The other night I dreamt about my childhood dog. It’s a recurring dream and while the setting is always different, she’s always the same- frail, old and in need of something, usually water or medical attention and I’m the only one that can get it for her. Upon waking up from this dream, it occurred to me that I’ve been having these dreams for almost ten years now. I had one of those, “Has it really been that long?” moments. Ten years ago this week, I turned nineteen and my dog died.
It was already set to be a low-key birthday. That was the year I stayed home and went to community college. I paid for my sins of undone high school homework and generally felt bad for myself, while my friends drank up the big ten campuses. So I resigned myself to celebrating with family (back then, it was something you resigned yourself to). My dog dying that day was the icing on the self-pity birthday cake.
It’s also important to point out that by that point in my life, grief was recent and too familiar. I had known the raw grief of shocking death twice and I’d experienced the slow ache of watching my once strong and capable grandfather regress to helplessness. It was my Uncle (my mom’s brother), my Aunt (my cousins’ mom) and my grandfather (my mom’s father) that had died prior to Abby. Their deaths marked me and I was devastated by them, but there was an element of guilt about owning my grief. I was afraid to truly let myself in on it. Yes they were “my people”, but they were other people’s people first. When my dog died on my day, I felt like that was a grief I could own and not feel guilty about. I suppose her death, my lonely life at home, and the pain of the previous losses all kind of twisted into some kind of cicatrix marking what had been my teenage years.
I should say here that I in no way put my pet’s death on par with the loss of those close human relationships in my life. It was not. But it was a grief all its own. This grief is a grief you know is coming from the day you first feel those small paws dig into your lap. You know this simple, basic love is only on lease. No matter how many years that hangs in the back of your mind, it still burns to watch a fixture of childhood leave.
It took the process of putting pen to paper for me to link these things together. And now, ten years later, I am left with these dreams. The dreams never involve my dog gleefully sticking her head through the pickets of the fence upon seeing us come up the driveway, or her slapping kibbles across the kitchen tiles and barking at them for no apparent reason. Nothing mundane and sweet like that. Nothing like the dog I knew everyday. The dog in my dreams is practically a stranger. I only knew that dog for one day.
She was put down because there was water in her lungs and it was constricting her breathing. I found her that day, sitting as close to the back door as possible when I got home. Her head straight back and up, gasping for air. I ended up taking her to the vet and held her on my lap the ride there as she dozed in and out of consciousness. I don’t remember a last look. We did not part dramatically. A nurse took her away to put her on oxygen and a doctor explained what was going on. There was nothing left to do but go home and wait. I told them that my dad would be there soon. And he was, along with my mom. It was them, the people whose feet she slept at every night, who held her close as she slipped away.
So, it’s here at the ten year mark that has me thinking about all of this again. The years that followed proved that my nineteenth birthday was a departure from childhood. My parents sold the house, I went to school in the city, got my own place on the north side, and eventually spent some time in Latin America teaching English. Now I’m in Seattle, living with a handsome man, attempting to line up my graduate school ducks. I’m still in flux, but much has changed.
Part of me wonders if the dreams I have about my dog, the dreams where I can’t get it right for her are some kind of attempt to go back to that day and do it better, though in my conscious life, I recognize that I did nothing wrong. So, I dig deeper and wonder when the dreams will stop. And then I realize I don’t especially want them to. I never wake up rattled or upset. I’m used to them now, and I get to see Abby and feel her fur (which I’m surprised I can still remember so clearly). It’s just that she’s always unwell in the dream and I always wake up before I find a solution. Because there isn’t one. I think I’ve been looking for a way to explain the grief I’ve felt in my teens and afterwards. If I could just wrap it up neatly and put a bow on it, that’d make some sense of the loss and the mishaps. I know now that’s not the way it goes, but these dreams say otherwise- that I still hold on to an incomplete feeling.
Maybe once my life becomes more solidified, once I have a real career, and a true path. Maybe then the dreams will stop. Maybe once I figure out how to end this piece, there will be some resolve in my subconscious.
Or maybe one day I’ll fall asleep and find myself walking up the driveway on Henry Avenue, a little white head sticking out between the pickets, tail wagging furiously, so happy to see me again.