Grief/Loss

Yesterday, after sixteen-some adventure-filled years together, it broke our hearts to say goodbye to our beloved Romano.

Romano was a good man! He didn’t have a sneaky bone in his body (which, for an Alaskan husky, is really saying something). He was a saint among dogs. He touched the lives of so many. I like to imagine him in Heaven, hanging with all of the humans who adored him—Dwight, Brenda, Mom, Dad—as well as the long string of dogs leading him to the Heavenly smells and sights—Lolo, Borage, and his brother, Stinky, along with the rest of the Cheese Family… and the many other dogs from both the Gilliland’s pack and my own… the list goes on and on.

Thank you, Romano, for being you. 

We’ll miss you… 

Mush, Romano! Mush!

 

 

The print edition of UPROOTED: AN ANTHOLOGY ON GENDER AND ILLNESS is out today.
My essay, “Where We Are,” can be found in Chapter One. Read excerpts from the collection by clicking on “LOOK INSIDE!” at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0692600213/.
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 It’s not easy to write about losing your best friend, but I tried.
I miss you, Mom…

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After Ravioli died last Sunday on a lonely stretch of Montana highway, my mechanic turned the ignition and immediately declared the three dreaded words, broken timing belt.” I am a Toyota-owner devoted to taking my 1999 Rav 4 for the long haul. “Wouldn’t it be cool to hit 500,000 miles?” I often tell my friends and family, excited by the possibility that my vehicle is just now hitting middle-age. Only a very few select people (mostly mechanics) get as excited as I do when I talk of testing the endurance of my little SUV-that-could.

During the 12 hours between having Ravioli towed to White Sulphur Springs and getting the call from my mechanic detailing the extent of the damage, I was overwhelmed with a strange sadness. A giant hunk of metal, plastic, rubber, grease, and glass shouldn’t make me so emotional, yet it does. Some of the best times in my life were spent road-tripping with my mom in this vehicle. Driving down the highway, I can still picture her sitting there next to me, her purse tucked between her feet on the floor, a dog draped over her lap. I spot an old farm house, or some flowers, or a dog, or a train and I long for my parents — they both loved to take drives just to “look at things.” What I wouldn’t give to have them back in these seats for just one more trip down to Greensburg, me half-watching the road and half-looking where they point, hearing their voices saying, “Look over there…”

I know that cars don’t DIE — they just break, they stop working. We have the option to move onto something newer, better… or we can repair what we love. If only the rest of life worked that way. “You’re in luck,” my mechanic told me when he called the next morning. “Ravioli has a non-interference engine. Most new cars have interference engines which means that when a timing belt breaks it usually does serious damage. My dear, Ravioli just needs a new belt… and she’s ready to roll again.

It’s silly, I know, but I teared up when he told me the news. Non-interference — I like the sound of that.

DSCF1647On the way home from the mechanic’s garage, Ravioli turned to 272,000. And, no, your computer screen isn’t plastered with dust, my dashboard is!

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On Monday, I took Lolo to the veterinarian. My instinct tells me that my 14-year old retired Iditarod lead dog is not “sick”, but continues to mourn the loss of her companion, Borage. And that her vomiting, acid reflux, and loss of appetite stem from grief and loneliness, not cancer or some other physical disease. Monday morning wasn’t much different than any other since I returned to Martinsdale 3 weeks ago — I fed Lolo just a small amount, she ate, howled for 20 minutes straight, and then vomited her breakfast back up. She looked miserable standing there in the front yard with her head hung low — so alone, and now so sick. I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed an expert to confirm my diagnosis.

DSCF0269I recognize the symptoms of a broken heart. In the last two years, I’ve lost both of my parents; my good friend and mentor, Carol Meeks; and my dog, Borage. I, myself, have struggled with a long list of ailments such as disturbing heart palpitations, interstitial cystitis, acid reflux, abdominal pain, ulcers, weight loss. These are real medical conditions causing great discomfort. And I won’t deny that I often feel sad, anxious, and alone just like Lolo does. But how do you separate despair and disease? Thankfully, I have the human ability to talk it all through with medical doctors and therapists, and then come up with a plan that can be adjusted along the way. But how do you help a grieving animal?

In my parents’ living room in Indianapolis, a framed print hangs above their couch depicting a dog greeting passengers unloading from a train. My parents loved dogs, trains, and Montana so when we visited Fort Benton in 2001, all three of us were drawn to the story of “Shep.”

According to historians from the Overholser Historical Research Center and the Missoulian, “Shep first appeared in Fort Benton in August 1936 when his owner, an area sheepherder whose name has been lost to history, was brought mortally ill to the St. Clare Hospital. After the sheepherder passed, his body was sent by train to his family back east. Shep was left behind, but for the next 5 1/2 years he lived under the platform of the Fort Benton train station, patiently waiting for his long-dead master to return.”DSCF0555

I think of “Shep” now as I watch Lolo out in the yard, pacing back and forth in front of the gate. The day I realized it was time to end Borage’s suffering and put him to sleep, my lifelong friend (and veterinarian), Dr. Shannon Kiley, suggested that I bring Lolo with me so she could see and smell his body before they took him away. We all knew Lolo would be lost without Borage, but we hoped this might help. I did as Shannon said and allowed Lolo to sniff her mate’s thick fur for one last time.

Sometimes witnessing the death of a loved one still isn’t enough proof that he or she is truly gone. I often wake in the mornings and feel for a brief moment that my parents and Carol and Borage are still here. For humans and dogs, long-term grief thrashes the body with highs and lows. One minute I might finally feel some peace — but then out of nowhere sadness slams me hard from a new direction. I cry. Lolo howls. Sometimes we do it together.

Dr. Katherine Parks, my Montana veterinarian based in Harlowton, declared Lolo to be in amazing physical shape for a 14-year old dog. “She’s so nervous, yet her heart rate is really low,” Dr. Parks noted, impressed with the athletic physiology of Alaskan Husky sled dogs. The thorough exam revealed nothing — the blood work came back perfect. “I would start her on a famotidine for her stomach acid problem. And for her nerves, you could try some anti-anxiety meds. Or try to find her a new friend,” Dr. Parks suggested. “One or all of these things might help… or not.”

DSCF0511In other words, you can never replace a loved one. But for me, continuing to live means continuing to try — I’m not giving up on Lolo. I cry. She howls. We both take Pepcid twice a day. And then we take a hike… our doctors’ orders.

Mom, Dad, Grandpa Land, and Aunt Dot ready to drive WEST. Indianapolis, 1967.

Mom, Dad, Grandpa Land, and Aunt Dot ready to drive WEST. Indianapolis, 1967.

In the last 21 years, I’ve driven back and forth between Indiana and Montana over 40 times (I lost count). To give my Iditarod presentations, Borage, Jigs, and I traveled over 30,000 miles a year by car, ricocheting from state to state like a steel marble in a pinball machine. When it was time to go, it never took me long to gather a few belongings (that’s all that fits in a Toyota Rav with 2 to 4 dogs), and pack the vehicle. When I departed from my parents’ house (which was often — I loved spending time at home), my dad would appear in the driveway with a bottle of windex and paper towels. He carefully washed the inside and outside of the glass, backing up to search for missed streaks. It took forever to get out of the driveway. We took photos. Both Mom and Dad petted each of my dogs… and kissed them… and said, “Behave yourself. Listen to your mother…” My mom always cried (even if I’d be back in a few days), insisting on not just one hug but several. Dad stood back and waited for his embrace. To the both of them, I said, “I love you.”

Mom, Borage, Jigs (he's in the car), and I leaving for 2 weeks of talks in Texas.

Mom, Borage, Jigs (he’s in the car), and I leaving for 2 weeks of talks in Texas.

Nowadays, leaving is hard. I dread pulling out of the driveway knowing that if I look back over my shoulder neither of them will be there. No one will be standing on the blacktop waving goodbye, not moving until my car fades from sight.

People often say, “I hate good-byes…” But when I think of all the love wrapped up in a parting — whether a brief or lifelong separation — I wouldn’t trade those moments for anything. Whenever I have a chance, will say, “Good-bye…” No matter where they’re headed, I want to send my loved ones off like they’re boarding a giant ship and heading out onto unknown waters. And, like my parents taught me, I’ll wave until their vessel disappears.

Mom telling Borage to BEHAVE

Mom telling Borage to BEHAVE