|Stone Hill, June 2015|
Life gets back to normal in autumn. This year Mila started third grade, I’m teaching my first fall semester class and finishing the book, Olga is chairing her department. I’m coaching Mila’s U10 soccer team, and already starting to look ahead to hockey season. In September we picked up much of the same routine as last spring — waking up, packing the kid's bag, heading out the door, walking the the two long blocks to the elementary school, saying ‘hi’ to Bill the crossing guard along the way. We get to her new classroom — her first on the building’s second floor, and we say good-bye for the day. Then Olga continues on to the college for her day, and I walk back home as I always have, and it is perfectly empty when I get there.
I knew when we lost Gryeka back in June, after a sharp decline to complete a long illness, that life for awhile would be these sharp shocks. I had a long, sad summer to get used to not having our dog waiting for us. Olga and Mila were away in Moscow, I had work to do, I took some time away. I got used to coming back to the beastly empty home, and knowing that there was no need to rush back if I was away, or to hurry awake in the morning to take him out.
The first steps of mourning are getting used to the sudden hole punched in your present, and adjusting to the way that hole you project into your present. It was hard for me to look ahead at those things I knew were coming that would happen without him. How could he not be around for any part of my 40s? how could I start my day without a walk by the Green River, rain or shine? I realized how deeply I’d taken for granted that he would be a part of our future as he had been part of our past.
Gryeka demarcated an important, pivotal part of our lives. We got him just a few weeks after my girlfriend and I moved to Williamstown, our consolation prize that if we couldn’t live in the city, at least we could finally have a dog. We spent our first weekends here looking for him — visiting shelters, meeting dogs on Craigslist, filling out application paperwork for rescue organizations.
We met Gryeka at Second Chance Animal Shelter in Shaftesbury, Vermont, and he was not at all what we thought we wanted. We’d imagined someone midsized, mellow, and somehow both of us imagined our dog would have floppy ears. None of this applied to Gryeka. He was big, he had a lot of energy, he was nervous, he had pointy ears like his German Shepherd dad probably did. But you can’t understand how this happens — the room where the shelter let you meet the dogs had a little sofa. Ol and I sat on it and he jumped between us and plopped his paw on us and we all claimed one another.
We had a few days to think it over, but our mind was made up. I remember the night before we grabbed him — Sept. 25, 2003 — when we drove down to Petco in Pittsfield in a rainstorm because we didn’t have anything a dog would need. Food, leash, bowls. I remember driving back with him the next afternoon, the white folder with his vet records on Olga’s lap, him in the backseat of our first Subaru. We noticed a million little dog hairs started to fly in the sun around us, and I worried the whole ride home about my allergies (I’d never had a dog before, but am pretty allergic to cats), and joked how the shelter downplayed his shedding. It would have been just one of several little white lies we realize they told us — like that he loved to swim, though in all our years together we never saw him go in over his elbows, and not look panicked about even that.
Our first few days were tough. He wasn’t able to restrain himself when we had dinner, plopping his head on table and making a massive nuisance of himself. Eventually we had to tie him up on the other side of the room. We despaired maybe for a few hours, but were quickly warmed to the fact of how quickly he learned the drill — the next day he was fine. We got through a few other struggles — he had terrible separation anxiety (perhaps caused by being left tied up at the shelter overnight by his previous owners), and would get ferociously carsick. The first problem lasted more or less until we moved to a house where the walkway didn’t go right past the living room, the second we managed with Dramamine.
But we always had fun, especially on our regular long walks at the Clark, which was just a shortcut trail away from our place on Sabin Drive. Stone Hill became a sort of backyard for us. I spent hours trying to teach him to fetch in the always empty summer parking lot at the edge of the campus (which is now where the main parking lot is). On our walks up the pasture and to the Stone Bench he’d bolt off he we saw deer, making some walks much longer than others. It caused us all sorts of aggravation and worry, though fortunately he always came back. Although he had his quirks, he always made friends quickly, especially kids and other dogs.
The turning point in our lives together was 2006. They year before we had moved to Hoxsey Street and Ol and I had gotten married. Then we spent the spring, summer, and fall waiting for Mila to join us. I had always been in the habit of taking Gryeka to walk late at night, usually about midnight, because I’d heard it was a useful way to forestall accidents. We had a lot of time to think on those walks, about how our lives were changing and making peace with what was coming. There was a family of skunks that had taken up on Stetson Court, and we would pass them every night, and Gryeka was content to just watch them root around and follow each other about. In those moments I felt a great sense of relief, that we were part of a kind and gentle world.
Gryeka came to terms with being a family dog so quickly that it was obvious that was what he always wanted to be. We sent her little hats home from the hospital with my mom so he could get a few sniffs, and he was very interested in the new cub when we came home — but not too interested. He would lick her every chance he got, especially if she was fussy, but he seemed just happy to have a house full of life. He still got his walks, and his dinners, and attention, and he was comfortable in his place in the world.
Those were the years when we settled into our adulthood, and I suppose we thought they would last longer. But that’s the worst part about pets and their shorter lifespans — they fit very completely in our lives, but only a small part of it.
I’ve had three months now to think about the way it came to an end. For a long time his health had been getting worse, but we couldn’t tell if it was just the regular passage of time, the creaks and arthritis that comes with age. I still remember with shock when our vet mentioned that she recommended glucosamine “for her senior patients,” and I realized she was talking about him. That was already a few years ago.
Last winter was hard, and things didn’t get better with the spring. What had once been just a matter of “slowing down” evolved into a nervous system disorder that was making it harder for him to do simple things. He couldn’t get up the stairs at the house we bought in 2012 the way he could at first — as it was the only time he ever went to the top floor where our bedrooms are was when Mila was getting ready for bed, and he’d plop on the only patch of carpeted floor in the hallway there and wait for us. Then he couldn’t get up on his own, and could barely walk across the driveway. It was one of those awful “not if, but when” moments, when you have to ask yourself in fairness to all just what the phrase “quality of life” means to a dog, as well as to owners who face becoming full-time caregivers. Different folks make the decisions differently.
There is a danger of writing about the death of a dog because there is a balance you have to strike. This isn’t a spouse, or a child, or a parent — it’s a family member who you know all along probably won’t outlive you. It is the kind of mourning that you can really face and deal with because the stakes are so different. You have to make choices, you have to do unpleasant things, people offer their condolences and then it doesn’t come up again. You are left the room to consider dying in ways I don’t think you can when you lose a beloved person.
This has been a chance to think with some clarity about death, and to notice a lot of things I missed otherwise. There have been a number of surprises. I noted in passing how little comfort I could find in most western traditions of comforting those in mourning. Ideas about souls and heaven and all that felt a little hollow. There is a lot of well-meaning material there, this idea of a “Rainbow bridge” didn’t seem to be for me. I listened to the Grateful Dead a lot, remarkable that I hadn’t noticed American Beauty is pretty much a work of sustained mourning. I took a little peace from the Buddhist tradition, that manages to acknowledge how you feel without flinching from the reality of what it is and what it means.
For a long time I could notice things that I didn’t appreciate before, as if the whole picture was different and unfamiliar. I couldn’t get out of the habit of taking long walks — though I deliberately aimed myself away from places we went together. I noticed the catbirds that lived in our hedges in the middle of summer, and their silly off-key songs. I was happy when I saw a groundhog poking around our yard again because I felt a little less alone sharing our space (I have a soft spot for groundhogs, I have to confess).
When everything was happening I wrote a lot about it, mostly to keep my thoughts together and because that’s the best way I can to make myself feel better. It took me a very long time to write anything about this here, because it felt like a change of seasons was needed to really understand how this process is going.
It comes back every day. This morning I came home from walking Mila to school and seeing Olga off to the office. It was pouring today, the kind of wet muddy morning that would make me grumble about having to take Gryeka out. But as always, I’d put on my rubber boots, clomp with him to watch the Green River flow, listen to the rain on the leaves, then get home and towel him off before scooping his kibble into his bowl. I wish I could do it again.
|Stone Hill, Fall 2009|