"We will see you in the sunbeams": On losing our dog




I didn’t want to believe Logan when he called me on Thursday in tears saying he thought we should buy plane tickets to St. Louis and to be ready to say goodbye to our beloved dog, Captain. Thanks to help from Logan’s parents who Captain had been staying with for a few weeks, our dog had just gone through his third spinal surgery, but he wasn’t entirely in the clear. The doctor had “mild concerns,” Logan’s dad reported to us.


“He’s going to be fine! He’s only 10!” I said trying to believe my words against Logan’s tears, stemmed I think, from a refined dad-intuition that he’d been building with his little dog years before I was lucky enough to become Captain’s mom.


“I don’t know that he will this time,” Logan choked out.


My stomach dropped. We made a plan to get tickets using built-up Southwest points (a perk of Logan traveling for work a lot) just in case. We’d cancel them if we got good news on Friday morning.


We didn’t get good news.


Logan was in Detroit on business, I was at home in Minneapolis, and Captain was being prepped for euthanasia in St. Louis. Logan and I got on the first flights we could. Logan at 9am, me at 12pm.


“Doctor says we can’t wait for mom,” Logan’s dad texted. He and Logan would have to go directly to the vet from the airport to “relieve Captain of his pain before it becomes intolerable.”


I can’t remember how we managed the logistics of all of this so quickly, but we did. Twenty minutes after the text that I would not be able to say goodbye in person to my precious son of almost five years (three living in the same house), and Logan’s of nearly eight, I had a bag packed and a Lyft called. Despite knowing I would miss the moment of the shot in Captain’s tiny little paw, I had to go. I had to not be in this apartment so empty, and I had to be with my partner in the aftermath of what I knew would be the worst moment of his life so far. Even with several minutes of deep-gutteral sobs, curled on the bed with my face buried in my cat’s belly, repeating, “your brother your brother your brother, we’re going to lose your brother,” I still made it out of the apartment in twenty minutes.


When you are preparing for loss, or when you are in the midst of it, each step it seems is another memory. I step -- one, two, three, four, five -- to the Southwest kiosk; I remember -- Captain’s yawn, the way his paw drooped off the side of his favorite dog bed, his perfectly foul breath, the sound of his nails against the hardwood floors, the shape of his dachshund-round body under the covers.


The kiosks aren’t working and I am disproportionately angry at everyone who isn’t about to lose someone they love. I stand in line to talk to a staff person, eyes red and momentarily distracted with disdain for the children who are laughing in front of me.


I get to the desk. “The kiosk isn’t working. I don’t need to check a bag, I just need my ticket.” I say without patience.


The worker is justifiably annoyed at my tone, but I don’t have space to care (which is unusual for me since I am often bending over backwards to make sure workers know that I am for them and not their bosses).


With a ticket in hand, I walk to the line and the memories begin again.


First, all the names we had for our precious boy: Rhett (technically his actual name), Stinky, Stinkerbutt, Cappy, Captain Butler, Caperoon, Captain Butler King of the Wild Frontier, Stinks. And all the monikers based on the animals (and a legume) he resembled: a velociraptor when he yawned, a chicken on his back with limbs all akimbo, a froggy when stretched out on his belly, a lima bean beneath the blanket, and a baby duck after a bath.  


Then, the ways he was part of my morning routine. How I’d wake up at 5 or 5:30am and retrieve him from the crate he loved so much. “Big stretch, Cappy,” I’d narrate his habitual motion; front paws outside the crate, back paws stretched further inside it. After his stretch I’d lift him gently onto the bed where his dad would sleep for another hour. First we did “Texture” which meant he’d roll around whatever quilt or blanket we had above the sheets, scratching his ears against the rough parts of the stitching. Then he’d be ready to snuggle up next to Logan, who was half-awake throughout this process. “Long dog,” I’d say scratching below his hips to encourage another stretch. And then finally, once under the covers, next to his dad, “Little spoon.” Or sometimes, “Lima bean.”  


And of course, the way he’d chase the sunbeams around the house. We had dog beds in nearly every room, strategically placed by the windows where the sun shone in. Captain loved basking in the white-yellow light, filtered through window sills and blinds. When the sun would move, he would too, preferring a flat floor with a sunbeam to a bed without one. Logan and I would try as best we could to keep up with the rotating earth, to move the bed to new spots as the light changed location. I loved touching his fur, even in the dead of winter, so warm.


Tears streamed down my face in the airport remembering all this. Another choked sob too, the kind that was pouring out recklessly after I hung up the phone with Logan in the apartment. And now, here in public too, I wailed outloud my loss. It is amazing what a crisis does to one’s threshold for embarrassment. Or perhaps more accurately, it is a threshold for showing our absolute willingness to succumb to what drags us to our knees. I read once that some scientists describe crying in humans as an evolutionary trait we developed to alert others that we can’t cope alone. Tears evoked empathy in some ancient human to help another in distress. And although in that moment I truly want to be left alone, maybe I am also trying to signal, somewhere deep down, that I am broken and not okay and in need of something more tender than the airport usually offers.


I check my phone before placing it in the bin on the TSA belt. “Call when you’re through security,” Logan’s message reads, “At the vet now.”


I was a shell through the metal detector. The other side of security would be where I would say goodbye to my dog.

*


Bless the quietness of Terminal 2 at the Minneapolis airport. Right away I found a relatively secluded bench next to the reserved lactation room. It felt appropriate. To sit near where there is the labor of nourishing new life, to say goodbye.


My tears were quiet now. Just a gentle stream as I called Logan. “We’re here,” he said shaky, “we’re about to go back to the room, I’ll call you on FaceTime in a minute.”


I sat with my head in my hands. I imagine my back heaved. I imagine I looked as absolutely shattered as I was.


When I accepted the call, the screen revealed my wet-eyed partner and our perfect boy, resting gently in a blanket against Logan’s leg. There was a room at the vet designated for these goodbyes.


Logan’s dad (Lawrence/grandpa) held the phone up so I could see our sweet boy’s face.

“Oh Captain,” my face fell in my hands again, “oh Stinks, I love you so much.”


I spent a few minutes between incoherent “I love you”’s to the dog and “I don’t want this to be real”’s to Logan. At one point, Captain appeared to lick the phone screen. The three of us -  mom, dad, and grandpa - cooed at his “kisses for mom!”


The loud sound of the Southwest attendant’s voice screamed out from the ceiling. I had barely registered the movement in the airport while on the phone, but the speaker jolted me when I heard my flight announced.


“That’s my flight,” I weeped, “I think I should say goodbye.” A sob. “But I don’t want to. I don’t want to.”


I took choppy breaths. Another head in palm collapse. And then I sat up a little straighter and looked through the screen into my dog’s long nose and gentle tired eyes.

“Captain, I love you so much. I loved being your mom. We will love you forever and we will miss you so much. You were our perfect boy,” I breathed deep, “We will see you in the sunbeams.”

 

I told Logan I loved him and that I was so sorry and that I would see him soon. And then I hung up. My skin hurt on that bench. I longed to feel the embrace of a person who understood. I caved in upon myself, hollow and in pieces. It was so thick, in that moment, the isolation of grief. Without my family, I felt so alone.


And Captain, I believe, made us a family, even when the odds were stacked against us. You see, my love story with Logan, beautiful in many ways, is also one of on-again/off-again pain, of bad decisions and regrets. When we finally moved in together, after years of trying to get it together, we still had rocky terrain to climb. But we also became something stronger under one roof. Me, my beautiful black cat Diesel, Logan, and his Captain. We each learned the quirks of one another’s pet, we adapted, we grew. Captain, in particular, taught us as a couple about sharing and sacrifice and letting go of the small stuff. The walks I would take him on when Logan was on a long commute; the way we’d plan our days or travel around his needs, and how we’d carry him up and down stairs because of his risk for back injuries, without an ounce of resentment. Or how Logan doing Captain’s “dog-voice” could ease us out of an insignificant argument. “Mom,” Logan would say in low and goofy tone, “can we stop talking and just have treats? Maybe you’ll feel better after treats.” And I’d erupt in laughter and coos and kiss his stinky nose, and just like that, we’d be past it.

A family pile: Cap, Logan, Diesel, me behind the camera.

“How did we get so lucky?!” I would often exclaim with sincerity, in the middle of the day, gazing at our Captain and our Diesel, “Logan, how on earth did we get so lucky to get the absolute best boydog and best boycat in the whole wide world?” And we’d both pet our boys’ favorite spots and say we didn’t know how, but goodness are we glad. “I love our family,” I would say scratching Cappy’s ears, and even after all Logan and I had been through to get to this place, nothing was truer.


I had a connection to get to St. Louis, so it took me two flights in the worst conditions (back of the plane middle seats unkind man-spreaders), but none of it mattered. I had tears dripping out of me the whole time. I pretended to sleep so no one would ask me any questions. Finally I made it to St. Louis.


I walked out the gate to find Logan standing with Captain’s bright orange leash and harness in his hand. We embraced and cried deep into each other’s chest and shoulders. We held hands with the leash between our palms. I kissed the dog-sweat stink of the Puppia fabric that used to rest against our baby’s furry neck.


We spent the weekend at Logan’s parents, inconsolable. His parents -- Captain’s grandma and grandpa -- loved him just as much. The four of us cried together and without apology. Logan and I took turns collapsing in heaving bellows in front of Captain’s crate, which we had driven down with Captain for his time at “Camp Grandma” (what we called our dog-sitting arrangement). We tried to watch movies to distract us. We tried to eat. We took a walk. We tried to sleep. The pain of his absence woke us up in sobs. The bedside was covered in used tissues, soaked with our leaky grief.


We came home on Sunday to an apartment that felt devastatingly empty. If you have lost a pet you love, you will know this feeling. The opening of a door, when you have a dog, is a celebration. When the humans are home, it is wagging tails, the musical rattling of the crate, the excitement that snuggles and dinner are to come with this truly joyous reunion of dog and parent/s.

And then suddenly, the opening of a door is simply...the opening of a door.


Any essay about a dog will likely talk about the utter incomparableness of their love. It’s pureness and unconditionality, so rare to find (especially, a dear friend reminded us, for queer people). For Mary Oliver, this was described in her poem about her Percy who looked at her as though she “were just as wonderful as the perfect moon.” What a gift to be loved so well.


And so of course this grief feels unbearable. Of course a goodbye through a phone screen at an airport feels insufficient for that kind of love. Of course it is understandable that we are left wrecked in their wake, clinging to what it feels like to be seen as worthy and perfect and to realize how that kind of treatment, inextricably, made us our best selves. How we loved them so well and selflessly right back. And now, how entirely bleak it is to be without that bond; to go back to fighting through being human without a companion to remind us that we are worthy, and to show us just how good we can be.


I suppose, grudgingly, maybe it is our task to find ways to hold onto those lessons anyway. To honor what teachers our dogs were by believing we are still worthy of love and to behave accordingly. To find others to love as well as we loved them. To move through grief into mourning, which is when, Judith Butler suggests, “one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever,” and to know that that’s okay. That to be undone like this is exactly how it should be.  


We were, indeed, irrevocably changed through the precious mundanity of being Captain’s parents. I cannot speak for Logan, whose bond with Captain was something unique to mine, but I do know that we both feel overwhelmingly fortunate to have been loved by him. And I do know that we are so much better to have had the opportunity to love him back.


I think I will always feel an extra pang of sadness for having to say goodbye so many hundreds of miles away from my boy. And yet, today in the kitchen, Logan and I stood in a sunbeam and I swear I felt him as close as ever. I shut my eyes and held my open palms toward the window and felt the warmth as if it were his fur on my hands...


And so now, it will be Logan and I who chase sunbeams with the moving earth, searching for glimpses of our boy in those pockets of light, and always striving to be the people who Captain was so excited to greet at the door.

*

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