My former husband and I spared ourselves the task of navigating a divorce with children when we chose to end our marriage. But not entirely. You see, while we never had real children, we had dogs, two of them, a boy and a girl in true nuclear family form. As with most custody decisions, the care, control and destiny of our eight paws fell to me, I being the grounded-with-livestock type charged with monitoring the endless intake and output of beasts and he being the roving conquer-the-world type, perennially pre-packed with passport in hand. Made sense.
There was one condition: I was to arrange one more breeding of famed Ellie, our wise, even-keeled Jack Russell, and he was to receive the pick of the litter, her third and final. Precisely 61 days following a date with a stud named Spike, I rushed a violently vomiting Ellie to the vet only to find a bundle of puppy fuzz breached, but determined. We successfully delivered two pups that day 15 years ago, one for my ex and one for me, fulfilling a debt and a space rendered vacant in both our hearts.
While we successfully severed the contractual connection between a husband and wife upon the dissolution of our marriage, we consciously chose to maintain the cord of connection born of joint parenting, embracing the pets-as-children phenomena with no apologies. We both needed to find a way to stay in one another's orbit, out of a deep love and respect for one another, yet in a way that did not pose a threat to our new status in life as single adults.
Children in divorce situations so sadly often become the ammunition of discontent between warring, wounded mothers and fathers, the innocent tools of multi-generational vendettas. For us, our surrogate children and the ability to stay connected to one another through them, provided us with a healthy post-divorce relationship. For 15 years, we have checked in with one another, granting ourselves touchstone moments, reaffirming that the base of support from one another, for one another, was still there in loving ways. Our two sibling "children" became the safe zone subject matter, the neutral instrument of communication. It has worked beautifully. He has accomplished a second marriage to a wonderful woman and I have navigated the world solo, savoring the creative freedom of solitude.
Now, our dogs are dying. The four-legged souls that formed the sutures for our severed relationship long enough for the deepest of wounds to heal are soon to leave us. Ahead is a transition those with real children more than likely do not have to face together. Real children see their parents through death. Instead, we must now see our surrogate children through their deaths. This is the bitter backside of our choices. What we couldn't let go of then has morphed into an inevitable command to do so now. We must navigate yet another transition in which love changes its shape, the form in which it wants to express itself and live within our hearts.
Death and the inevitable letting go is a process, one influenced by circumstance. Blindness has overcome my dog and I find myself wondering if she is left to imagine the world as she once knew it. When she smells the lake, the sand and the gulls above, does she still see it in her mind's eye? I run block for her constantly: a gentle lift onto the bed at night; a guiding hand through a dim doorway or a tennis ball that used to sail 20 yards out and is now gently rolled a foot or two for her to retrieve and tangle with triumphantly.
As a puppy, she guided me, called me in her playfulness to once again focus on the simple pleasures and graces of daily life as I recovered from the complex terrain of ending a marriage and casting off into life alone. She taught me how to play again, how to laugh again and how to follow a new trail, a new scent for the sheer joy of discovery, all the while her very presence allowing me to keep one hand on the anchor that was my husband, my best friend, for so many years. And he, in his parallel life was receiving the very same gifts from his pup.
Now in her fifteenth year, my dying dog is once again giving me more life lessons. Sometimes I glance over to see her sitting silently in her darkness, often in a corner at an irrational angle in her state of visual oblivion, her head bowed, her little nose pulling in the scent of life for her to reminisce upon. She is teaching me how to sit with myself in silence, comforted by my own memories.
She sleeps a lot and in her sleep, tremors with dreams, reminding me of my own dreams and to hold them in my heart, even as I sleep. In her daily struggles in the physical world, venturing forward only to bump into yet another obstacle, inevitably finding a way around it, she is teaching me how to move forward even when I too feel blind.
Through the day as I work, she is always near and I often perceive in her a sense of being lost. In these moments, I will reach over and pull her close, put her back into her body with a long caress which is inevitably met with a sigh and a kiss as she folds her tired bones beneath her and curls up in my arms, safe. In that moment, neither one of us is lost.
She, like her sibling in these waning days, is teaching us how to gently let go and say goodbye with grace.
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