still almost a puppy, not when our the old grouchy brown dog is pushing fourteen years. Middle son is quiet, but whispers to me that he keeps seeing your terrible wounds. I do too, the images keep flashing through my mind, an endless loop of my cry of disbelief, my husband’s cold fury and your still, quiet body.
And the sorrow and the ache and the loneliness. I yearn for the sound of you hopping across the hardwood floor. I long to see your morning face-off with the grey cat. I pine for the torn up bits of tissue paper all over the rug. The crippling anxiety and the depression that your presence in my home eased have come storming back with a vengeance. My lap is empty. I feel for you under my comforter but you are gone. I wait for you to pounce playfully with that one front leg, encouraging me out from under my pillow, licking at my face.
You were not my first dog. Far from it. Like all my dogs, you followed me from room to room, lay down at my feet in the kitchen, hoping for a bite of something but mostly wanting your ears scratched. With your missing leg, you couldn’t always get to that itchy spot. But you were the most splendid dog. I didn’t love you more than any other dog; I loved you differently from any other dog. You were comfort, a soothing force. I should have known you were too perfect to last. This world is too harsh for one so gentle and sweet.
I take my socks off slowly, hoping that maybe I can feel you in them, or smell you. But I only smell fabric and my own feet. I find myself wishing that the stain won’t be washed away.
Monday morning, the youngest cannot bear to walk to the bus stop, to remember how he used to kiss you goodbye and then wave from the bus at us. He carries your collar in his backpack and tells me later that he held it all day. But he still cries and cries.
My middle son, he finds a nugget of peace in drawing you with angel wings, flying over the rainbow bridge into his cousin’s arms. I wish I could believe stuff like that, that all dogs go to heaven, just like the Pope says. But I don’t know. Besides, my youngest says, that’s a long time to wait to see them again.
My oldest, the literal and practical one, once his rage subsides, says that dead is just dead. And he goes on with his affairs, face set in a grim mask. My husband cannot find it in himself to offer any solace to me, though he must know how much I adored you. His own guilt and sorrow are consuming him. And though he asks for penance, I will not give him that. Mine is not to judge or to pull him once again to his feet at my own expense. He tells me that he dreamed that I found you and brought you home, safe and whole. My soul cracks open all over again. I can’t talk to him of my grief for he just takes it over and makes it his own, and larger than mine.
On Monday evening, my youngest asked me if I cried today. I told him I did cry. He wanted to know when and how. It seemed to relieve him to know that his mother had sought comfort from her own mother. Then he drew a picture of you, achingly simple. “Yet so close but yet so far,” is the caption.
Tuesday morning, I drive my youngest to a different bus stop. His friend there has a new puppy, a brown rescue, black button nose and oversized feet. My son smiles wistfully and clings to me as he kisses me goodbye.
When we first got you, and we were watching your wondrous spirit emerge, people would stop me and thank me for rescuing you. I would tell them that I was the lucky one. In a world of war and cruelty and hardship, having you was like a bit of yarn tied around my heart to remind me of good and to keep the bad stuff out. I would think of you as my own personal therapy dog, that you were rescuing me. But now I know that you weren’t really mine, although you were fostering me, giving me a shelter in your peaceful essence.
Part of me wants to believe that someone or something in some other place or time needed you more than I did. I don’t imagine I’ll ever know if that’s true.
Wednesday, I had to drive past the spot where your heart stopped beating. The anguish goes on and on. I don’t know that I will ever feel good again. I can’t stop weeping but I’m at work so I try to hide my tears. The salt dries on my lashes. Well-meaning friends reach out to console me, telling me that you knew you were loved.
The thing is, I know you knew you were loved. What I miss the most about you is knowing that I was loved. Just for being me.
My youngest tells me that some people believe that their loved ones come back as cardinals. He shows me a photo of a tree covered with the red birds, all male. A few days later, he tells me that he saw a black, shiny crow at recess time. He is sure it was you looking at him.
Two nights ago, I told my middle son that I had cried all day. He assures me that it’s all right to cry at work. I’m not sure about that. Then he tells me he dreamed about you, that you were sleeping on his bed with him and that when he woke up, he felt better. I had prayed for you to give a sign to them but I wonder if he is making this up to make me feel better. I guess it doesn’t matter if it makes him feel like he is helping us by saying it.
I can’t sleep without the weight of you next to me. The yellow dog won’t get on our bed without you. I wander the house until I find him sitting on the couch. I lie down with him and he sighs deeply. But we don’t sleep. I still reach for the third bowl when I am feeding the other dogs.
It occurs to me gradually that I am experiencing some sort of extended vasovagal response, triggered not by sudden physical pain but by my sudden and irreversible loss of you. The disorientation and lethargy, the uneasy feeling in my heart. But I don’t get the escape of losing consciousness, and no amount of rest or sugar will steady my shakiness.
Thursday evening, I lie on my stomach on my yoga mat. The good thing about sweating is that you can cry and no one knows it. The instructor steps on the bottoms of my feet, kneading away at the tension with strong toes. The kindness of the gesture coaxes a smile. I think of stroking your smooth nose.
Here’s the thing about yoga: some of it just doesn’t resonate. Too new-age touchy feely. So, what I do is take what I need and leave the rest. Listen to what makes sense and let the other words just wash away. Like the seven chakras, psychic centers. I’ve studied them. I just don’t get them. Back bending, that I do get. An intense stretch, almost pain and exquisite relief when it’s over. Camel pose is supposed to open the heart chakra, can make you feel intense emotions. Whatever. I’ve heard that for decades.
Lying on my back after the third camel of the evening, I get it. Heart chakra is unconditional love, compassion for all living creatures. Love beyond life. It’s you. I’m dumbfounded and a bit dazed.
When I took my running shoes off in the evening of the day you died, I found a smear of your blood on the toe of the right one. Today, I went for a run. I had to force myself out into the grey day, too warm for late November. My youngest is still asking how we can have Christmas without you.
When I pulled my running shoes out of my bag, I realized I had forgotten to pack socks. I ran without them, more of a heavy-footed plod than a run. My heels began to hurt. The pain was almost a relief, a necessary distraction from the oppression of your absence that comes in breath-stealing waves. When I got back inside, I took off my shoes and saw that I had bled onto the back of the right one. Somehow, I was a little lighter.
I won’t be washing our blood off my shoe. A little of me and a little of you in the same time and space. In the end, I suppose that all we’ll ever have. It’ll have to be enough.
Kate Abbott is a mother, runner, yoga instructor and recovering attorney who delights in writing from the dark and bright sides of the heart. Her first novel is Running Through the Wormhole. Her second, Asana of Malevolence, will be published this summer. Her writing has appeared in Mamalode and Sammiches and Psych Meds.