Me, Myself and Who Am I Now?

Me to the left of King, the family dog, Sioux City, Iowa – 1956.

I’ve lived alone since May 28th, 2017, the day Michael died in our home. My son has been here with me intermittently, when he’s not away at field sites for his biology work, or when he’s working at our local university. But that’s temporary residency. I live alone. Or so I’ve thought. I live alone when it comes to other people but there were always the dogs and the birds.

Violet

Yesterday it was time to let Violet go. She was always an odd pet, a rescue at age 8 and a half, who’d clearly been used up as a show dog and then abandoned. I got her less than two months after Michael died. I had to euthanize his elderly cocker spaniel Rosie first, the dog we’d rescued the year before his cancer went beyond hope. We were told by the humane society that Rosie was five but they erred – actually she turned out to be twelve. She reminded him of a favorite childhood pet. I knew she was likely to be his last animal so we kept her. She began failing right after he was gone. So out she went, another in a long line of pets who were done with quality lives. I still had our cockatiel, Daisy, but I was too lonely. Hence, Violet.

Michael and Rosie
Michael and Rosie
Me and Daisy

I should have hardened my heart against that decision. Violet was high maintenance from the start. I knew that her history and age would make a challenging task for me. As things often turn out, she was harder than I thought she’d be. She simply had no idea how to be a companion which was what I most wanted. She was fussy about food. She was unaffectionate. She rarely made eye contact, instead looking at my hand for signals, as she’d been trained to do for her professional life. Once I stuck my whole hand in a jar of peanut butter to see if I could get her to lick me. She didn’t do it then or ever. I wanted her to come upstairs and sleep in my bedroom but the first time I brought her up, she attacked Daisy’s cage. Our cockatiel before Daisy, Lily, loved being out of her cage. The dog we had during her life was Flash, conceivably the sweetest, albeit, loudest animal I ever owned. Ironically he was afraid of her. Lily was killed by our neighbor’s dog who was romping through our house with Flash one day. The poor bird never knew what hit her. She was accustomed to this gentle furry giant who lay near her, doing nothing close to frightening. As soon as I saw Violet’s behavior toward Daisy, she was relegated to the first floor.

Flash and Lily
Flash and Lily

Looking back on the Violet years, I realize that I adapted myself fully to her strange habits. That’s often characteristic of caregiver behavior because it’s required. The challenged person or animal has limitations. So the caregiver stretches and morphs, trying to create a semblance of normalcy within circumstances that are far from normal, no matter how you define it. I don’t know if I was born with a predisposition for caregiving, but no matter. I lived that role my whole life, up to and including the death of Violet. I held her in my arms, talking to her in calming, low tones which belied the tears streaming into my mask, turning my face into a sticky repulsive mess. All the while I was talking to my vet, a woman who’s known me a long time, caring for the dogs of a good portion of my life. She was saying all sorts of complimentary things to me about how wonderful it was that I took on the old dogs that no one else wanted. She saw me through the death of Flash which was in the midst of my terror that Michael would die the summer of 2015, right after my brother’s death that April and my mother’s, not even a scant week before I held Flash, the dog of my life in his last moments. Married to Michael’s former business partner from his pre-teaching years, she knows a fair amount about my life. The last thing she said to me that really struck a nerve was an admiring, “you just go on and on, through everything.” I was stunned. Well, do I? That’s the question of the moment.

Violet

I sat in the car awhile, trying to get myself together enough to drive without killing someone else or myself. I’ve been even more sleep-deprived than usual this week, which is saying something. I was managing a little more than 4 hours a night, anxious about my son’s lengthy trip home from Peru, dodging Covid on airplanes and in airports. And I was wondering if I’d be able to keep my nerve and let Violet go. For, indeed, the end of her life leaves me staring at a definite fork in my road. Who will I choose to be now? Without anyone in my care for the first time in what feels like forever? Am I done with that role as I hit seventy? Or do I have another go-round left in me? This feels like a time when despite the utterly painful feelings, I’m needing to make an intellectual choice. But can I just take care of myself? I have no clue. At least not yet.

I didn’t go home right away. I went into the country which fortunately for me is just minutes from town. I watched white-tailed deer skipping across the road and through the fields. Wonderful cloud formations were blowing overhead. A running stream. Hordes of crows were picking at the leftover corn crunched in the snow. Occasionally they’d mob a hawk, always interesting to watch as the smaller birds team up to protect their turf. And I thought a lot until I realized I was too exhausted to do anything but get back home.

Violet, mystified by her bed

I bustled inside, instantly aware of the emptiness. I’d prepared myself for this moment. Every time I’d had to go through this experience, I’d taken a photo of the dog to remind myself of why I’d made this choice. I took one of Violet standing in the midst of her bed when she was absolutely bewildered about her next step. She’d been having frequent accidents in the house, taking days to finish her food and the worst, being fearful about the three steps to get back in the house from the backyard. She’d go outside, never relieve herself and go to sleep in the rain or snow. I’d be drenched at 3 am, trying to coax her inside. I’d finally resorted to a choke chain so I could pull her. How demeaning for her, and me as well. I could’ve dragged it out a little longer. When Michael was alive, that soft soul dreaded making these choices. So after he made it through a dreadfully prolonged situation with the dog he brought to our relationship at age 22, I was left with these jobs for the rest of the animals, save his next dog choice, Manfred the springer spaniel who died in front of us at age three, a victim of a birth defect in his poor brain.

Manfred being walked with our kids-dead at 3.

I set myself to the cleanup tasks. Picked up the dog beds for washing. Cleaned the food and water bowls. Scooped up some dog hair. I was too tired though. The flea treatment and heartworm meds along with the rest of the food could wait. I sank into my recliner where I usually park myself after the busy parts of my day. I thought about how my constant fretting about what Violet needed had developed into this pattern of spending most of my time in my living room, watching her, asking her if she needed to go out. She in her space, me in mine. Like parallel play in toddlers. Next to each other but not substantive interaction. That’s where I drifted. For these three and a half years, I’ve had a warm body in this place. But not a lot of comfort. I knew it but didn’t know it. Whatever it was, it was to be dealt with, without thinking much about it. Before the pandemic, I was able to travel some. I always boarded Violet at the vet’s kennel. She knew that place and they liked her. Still after a time when we entered, she actually drew closer to me so I knew she understood I was her person, that she had a home. Alone in the house, I had muscle memory twitches, looking around for her, thinking of our usual schedule which was gone. And I thought and thought about whether I’m done with dogs. Maybe some of that has to do with this specific animal. Or is it that I know I don’t want another reclamation project? Or that after all the death traumas of the past nine years, I’m not sure any more that I have a limitless vista of time ahead of me? I hear people talk about their long-range plans and goals, people my age. I never go there any more. My life is about now, not the future. Do I have enough left in me to take on a puppy? Will I be strong for years longer? Or will my life be shorter than that? Do I want to be selfish enough to have another dog who I won’t be able to live out a full life with – is that fair to an animal?

Me in 1972 with all the dogs in our communal living situation. Michael’s Irish setter Harpo is on the left, the pup is Tubby, my dog Herbie’s baby with Herbie lying next to her right.

I got my first dog when I was in my freshman year of college. Living with her in a dorm room was a challenge and eventually I gave her to my parents who quickly moved her out. I was seventeen. At nineteen in my second apartment, I got Herbie. I brought her to my life with Michael. She wanted to bite everyone but me, so with regret, I gave her up. Shortly thereafter, I got Ribeye, a border collie puppy who was with us for fifteen years. We took Harpo and Ribeye everywhere. Back in those days, our trips were mostly camping ones which took us to Indiana, southern Illinois, the Ozarks and even Florida. They transitioned with us from a carefree vagabond lifestyle to our real forever home and into parenthood. They had long lives and losing them made the deep wounds, the prices we pay for loving. Ribeye was the smartest, most intuitive and sensitive dog I ever had. She didn’t ever need a leash because she always understood where she was supposed to be.

Harpo died first at fifteen. When I was pregnant for the second time, Michael showed up with Manfred. Ribeye died the following year, also at fifteen. And then, the following year, Manfred’s short life ended. Three dead dogs in three years was a lot. We decided to get my daughter a kitten. We went through the whole adoption process, her helping make the choice and waiting a few days to make sure we were serious. A screwup at the humane society occurred – they’d already committed that kitten to another family. My daughter was bereft. We decided that I’d go back on my own and make the experience a surprise in order to spare her feelings. The trouble was that I went alone and meandered into the puppy room. Oops. So we got Sydney Rose, the name we’d settled on for our second daughter who turned out to be a boy. Michael was so mad at me. He’d wanted to pick the next dog after a proper mourning period. He accused me of liking psychological, intellectual dogs instead of ones who were more playful. Bingo. He was of course correct.

Sydney

We had Sydney for 15 years. I remember putting her down on what was then Columbus Day, so everyone could stay home and cry. By then Michael had changed careers, my daughter was away at college and my son was a busy high school student. I was combing the ads in the paper, hunting for a dog. One Sunday morning while my guys were doing their schoolwork I saw an ad for collie puppies for a next to nothing price. They were in a town about 15 minutes from home. I began to wheedle Michael, saying, “it can’t hurt to go and have a look.” I can still see his face with that, “yeah, right, we’re just going for a look” expression. The three of us jumped in the car and headed north. When we arrived on the correct block, I saw an absolutely majestic collie sitting regally in front of a tiny house. The door opened and out ran a beleaguered female with half a dozen puppies leaping up to nurse. A puppy mill. She wasn’t a purebred but I didn’t care. These guys looked like the dogs of my childhood dreams, the characters in the many collie books I’d read. I wanted a female but this little affectionate male was hard to resist. We named him Flash in the car on the way home. Because he was flashy.

Baby Flash
Flash walking himself, leash in mouth
He actually jumped this fence once
Flash studying my daughter’s Boston terrier
Making himself small so the tug game would be more fair.
Gentle with my daughter’s puppy
Making friends with my grandson

Flash died in 2015, four days after my mom. Michael made a shocking recovery and lived almost two more years. The cacophony of Flash’s incessant barking drove me crazy during his last few years, when I had my mom living with us, was a full-time caregiver for my baby grandson and Michael was facing his wretched cancer. But with some distance I know that sweet, gentle, intelligent dog took a piece of me with him. So here I sit. Is that part of my life over? It’s cheaper to live without a pet. You can go where you want when you choose to, without worrying about them. Of course travel seems a bit obtuse at this point. I can be in different rooms in my house, especially my beloved bedroom. I need to figure this out. And give myself a little time. But isn’t that all anyone has in the end? Just a little time?

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