On the evening of July 4th, 2019, I was sitting with my daughter Olivia and my son-in-law Patrick on their small New York City apartment terrace. In the far distance, the sky brightened in smudges of pastels as the fireworks boomed.
Olivia said in a hushed voice, “I just wonder, where is she? Where is Stella?”
She was talking about her dog, her soulful pet/baby Stella, an abused rescue Bichon-mix Patrick and Olivia had saved nine years ago. The little white dog was utterly devoted, followed Olivia around the apartment, spent hours, days, on Olivia’s lap, and whimpered when either of her “parents” left the apartment.
As Joan Didion wrote, Life changes in the instant.
That morning Olivia, Stella, and I had been in Central Park with a group of dog friends. Stella, who was now mostly deaf and blind but still energetic–dancing on her hind legs to go to the park, tail wagging–sat perched on Olivia’s lap. I had just fed her a piece of muffin. Suddenly Stella began to yip and squirm and twist and then bark, louder and louder. This quiet little demure dog who wanted only to please.
Olivia pushed her chair back, shouting, “We’ve got to go right away. Stella’s having another seizure.” We took off, running, the writhing-in-agony-dog scratching my daughter’s bare arms. We hailed a cab to the Veterinary Hospital and called Patrick, who phoned ahead to let them know to prepare a Valium IV. A few months earlier, Stella had experienced a similar episode. The IV had settled her right down.
Nobody knew why these seizures (or whatever they were) happened; there was speculation about a brain tumor or maybe cancer. Stella was old, and Olivia and Patrick didn’t want to subject her to exploratory interventions, especially if they meant leaving her at the vet overnight.
A few years earlier, Stella had suffered a different kind of debilitating incident. She’d spent two nights in a vet hospital undergoing tests and sedated for separation anxiety, before Olivia and Patrick took her home, knowing Stella’s being away from her family was the most terrifying aspect of the experience. Olivia and Patrick vowed they would never leave Stella alone at the vet or even at a groomer.
This time the Valium didn’t work. Stella was still whimpering and “paddling,” the vet said.
The hospital wanted to keep her overnight. She was too sick to go home. What to do? Have the neurologist examine her after the holiday? Do a chest x-ray to see if her lungs were full of metastatic cancer from a brain tumor?
One thing was certain: Olivia and Patrick wanted to be with Stella when she died. Now that she’d had a second attack within a few months, they knew this could happen at any time. And this time, nothing was helping. The two of them stepped outside the frigid hospital, into the steamy heat. I watched them, arms linked standing on the bright sidewalk under a shade-less noon-day tree, talking, crying.
After agonizing over their options — she couldn’t go home, they had to take her home, they couldn’t leave her in this agony — they agreed to have her euthanized. She’d be out of pain and they’d be able to hold her as she died.
Jump ahead to that same night — the three of us outside — and Olivia’s plaintive lament to the cool streets and staring buildings: “Where is my dog?”
Of course, we knew rationally that Stella’s shell of a body was several blocks downtown in a veterinary hospital awaiting cremation. But grief is not rational. And hearing Olivia’s question took me right back to 1982 and my first-born infant son’s death in open heart surgery.
As I wrote in my memoir, Losing Malcolm, A Mother’s Journey Through Grief: “’Where are you Malcolm?’ I whispered, alone in the middle of my parents’ living room. ‘Where have you gone?’ Nothing but hollow silence answered me. The saggy chairs and couches I had grown up with sat there, dumb and unmoved. I lashed back, punching the couch pillows with my fists, my arms enraged at having nothing to cradle. . .”
On hearing my daughter’s cry, my own agony bolted up inside me. Not wanting to contaminate my daughter and son-in-law’s space with my gargantuan grief over her older brother’s death, I excused myself, took the elevator downstairs, and paced the city block, wailing into the night like a crazy street person. I called my husband in North Carolina and managed through gasps to get out a few words. I just couldn’t bear it, my daughter’s pain–and my own.
Eventually, I settled down enough to go back upstairs. A found an image, stored in my mind, of Malcolm and me at the beach, helped me breathe. Though Malcolm never grew up, never went to the beach, or gazed out over the horizon, this is the picture in my mind. “Malcolm and I stand together, gazing at the tranquil view. Our silhouettes are strong–mother and son, together. Always. We are bathed in radiant light. And love.”
I sat with my daughter, rubbing her shoulders and her empty arms. I massaged her hands and ran my fingers through her hair. I remembered trying to comfort my dying son, the way Olivia had Stella, stroking his peach-fuzz shoulders and lightly caressing his strawberry blond hair. But he too, at the end, was inconsolable.
After he died, every cell in my body ached for him, as I knew Olivia’s whole body longed for her little white dog. I hoped that she too would find visions that someday would provide solace.
The psychologist Carl Jung said something like, over time grief remains as deep but becomes less wide. Still, after all these years and all the therapy, all the writing, all the processing, all the teaching, all the healing, my own Vesuvius still resides deep within me, ready to erupt.
That’s just the way of grief.