Amberly McAteer is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s opinion section.
When my husband opened the container of our most cherished ornaments, I instantly knew something was wrong. Until that moment, the Christmasing of our house, on a crisp, snowy Sunday, had been picturesque: the eggnog poured, the Michael Bublé holiday album loud and the tree placed in the living room window.
“They’re gone,” he said, along with a string of unpublishable obscenities. I turned the music off as he pulled out shattered pieces of snow globe from the collapsing cardboard box of sludge. The globe had smashed, the liquid had spilled and a horrible, rancid mould now covered our precious Christmas treasures.
The only thing I could think about: Ruby’s paw-print ornament. The words of the vet, on that terrible day in February, rang in my ears: “Before we cremate her, do you want us to make a paw imprint?” No, I had responded – I had made one in happier times. That ornament would hang on my tree for the rest of my life.
The overwhelming grief stings at the most unexpected of times, with a smell or a sound punching me in the face with the reminder that my best friend isn’t here anymore: Ruby, a boxer dog whom I rescued (and wrote about in this newspaper) and with whom I shared the rarest of connections.
I’ve been mourning our friendship, coping with the guilt of having to make the decision to say goodbye, and hiding my prolonged sadness from my closest people, because I know – logically – that I should move on, that she was a dog who lived a great life. And it’s been almost a year.
I feel that conflict more than ever this Christmas. I got married this year, to a hit-the-jackpot kind of man. We’re expecting our first child in the spring. There is a lot to be merry about, and I am.
But the absence of Ruby also feels more intense. She won’t be here, vocally asking for more turkey, kissing my hand in the wee hours of Christmas morning or pouncing through the snow like a mountain goat on our Christmas day walk. The hole she left feels deeper than ever.
Above all else, there is the worry that one day, with other dogs and children filling my home, I will forget her face. How do I remember her always and still move past the grief? It’s sadness mixed with guilt mixed with shame, a cruel whisper that says: Get over it. She was a dog, and she wasn’t going to live forever.
From the moment we met, on an apple orchard in Northern Ontario, it was obvious: Ruby was meant to be my dog. She was at a volunteer’s home, as the shelter was full. I can still feel her thunk into my chest. I had knelt down and called to her; she ran full-tilt toward me, stopped within an inch of my knees and threw all of her weight into me, with what I can only describe as the best hug I’ve ever felt. From that moment, she was my home and I was hers.
Ours was an instant, only-in-the-movies connection. She walked by my side, quite literally, from Day 1. Strangers used to stop to ask me who her trainer was, because Ruby – an untrained, neglected rescue dog – miraculously and perfectly walked off-leash, a few inches behind my left knee at all times. I could tell her to go ahead on the trail, and with a simple “wait” she’d actually freeze, not moving a single muscle until I caught up. I didn’t ever actually teach her this – but we always spoke the same language.
I still don’t know how to find the balance between remembering her daily – her collar still sits on my bedside table, and I still hold it every night – and moving on, as any functional adult would. She was a dog, after all, and dogs simply, cruelly, have shorter lives.
A dog is not a human, but research shows we grieve them in similar ways. Except, when you lose an animal, the societal expectation is that you move on quickly. It doesn’t allow for extended grief, spurts of anguish – especially when they lived a full life. This feels unfair. The loss of human loved ones is obviously unparalleled, but to know a dog and love a dog, to have a dog, means they are an intimate part of your life, every single day, for years.
In Ruby’s case, she was my running buddy, my confidante and my roommate; she saw me through my single years – a wonderful, perfect barometer of the men I was dating. Once, she hid in the bathroom when I invited a man I was seeing up for a drink. (I discovered he had a serious girlfriend not long after.) When she met my now-husband, she played with him as if he were a long-lost sibling, bouncing around the kitchen with him. He, on his hands and knees, up until that moment not really a dog person; she, famously nipping him on the nose. They were best friends. He was the only other person she would follow anywhere. She chose him, just as she chose me.
Getting a dog is to sign up for this kind of heartbreak we’re both feeling; all dog owners know this – and we do it anyway. Ruby lived a long, healthy life – she surpassed even the most optimistic vet’s prognoses. In December, 2016, when she was 11 – and still very much a spring chicken – she was diagnosed with a heart tumour. The specialists gave her, at most, six months. My husband and I grieved then, sobbing on the couch as she rested her chin on my knee. I made the paw-print ornament later that Christmas, thinking it would be her last, soaking up every second we had with her. She’d live more than two years longer. This was Ruby’s way, blasting through even the most hopeful of expectations, with a huge, tongue-swinging grin.
On the last day of Ruby’s life, I escorted my sweet dog outside for her final morning pee. Nearly 14 years old, she was no longer able to venture into the yard by herself, her wobbly legs betraying her willpower by the day. Bathroom outings had become increasingly hard on both of us, and this February day in North Vancouver was no exception: Relentless freezing rain pelted us.
It was all impossibly, unbearably sad. But then Ruby did something so Ruby: My grey-faced, nearly blind dog swung around to face me, dropped her front legs straight out on the ground, hoisted her rear end to the sky and started a low growl.
My boxer wanted to box.
There is no question in my mind that she could feel my sadness. And, as she had done hundreds of times in our years together, the goofball wanted to make me smile. I swung a gentle wrist around her face and she swatted it away, and nibbled my fingers. I laughed for the first time in weeks, both of us soaking wet.
I like to think she wanted to give me a happy memory for that otherwise awful day.
Moving forward with loss is one focus of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, from grief expert Nora McInerny. She speaks about the struggle of moving on while also holding a loved-one’s memory as close as you can, every day. Can you do both?
“The fact is it’s neither,” Ms. McInerny said in a magazine interview. “You do not get over something. You do not move on from this. You move forward with this as just a part of who you are, in your DNA.”
That is as close to an answer as I can get, and what I plan on doing this Christmas. Having a good cry, likely, on Christmas morning – my first without our traditional cuddle before everyone else wakes up. My first without a boisterous jumping bean, demanding breakfast before anyone else. My first without hanging her stocking. I will sit with the pain of the missing, embracing the sadness; it’s a reflection of what we meant to each other.
I will sit, looking at the paw-print ornament my husband scrubbed, and scrubbed again. The one that, when he couldn’t get the brown and black colours off, he spray painted. He tied a new ribbon on, and hung it on our tree. It’s the same, but different.
I’ll think about the rare love Ruby and I shared, and how that love doesn’t go away.
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