A Bittersweet Day

Today was a tough day. It was Atlas’s birthday. He would have been 9. Last night I dreamed of him multiple times. In one I could even feel his heartbeat and breathing. In two others I was in the house I grew up in along with a bunch of family. I got to see Atlas at two different stages of his life, when he was about 4 months old and then the juvenile Atlas. It was so fun to see him at those ages again. I remembered every detail about how he looked and moved then. And he kept moving around the house. I couldn’t touch him or get too close in those dreams. He kept going away from me whenever I tried. So I decided to just watch – I watched my beautiful Atlas for what seemed like hours. And that made me both happy and sad.

Eventually I had to wake up to reality. I thought I was ok even, but emotions erupted throughout the day. They were fresh. They were raw. They reminded me that all of it-memories both good and bad are intact. They simply lay below the surface most of the time.

I’ve never been a fan of roller coasters, but I’ve been on an emotional one today. I’m trying to just accept it as part of the human journey- and sometimes I think I might even be getting better at that acceptance. I’m trying to understand and accept death. Hell, I’ve been trying to do that since I was about 7 – which is why I couldn’t sleep as a kid.

It’s hardest when I focus too hard on that split second difference between when a heart is beating and when it’s not. Between when there’s breath and when there’s not. The second between life and death. There and not there. Sometimes I sense a cold panic building that threatens to tear me apart. It’s both about Atlas… because I was there for that second. I started to experience that cold panic in between the second of having him and not having him, and it took every bit of my strength to tamp it down, because there was nothing to be done about the reality. I was determined to be there for him. But it’s about more than that too.  It’s about the life and death of every living thing, every living person.  I still struggle with this.

Tomorrow, Alaya and I are planning on going to Dog Mountain in Vermont. There’s a temple there where people can leave a tribute to their dogs. Before I leave the area, which I may or may not be doing soon, I wanted to visit there at least once.

Well, I guess I’ll wrap this up. A big thunderstorm just passed. I couldn’t help but think of what a lousy birthday that would have made it for Atlas. He hated them. I know right where he’d be. At our old place it was at the bottom of the landing, but here it was the top of the stairs. And I would have been right next to him, keeping him company until the storm passed.

I love you, Atlas. As long as my heart beats and I draw breath, I’ll be forever grateful you were born.


Searching for a Handhold

It’s been a month since I said my last good-bye to Atlas, my beloved Bernese mountain dog. And I’m probably not ready for this if my shaking hands, tear-filled eyes and pounding heart are any indication, but I needed to do something. I miss him so incredibly.

I waited over twenty years before I felt ready to get a dog again.  I did my research. I knew the risks; I thought I had accepted them.  And despite knowing about their health problems, I wasn’t wrong about choosing a Berner.  Atlas was the perfect match for me. He was gorgeous – a real “head turner.” We couldn’t take a walk without people stopping us to comment on his striking appearance. While his physical beauty was a daily source of joy for me, my greatest source of joy was Atlas himself: his temperament and his unique personality.

His name was more fitting than I could have ever anticipated. For over eight years he carried my world on his shoulders.  During some of my loneliest and most challenging years, I at least had him. “My love” I called him most of the time.  I don’t mean that in any strange way. I called him that because the love I felt for him was so pure, so free of any doubt or conflict…so unchanging, and I believe, so mutual. I have always been an extremely private person with a somewhat tenuous hold on life. Those in my very small social world know I struggle to stay connected. But Atlas was my anchor.  He gave my life meaning and value and joy in a million ways -small, yet significant.

I am grateful I did not wait for him to be gone to know what I cherished.  Even while he was here I knew my favorite sound in the world was him lapping water from his dish.  I loved the feel and smell of his soft fur, I loved the way he softly sighed when I found just the right spot behind his ears.  I loved that he was always waiting for me at the door- except for those few heart-wrenching times towards the end.  I loved the sound of his nails clicking on the floor.  I loved how his spot to sleep was right by my side of the bed.  Even though our other dog Halley tried to usurp it, Atlas would get it at some point every night- I knew because he always made that loud hrumphing sound when he lay down there.  It filled me with a sense of peace.  No matter what else was happening in my life, everything was all right in my world when Atlas was where he was supposed to be. It was all I truly needed.  I loved that he was the first thing I saw every morning.  I loved that ever since he was a puppy he had this way of lying on his side perfectly still with only his eye tracking my movements or his tail thumping loudly. I loved that he still wanted to play with me – even up until the end.

I’m glad I could be there for him then. I always hoped I would be able to. My two greatest fears were that he would die alone (and in pain) or be hit by a car.  I tried hard to be a thoughtful owner.  And while I have doubts and guilt and questions about whether or not I did the right things along the way, about whether or not I could have gained more time together had I done something differently -I could not have possibly loved him any more – of that I am certain.  Perhaps that was his greatest gift to me.  He proved to me that I was capable of a pure, sustaining love.

I’m struggling to figure out what to do now.  I’m trying to remember that I knew this was inevitable and that I had decided that it was worth the eventual pain.  I know I would not trade a day I had with Atlas, but I’m heart-broken and more than a little bit frightened about my future now that he is gone.  I struggled even with him in my life.  Without him, I fear I will start drowning.  I’m trying to remember how full of life he was.  How he made me appreciate the small, sensory-laden moments that life has to offer.  I’m trying to find the courage to give the love he showed existed inside of me to others around me. He gave it so freely to me. I’m trying to honor his memory- but mostly I just feel the void at this point.

Atlas was a once in a lifetime dog. I am grateful I had something so precious- even if it was only for a while. It was never going to be long enough.