I thought it would run: when I opened the trunk to put in Nali’s bed, when Lyle carried Denali down the stairs to the car, when we backed down the driveway for the hour and a half drive to the vet’s office in Brooklyn, CT, where they were waiting to euthanize her.
If I wanted to tell you a story, it would be that Denali chased that rabbit, maybe even caught it, finally making good on the promise of her best days in Montana, fox-diving in the sagebrush at Clark’s Reservoir, trying to flush and finish her quarry. But the rabbit’s prayer worked: Denali never saw it. Never saw the gray cat that walked right through the yard earlier while she was knuckled over, legs splayed, trying to empty her bladder.
On the way there, I rode with her in the back. Partly it was to keep her from falling from the seat to the floor, but it was also because I wanted to memorize. Tips of her ears. The scruff that the vets always called her “rabbit fur,” because it was so soft. Her feet, even with the drag sores. I wanted her to climb into my lap, ride over my shoulder like she did when she was a puppy. She slept some, one foot planted on the floor to steady herself, even though I wanted to be the one to steady her.
Rarely did she want help at the end, unless it was the stairs. Rarely would she accept it. Those last nights when we knew it was the end, she would try to run somehow, like she was a bush plane that could achieve flight if only she sped up over the rocks and ruts. We chased after her, alongside her, trying to steady her when she walked, when she did her business, but she was panicked by us scrambling so close. Inevitably she fell. In another day or two, she wouldn’t have been able to stand.
Her face when she fell. She could not understand this failure.
In the car, she looked at me. She wasn’t scared, just tired. I spoke nonsense about the rabbit in the yard, left kisses in the occipital hollows where she’d wasted, muscle tone gobbled up by the Cushing’s, the degenerative myelopathy. I called the vet to tell them we were coming, listened to the tech’s voice go soft.
At the hospital, Lyle lifted her out of the car and put her down in the parking lot, and I turned her feet upright and gave her water from a little silver bowl. She ate deer nuggets – deer my brother had killed – her new favorite food of only two days, from my hands. She stayed outside with Lyle, watched me walk away to tell the techs we were here.
Inside, there was a woman, perfect posture, sitting with a crying cat inside a box. I must have been whispering because I had to repeat myself as the tech walked out from behind the big desk, but it seemed like the tech was whispering, whispering, opening the door to the room where there had never been a small green rug on the floor, only ever the bright rising table and scale. Now there was this shaggy, sad little rug, this green shower mat. This is what they put dead animals on, I was thinking, and I walked back out to the car, to Lyle and Denali, and told them everything was ready.
During the last twelve years, we have moved four times. Deep South to the Rockies. Rockies to the Pacific Northwest. Pacific Northwest to the Northeast. From the Northeast now to the Midwest. We have had four landlords. We have been housekeeper and dogsitter and front desk and museum director and student and unemployed and teacher and author and professor. We have been lonely and joyous. We have climbed mountains and walked through stone tunnels in the Dakotas and sat at the top of waterfalls. We have been stuck in ice in a 1995 Ford Taurus by the Big Hole River and used a threadbare carpet under the wheel for traction. We have lived in a brown shoebox and filled an empty mega-house in Connecticut with thrift store furniture. We still do not have smartphones. We have survived two hurricanes that bent a forest our way and dug out from under four blizzards.
We have done all these things with Denali. There is only one Denali. We have lost us. We were the three pack.
If you are talking to me now, or for the rest of my life, know that it’s not really me anymore. I just look like me, maybe. A good act. This person without Denali is someone I cannot recognize, someone I do not want to know.
Our whole lives? Denali. Each day? Denali. Morning walk. Night-time walk. The reason we declined your dinner invitation, your trip into the city, the reason that bedroom door in our house was closed, the reason I looked so tired all those nights during class, the reason we missed your event, the reason I didn’t take your phone call, the reason we chose that house, the reason for all the water bowls, all the non-slip carpets on the floor, the reason we drove across the country all those times. Denali. Always for Denali.
That scar on my knees. The one on my hand, from the leash.
We put her bed over that goddamn green death mat. She got right in it like it was nap time. Everybody was giving her treats, different kinds – milkbones and beef treats and the deer nuggets – and she was eating and eating. “Poor Denali,” the tech said, “it’s been a long, tough road.” I was thinking, should she be eating this much? Could she aspirate? Could she choke and die before she dies?
The first shot went in her thigh. “She’ll still be with us,” they said. “She’ll be relaxed, but she might still be able to hear you, so feel free to talk to her.” And the fucking thing of it was, she was so crazed with all the cookies that the last thing she did was crane her neck back at the other door, the one behind her, to see if more people were coming with more cookies. That’s how her body remained, head arched back like a stallion biting at a fly on its neck, and the last thought before she faded had to have been, my god but this is a day for cookies. It took a while before I realized she was in a narcotic limbo, just a little froth at the edge of her lip.
When the vet came in, she laughed and pulled Denali into the center of the bed, straightened her neck. She said some things, I think. I can’t remember. She was a good vet. We’d had seven of them in Denali’s twelve years, and this vet was the best of them. Denali was a medical marvel: allergies and hypothyroidism and arthritis and Cushing’s and DM. Last month, a foreign object appeared on an x-ray of her stomach, but no one could say if it was really there.
The good vet gave Denali the second shot. I watched her chest like an insane person. I was waiting to see if she could really die. If that was even possible. All these years, I never believed it possible. When she fell in the river and refused to swim, she didn’t die. When the stupid vet from Oregon told us her lymph nodes were huge and it was entirely likely she was dying of cancer, it turned out to be hayfever. She didn’t die. On my first night of teaching, when she ate some animal’s feces and grew deathly ill, she didn’t die.
The vet put her hands on Denali’s chest. “Sweet girl,” she said. She looked at me. I looked away, at Denali’s bare belly – redneck belly, Lyle called it – where they’d shaved her for an ultrasound. At the shave marks on her front and back legs, where they’d taken blood. The fur had never grown back, not after months.
“She’s gone,” she said.
I’m sorry if I’m messy in my grief. I know I’m supposed to force a watery smile and wash the snot off my face. I know I have boxes to pack and we have a broken lawn mower to recycle and a new city to move to, and that’s supposed to be better because Denali never lived with us in that city, but the truth is I am terrified to move away from the last place she knew with us, or maybe I am terrified to be in a place she never knew with us, except for the shitty Travelodge on East 3rd St. where she spent her last week with us in a room with the ugliest carpet I have ever seen, shamrocks or waterlillies on a field of brown, while we looked at house rentals between rushing back and forth to the hotel to help her piss on a little square of grass next to a dumpster. We drove her, weak and falling off the backseat of my car, to shit behind a Bed Bath & Beyond.
On the first night at the Travelodge, she ate somebody’s chicken bones off the asphalt before we could stop her and thought it was the best hotel ever. On the last afternoon at the Travelodge, I dragged her out to piss in the patch of grass by the dumpster and a huge, shirtless biker came around the corner and spooked her. The old Nali was back, lunging at him, nearly falling over. “That’s alright, girl,” he drawled. “That’s alright.” When I apologized, he told me he had a whole box of pittie puppies at home in his garage, if I was interested.
Between those days, she threw up on the patch of grass. Was carried in and out of the car every day, no longer able to navigate her ramp. Fell innumerable times. Slept at the foot of the bed, covered in a blanket. Had one good day walking for a few minutes at Griffy Lake, a new place, new woods. There were tiny frogs, small as dimes, green and brown, that jumped over her paws, but she didn’t see them. One of the brown ones landed on the toe of my boot and held fast. There were mole tracks across the path, the ground erupted and erupting, a chunk of earth that opened tentatively and closed every few seconds, some subterranean creature watching giants through a door. Denali was exhausted and couldn’t go far, and we took her back to the car for water. Back to the Travelodge.
The truth is, I am terrified that I will have to drive by that Travelodge every day on my way to campus, that I will show up to class and fall straight down on the floor in front of my students. Flop around, the last electric signals dimming in me. That on the day I meet my colleagues, I’ll stand there with a trembling, outstretched hand and crazy red eyes and they will reconsider their new hire. I didn’t look like this in the interview. I wasn’t crazy in the interview, sick, whatever this animal I am now.
Grief marks you as unmanageable, rogue, off the grid.
I am all those things right now. Lyle is. We are people to be scared of. Diseased and poisoned and brazen. I am Denali as a stray puppy, running in that ditch, the traffic of all of you rushing past. I have no spine, no bones. I am old Denali, using the wall to hold her upright when she walks down the hall.
And so, if you love me, if you love us, you’ll try to plug the hole. Toss flowers in. ((Hugs)) “I am so sorry for your loss.” “Our pets love us unconditionally.” Whatever your preference of condolence. I know, I say and write these things, too. I feel helpless before your grief, and I walk by real quick, flinching, and throw a fistful of flowers in.
Thank you. But you cannot fill this hole. Not ever.
Please don’t say “Rainbow Bridge” to me. Please don’t call her a “fur baby.” She was a dog, for one, and I don’t care for babies. For the record, she did not look into my eyes and tell me it was Time To Let Her Go. Her eyes said she was tired. Her embarrassment when she fell on her face twice in one night said that we were on the verge of too far, and that we could not let her go there.
We know it was time. We know it was the right thing. We did not let her suffer. All these things are true. Tell me, and I will say thank you. I will offer you my best watery smile.
One of my great aunts told me once about when her childhood dog died. She was maybe eight or so at the time, inconsolable, along with her siblings. After a day of weeping, their mother – my great-grandmother – said, “If this is how you’re going to react, you shouldn’t be allowed a dog.” Of course I thought her heartless. But she was of another generation. And my great aunt said it worked. To me she told the story with obvious admiration. My mother was smart, she said. She could make her children un-learn grief. It’s not a natural state.
Afterward, walking out to the car, I could barely move my legs. Our old symbiosis. When my toenail turned black, fell off after a long hike in Missoula, Denali, two thousand miles away in South Carolina with my parents, lost a nail. There were other times like this. Maybe I’m going lame, I thought. It felt like I couldn’t walk right unless I was holding her leash.
We could not bury her here, in another landlord’s rented yard, and all day today I have tried not to think of them cremating her. Tried not to think about where they put her body yesterday, after. Who it was that took her. Someone in another room was laughing when the needle went in. That cat in the box was crying, but Nali couldn’t hear it. Someone was ordering lunch.
Best not to consider this person I am now, who packed Denali's things in a box, wrote her name on it. Took the beds to the animal shelter that smelled of piss, all the barking dogs, the woman there who looked scared of us.
I drove on the way home from the vet. It seemed like it was taking forever to get there, longer than the hour and a half, and I thought I kept passing the same grove of trees where we had struck and killed a squirrel a month ago, while taking Nali for her ultrasound.
Same trees, over and over. “I think we’re lost,” I kept telling Lyle.
“No,” he said, “You’re fine. I always think that too.”
I think we’re lost. I know we are.