Time is waging war on our family. We are down to one horse. The grandparent pool is rapidly dwindling, as well. We muster our defenses: children are born, pictures are taken, memories preserved. Yet, looking at the now uninhabited backyard, the missing chairs at the holiday table, I sense that we are losing.
We never meant to have a Dalmatian. The spots are cute, but I never would have chosen such a neurotic, highly strung breed as a family pet. Spotz was part of a package deal – two accidents really. She and her companion, a black lab that we named Sophie arrived one grey January morning, literally on the back porch. Malnourished, pathetic scraps of puppies, they had squeezed between the slats of our back fence, and shivered with hopeful, thumping tails on the boards of the porch. We called animal control. We already had one indoor dog, our lovely, sensitive German Sheperd Jasmine. We didn’t need two unruly puppies. I was pregnant.
I was pregnant. The hormones took over, and the rest was inevitable. Uncharacteristic and incomprehensible tears cancelled the animal control truck. “I’m a vet. We’ll find homes for them.” We became their home. Sophie and Spotz never became house dogs. Jasmine guarded her cats and later her children with a maternal ferocity that banned all other canines from her abode. But they were ours.
As the children grew, the pets and grandparents aged. Since Aidan’s birth seven years ago, we have lost: one horse, three cats, four great-grandparents, and now three dogs. Fred, the barn cat, and Sophie both fell victim to our busy road. The children learned the finality of car vs. living creature the night Sophie was hit in the dark. They may disobey other rules, throwing caution to the winds, but even four-year old Sierra stays away from the road.
My husband and I have had the incredible grace of knowing our grandparents as adults. Our children have been blessed with wise and doting great-grandparents. They have also attended more funerals than any three children should ever know. Caitlin remembers them all. She remembers when Grandma Ginny got sick; she remembers pushing Grandpa Mac in his wheelchair; she remembers visiting Grandma Fumi in the nursing home. She remembers better times with Grandpa Bligh – singing, visiting Disneyland, his stories and hugs. She also asked the critical question when he lay dying in the hospital. We had told her that my beloved grandfather was very ill, that the doctors couldn’t make him better. “Mommy, can’t they just give him that shot?” I knew what shot she meant; she had ridden in my truck on a day when I had been forced to euthanize a suffering horse. “What shot, Honey?” “The one you give the horses when they are sick and can’t get better. The one so they die sooner and don’t suffer.” No, the doctors couldn’t.
Aidan and Sierra remember very little. Aidan was an infant when my Grandmother died. He was not much older when we lost the grandfather whom he so strongly, and unnervingly, resembles. His memories of Grandma Fumi are tangled with those of her daughter, my husband’s aunt. He says he remembers singing the cowboy song for Grandpa Bligh. Someday, he will have only the stories.
Sierra remembers less. She was only six months old at the time of the last funeral. She remembers our pets. She will remember my remaining grandmother. Grandma Doris is 96 and on hospice care. The doctors can’t fix her. No shot will relieve her painful, confused half-existence. Death isn’t real for Sierra yet. Yesterday when Aidan found Spotz, Sierra said “we can take her to Mommy’s work. Mommy can fix her.”
Mommy couldn’t. My sensitive, serious son found his dog lying dead yesterday morning when he went to feed her. Spotz was his responsibility, and one he took seriously. He fed her, spilled water on himself filling her bucket, played with her, and tried futilely to train her. It was inevitable, I suppose, that he would be the one to find her. And, yet, I wish I could go back, look out the kitchen window yesterday morning, and spare him that pain. I can’t. We can’t take away the loss that is the flip side of love.
Spotz is buried in the orchard with her best friend Sophie, our beloved Jasmine, and my first horse and best friend of twenty years Goldie. The cats, Fred, Bandy, and Mystic, are on the other side of the property, resting at a distance from the dogs.
My grandparents are harder to visit, in distant cemeteries. They visit me sometimes. When I’m in the kitchen, Grandma Ginny hovers near the measuring cups and flour. She tells me to level the flour with the back of a knife. I ignore her, I cook like her husband – a little of this, a little of that. But, I listen to her about the sugar; you never need as much as the recipe says. Grandpa Mac shows up in my red-headed son’s set jaw. When Aidan knows that something is not being done just right, I can hear my grandfather’s emphatic fist on the table. Grandpa Bligh speaks through my mouth more often than I realize. His quirks and turns of phrase shape my speech daily. “Where is the ________?” “In the _________locker.” I still hear his bellowing “Hey there!” at holidays.
I would spare my children loss forever if I could. But, that’s not possible. People age and die. We mourn them, we remember them, we learn from their lives. Pets don’t retire to happy green farms. They are hit by cars, they die of old age and are found stiff and cold in unexpected places, they are euthanized to end suffering. Loss empowers love, heightens it; the shadows give dimension. Spare my children? No, they deserve the gift of loss.