No Such Thing As Just a Dog… (8 years as Tillie’s mom)

Baby Tillie

Tillie turns eight today.  Over the last six weeks , we’ve gone through a health scare with Tillie. It began with a painful sore on her bottom that was not healing, despite two courses of antibiotics. The third trip to the vet revealed a growth just inside her bottom. Her vet suspected a tumour and refered us to a specialist in Cork.  Once the referral was made, all we could do was sit and wait.

I’m no better than Tillie at sitting and waiting. The vet had already warned us that colon cancer in dogs carries a pretty grim outcome. My internet searches confirmed this. Most dogs will die within three months of diagnosis, even with surgery and treatment. And those three months are excruciatingly risky and painful for the dog. Large dogs and dogs between the ages of seven and nine make up the majority of those that develop colon cancer. Tillie was just shy of eight. She’s a big girl at thirty-three kilograms. She ticked all the worst boxes. My sweet girl.

My Furry Buddah

Now I am generally a glass-half-empty type of person. Hope terrifies me because, historically, dashed hopes have knocked me hard. Let’s just say, I have issues. Looking at Tillie and thinking to myself ‘This could be our last week together, our last month, three months’ whatever the case — ‘our last time‘ felt tangible and near, inevitable, unavoidable and unbearable. I could not look at her in the present moment without simultaneously seeing her vanish. Anticipatory Grief. I know it well and fall down that rabbit hole so effortlessly, with such familiarity. It’s like my true home. I had to consciously pull my head out of my pre-grieving ass and be present with the living, breathing, loved and lovable, tail-wagging dog standing in front of me, wanting attention, love, contact, and my presence. Tillie was giving me a masterclass in living in the here and now. She deserved and deserves nothing less.

The next week as we waited for her appointment in Cork I probably watched Tillie closer that ever before — I mean really watched her. It was obvious that her bottom was uncomfortable, but her appetite was as good as ever, her eyes were bright and she was as happy, playful and energetic on our walks as ever before. Hope was nudging at me. I’d cuddle her, breathing in her doggy smell and whisper ‘stay with me’ into her fur.  But driving to her appointment apprehension had my stomach tied in knots. I couldn’t manage a conversation with my partner at all — my head was full of Tillie.

The specialist looked her over thoroughly. He commented on how well her colour, coat and skin looked. He told us her heart sounded very strong. More hope seeped in. Questions about her history, her general health through the years and her current problems were asked and answered. He told us we could collect her later that day and he’d phone us with her lab results in about a week.

At this point Tillie was on her third course of antibiotics and pain relief. She had to wear a donut collar to keep her from licking the wound, but she was coping really well. She seemed her usual happy, hungry self. My own mood began to shift as well. I wouldn’t say it out loud, but I felt very hopeful. I started allowing myself to imagine that she’d be fine and we’d have much more time together. A week later my hopes were confirmed. She doesn’t have cancer, just a nasty infection that will take a bit more time to heal.

A few weeks later and today we celebrate Tillie’s birthday. She started her sixth course of antibiotics today, but the wound is healing nicely. We’ve had atrocious weather all week, so we haven’t had much outdoor adventure time, but Spring will happen and our adventures will begin again. This is our eighth year together. This episode with her illness taught me so much about myself, about my relationship with Tillie and my history and relationship with loss and grief. It’s also taught me about gratitude, love and commitment. Tillie came into my life at a time of enormous loss. She is the baby of my grieving widowhood. She was the new light shining in a dark moment in time. She continued by my side through additional losses — my sister, my father, my two older dogs — the dogs of my marriage and that other life that now seems centuries away from where I am today. Through all of that, Tillie has had that uncanny ability to redirect my attention to the now. The drumming of her tail, the swagger in her gait, her gentle, sleeping snore restore me again and again to the present moment. She is a gift that I very likely do not deserve, but am lucky enough to have anyway. I love her and I’m so grateful that I have more time to continue loving her and making her tail wag. 

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A locket, a box of ashes and a flu bug.

FOR LESLIE

How strange the things we do with our dead.  When Eoin died we had a five-day wake at the house, followed by the traditional funeral mass (in Irish), burial and reception.  It was such a fog, really, and mercifully so.  Leslie was cremated and the majority of her ashes were scattered at a place in Utah where Leslie enjoyed hiking and camping trips.  Very generously and sensitively, her husband put aside a portion of ashes for me and my mother posted the ashes, plus a small locket with a tiny urn inside that contains another smaller amount of her ashes.  I wore it all day today.  The box of her ashes rests in a drawer in the spare bedroom, for the time being.

It’s been a weird week.   I interviewed for a fundraising position a couple of weeks ago.  Late last week I was notified that I had the job.  I have a two-day training next week in Dublin, and if I’m lucky, enough fuel to make the commute.  Meanwhile, I also caught the flu last week and still feel a bit rough from that, and I have a box of my sister’s ashes in a drawer.

I feel anxious about the box of ashes — as if I need to do something about them, or as if by putting them inside the drawer in an unused room, I can avoid accepting that Leslie is gone, because if nothing else, those ashes are irrefutable proof that she died and I can’t call her on the phone anymore.  I really miss talking to her.  This drawer strategy isn’t working so well for me.  I thought, at first, I’d put her ashes aside for awhile until I came up with the perfect spot to scatter them. Then, I would come up with some meaningful time and ceremonious method for scattering her ashes, and some form of closure might ensue.  I may need to rethink that though.  Keeping her in the drawer doesn’t feel right.  Nothing feels right.  I miss her; and the box of ashes, no matter where I keep them whilst I inevitably procrastinate the scattering, just amplifies this feeling of longing and loss that has no simple cure.

Today I took the dogs to Ferrybank for a walk.  I was watching them play in the water and thinking about Leslie’s ashes and it suddenly struck me that I simply must make a decision and get on with the scattering.  Soon.  I haven’t decided exactly where yet, but somewhere close, somewhere I visit regularly enough so I’ll have a place to go when I need to feel close to her — somewhere I might have taken her to see if she were still alive.  I need to do it soon though.  She wouldn’t like being inside that drawer.  I don’t like it either.

 

Six

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.  

William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 4, Scene 5

 

Six years.

Eoin O’Nuanain. !Presente!

eoin and ciaran

Eoin (right) with his brother, Ciaran. In Derry, 2006

 

Six months.

Leslie Marie Jones. !Presente!

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Leslie (left) with my son, Alex. In Austin,  2008

The Thing is

“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”

Ellen Bass, from ‘Mules of Love: Poems’ 2002

Thank you for this, Professor J.