HRH Elizabeth lost her last corgi. The palace reports the Queen is gutted by the loss of Willow, last in the royal line. Corgis are fresh in my mind after seeing one beg at the table of Winston Churchill and King George II in Darkest Hour. And of course if you watch The Crown, corgis are always underfoot in the lives of the royals.
I know how the Queen feels. It has been almost two years since we lost our yellow Labrador Retriever, Phoebe to old age. Losing a beloved dog is visceral- the absence a terrible stillness.
I take no joy in finishing my entire piece of toast. By giving Phoebe the last bite I trained her to beg throughout an entire meal. But I never saw it as misbehavior, just one of our rituals. Our sweet habit.
I miss her most in the morning. As soon as it was light she padded upstairs, bumped open the bedroom door, on the hunt for a sock–and to make sure we were up. She preferred the balled up version which made a good solid retrieval, so innate this mission of hers. Once clamped in her mouth, she would start to weave and bob, dancing a happy reel around our bed. Back to my side, she would poke her big black nose up to meet mine, the sock baiting me for a game of keep away. Nose to nose with my dog, she both sniffing in and blowing out puffs of her fishy breath, the soft bristle of her whiskers tickling my chin. I called it a “whisker sniff.”
She succeeded in rousing me. I would tell her she was warm and soft and pretty as I got my robe. Then she sailed down the stairs, one of the most energetic moves of her day, me following behind hoping she does not crash into the wall, but rather make the hairpin corner in the direction of kitchen and kibble. This is how it was for a better part of 14 years.
She. Phe. Fifi-nator. Good girl. All heart! All go! All love! She taught us how to forgive. How to love without condition. How to have fun. How to nap.
Dogs bring aliveness to a home, to us, their eager enthusiasm for the basics–food, affection, a walk. Greeting us each time we are out of their sight for two minutes or two days with wags and wiggles and kisses. I miss it, I miss this.
Toward the end, when I would come home, She might be curled on her bed by the back door, or on her side under the piano in the living room, or maybe on the bathroom rug coiled on the cool tile floor. She didn’t always hear me when I got home, always cued-in by the sound of my car. Now she might rise, eyes blinking, her happiness meter, a slow, saggy wag. Pant. Pant. Restless. Wanting something? A walk? A treat? I would wrap my arms around her and rub the back of her front legs, run my hands down her ribs, careful to glide over the lumps and bumps.
Losing a dog is like losing the core of family life, the kernel that is messy and chaotic, constant and taken for granted.
There is a quiet emptiness now at home. She isn’t here. She isn’t asking to go out or in. She is not lying peacefully in the grass, her black nose flaring to smell what is around her. She is not barking at the other dogs passing by, or clanging her water dish, or loping down the driveway with me to get the mail.
Mark Doty speaks of a dog’s presence as elemental, like a fire on a hearth. In his memoir, Dog Years he beautifully captures the positive energy and joy dogs bring to our lives and their gift of unconditional love. After Phoebe died, I read it cover to cover.
You are probably asking –well why not get another dog? Why are you saying goodbye to this era?
“Alas, no more,” says the Queen.
It has been on my mind, but for my husband, not so much. He sees dog-lessness as more freedom, less hair, fewer burdens. Who takes care of them when you travel? I thought I may have won him over in January, after his heart emergency, when his doctor prescribed a dog to ensure two daily walks, lower stress and blood pressure, and to increase his endorphin levels. (That was the only part of the incident I was happy about). See, there are health benefits of having a pet! But still, no dog.
What about you? How has the loss of a beloved animal brought you to the next stage?