It’s ten to ten, Monday morning. I’m upstairs in my home office, staring at the monitor when my phone vibrates, a text.
I rise from my chair and ask myself — why am I not down there already? What’s wrong with me?
I walk down the hallway and reach the top of the staircase. With every descending step, I know I’m coming closer to the end of this particular journey.
My wife Dawn is sitting with our German Shepherd dog of fourteen years and eight months and nineteen days in the mudroom, waiting for our vet to come to our home and put her down.
It’s July 2005, and I’m securing the final joist on the deck I’m building for our house. I’ve never taken on a project of such scale; I may be somewhat handy, but I’m also a bit careless, not exactly the “measure-twice-cut-once” type.
As I drive a three-inch nail into the treated wood with my hammer, I catch Ginny snoozing in her outdoor kennel.
The screech of the circular saw, the whack of the hammer, the scream of the drill — a harsh orchestra of mechanical music, and yet the puppy is sound asleep. Various websites have told me exposing your dog to as much stimuli as possible is the right thing to do. This dog, my first dog, is going to be a great dog.
It’s August 2005, and the puppy classes are not going well. While all the other young dogs are running around and playing with each other, Ginny finds a corner and backs herself into it. When a tiny white poodle tries to engage her, she ignores it. And when a yellow lab jumps on her back, Ginny frowns and barks until the dog moves on.
“She’s kind of like us,” Dawn says. “Hermits.”
It’s December 2005, and in an attempt to socialize Ginny, she and I are on road trip to Washington, D.C. This is a four-hour drive down, and on the entire way I fight to make her stay in the back seat. Every chance she gets, she tries to wriggle her way to the front by shoving her snout between the armrests.
I stay with a couple who just had their baby, barely a couple of months old. Swaddled in his crib, Ginny approaches him in a way that makes me nervous. But my friend is super chill, and so is his own dog, a golden retriever named Lexi. I begin to wonder if it’s me and my own anxiety that Ginny is mirroring.
In their backyard. Ginny and Lexi run around like the best of friends, happy to play-bite and roll around.
This is the most fun I’ve seen her have with another dog. Watching her, it feels like she could do this forever.
It’s seven o’clock, the morning after. The mudroom is empty. The blue leash hangs on the hook; the black sling I’ve used for almost a year and a half to help Ginny walk hangs behind it.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve had no dog to let out after waking up. It’s very quiet here. It’s very wrong here. The feeling of wrongness returns in the afternoon and at dinnertime, as our routine of dog care has abruptly ceased.
Eight days later, after we’ve suffered through the worst of her absence, we pick up her ashes on the way down to the restaurant. It’s a dark-red rectangular wooden box, made to look like a fancy little chest, complete with a gold clasp that bears a dangling lock and key. Why anyone would need to safeguard its contents this way is beyond me; I suppose it’s symbolic more than anything.
This is our first time out since her death, and we are here to celebrate her life. Dawn and I clink glasses, and we talk about our girl without shedding too many tears. Because Ginny’s hind legs progressively failed her the last two years, we have almost forgotten what an incredible athlete she was, especially with the Frisbee, her favorite toy. If I had been more inclined to work with her, who knows what we could’ve accomplished.
But that notion is nothing more than pure fiction. As we dig deeper into the past, we remember the hardships we had with her, her awful behavior with people, other dogs, everything, really. We agree: she was a complete pain in the ass. And we laugh.
When we return home, we place the box underneath our makeshift shrine on the breakfast table, where Ginny is surrounded by the framed photos of our past pets. Dawn places her purple collar that she wore for all of her adult life on top of her ashes. I slide the jar containing a few tufts of her fur next to it, and I find myself awash with a wave of grief so strong that I can’t find my breath.
She has been so present for so long, and now this is all that is left of her.
It’s ten, and my phone rings. The receptionist tells me our vet is on his way.
Ginny lies between us. Even though it’s chillier in the mudroom than the rest of the house, she is warm. She’s always been warm, even on the coldest of days, all the way to the tips of her pointy ears.
I grab a pair of scissors and shear off a small lock of her soft fur from the scruff of her neck.
It’s May 2007, and I’m taking the ring from my best man and mock-placing it on the lacy pillow that’s tied on Ginny’s back. Family and friends have gathered here in our back yard for our wedding. Clouds have accrued on this temperate spring afternoon, but thankfully no rain has fallen.
Because she’s hardly the paragon of behavioral excellence, our dog trainer and we had collectively decided that Ginny being a ring bearer in name rather than an actual one would be a more prudent move. The last thing we want is for the ring to fall into the grass with a shake of her body and the entire wedding party on their knees trying to find it.
“Thank you, Ginny,” I tell her after I pick up the ring that’s already in my hand. Before she’s pulled away, she flicks her tongue and licks my hand. Later, when I have trouble sliding the ring on Dawn’s finger, I tell the crowd that I could use a little more of Ginny’s slobber.
A beautiful day.
The day before, our pet sitter Cheryl stops by in the evening, for her final visit. Dawn and I have often joked that all of Ginny’s friends — that is, people she accepts enough not to be tempted to nip them — can be counted on one hand. Cheryl is among those fingers of trust. Like us, she’s taken care of her from puppyhood, and she’s come to say her goodbyes. She sits with Ginny in the same spot that Dawn and I would be in the next morning, stroking her fur, talking to her. Dawn takes a couple of photos with her phone and tells Cheryl she’ll send them to her.
I stand in front of the kitchen sink and do the dishes, the water on full blast.
It’s January 2017, and I take off my winter jacket because I’ve worked up a sweat. For the last hour, I’ve been shoveling snow in our back yard to create a running track. It’s the first significant snowfall of the new year, at least six inches, higher in the drifts. I take a walk around to admire my labor, though my actual reward is when I let Ginny out and have her speed around it like a jackrabbit.
Except when I bring her out, she sniffs and pads around but doesn’t run. Why isn’t she excited? I jump around her, bum rush her, do the things that gets her going, but no, she’s happy but she’s not going to race like she used to, where her hind paws kick up the snow like a little machine.
She’s almost twelve years old. Many German shepherds are done by that age. What was I thinking?
I bring her back in. As I towel off her snowy feet on the deck, what makes me sad is not that she didn’t run today, but that I can’t remember the last time she did.
There’s a hard little growth on my inner left wrist, which developed from the year and a half I helped Ginny walk with a looped sling that supported her belly.
I guess I should’ve known that holding up an eighty-pound dog with one hand was not a good idea. When the cyst grew to a size of a pea, I figured I had to do something, so for the last year of her life, I held her by sliding a two-foot length of a cut branch through the handles to balance the load between both of my hands. I guess it worked, because the cyst never got any bigger.
Week by week since Ginny’s passing, it’s been shrinking. It’s almost gone now, but not completely. Sometimes I find myself pressing on it, moving the tiny gelatinous mass under my skin. It aches a little when I do this, but I don’t mind.
I secretly hope it never goes away.
It’s June 2005, and I’m driving on Route 222 North in the Pennsylvania twilight, content to listen to the swoosh of the passing cars. Dawn’s in the back seat, and every so often, I glimpse at her through the rearview mirror. Sitting with our eight-month-old puppy in her lap, I’ve never seen her look more like a mother.
It’s half past ten, and I’m carrying my dead dog out to the trunk of my vet’s sedan. It’s me and the veterinary technician carefully making our way to the deck and down the stairs, she holding one end of the wrapped blanket, me holding the other.
“Goodness, she’s heavy,” I say, making small talk.
“She really is,” she says.
I feel bad that I don’t know the vet tech’s name. I should’ve asked, but everything happened quickly. Right now I’m concentrating on keeping my hands close to my body and making sure my feet are secure, because I want my dog to be safe as we bring her out.
We heave and try place her into the trunk as gently as possible, but it isn’t easy. A dead body is without grace, a hunk of blood and flesh and bone that slips and slides. But she’s in.
I open the blanket and see her face for the last time.
A part of me wants to stop typing right here, because if I keep going, this story will end and that’s going to feel like another death.
I kiss her long, cold snout.
I turn and stumble away, my right hand over my chest, scrabbling to corral the anguish that spills like water. I extend my left arm, trying to find purchase where there is none.
I grab the railing. I climb up the deck stairs, and Dawn is waiting for me, and we hold hard onto each other as the car exits our driveway.
Yesterday I sat where my dog lived most of her life, in the right back corner of the mudroom. I placed myself as she had, seeing the open doggy door at the opposite end, the window above that glimpses the arbor vitae evergreens and the endless sky. Near left is the door to the kitchen; far left is the upstairs landing.
I imagined her happiest moment of the day, when one of us climbed down those carpeted steps or walked through the doorway, to greet her.