Last Monday at noon I went to my first yoga class in several years. For whatever reason my yoga practice vaporized from my agenda when I had my second kid. It went from daily to nada. I’ve missed it and blabbed about missing it but didn’t do anything about it.
And then Alice died. I haven’t hiked or ran since. Well, I did once and felt like an anvil sat on my heart the entire time, pushing buckets of tears out of my body. I was not ready to be up in these hills without her.
One late night last week I got out of bed to look up yoga schedules in Missoula. I found a class time that worked for me and promised myself I’d go. And then I saw the teacher’s name. Marina. She’s my old teacher. In fact, the last time I went to this particular studio I was eight months pregnant with a breech Margot. Marina helped me through giant-bellied handstands and headstands until my bug swam herself 180. Marina!
People say dogs don’t live long enough. This statement is true in human brains. For dogs, I think they feel just right. Because they always do feel just right. Always.
Alice dies on Thursday night, November 20. It is a shock. We just – two days ago – ruled out the kidney failure diagnosis we had mourned. We have a new vet we love. We release ourselves into an ocean of relief and optimism.
She falls over in the living room. She recovers. My kids think she slipped on their paper snowflake scraps. A short while later, her back legs stop functioning. I am on and off the phone with vets, neighbors, my husband. She wants to drink endless water, she wants to lay in the snow. She is scared. She looks into me for answers. All I have is love.
The day before – the day of the glorious blood and urine work news – we ran together. She gained four pounds back in two weeks. Moments before the episode I took a picture of my new boots to send to a friend. She pushed her wet nose into my hand. I called her into the kitchen for a treat and she bounced into me to be sure I remembered.
Four bucks stand 15 feet away, staring at us. One is impossibly noble. I see his breath in the cold air. Alice lays in the snow and can’t get up.
Fuck. Is this happening?
I carry her back into the house. I feel calm and alert. My kids are playful and hungry. I manage it all and notice that I feel emotionless. Alice vomits everything she ate that day, undigested. I clean it up with a dust pan. I make dinner.
Andy walks in and says hey, girlie like he always does. Every day for 11 years. She softens. She wags her tail.
We have a few normal hours with her. We wonder if she ate something weird. We sit with her and it feels like it always does. There is a shift. It is subtle, calm, peaceful even. We feel it. We know. She leans into me and closes her eyes.
As she is dying in my arms in our bedroom, she tells me a few things.
Love what you love.
My husband looks old when he wraps the brown fleece blanket around her body. I remember his smooth face. I remember 16 years old. I remember not a thought beyond that moment of our first kiss.
We hold her. Her breath changes. We FEEL her life leave. It is so visceral I may even see her life leave.
I remember roaring when in labor. It shocked me. Not because I am a quiet person but because I had no control over the noise bellowing from my guts. This is the same. I howl. I gag.
When I arrive to the yoga studio Marina lies flat on her back on a mat in the middle of the floor. She slowly rolls toward the entry and giggles. She tells me I look tall. We hug.
She asks for updates about my body that might help her during practice. I tell her about my knee injury last winter. I tell her I am really sad. I say I might burst into tears during practice. She says, well we all might do that dear.
It’s a hatha class but I expect options for movement and intensity. I think I want intense, that I will elect for the “if you want to take it one step further” options. We sit and breathe for many minutes. We lay down. Marina reminds us that the earth is entirely responsible for supporting our bodies and we can give in to it. With those words I feel a fracture into my sadness. I try to grab it. I can’t. We stretch our toes. I stretch through spiteful cobwebs in down dog. I feel my shallow, arthritic breath. I try to push it down into my belly. I remember that satisfying, oxygenating, alive feeling. I want it.
I can’t wait for the sun to rise. It rises. We tell the kids in our bed, when they join us as they do every morning. Margot arrives first.
Where is she? Margot asks.
On her bed right here, we say.
Can I go to her? Will you come with me?
She is cautious. She places a flat palm on her body and feels the coolness, the bones.
Can I listen to her heart? she asks.
You can, I say. But it isn’t beating anymore.
Does her brain still work?
No. All her organs have stopped working.
Will she remember us?
Oh baby. Yes I believe so.
Ruby wakes. We are all crowded under the down and wool. Andy tells Ruby.
Where is she? Ruby asks.
On her bed right here, we say.
Can I go to her? Will you come with me?
Ruby rolls into her. She stares into her open eyes. She lays on top of her and says what feels different, what feels the same. I am astonished at her inhibition.
She hugs her. She pushes her fur back and forth. She peeks under the blankets. She cries.
The morning is gray. It is the day before Ruby’s birthday party.
Margot asks where Alice is now. Can she feel? Does she know us?
We talk about spirit. We look at her body together and notice her spirit isn’t there. I wish for a tidy answer about god or heaven but I don’t have one. I ask what they think.
Margot says I am pretty sure I get it. It looks like she’s somewhere else. It feels like she isn’t loving us right now even though she is right here. But, like, she’s not really right here. She’s out there.
Andy calls me outside to choose a place. He uses a jackhammer to break the first foot of frozen earth. The sound pierces the silence in our home. Then he digs. We stay inside. Soon he is shoulder deep in earth, in a t shirt. His breath, tears remind me of the bucks in the field the night before, of Alice in our room, of funerals and birthday parties.
The kids write words, draw pictures, gather things for our ceremony. They seem so content and I feel like enforcing how sad it is. I feel like telling them to stop laughing. I don’t. I appreciate how nothing is off limits to them. Nothing is inappropriate.
We wrap her in a white piece of fabric. My husband carries her from our bedroom to her grave. She looks small.
We cut rope and tie it around her body so we can lower her the six feet. The kids weep. Margot climbs the garden fence in protest. Ruby sits on the frozen mud. Andy and I stand opposite each other, across from the cold hole, our eyes heavy and swollen.
It is messy and the air is so saturated with every bit of our selves – physical and spiritual – that I feel like we could manifest our own storm.
We lower her onto a bed of pine boughs. We place our objects in with her, each dropped a few seconds after the last item. It seems foggy but it isn’t. It seems warm but it isn’t.
Margot wrote a letter that reads My dog died and we don’t know why. I love her. Ruby brought the magnet from her chore chart, the one that means she gave Alice snuggles. She holds that magnet until the end. I didn’t know she had grabbed it. She throws it up in the air like confetti and sobs I love you Alice.
The kids also add her favorite peanut butter treats, her collar. I read a letter I wrote. I toss in my running shoes. We couldn’t find her leash and Andy rightly points out how appropriate that is. We could never find her leash. He curls toward the grave and drops a bunch of dried lavender. Three earth worms emerge from the walls of the grave and fall in.
He asks to bury her by himself. Margot cries and grabs at my pants. Ruby panics, tells us she doesn’t want to leave Alice outside all alone because she never did like being all alone. I sit on the snow with my daughters and we settle into it. Ruby’s wet face pushes into my sternum. She says At least Alice has the wormies with her now.
Margot runs upstairs and into the house. I follow and find her on Alice’s bed. She rolls dog hair between her fingers and moves it around on her leggings. Ruby joins her. Together they sit there for hours.
At the end of yoga, we do this slow series of rolling across a pillow on the floor, first lengthening our side, our back, our other side. It sounds easy and relaxing, like a cooked buttery noodle draped over a fork. Marina asks us to take our time, to move when it feels good. I start on my right side. I am awkward and sticky. Al dente. My breath weak.
I wiggle and adjust. I breathe. I roll. I curl my spine up and then down. I broaden my shoulders. I breathe. I breathe a little deeper. I stiffen and squirm. I wish I was open and willing. I fill hollow, painful places with breath. I grow. I try.
Ruby turns five. She asks for her cake to look like Alice. Margot gets up early, gets dressed in her snow gear and goes outside. Later, I find her footprints lead to Alice’s grave. And there is a snow angel on top.
Love what you love.