Grace followed by Flora
Our dog Grace spent much of the last day of her life in the slanted autumn sunlight just outside the back door. Over the hours, her breathing slowed so much that I lay the palm of my hand on her golden fur, both hoping and not hoping to feel her heart. I wanted to let her go. I didn’t know how to let her go.
At some point during that day, my daughter, marked the boundary of Grace’s body with a handful of carefully laid pebbles. Though the movie version might have let Grace go, I knew enough of death in real life to understand that it is not often so easily and poetically orchestrated. Still, I like to think that Grace, most elegant and obliging of dogs, did try her best. She lay there a long time before she rose on shaky legs and wandered the short distance into the house where she took her usual spot under my desk. The stones stayed on the grass, a perfect outline of absence.
This was October of 2020 and so many things had been lost.
It had been over a decade since we brought Grace home from the shelter. Back then, our kids were five and seven and, though my husband and I worked hard to make pet adoption a family decision, the process felt fraught with peril and built-in disappointment. We could not bring home all the dogs and so we’d left behind the handsome collie who evoked the gentility of an elderly Jack Lemmon, the roiling cage of puppies, all silken ears and high pitched yips, and, also, an undefinable tangle of white fur with nearly hidden legs and eager pink tongue. That I still remember all of these dogs after all of this time is, to me, proof of the easy ignition of love.
Grace was smallish, but not too small. She had a black nose and kind, golden eyes rimmed with kohl. She also had pink toenails and was willing to sit, shake and stand on her hind legs when I asked for “circus dog.” In the beginning she slept in a closed crate, then in a crate with an open door and, finally, for many years, curled tight as a fortune cookie, in my daughter’s bed.
During the third or fourth month of quarantine, my daughter outgrew this bed and my husband needed a place to work at home and so we disassembled the guest bed and swapped the big mattress for her narrow twin. Though we didn’t like to talk about it, we understood that there would be no guests for some time. It was as if an ocean had risen outside our walls and the house turned sudden boat. Time was watery: the end of spring, the end of school, summer, the end of summer, autumn, winter, a wash of days. Together, we set four places at the table and celebrated our birthdays and all the holidays and my son’s high school graduation. He wore his cap and gown all day and into the night. It hangs, even now, from a hook on the back of his door.
Seeking structure, we set our clocks by the arrival of the morning paper, the mid-day meal, our Mayor’s nightly update. The treatment of Grace’s congestive heart failure required the administration of numerous medications and this ritual became another form of ballast. My husband, unleashed from nine-to-five for the first time in a decade, used a paring knife to carefully split pills and sort them into separate compartments labeled with days of the week. Grace was a dutiful patient, though sometimes she feigned swallowing before allowing a tablet to slip through the gap left by a lost tooth.
After Grace died, the house, (busy as it was with school and work and four people eating and drinking and talking and reading and watching TV,) felt empty and silent in a new and significant way. Without Grace to prompt him to pee outside, eat or play, River, the little chihuahua wet the carpets and spent hours hidden under the sofa. My daughter slept alone in her big bed.
My son argued that it was too soon for a new dog. We needed time to grieve. My daughter, on the other hand, immediately began to hunt. My phone buzzed with images of tiny, adorable puppies and fluffy, photogenic terriers. She forwarded Instagram posts with a thousand likes, all OMGs and heart-eyed emojis, but these dogs all seemed as anonymous as photos in a store bought frame. I didn’t want to start over, I wanted to pick up where I was. I didn’t want a dog but I did want a dog and so I closed my office door and scanned the online rescue sites.
The photos on the adoption site were a bit blurred, but there was something comfortingly familiar about this medium sized, cream colored mutt. She looked like she didn’t quite understand the size of her body and its relation to the earth. In one image, she wore a ridiculous coned paper party hat. Under the brim, her eyes were serious and patient.
It’s okay, she seemed to be saying. The world is weird. But I’m handling it.
I put in an application without consulting my family.
When we brought Flora home, my dog (our dog) was four months postpartum. Her skin seemed a size too large, her nipples were swollen and her belly soft and puckered. Her puppies had all been adopted separately and she was alone. Perhaps it was her weariness that I recognized. My own body had recovered from the birth of two children, but sixteen years later, these months at home spent in close proximity to the plump and dewy beauty of teens, and to their understandable drive toward independence, had made me more cognizant of my own shifting textures and resiliencies.
Flora settled into the house easily. She and River traced delighted, scampering circles in the yard. During walks around the neighborhood, she trotted next to me, her shoulder nearly touching my calf. Whenever I sat, she settled too, and pushed her body as close to mine as possible. Her creamy fur was velvety under my fingers. In my presence, she fell asleep quickly and slept hard. The first time I lifted her from the sofa, her body was so warm and heavy in my arms that I instinctively began the metronomic swaying used to soothe babies and toddlers.
As present as they are, children leave absence in their wake. I embrace the adult bodies of my son and daughter with the same arms that once cradled infants.
Today is the anniversary of Grace’s death. Our world is a little bit more open. My son is at college. My daughter is back at school. I’m missing them both and, missing, too, that bubble we shared together for so many months. I think I might just now be reacting to all that’s happened over the last two years. I’m out of sorts. I’m weepy and achy and distracted. So much happened. Is still happening.
Flora’s red belly scar has faded under creamy new fur and her skin has tightened over muscles built on our long hikes in the hills of Griffith Park. She’s lost her odd, kennel smell, and has made an emotional shift from worried pleasing to obstinate couch sitting. She still sits with at least one part of her body pressed against my own. The way she regularly falls into such a trusting and deep sleep provides a consoling and much needed reminder to rest.