Grief

There are so many things in life that I imagined going a certain way. Good things, and bad things. They way they play out always makes me thing of that phrase about people making plans and god laughing about it. But I don’t believe in god, so…who exactly is laughing? Somedays it feels like the entire universe is.

When I was 21 I got an English bulldog. I fell for that little guy hard and fast, and was just a pile of mush for him. Naming him was hard, so I wrote a bunch of ideas on scraps of paper and then let him decide which three to try to eat. There were probably 10 altogether. He chose three; then I put those three on the floor and let him pick one; then I did that again. He picked Tank the two last times, out of the three choices. So he was meant to be Tank.

He was without a doubt the most perfect dog ever. I think he maybe had one accident in the house, and then he picked up house-training really quickly. I was in college at the time so I was only gone for maybe three hours a day for classes. All of my time was devoted to Tank. Friends just expected me to have him with me if I was coming over–this continued for his entire life. Tank was my constant sidekick. As long as he was allowed somewhere, he went. Except for grocery stores and school or whatever. And being away from him was hard for me.

We bonded so quickly and so solidly. He was a dream. I had a boyfriend at the time who tried to take Tank when we broke up, so I actually had to go and stake out the apartment we’d shared, so I could wait for him to get home and then get Tank back. This ex had such a shit-eating grin on his face, thinking he’d gotten away with stealing my dog. He stood outside his car like he owned the world. I wasn’t going to give up on Tank. He was mine.

You can have a family dog, or a dog with a couple, or whatever, but a dog bonds solidly to one person. He can love an entire family; he can love both of his owners, but he is bound to one person wholly. Tank and I were soulmates.

So this ex drives up, I stand behind the car so he can’t leave, and he gets out with the stupid grin on his face, blah blah blah. Tank is in the backseat of the car, tapping at the window with his paw because he’s so excited to see me. It was locked, but during the conversation where I told this ex that he couldn’t just take him, he unlocked the door while he was fiddling with his keys. My move was reflex–I just yanked the handle as soon as I heard the click. Tank came leaping out to see me, and the ex tried to push me away from Tank. Luckily my brother was there and when the ex saw him, he backed off immediately. I picked up my 50-pound baby and ran.

When I think back on that night, I am still so incredibly grateful that I got Tank back. I wouldn’t have stopped trying, but that night was such a fluke. He was just over a year old at the time, and so began our life, just us.

To say that everyone loved Tank would be an understatement. People adored him. He was so happy and so friendly, and he loved other animals and babies. He was gentle and sweet, and I never understood how some people would see his handsome face and avoid him as though he was about to lunge. Tank never hurt anyone.

We were attached in a storybook kind of way. I never used a leash, or even a collar, on Tank. He was at attention if I so much as snapped my fingers or simply said his name. You know that quote about how to you, your dog may be part of your world, but to your dog, you are the world? Tank and I were each other’s world.

I was the person who skipped parties and going out, so I could hang out with my dog. I threw him birthday parties, where we invited friends and other dogs, and bought liver pate cakes. If I ever suspected something was wrong, we went right to the vet. When he slipped a disc in his back he didn’t make a sound. The only way I knew something was up was when we went to get in the car and he just looked at me, and wouldn’t raise his front to get in. He never “cried.” Not even when he tore his ACL.

Tank and I lived in 11 places during our nine years together. I was a college student, I was broke, and sometimes it was hard to find a place to live that would allow dogs. I never once considered letting someone else take care of Tank. He was mine. My responsibility and my best friend. We moved a lot, but we always had each other.

There were times I couldn’t afford groceries and Tank’s food, so I would just eat at work or not at all. I didn’t have a bed for awhile, so we both slept on his giant bed. He was very generous like that.

His entire life, people complimented Tank’s behaviour. They’d never seen such a well-behaved dog, and they’d never seen a bond like ours. It was the greatest compliment to me. I was so proud of him. I still am. I’ll always be proud of him.

When he was about seven, he started slowing down. Our dog park dates were a little shorter, and our weekend sleep-ins were a little longer. That guy knew how to relax. As time went on, he slowed down more and more.

I knew Tank wouldn’t be around forever, but I didn’t like to think about it. There was a time where I fully believed that if anything happened to him, that I would die too. He was my reason for living. I’d grown up in a terrible home, I was always alone, and I never trusted people. Tank was my everything. The idea of losing him made my eyes tear up immediately. It made me panic. When I thought he was going to be taken from me, by the idiot ex, I had a panic attack and, for the first time, hyperventilated. I actually thought I was having a heart attack and would die.

My 20s were a tumultuous time. Depression and anxiety ran my life, and there were times I definitely felt like giving up. I just wanted to die and not feel the way I felt. It wasn’t just a temporary thing–I’ve been dealing with dark shit like that since I was 11 years old. Into my 20s, I was feeling really weak. I was alone, except for my sister, but even back then we weren’t as close as we are now. I still felt very alone, except for Tank.

There were a couple of times where I came very close to ending the pain I felt. The only thing that stopped me, was the idea that Tank would be devastated. He wouldn’t understand. He wouldn’t know where I’d gone. He’d be waiting for me, and he’d be miserable. That thought broke my heart even more, but it was enough to keep me around. I stayed for him.

As Tank slowed down, my life also seemed to get a little less chaotic. I moved in with my boyfriend; he fell in love with Tank. His entire family did. We finally had the kind of stability that I’d been afraid of never having. I didn’t have to be scared about wondering where we were going to live next month.

When I was 16, a doctor told me I’d never have children. He said my endometriosis was too severe. I’d need surgery and hormone therapy. So my plan was just to have dogs. All the dogs! But when Tank was eight, I found out I was pregnant. A little miracle baby had taken up residence in my body. I had a rough pregnancy and spent a lot of time at home, resting. This meant that I got to spend all of my days with Tank. But he was old. He couldn’t even walk with me to the mailbox anymore.

Somedays he’d be sleeping on the bed and I’d go and lay beside him, burying my face in his chest fur. I never wanted to forget that smell. I loved his popcorn feet and his squishy face. I knew he wouldn’t last forever, but in my mind he was going to live at least 12 years. That’s almost unheard of for bulldogs, but as scared as I was, I told myself that. Twelve years.

When my daughter was born, it was an amazing experience. I had to stay in the hospital afterwards, so Tank spent time with his grandma. I missed so much. I never left him if I could help it. A week-long vacation was always too long for me, so even three days in the hospital sucked.

When my mother-in-law brought him over the day I got home, he was so excited. We both were. He knew, instinctively, to be gentle. Dogs can always smell that hospital smell, y’know? He was careful as he jumped onto the couch to see me, his little bulldog bum wiggling so happily. I pressed my face into his neck. I breathed him in. More and more, I’d been feeling like his time was waning. But I was stubborn and made myself snuggle him longer and say to myself to he was going to live until 12.

I’d always wanted to make one of those salt-dough paw print ornaments. It was June but I felt like I just needed to do it. Now, rather than later. So one hot day, we did it. He was reluctant, but let me press his paw into the dough before he went for another nap.

The day before his ninth birthday, we spent most of the day outside. He was like a little old man who loved to sit on his porch and watch people. Sometimes he’d give a little “arf.” If someone we knew walked by, he’d get up to greet them. Our neighbours loved him. He always got a “hello” when someone walked by.

He had a great day. We played, napped. I took pictures of him napping with the baby; the baby he was so careful and gentle with. He’d sniff her head, give her a little lick, and then lay down beside her.

My sister was over that day. When she left, Tank usually got up to see her to the door. This day, he stayed on the couch. He gave her a big, beautful-eyed look of love, but he stayed laying down.

He was panting a lot that day. I just blamed the hot weather, turned on the AC, and we went to bed. For our entire nine years together, I would wake up if Tank was staring at me. Out of nowhere, I’d wake up and see him sitting there, staring at me. He needed something. I always woke up. At midnight, he was panting more. He gagged a few times, and I got him into the bathroom so I could turn the light on. He threw up a little bit, which happened sometimes.

Except his tongue was cold. It was cold and limp against his bottom teeth. It wasn’t right. Something was wrong, and I started to panic. I got my husband to pack up the baby. I remember hugging Tank at the back door before we left, begging him not to die. “Please,” I begged him.

He was so strong. He stood there until my husband could carry him to the car. He panted the whole way to the emergency vet. He held on…he tried to hard, and I know that now.

We got to the vet and got him inside and they took him into the back. I sank to the floor, even as my husband told me that everything would be okay.

I said no. It wouldn’t be. I wish I’d been wrong, but I knew.

As soon as they got him into the back and on a gurney, his big, beautiful heart stopped.

They tried to bring him back. I could hear him heave as they did CPR, but when the vet assistant came in to tell me that his heart had stopped, any polite, quiet part of myself disappeared.

I always thought I’d be more peaceful about it, y’know? Because he was getting old and I had to know it was coming. Right?

I’d been crying since we got him into room. I’d been crying since his heart stopped–as though mine knew it.

I told the girl that I needed to be with him, and I just barrelled past her. I never cry in front of people if I can help it.

I couldn’t help it.

I saw my boy laying there; I saw a girl pumping his chest. I barely heard the vet tell me that they’d been trying and trying, but nothing was working. She asked me I wanted them to keep trying. I don’t know how long I was silent for, watching my beautiful boy have his chest pumped on. I think I barely touched my fingers to the girl’s arm, letting her know that she could stop.

I don’t know how I managed that. I guess my heart really knew that he was gone.

I rested my head on him and barely heard the vet telling me that they could get him cleaned up and then let me sit with him.

But then something in me shut off. Shock maybe? It had to have been shock.

We went and sat in a room and they wheeled his body in on a gurney.

“Take as much time as you need,” she said before she left.

How could there ever be enough time?

I crawled onto that gurney and I laid with him. I don’t know for how long. An hour, maybe two. My husband was silent. It was the first time I’d seen him cry. Our three-month-old baby was sound asleep in her car seat. And my first baby, my boy, was dead beneath my arms.

I remember running my hand along every part of him. His smooth head, the velvet ears–one brown and one spotted–and the strong chest. The paws I loved to smell. The face I loved to kiss. I didn’t want to forget. I didn’t want to forget any part of him. I wanted to remember the way his fur felt beneath my hands and the way his body fit against mine when we napped together.

The only way I can describe the following weeks is shock. I was in disbelief. I would cry, hard, and then I was silent. I didn’t want to talk, or see people, or eat. People called, when they found out. They said the nicest things: what a good boy he was. One friend told me that I had no idea what a huge impact Tank had on people. It was the nicest thing I’d heard. My sister’s ex-boyfriend called to say how sorry he was; that he missed him too.

But no matter what anyone said, I couldn’t feel better. I couldn’t feel anything. I had this beautiful new baby to take care of, but my first baby was gone. He left and he took my heart with him. And if I hadn’t had that baby girl depending on me, for everything, I would have gone with him. If I hadn’t had someone to live for, I could not have survived that loss.

One of my friends told me that Tank knew. He waited until he knew I could handle it, and then he left. He hung on as long as he could. That made my heart ache, but in a different way. My sweet, amazing boy was always looking out for me.

Tank passed away on June 30, 2015. It was his ninth birthday.

I got to have nine years with the best friend I’ll ever have. I don’t care if people think it’s silly, but Tank really was my first baby. He was my first sole responsibility. I loved him more than I loved myself. He taught me strength and courage; he taught me love in a way I’d never experienced it before. He made me laugh on a daily basis. He made me whole.

There’s so much of my heart missing now. It’s been over a year since I last held him and smelled him and pet him, and I still can’t think about him without crying. My heart will always ache for him.

Pet loss is no less pain than any other loved one’s death. Tank’s death was the first heavy loss that I ever felt. His departure left the biggest scar. He is the one I will forever miss. I think about him every single day, still. I can’t change the lock screen on my phone; it is still his picture. I will never take down the photos of him in my house. I will always have his urn and paw print on display. I honour him, because it was an honour to be his mama.

I am still so devastated that he’s not here. I miss him in a way that cannot be explained with words. I wish I could explain it. If you’ve had this kind of loss, you know. You feel it.

My heart aches, physically, for this loss. And no one will ever truly understand how I feel. He and I, we had something. Our relationship was the meaning of the word bond. Of love. Of friendship.

So even on the days that I have to ugly-cry about him, I eventually stop crying because I remember that. I remember how lucky I am because he was mine, and I was his.

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