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Friday, March 10, 2017

Belly Lessons

     When Bonni dies there is a spontaneous unraveling of a thickened and scarred over encasement of my heart. The exposure of my emotions feels icy sharp, and overwhelming. Grief from her loss is incomprehensibly what I expect and surprising. I had assumed it would be hard to lose her, but I also stubbornly clung to our bond and believed it had the ability to fill the yawning gap her death would create. It doesn’t. Either my beliefs are stupid or my unraveled emotions block the connection. In addition, I think I failed her at the end and this compounds my mourning.
     I wish I could have let her go with an open heart.
     The silence of being dog-less is deafening to our entire family. The kids want another dog right away. After deciding that with canine companionship we’ll be able to deal with our grief better, we visit a local animal shelter to begin our search.
     Each dog desperately reaches for our attention, though none jumps into the void left by Bonni. 
     Where are you girl?
     Finished walking a long line of cages, a volunteer takes us to meet a dog that was left at the shelter very recently. Outside, in a fenced area alone, a white sheep-dog lies with her enormous head resting on front paws. She does not move at our approach, nor when the attendant speaks. 
     “Her name is Sandy. The owners moved out of state.”
     Sandy, sighs deeply offering an explanation point on her circumstances. Sadness wells between us.
     My daughter wraps her arms around the dog’s wide middle.
     “Ohhhh, she’s so sad. We need to take her home! And her name isn’t Sandy, it’s Bella.”
     I expel my breath heavily, this dog and I are reflexively similar.
     Perhaps we will heal together
     A few weeks after her entry, the new dog displays glimmers of personality. Bella never jumps on the furniture when anyone is around, but when she is left unattended, we find her snoring loudly, stretched end to end on the couch, or watching us intently when we notice deep noticeable imprints on our beds. Nightly, once I’m in bed, the stairs to the bedroom creak ominously as Bella trods up, pausing at the top ostensibly to consider her options. When she lingers indecisively, I take to mind-talking her as I once did Bonni.
     This is your home now. 
     Without ever responding, Bella moves to the foot of the bed, dropping none too gracefully on the floor with a heavy expulsion of air. Squeezing myself between her and an edge of the mattress, I stroke her enormous belly repetitively. Our communal sadness communicates skin to fur. As we settle into this odd routine, a sign comes that perhaps my relationship with Bonni did not end at her death.
     Waiting for a client one evening, I stare at a picture of my shaggy friend. Her brown eyes jump from the photo, challenging me to see her.
     Where are you?
     As the mind words leave me, a frequent client named Laura arrives for her session. Closing the treatment door to begin working, something tickles at the back of my nose. 
     Dog poop? Is it on my clothes?
     Breaking into a light, panic driven sweat, I frantically but quietly begin sniffing every square inch of myself. Laura lays with her eyes closed on the table. The woman has to be near gagging, yet she appears deeply relaxed.
     Maybe Laura stepped in a pile?
     This I rule out after surreptitiously checking her shoes. Army crawling around the floor, I latch onto the scent, trying to hound its source. Though unpleasant, the fragrance seems familiar.
     Around dogs for most of my life, I’ve smelled many different leavings. No doo-doo is exactly the same. I have learned that it may be distinguished by what an animal eats, the type of breed, or species. Dogs have a completely different perspective on poop than humans. We wipe, flush our remnants down the drain and then spray room deodorizer with a flourish. In opposition, canines enjoy droppings immensely. They use them to determine a scope of an animal’s territory, the general state of their health, and temperament. Though not equipped with these skills, my brain must have categorized while shoveling up a mound.
     My ghost dog is in the massage room. The smell crests as I open the closed heart of possibility. Throughout Laura’s session, Bonni and I dance together. Our reunion is bittersweet; moments of overwhelming joy, crash against a familiar deep well of sadness. Sixty minutes pass in one broad leap. As I walk out of the room, Bonni’s scent evaporates into nothingness.
     Laura has to this point only met the normal out-in-the-world-Deb (barring she didn’t see me crawling around on the floor). Not wanting to bombard her with me losing it over my ghost dog, I latch onto my backpack of comfortable resilience, understanding that if I hunker down for a few minutes I’ll be able to fall apart soon. Laura speaks when she sees me.
    “You’re dog died recently right?”
     Warily, I nod mutely. We lock eyes as she continues.
     “I sensed her in the room with us. She said she enjoys helping you with your work and that she misses you but wants you to know that she is okay and happy.” 
     Huh. Laura is a mind reader or maybe a witch.
     With nothing more to say, she quickly hugs me and leaves the office.
     The poop smell continues to show up regularly, often combined with the Train song “Hey, Soul Sister”. I determined this after an oddly illuminating and pungent experience in a grocery store. I can’t explain it more than to accept that I don’t know what happens on the other side of tomorrow.
     As grief healing hunkers in, Bella behaves like a visitor who isn’t sure she will stay. The kids attempt to sweeten the deal, circumventing a “mom-designed” restricted diet. Bella gains seven pounds. Sharing the appalling number the vet stares at me somberly.
     “I recommend diet pills. You know obesity isn’t a lifestyle it’s a disease.”
     I stare back but do not speak.  
      So it’s a disease when I eat a bag of Oreos.
     A longer pause as his words sink past my new found doctor-love.
     Is he referring to Phen-phen? Eighty-seven pounds of dog, amped with amphetamines, and leashed to my Oreo-made dumpling would not be pretty.
     Bella and I look at each other in complete agreement. 
     No pills. 
     On the ride home, Bella and I have a vibrant chat about learning to say “no thank you” when the kids offer scraps from their plates and choosing to avoid the fast food joint called the kitchen floor. Post-Bonni life settles, becoming a series of habit-filled surprises.
     Wanting Bella to live similarly as Bonni once had, I decide that she should be free to meander the yard while I garden. This conclusion I derive without the consultation of family, friends, Bella, or dog professionals. When I unhook the leash outside the front door, my son holds a treat in case she moves quickly, which isn’t likely. Bella never uses jet fuel, not even to steal food.
     Bella takes off like a shot for freedom. My son and I stand stunned while swallowing the amazing sight of a waddling, big belly dog running as though competing for an Olympic Gold Medal. My son tries to cut off her trajectory aimed at a busy street and a steady stream of cars. With every move he makes to trap her, Bella arc’s further away. He screams for her attention.
      “Bella, please don’t go.  Bella come back!”
     I send an APB for help from The Universe while running at a pace magnificently uncomfortable for a woman with a leaky bladder.
     Hey! Whoever’s paying attention up there, Help! 
     If the neighbors are drawn to their windows by our frantic exclamations and the large white dog heading to her death, they also catch sight of an equally ungainly woman lumbering toward a heart attack with a giant pee stain. All at once I see that my son is going to follow Bella into heavy traffic. My SOS becomes a screech into the unknown.
     Stop this. Not this. Please help us! 
     And then an out loud, pained, sobbing whisper.
     “Bonni please.”
     As if synchronized, both dog and boy head onto the highway just as my husband, drawn by the screaming, whips our car onto the road to protect them. Gasping for air, I finally reach the scene to see one lone vehicle slowly heading our way, apparently having noticed something amiss. Everything stands still as Bella stops just past the middle of the street and looks over her shoulder at us. Ahead of her is an extended wooded area. Possible freedom is at hand, yet something stays Bella to turn. Reversing direction, the slow-moving dog walks in front of the now several stopped cars to stand before me. Hands shaking, I manage to snap her leash into place.
     On the walk back to the house Bella has a cheerful jaunty swagger. If she could mind-speak it would be to say this,
     “Again! Again! Again!”
     My children used to carol this during a splash fight. We’d all be half-drowned when it came time to end the play, leaving me to respond,
     “That’s enough guys; everyone out of the water.”
     Today, I clench my teeth to keep them from chattering and tighten a fist around the leash.
      “Over my dead body Missy.”
     After copious amounts of hot chocolate, our family rehashes the experience of Bella’s run, while she sleeps obliviously on the floor. Something needs to be made clear to my hero-son.
     “Buddy, I know you love Bella. But don’t run into the street to save her if she does this again.”
     “I know Mom.  I wasn’t thinking.”
     We both breathe for a moment until he asks what we all are wondering.
     “Why did Bella stop running to come back to us?” 
     I answer what feels true.
     “Bonni might have told her to come back. I’m pretty sure a lot of spirits kept you both safe.”
     After learning this hard lesson, a new routine settles in. Not owning a fence high or strong enough to pen Bella, our lazy family needs to take the beefy and now vividly aware and hell-bent on escape dog for frequent strolls.  Each episode begins with a heavy sigh from an appointed victim, followed by whining and lengthy discussions over whose turn it is to “walk the dog”. Bella loses her name during these negotiations. Rain produces more heated pleas. As she grows more comfortable and driven, Bella becomes increasingly difficult on a leash, taking off with a kid in tow. More often than not, walkers return with the human fuming in anger and yelling for help while the canine sits obstinately at the end of the driveway. It is at this pivotal point that our family has planned a vacation in Mexico. I’ve hired a professional to take care of Bella at the start and end of each day, but require a kind soul to drop by at noon to mitigate the outrageous cost, leaving a few pesos for a margarita. The softie in question is a relative who would help most anyone out.
     The warm sands of Cancun are becoming familiar when I receive an email entitled “Run Bella Run”. In seconds I am back in pee laden pants, panic constricting my chest and the white chunk dog streaking into traffic. Slowly rational thought takes over as I realize that only a sick freak would title an email about a prison break if it ends badly.
     The email recounts a tale of the male relative struggling with our mutinous dog when she displays a new technique, which he names “The Duck and Roll Method”. Brilliant, sly Bella had pulled in an opposing direction on the leash creating a taut line, moving her ungainly form with the lithe motions of a ballerina. Ducking her head, she twisted quickly and elegantly removing her neck from the collar in a nimble maneuver. One moment Bella stubbornly refused to head back to the house and the next she streaked across the neighbor’s yard. Our kind-hearted relative shouted curse words at the white spot quickly fading from sight. He then wondered what hideous torture I’d provide if he were responsible for Bella being lost or killed. 
     In similar form to my previous pursuit, the plus-sized man jogged and now also slid up the street with an additional impediment of snow and ice. While this time Bella, headed away from the busy road, instead moving to higher elevation and into the woods behind the houses lining the street. Sweating profusely, the relative became insanely aware that it felt like thousands of eyes were watching him lumber after the stupid dog. The same neighbors amused by my ungraceful dash to save Bella were now camped at windows, waiting for what new compilation of four letter words was to be thrown at the dog dashing out of reach. At one point Bella stops and turns to look back as though considering obeying, but the relative believes she actually was toying with his emotions. It finally dawns on him that anything I’d do would pale next to the hideous experience. Giving up he heads back to our house to gather friends for a search party. Trudging through mud and snow, clawing through the underbrush, he mentally gives the finger to the neighbors surely giggling behind curtains. A few feet from our house he spies a familiar white form sitting on our front step. He swears she spoke.
     “What took you so long fat ass?”
     Laughing while reading the email, I wonder if it will be necessary to give up margaritas to pay the professional since he will surely quit. The next day another email arrives, this one with a picture and a made up patent application. Not trusting Bella, the relative devised an ingenious two leash method; combining a car harness and collar, he used a leash on each as though navigating a kite. The accompanying photo is of a man with the jaunty look of one who has conquered a beast, while our Bella wears the grudging mulish look of a canine contained.
     When spring arrives Bella shows herself to be enraptured with nature. Her giant nose snorts and huffs around tree bases, smelling features to distinguish flora and fauna from one another. Chipmunks are her favorite, little rodent fur balls running maniacally as soon as her thundering approach gives them a red alert, they learning quickly that this particular dog is passionate about unearthing them from their dens.
     At first, we are happy Bella appears interested in something other than running. Like Snow White in her natural wood setting, she and I wander, yet at a significantly more intent pace. But over a couple of weeks, it becomes obvious that obsessive compulsive disorder is not only found in humans. Digging may be good, harmless exercise for a normal dog, but Bella is a crazed, frothing lunatic drowning in dirt. As she tunnels, we are fearful of a mine cave in. Frantically prying her from a deep trench, her mouth foams a blend of spit and mud, teeth, and gums covered in muck while she forcefully attempts to pull back to the hole, coughing and snorting dirt from her nose. In those moments, I envision a tiny rodent bent over laughing in glee. After a particularly difficult extraction, a Mom Decree is ordered that Bella is forever denied access to dig sites.
     A few days later my son draws the short straw and is out being dragged for a walk. The enabler takes the dog heavily in dig withdrawal, past her favorite mine shaft. Madness ensues (the boy later maintains that he was never told Bella had been cut off from chipmunk heroin). Down nearly two feet, she passionately ingests copious amounts of dirt. At this point, my son becomes concerned and yells for help. It should be noted he is mere feet from the house, but I am making dinner as rock and roll blares in the background. He hollers for hours (his words not mine), hysterically wondering if he will be strapped to the crazy dog for the entire night. He imagines himself as a starving anchor keeping Bella from running away, while everyone is blissfully unaware of his plight. Terrified, my son reluctantly unclenches the leash, to dash into the house. The sweaty, disheveled young man runs into the kitchen screaming for help.
     Picturing blood, torn limbs, and an ambulance, my manic hold on cooking dinner is released. The boy is mad as hell no one has come to his rescue after several torturous minutes of yelling.
     “Hurrrrrry, Bella’s going to RUN AWAY!”
     Gathering the story in bits from the gasping boy I run around outside to find a deep pit with the tip of a white tail and leash sticking out. The tail is moving rhythmically while a rain of dirt softly mounds at my feet. I think of drug addicts who don’t run when police raid their hiding place, instead frantically shooting up a drug of choice. 
     “Dude, that dog isn’t going anywhere but China.”
     The holes in our yard are filled and Bella’s walks evolve into a monotonous exercise up and down the street. Our rock hard refusal to build a fence large enough to contain a tank starts to melt in everyone’s boredom as September brings an end to a complete year since Bonni’s death.
     It is impossible to believe I have survived that long without her, while it also feels like decades since her last moments on the sunroom floor. The pain is intensely reignited by the death anniversary. Bella though loved, has become a constant reminder of all that has been lost. The quick unraveling around my heart caused all manner of upheaval, including a disquieting sense that there are damn good reasons for a gnarled ball of yarn encasing emotions. Left naked and exposed has brought an equal and reactive desire to drive to a knitting shop for an extremely large purchase. 
     Ready or not here I come! Come out; come out, wherever you are! Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free!
     The distraction of mourning Bonni while caring for Bella has slowed my healing process. There are days super-glued to each other that push me back to the miasma of “to do” lists, enabling me to lose what was a newly gained awakened perspective after graduating from massage school. Apparently, it will require another seismic event to kick me back into excavation mode.
    A week after the anniversary of Bonni’s death Bella skips her meals, which for a dog driven to eat or escape, is unusual. I ask our home visit vet to stop by. His words shock me into alertness.
     “She’s crashing. I’ve got to rush a blood sample for testing. I’ll give her steroids, but this doesn’t look good.”
     Suddenly I am very awake, the most awake I’ve been in twelve months. When the vet calls it’s to inform us that Bella has an immune system disorder and is dying. The circumstances most likely due to a genetic mutation triggered by an unknown event. The vet continues describing while a vacuum noise fills my ears.
     “Aside from some costly and not very effective treatments, I recommend letting her choose to live or die. If she grows too uncomfortable there is the euthanasia option.”
     Our family is in a state of disbelief over the news. None of us can imagine slamming back to this place so soon. Considered a relatively young-old-dog, not much thought has been given to the possibility of her death. The vet, who we secretly nickname Dr. Death, offers us little solace, stating that there are a few known cases of spontaneous reversal of symptoms. For two days our family takes turns lying next to Bella, willing her to live.
     I attempt making pictures with her but she only sighs and shifts a little further away. Her movements become slower and breathing more restricted until the only thing left to do is hold her giant head in my lap and stroke her silky nose while she ponders “in or out”. I wonder with the Voice about the “whys”.
     She’s dying nearly on the other death anniversary. Coincidence?
     “What is a coincidence?”
     I don’t fucking know. YOU tell ME.
     “Pay attention there is something to learn.”
     You need new material.
     “Not everyone chooses in.”
     The sound of her labored breathing has torn open the wound of Bonni’s loss for my husband. He decides to mow the lawn to get away for a while. The kids are in school. I cry tears I thought were used up. 
     How is it possible to grieve for so long? 
     No answers come, but I feel Bonni Blue. A whisper smell of dog poop wanders by, caressing me with her memory. 
     It’s time to let her go.
     Wide open heart, right?
     I sigh with resignation. Letting go isn’t my strong suit. To me it’s quitting on purpose. Yet even I know when the rules of existence overcome sheer tenacity. Gravity versus freefall.
     Bella, Bella, Bella.  I love you. Goodbye, dear girl.
     A short minute passes and Bella’s breathing stops. I hold her as the exhale fades, feeling the struggle end. I hold nothing but pain and the loss of another dear friend.
     Over the next hour, I witness Bill’s and subsequently our daughter’s grief. The girl looks at me with sad, horrified eyes. Incongruently I remember her big bright happy baby smile on her first Christmas morning. It seems like such a long time ago. Late in coming home our son is unaware of Bella’s death.  As we wait for him, something shouts at me.
     A tingling, buzzing essence still percolates in Bella’s body, I feel it with my hands. Bonni left us with a quick zip. This experience with Bella is different. When our son arrives, he lays beside me to hold Bella and simultaneously that tingling essence evaporates. As this happens, I recall a story about a dying woman who asked that no one do anything with her body until three hours after she passed. She felt it may take that long to be completely gone. Sharing this with my family, Bella is given the three hours she may have needed, allowing time for her death to become real for all of us.
     Dear, dear Bella was a teacher for facing death in the same manner as facing love. To truly experience love, full unconditional love, look deeply into another soul’s eyes, with a wide open heart. To truly experience death, treasure the love while releasing the soul, with a heart wide open.
     Three nights after Bella’s death, lying in bed I hear a creak of the stair. A weighty ghost foot plods slowly up to our room, pausing at the top for a soft moment of consideration, before continuing over to thump with a heavy sigh on the floor at the foot of the bed. Bella does this each night for a few weeks and then is gone.

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