Picking up her food bowl, that was hard. I left it down for days. A week later, while shopping online, I was prompted for a password. For more than a decade I've used her name, or a version of it, to buy yoga pants, spices, books and music. I knew I couldn't break down each time I hit a "checkout" button, so I had to change my passwords, methodically erase her name. That was harder. My new passwords are neutral, nonsense words and meaningless numbers. I have three other dogs and I've learned my lesson.
When you adopt a pet – in this case, a twice-adopted and twice-returned Smooth Fox Terrier named Millie – she's suddenly yours, for better or worse, in a ceremony where you've paid a fee and slipped a circle of nylon around her neck. It's deceptively simple for such a commitment, all the implied promises. You don't think ahead to the day when you'll have choices, not just collar colors – red or purple? Life and death choices.
Choices: I said yes to the sedative that calmed her fearful shaking and made her little head drop to her paws. Yes to the injection of pink liquid that slowed her breathing and stopped her heart. When it was over I refused to let the kennel tech take her away, and he backed off, making calm down motions with his hands. I was utterly confused by the flood of grief. I'd expected to be relieved.
There have been a rash of books and movies, recently, featuring dogs. By and large the dogs are galumphing lugheads. Couch chewers, carpet piddlers, excessive droolers, rambunctious instruments of destruction, but pure of heart. You can forgive a lot if the eyes looking back at you are liquid with innocence or stupidity. You don't mind, as much, trails of shredded toilet paper, gutted pillows or a curled pile of shit, if you see frantic joy on your dog's face as you come through the door. He thought you were never coming home. And here you are!
Millie was nothing like that. She was a shrewd bitch, obstinate and surly, greedy and domineering. I have no doubt she was abused; dogs of a certain oppositional temperament are often bullied by owners attempting to show them who's boss. She telegraphed her experiences with a hunched, defensive back. The command "Come!" whether delivered cajolingly or assertively made her ears flatten. She couldn't accept an unsolicited hug. She snapped at my children, claimed their beds as her own and growled at the mildest rebuke. She darted out doors left ajar, and pretended not to recognize you when you caught up with her on the street. All of this was cleverly, adorably, disguised within a compact body covered in white fur and large Holstein spots, a rakish black eye mask; the only sign of her true nature was a nub of a tail that didn't so much wag as vibrate, like a snake's rattle. Meeting her for the first time, though, you'd be thoroughly duped.
I caught glimpses of the dog she might have been, in the moments when she was truly happy. She loved her leash and the walks it took her on. The car, windows down, her head out, ears flapping like racing flags. The dog park. Squirrels. In her younger years, she caught one, snatched him right off the side of a tree, and as my daughter squealed, "Drop it! Drop it!" Millie stood there, panic in her eyes. She wasn't sure, herself, what to do with the squirming critter in her mouth. Finally, she spat him onto the ground, where he lay stunned, spit-soaked, for a minute before darting up the nearest tree with one hell of a story to tell. And her food bowl. Even on the last day of her life, that morning, she did a little dance, a series of excited arthritic hops as I poured kibble into her bowl.
For us, she developed a tolerance, a mild affection, and there were times when she let her guard down and allowed us to show her kindness, but in those interactions eventually some invisible line would be crossed, a breached personal boundary that caused her wall of distrust to rise again and she'd effectively push us away.
I should tell you about the pet funeral home, a pale yellow bungalow decorated with chimes and fountains, angel statuary, crosses and wraithlike cats, owned by a woman from central casting: Earth Mother. A wizened tree of a woman, broad trunk, long gray hair that frizzed like Spanish moss, acorn-colored eyes, a healer's voice. Her words emerge gauze-wrapped, seeking untended wounds. These are details that would ordinarily make me smile or – at my most ungracious – snicker, but cradling Millie's body, my face splotched and puffy, my eyes red and scratchy with a mysterious grit, I'm buying all of it. If she'd offered Lazarus water, or donned a train conductor's hat and sold first class tickets on the Rainbow Bridge Express – Toot! Toot! All aboard! – I would have thrown money at her and climbed on. Anything to assuage the guilt. Those choices...
My husband has lost patience with me. I'm still weeping copiously and often nearly two weeks after her death. He says, "This needs to stop. For heaven's sake, she was old and sick! You did the right thing!"
Once someone notices your tears they speed up, and tears are raining as I admit, "I didn't love her, not like I should."
He scoffs and says, "She wanted for nothing! You loved her lots, as much as she deserved." That word -- deserved -- pierces me. Do any of us want to be loved as much as we deserve? Or do we hope others will see beyond and offer more?
I say, "I can't believe you think that's enough."
He says, "And I can't believe you expect more from yourself than that."
He's right. You can't fully love someone who willfully rejects it. I also know I'm right, and I can't hammer that contradictory knowledge into wisdom or practice. I just know that grief with recriminations is sharper than the well-earned kind.
I held her as she died. That's one of the promises you make in the beginning, before you understand the contract – that you'll be there at the end. I stroked her ears, and told her she was a good girl, over and over, and I meant it. At her most vulnerable, when she leaned against me with her full weight and accepted, at last, the loving embrace I'd always wanted to give her, she was a good girl.
(When I started the car to leave the funeral home, the CD player -- which had been off -- came to life, and this song began to play. Don't snicker, but I thought it might be a sign from Millie, that she's happy now.)