I told Pete I hadn’t felt such anguish since 1999, year of the big breakup with he-who-developed-cold-feet-three-months-from-the-altar-after-I-quit-my-job-and-moved-for-him infamy. Then I thanked Pete for having caused me comparatively little misery during our years together. We laughed at my heartbreaker ex, Pete’s arms around me, and then I went back to sobbing.
We had just said goodbye to Jenkins, our firstborn, a wildly handsome and charming Golden Retriever. Jenkins was well over 14, and though he’d aged with remarkable health, his pace was glacial, his coat was white, and aching joints had curtailed his counter-surfing long ago. He’d been old for a very long time, outliving his breed’s life expectancy. Somehow time had tricked me into thinking that when the inevitable occurred, I’d be ready, that there would be a sense of natural order. Instead it felt as though someone had scraped all the skin off my body and dropped what was left of me to the ground.
Lost, messy days ensued. The kids’ homework and baths fell by the wayside (to their delight). Dinners were monochromatic and too embarrassing to reveal. I sat in the same spot on the couch staring at two framed photos of Jenkins in his scrawny, dark red youth, his Jolly Roger-embossed collar slung over the corner of one frame, a large white pillar candle burning between them.
As I slumped, occasionally varying the couch-sitting routine by lying on the ground in front of the fireplace despite the warm, brilliant autumn outside, the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young station on Rhapsody cued up a freakishly apropos mix. Yesterday into Bridge Over Troubled Water into Landslide? Some cosmic power was serving as DJ.
Pete and I fulfilled two social engagements during the week after Jenkins died, thankfully both occurring at night since maintaining composure in public required a bracing, pre-emptive, tequila-based remedy. Attempts to hit Trader Joes and the elementary school book fair (midday, sober) did not succeed, if one defines success by dry eyes.
My subsistence-level functioning infiltrated every aspect of life. I switched to baths because the shower spray was too harsh (and I didn’t have energy to both stand up and utilize soap and shampoo, not that that occurred on a daily basis). My clothing choices veered as close as possible to blankets with sleeves and leg holes.
Losing Jenkins had pulled off my muffler of joy and relative good fortune, and I abruptly discovered what friends and family who struggle with depression experience. Looking in the mirror at my grief-transformed face, I saw the humorless expressions of those at whom I’d rolled my eyes, wishing they’d cheer up already. Forcing myself out of bed in the morning, my body weighted and protesting, I got why many people don’t “Just do it.” The days provided glimpse after glimpse of what others go through, as well as how blithely I’d dismissed their struggles.
Friends and neighbors acted with love, bringing flowers from their gardens, Starbucks, chocolate, cards. They called, emailed, texted and shared kind condolences on Facebook. Every moment, every gesture, every word offered was comfort, salve. And I knew my responses to their future pain would be different now.
Jenkins spent his final years lounging on our deck, facing the trees and inhaling the news of his day through the wind in their branches. I can’t honestly say his life taught us a tremendous amount; he wasn’t so much canine Zen master as he was a furry little sybarite, blissfully uncomplicated and reveling in simple pleasures – fresh sticks detached from a tree, a cutting board coated in barbecue drippings, the UPS guy, the doorbell. It was his death that conferred lessons I hope never to forget.