I cross the street behind my home on my way to the dumpster with my little bird seed bag of trash (stapled shut) and to get yesterday’s mail. I pass a woman in the street crying. “I just found my dog online,” she says.
“Oh good,” I say. I think he was lost and now she’s found him. I think she is crying from relief, from gladness after the long and terrible scare.
“No,” she says. “He’s dead.”
“Oh, no,” I say. Without thinking I open my arms to her and she walks into them. How can you not be held at a time like this? The world is dropping out from underneath her. This is a dog who snuggled up to her every night, head on the pillow beside her.
“She didn’t move all night,” she tells me. How do you recover from the gaping loss of that kind of daily intimacy? Not quickly, I think. I urge her to be extra kind to herself. I warn her not everyone will understand how devastating this is. I think of Pilar when her horse died. It’s only a horse, people said. How could they? And then, more gently, a reminder for compassion: they must have never known the kind of love that comes to us like this.
She has tatoos. I don’t recognize her. Unfairly or not, I can’t help but wonder if she’s connected to the drug dealer’s home, an endless source of dismay in our little trailer park. But none of this matters in the moment. There is only this devastating, fresh grief and a desire to meet it somehow. There are only warm arms and eyes and one heart going out to the other. I remember how blessed I was the day I found out my father was dead and his next-door neighbors took me in while I waited for the coroner and then for the people from the cremation place. This doesn’t come close to what those women gave me through that long afternoon, to how tenderly I felt held by the universe in them that day 32 years ago. But I am glad I walked across her path. I hope she felt met, and maybe in those few minutes together just the tiniest bit less alone with the crashing of her new, terrible grief.
I have an ailing cat. She keeps losing weight but on most days will still climb the fence to go exploring. My godmother has a beloved older dog who is undergoing one thing after another. She hurts her wrist and her shoulder grinding up Annie’s pills. She’s been through this before. My friend Audrey has a friend who may be heading into the last stretch of a long debilitating illness. She isn’t eating enough, so Audrey brings her to her home and cooks her an omelette. She thinks she’ll only eat a few bites, but her friend polishes off the whole thing. Another friend falls apart when one of her sisters calls to let her know their mother has broken her hip. It stirs everything up, sinister foreshadowing, the beginning of the end. I think the unknown is the hardest part. She feels the death of her parents looming, then makes the jump to the ailments and death of all her friends. “It all looks pretty bleak,” she says. Wait, I think later. Come back. We may have decades of healthy lives ahead of us. I buy organic liver cat food, and my Sofia licks the bowl clean. The next day she won’t touch it. I worry when she leaves the courtyard and doesn’t reappear for six hours. When she comes back in the late afternoon, I fall in a heap and cry, the sun spilling across me on the kitchen floor. We all know this, are on one side of the equation or the other. We’ve been through this before. Our hearts sink and soar. Our courage, our hope, ebb and flow. Life becomes moments. Savor the taste of the cheese omelette in our mouths. Thrill at the sight of the red glass bowl on the floor licked clean. Rejoice in watching your too-thin friend enjoying the breakfast you made her. Lick the last piece of liver off your paw. Bury again and again the part of you who wilts inside at the way the ribs show through the woman’s skin, the cat’s gray fur. Breathe. Lean into laughter when you can. Kiss them on the forehead every chance you get.