When Alec died, I swore I would never adopt another dog. Losing him was too devastating. Then I heard Teagan’s story and changed my mind. This week, little Teagan is the mascot for ALDF’s National Justice for Animals Week. Check out her video!
Well, it’s my turn to blog again, and I seem to be a bit of one-trick pony these days (pardon the speciesist expression), so here I go again, writing about love and loss. Words cannot express how deeply touched I was – and am – by the comments left on my last blog post (“Alec, Teagan, and Me”). I have my own blog, where I have felt comfortable expressing all of the messy, awful, bewildering, painful roiling emotions that engulfed me when my beloved shepherd Alec died. But this was my first time writing about grief for the ALDF blog, and I was apprehensive to post something so personal. Little did I know it would connect with so many people! I just re-read the comments again and tears streamed down my face as I did so. Every story, every relationship, is different, yet shares so much in common. These comments are windows onto so many dear and special relationships that cannot be quantified, explained, or forgotten, and I am privileged for the glimpse. To read such bittersweet stories of love and loss and resilience makes me feel strong, through osmosis, I guess…strength in numbers, a community of kindred spirits, a little club where people understand. Thank you for sharing with me and each other.
“Grief is the price you pay for love.” Well I hated that one after Alec died, I really did. I know some people find this a comforting thought, and I understand how it could be. And it is certainly true. It just didn’t resonate with me in the beginning. It felt flippant; it didn’t seem to capture everything Alec and I had been through together, how unfair it felt to lose him that way. What did bring me a modicum of comfort (and I use that word, comfort, very loosely, as it was almost impossible for me to come by anything resembling comfort for a long time after he died – if anyone out there is in that dark scary place where I was, I’m sorry; trust me it does get better; I didn’t think it would either) was the knowledge that grief is a universal experience. Rare is the person who is not touched by grief in his or her lifetime. Although there was no grief *exactly like mine* (so unjust!) and no relationship *exactly like ours* (so special!) and no set of circumstances *exactly the same* (so many exacerbating factors!), it did help just knowing that there were people out there who could relate to some of what I was going through, if not all.
Some of these people I knew personally, and others came to me through words I read in books or stories I heard on the radio. Some were people who had suffered similar losses; some were people whose losses were in no way similar to mine save the feelings left at the end of it. The processing that must occur, the door through which the bereaved walks (forced march is more like) and steps out on the other side a new person, someone transformed inexorably, even if nobody knows but you. These commonalities were like an invisible thread connecting me to people I had never met. Yet we shared a bond. Reading your comments was like that too. They are a gift. I printed them out. I will treasure them. In fact they inspired me to begin a memorial project I have not been able to bring myself to face yet – the mountains of photos I have of Alec, the ones that in my mind will become a beautiful slideshow, a tribute to him and the life we shared together. The problem has been manifesting this vision, getting it out of my mind and tackling it in the real world. As tears slid down my cheeks reading your amazing stories of loyalty and pain and friendship and everlasting love I realized I was ready to go through his pictures. More than a year later, it’s true; this has taken me a long time. But he is not going anywhere (else), and neither is my love. I carry my grief with me like a satchel, like one of those hobo sacks on the end of a stick. Sometimes I put it down, but it is always with me. I take it from place to place, from day to day, from dawn to dusk and into the dark night. He is gone but my love for him remains. It is what is left of him. It feels weird, one-sided…almost imaginary. It wakes me up at night sometimes. It is the truest thing I can say about the way things are now. I am holding this love that never left. Like that Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where Calvin looks up and is suddenly sitting all by himself in the cafeteria; he was daydreaming and didn’t hear the bell. Everyone has gone to class. He is alone. It feels like that, a little. Where did you go? Why didn’t I hear the bell? And who pushed me through this goddamn door?
I was talking to my friend not long ago about Alec, and I said that we exist outside of time now. Something like that. It just popped out of my mouth but I paused on it, considering what it meant, wondering why I said it. My perceptive friend heard me slip into ponder mode and said, “Hmm, I sense a future blog post.” Well I have not written about it until now, but I have thought about the idea of time a lot in the aftermath of Alec’s death. The tie-in here is the question of the photos, of being a weirdo who cannot create a slideshow of her dead dog until more than a year later. But, really, what is the rush? I always say people should not bury their grief deep inside, no matter how temporarily compelling it may be as a short-term survival strategy, because it can come back worse later. But I have been writing, I have been crying, I have been thinking, I have been talking. The pictures are tough for me though. And I think it’s because of the time thing. This is hard. Sometimes the particulars of grief are so clear in my mind yet difficult to write about. It’s like I keep Alec in my pocket, hold him close, can bring him out when I need …okay it’s like, you know how your favorite song can take on a wallpaper quality if you listen to it too much? I have always been the sort who when I fall really in love with a song or album, I have to limit myself in how much I listen to it because I don’t want it to lose that special magical quality and deep emotional resonance. I don’t want to wear it out. Not everyone does this. And I don’t do this with *every* song I love, just those really special songs by my favorite bands that I have some kind of weird connection with –an entire album like this for me is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (and this album is this for many people, I realize). When it came out in 1998 I was absolutely stunned and wanted to listen to it over and over all the time. But not wanting to dilute the awe those songs inspired in me, I rationed myself. And I never let it just play in the background. I limited myself to times when I could listen to the album with intention, to experience it fully. And though diminished somewhat in its ability to knock me over emotionally, it still feels fresh to me after more than 10 years.
What does this have to do with looking through photos of Alec? I guess I don’t want Alec to feel like a dusty old memory, like some song playing in the background that has lost its transcendent luster. And I fear if I stare at his pictures all the time they will lose some elusive quality, some freshness. They will become of the past, old and blurry relics. Because the thing is, they’re all I’ve got now, the only thing that is somewhat tangible and of the senses. There will be no new ones. Is this me trying to stop the passage of time, to corral it, to exert some measure of control in an area where I have been denied agency? I couldn’t stop his death but maybe if I lock the pictures away one day when I really need him it will be like meeting all over again for the first time. I don’t know. This is the first time I have really tried to articulate my problem with the pictures. Nobody gets it. In this way, my grief is more unique than universal. People really relate to some things I say, while others are more likely to get blank stares. This photo thing is one of the blank stare inducers.
I have a couple on my walls now. I am making progress. And I can’t stop time. But part of my grief process, most of what got me through the door to other side where I decided (yes, it was a conscious decision) I was going to survive, was the idea of forging a new relationship with him. The ghost of him, if you will. The “him” that is in my pocket, or my satchel, wherever non-corporeal Alec is, whichever imperfect metaphor is most apt. But for some people the most comforting thing they can think of is to surround themselves with photos of their deceased loved one. That is awesome. I wonder sometimes if I am doing my grief “right,” whether I am handling it properly. But then I realize there is no right or wrong answer and I think as long as I keep writing I will be okay. He will still be here with me.
One of the comments on my last post that struck me was SusanD writing about her beloved cat Champy’s death over fourteen years ago. She wrote: “I heard the usual clichés, ‘he’s at the Bridge,’ ‘it was his time,’ ‘you’ll get over it’ — I never did, never will. Fourteen years. Yesterday. An eternity.” I have said very similar things. Alec died more than a year ago. It feels like forever; it feels like 5 minutes. This is what I was saying to my friend in the conversation where I mused that we existed outside time now; I just remembered the context.
And Victoria commented about her dearly departed dachshund: “I don’t think that I will ever recover completely. Since then I have rescued two more doxies, and love them dearly, but…I am still waiting to be with my Scooter.” I can so relate to that too…that feeling of waiting. I don’t find comments likes this – “I will never get over it.” “I am waiting to be with him.” – depressing. They are beautiful to me. They are testaments to relationships that now exist outside of time. Whatever that means, I don’t know (I sometimes write things I don’t fully understand). But this comforts me.
And so does the sharing of stories. I wrote recently in my blog about how I love to hear Alec’s name, how I like to talk about him, to think about him. I know a large part of the pain of losing a loved one can be the feeling of having to keep it inside. Especially in the case of a companion animal, a bereaved person can be made to feel their grief is not legitimate. This is terrible and compounds the tragedy of loss. Social attitudes are changing, but outside the rarified air of ALDF and my simpatico circle of friends, I know it can be a harsh place out there for people grieving the loss of a dear animal companion. That is why we must share our stories – to give each other hope and strength.
Because not everyone feels this way about their companion animals, it is even more important for us to share our stories. Many of us know what it is like not only to open our hearts and truly love a member of another species, but to enact that love with a commitment to the animal and his or her needs (I have personally always found the action part of the verb “love” to be more important than the more passive, feeling part). An animal doesn’t care that you say you love her – show her! Take her for a walk, include her in your life, be HER best friend! At ALDF we often say the law regarding companion animals has not caught up to changing social norms. The notion that animals are mere property is antiquated and has not kept pace with our changing perception of pets as family members. This is true, especially if you hang out in places like the ALDF blog (or in our office)! Yet for every person who mourns the death of a non-human best friend, for every person who turns her life upside down and finances inside out to accommodate a special needs animal or to treat a life-threatening disease, there is another person dumping their erstwhile “family member” at the shelter because they peed in the house, barked too much, shed all over the furniture, or simply required too much time and energy. Sadly, many of these healthy animals, each one as deserving of a loving home as the beloved individual animals in our own lives, will be put to death simply because nobody wanted them.
This shameful killing of former “best friends” happens every day, everywhere, because animals are property and the family member designation is arbitrary, something bestowed upon them by us – and not all of us. We can only hope to form a critical mass eventually, a tipping point where the more mainstream notion is that dogs and cats (and other species we have brought into our homes and made dependent on us) are companions with their own interests and lives – lives that mean everything to them – and not pretty set pieces or ornaments or animated stuffed toys or forgotten shadows on the end of the chain tied up alone in the backyard. The juxtaposition between the cherished relationships described in the comments on my last post and the ways some dogs and cats are (legally) treated is astounding when you really think about it. I believe ALDF and its supporters are at the forefront of a progressive trend. At ALDF we can bring our animal companions to work, we take dog walk breaks, and we are allowed bereavement days when they die – just like a human member of the family. So until not only the law but the rest of society starts to catch up with those of us who truly treat our dogs and cats like cherished friends and family members (not through misguided anthropomorphism but rather a careful consideration of their species-specific needs; to fulfill those needs in a human-centered society is not always easy, but those of us who have truly and respectfully loved an animal find the rewards far outweigh the challenges), we should keep sharing our stories and inspiring one another with our tales of love, commitment, and yes, inevitably loss…but equally inevitable, I hope, will be the post script: learning to love again.
A year ago I could not imagine adopting another dog. Yet here I am, head over heels in love with a sweet little one-eyed German shepherd. I’m back in a dog-centric routine, trying every day to make someone happy again…walks, adventures, trips to the park, rides in the car, simple companionship. Teagan is so different from Alec, but she makes me feel close to him because of the joy she has brought back into my life. We have been together three months now. She is amazing and I love her. (To see some pictures of Teagan in her new home with me, you can visit her Facebook page.) I love the idea of adoption as a tribute. All the animals sitting in shelters hoping against a ticking clock that someone chooses them before their time is up would agree. And Teagan’s presence has been so healing to me. Not that I will ever completely heal. Or stop waiting for our miracle. Alec would have been eleven years old next month. Time marches on. But I am hoping he is still with us, with Teagan and me, somewhere outside of time, maybe waiting for me too.
Formerly one-eared bunny.
So Alec had this pink bean bag bunny. I can’t remember where he got it, or more accurately (because he wasn’t in the habit of obtaining his own toys, unlike his brother Kobi, who was a legendary forager and often found treasured items in the street), where I got it for him. It might have been one of the office toys at ALDF in California. Anyway, I remember bringing it to him when he was in the vet clinic following the emergency spinal surgeries that left him hospitalized for two weeks, so it must have been around the time he became paralyzed. He never showed much interest in the toy (it didn’t squeak or do anything interesting), except once, when he nibbled the bunny’s right ear cleanly off. After said ear amputation he never bothered with the bunny again. I’m not sure why I even held onto it; there were lots of toys he liked better and actually played with. Maybe because I thought it was morbidly adorable the way he removed the bunny’s ear so precisely like some twisted shepherd surgeon. So I kept the one-eared bunny, and it lived at the bottom of the toy basket.
Last night I pulled a bag of Alec’s toys out of the closet. I did not want to offer them to Teagan at first in case she immediately destroyed them. I have his favorite “blue thing” safely tucked away in a box for the time being, but I decided to bring a few of the other toys out. I wasn’t so worried about her destroying them now since Teagan has shown minimal interest in toys thus far. Also, I am more comfortable now with the toys being used again, which yes, includes possible destruction. They aren’t doing anyone any good in the back of my closet. And I liked seeing them out again.
[And of course the topic of what to do with all the "stuff" after a loved one dies could easily be a whole other series of blog posts. It is something I grappled with and have handled - and not handled - in various ways depending on the object in question. But, as usual, I digress!]
I tried to play with Teagan with the “new” toys last night but she wasn’t interested, which didn’t surprise me too much. But this morning she got a wild hair and grabbed one-eared pink bunny and started chomping on him a little. She suddenly was very interested in him! I was watching her carefully to make sure she did not rip him open since there were those beanie thingies inside when I noticed she appeared to be chewing intently on his other ear. Next thing I knew, bunny’s remaining ear had been bitten clean off!
Well done, Teagan! It was a team effort between her and the brother she never met; together she and Alec turned pink bean bag bunny into a grisly earless freak. Oh and after she chewed his ear off, she lost interest in the bunny, just like Ali. I thought it was pretty adorable. Out of all the ways Teagan could have reminded me of Alec, the weird and unlikely continuity in this cutely macabre act delighted me.
Finishing what Ali started: post amputation; severed ear is next to her left leg.
I like this story because I was recently reflecting upon how Teagan reminds me of Alec hardly at all. I wasn’t sure what to expect; they are both German shepherds after all. While I neither dreaded nor looked forward to them being similar, I prepared myself for there to be freakish similarities in their personalities just owing to the breed quirks, and for the possibility that I might feel like she was channeling him or something. Not at all. Her personality is very different. Teagan is calm where Alec was anxious, and laid back in ways that he was neurotic. She chases birds, of which Alec took no notice, but not sticks, with which he was obsessed. She is afraid of the grating on sidewalks, but does not bark at ocean waves. Much to my chagrin, Teagan is even less interested in cuddling than Alec was (although I hold out hope that this will change with time!). These are just a few differences. Besides personality traits, she really just has a whole different energy.
Although I wasn’t necessarily expecting it (not that I don’t think animals are individuals, on the contrary! But breeds do share traits), I like that she is so different, so much her very own unique self. I find it comforting that the way Teagan reminds me of Alec, the way she makes me feel close to him, is not in her personality so much as the feeling she engenders in me, the sunshine she has brought back into my life. But today a similarity did emerge, and it made me smile: they both have a propensity for biting the ears off pink bean bag bunnies.
“And my work here is done.”
My German shepherd Alec was many things to me: best friend, partner, dependent, roommate, constant companion, apple of my eye, cherished family member, wonder dog and inspiration. Most of all, he was my soul mate. Alec was the love of my life. When he died last year, I wasn’t sure I could go on without him, even if I wanted to. To some that may sound extreme, but Alec and I shared a special bond and had been through an intense journey together.
It is a long story and I have a blog if you want to read more: www.alec-story.com. But here is the extremely truncated version! When Alec was seven years old, a disc ruptured in his back and my hale, hearty and playful friend was suddenly paralyzed and given a poor prognosis that he would ever walk again. After he recuperated from two spinal surgeries, I had him fitted him for a mobility cart (doggie wheelchair), to which he adjusted quickly, and Alec was soon able to go on walks again. I took him swimming to make up for his not being able to run and fetch on land. I learned all I could about caring for a large paraplegic dog. I monitored him closely for signs of depression, but Alec was a happy dog, even with his new physical limitations. To cut to the chase, I did physical therapy with Alec from the start and, amazingly, he beat the odds. One year after he was given that poor prognosis, Alec began walking again. I had started my blog originally to keep friends and family updated, but I soon learned that Alec’s story had given others in similar situations hope that with consistent therapy, patience, time, and love their dogs too might recover, at least partially, from devastating neurological injuries.
Our happy ending was fated to be short-lived, however. After being out of his wheelchair only a year, Alec was diagnosed with a very aggressive and terminal cancer of the blood cells, hemangiosarcoma, which is nearly impossible to detect until it is already too late. But we had already faced down tremendous odds, and I wasn’t going to give up hope. I did everything in my power to save him, but it was not enough. Nothing worked – not chemotherapy, not herbs and holistic supplements, not prayer, not love. Alec died within a few short months.
After all he had been through, I was devastated. He was only nine and seemingly healthy. I thought we had much more time to enjoy our relationship. While close before, our bond had deepened and further blossomed after his paralysis upended our lives. After that, we truly became a team. We trusted each other and worked well together. His well-being had always been paramount to me, but when he became disabled Alec became the center of my world. He was my sunshine. In a very real way I revolved around him. Not in a bad way. In the way that happens when you are a caretaker for a dependent being who has special needs. When he died, I was lost, in every possible meaning of the word. It was as if gravity itself had deserted me. I was drifting through ether, no weight, no compass, no purpose, nobody home, nobody to go home to.
His absence not only left a void where a cherished relationship and our physical closeness had been, but it also threw me into an existential tailspin, from which it was difficult to recover. My entire world view was shaken. I felt unsafe in a fundamental way. I knew life was unfair, or I thought I did. Yet I couldn’t get over how unfair it all was, how after all he had already been through Alec did not deserve to be stricken dead by cancer before he had a chance to become an old lazy shepherd and enjoy some well-deserved, stress-free golden years. Who said life was fair? I chastised myself for being surprised, nay shattered, by this obvious fact of life. Alas, it is one thing to know something intellectually and something else to experience it. I had to struggle mightily with the question of meaning. I am still wrestling with that one. I was a complete and utter wreck. Anyone who has suffered a profound loss will recognize some of these feelings, which only barely begin to sort of hint at the teeny tiny tip of the hulking iceberg that is grief over losing a cherished love one. Just like the iceberg, there are many surprises lurking beneath the surface, ready to sink your already shaky ship. The bottom line is that I was devastated. I had lost dogs before, but they were old. I could not get over the fact that Alec had worked so hard to overcome paralysis only to be struck down by cancer. I had tried so hard to keep him safe and healthy. Despite my best efforts, I failed.
When Alec died, I vowed I would never adopt another dog. The pain of losing him was too great, too total. It was cataclysmic. I felt like I was gone with him – not just a piece, but the whole me. This is the price, they say, for having loved deeply. It was too high. And besides, I had no interest. I didn’t want another dog, ever. I wanted him. I wanted Alec. I railed against the finality of his leaving, of him not coming back. It. Could. Not. Be. It was a thing that could not be. Predictably, this line of thinking did not work out so well for me. But maybe it did after all.
Because I loved him too much to lose him, I decided I wouldn’t. I had to redefine our relationship, and develop some new beliefs to get me through, but ultimately what enabled me to move forward was the idea that he was coming with me even though our relationship had changed. I am in good company. Many of the best grief books, or at least the ones that helped me (for what it’s worth, I was most helped by reading books about losing family members such as a spouse or a child – not pet loss books specifically, though those can be helpful too), conceptualize successful grieving as forging a new relationship with the deceased, one that exists in the absence of his or her physical presence. This spoke to me intuitively. It felt true. When Alec was sick I told him (and myself) repeatedly that our bond could not be broken, that we would stay connected forever and always. I don’t logically know how that could be, but as I am fond of saying, there was a time when we thought we’d fall off the edge of the world and get eaten by sea monsters if we sailed too far out into the great blue ocean. The point being we just don’t know everything. So I don’t have to know how it works to decide to believe in something.
Mythical sea monsters notwithstanding, grief can lead to some interesting places. People will talk about needy dogs finding them when they thought they weren’t ready to adopt, and things like that. My colleague Tom had a stray dog run in front of his car on the highway exit ramp not long after his beloved dog Cassie had died at seven years old – even younger than Alec. He and his wife adopted that lucky dog, who seemed to know exactly which car to hurl himself in front of to ensure the best possible outcome. That didn’t happen to me, but a synchronistic series of events led me to learning about a little German shepherd named Teagan, who had survived horrific abuse at the hands of what many would deem a real monster (as opposed to the mythical sea ones), the type of depraved people ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program staff (god bless them) have to hear about every single day.
Teagan was shot at close range and left for dead in Mississippi. When she was found she was gravely injured, starving, and riddled with parasites. Her front leg was trapped in her collar up to the armpit. With every painful step, the collar cut deeper into her flesh; when she was found, the gash went almost to the bone. Someone most likely deliberately looped her leg through her collar, and then held her down to shoot her. They were probably trying to hit her heart, but they missed. The bullet traveled up her throat and through her jaw, smashing several teeth along the way, before it exited out her eye, which was destroyed and had to be removed. In addition to the gunshot related trauma, she showed obvious signs of neglect. Her legs were crooked and bent, most likely from being kept in a crate that was too small, and her skin was flaking off. Upon rescue, she was severely emaciated and weighed only 15 lbs. Now at a healthy weight of 39 lbs. she is still tiny for a German shepherd. Vets theorized that her growth may have been stunted from early malnutrition and neglect.
Unfortunately, whoever did this to Teagan, a sweet gentle dog who despite everything still loves and trusts people, will never be found. But Teagan was lucky to be found by an animal lover. Although this person could not care for her, and local shelters were reluctant to take her because of the extent of her injuries, little Teagan got lucky for the second time when Janice Wolf of Rocky Ridge Refuge in Arkansas agreed to take her and start the emotional and expensive journey of saving the dog whose life someone tried to extinguish with a bullet.
It was a long road to recovery, and Teagan was at Rocky Ridge Refuge for a year and a half. But now she is healthy and ready for adoption. Oh, did I mention I am adopting her? Yup, me…the same person who swore she would never want another dog after losing Alec. But as it sometimes happens, when I heard Teagan’s story and saw her picture, I just knew: yes, I would adopt this dog. There was no hesitation. I would give her the best home she could ever want. Significantly for me, I know Alec would have loved her.
I was supposed to adopt Teagan last October, but a few days before she was to make the trip from Arkansas to Oregon, she became deathly ill with a resistant infection that stumped the veterinarians. She received different medications and began to recover but no one is sure what was wrong with her. It could be that something was carried in with the bullet, fragments of which still remain inside her body because they could not all be removed. I waited eight months for her to be deemed healthy enough to be adopted and that has day finally arrived…almost! As I type this, Teagan is riding in a special transport van through California on her way to me in Portland, Ore. She was picked up in Arkansas on Saturday and has been traveling across the country for the last five days. She is supposed to arrive tomorrow morning and I could not be more excited to finally meet her!
Because of everything Teagan has been through, and all that I have recently lost, I know people are worried about me. My dad cryptically says only: “good luck.” A colleague said she hopes I don’t get my heart broken. What I didn’t tell her was that my heart is already broken. It broke forever when Alec died. But maybe being broken is not a bad thing. Maybe being broken creates cracks that need to be filled, spaces for more love to seep in. Love that would never have found its way to you had you remained whole, had you not suffered. Another thing I knew (as in, hello…obvious!) but had not experienced firsthand was that we never know how much time we have with our loved ones. Not only that, but we cannot know how long we will be here ourselves. One of my grief books said something that I found interesting. It said that while we may pine for the past and grieve for a future without our loved one in it, the truth is we don’t even know if we will be around for these imagined future events. So true! Today is all we have. And if all I have is one day with Teagan, I am going to try my hardest to make it the very best day of her life. I want every day to be wonderful for her. That’s what Alec did for me. I would like to share that. His presence filled my days with joy and happiness. Loving him made ordinary moments transcendent. Alec showed me the fathomless depth of love I was capable of, a love that strikes me dumb in its enormity, even now as I contemplate it. What a shame if I closed down and never shared my love again. As with compassion, we don’t have finite amounts of love, and Alec left me with so much of it. I love Alec still, so much. Even after his death, my love for him has changed and grown in ways I never could have predicted. He is still very much a part of my world; he is woven into the tapestry of my thoughts and feelings, of my deepest hopes and wishes. He will be there with me and Teagan. I don’t know how I know this. I just know there will be three of us.
It is frustrating to know there are so many animals out there who need homes; all are deserving, whether they have been abused or not. But although I cannot save them all, I can definitely make a big difference in one animal’s life, even as Alec still profoundly influences mine. My relationship with him keeps changing, keeps evolving, and a new chapter is about to begin. Teagan and I start our new lives together tomorrow. And it is going to be a very good day.