I don’t really process my thoughts all that well through verbal conversations. Most of the time inside my own head works just fine. That’s one reason I run – that’s thinkin’ time. But sometimes there’s too much to fit in there.
I wrote these thoughts out the night after our dog died. I didn’t write them out for anyone but myself. I’m not interested in a conversation; I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy or anything else; I would actually very much rather not talk about it beyond just leaving this here and letting it go so I can move on. But over the past few years many of the high points of my life have been quite visible. With sample bias being one of my greatest enemies as a data scientist it seems appropriate that balance be provided to that, especially given how social media tends to paint an idealized picture where people have perfect lives and nothing ever goes wrong.
So I leave this here to help do that, and also for anyone else who thinks what they’re feeling is weird to maybe see that it’s not. I don’t expect anyone who’s not a dog person to understand. I am a dog person but wouldn’t have fully understood a few weeks ago and never would have expected the intensity of what I felt, or at least admitted it. There are gaps, a lot of jumping between random thoughts, and references that probably don’t make sense, because I didn’t edit this (other than adding pictures) and unless you’re me, you’re not the originally intended audience. To fill in just a few of the gaps, here’s the background.
Oh, and from living in the UK I’ve discovered that not everyone has a decent knowledge of country music. So if you don’t get the reference in the title of this post I highly recommend you treat yourself to some Alabama. The band, not the state. The state is just full of Crimson Tide and Auburn fans, and no one wants that…
Dunder Mifflin to Rocky Top
Within the first year of our marriage I took Jessi on a trip from our home in Pittsburgh to the booming metropolis of Scranton, PA (this was during the peak of “The Office” so there was some extra appeal). I told her I had to present at some sort of conference. After dropping her off at the Steamtown Mall I went instead to a local shelter and picked up a 6 month old English Shepherd. Being two southerners who had just moved to Pittsburgh my mom came up with the perfect name for her: Dixie. From that first day she was every superlative you hear thrown around about man’s best friend: faithful, loving, tenaciously playful, protective, obedient, and amazingly smart.
When we had to move for my job from near Washington, DC to the UK we made the incredibly tough decision to leave her in the loving care of my parents on their farm in Tennessee. It was by far the hardest part of the move. As much as we wanted to take her, it was in her best interest. She was over 10 years old and at her age we didn’t know if she could handle the stress of the move, let alone the stress of a move back and whether we would be able to find rental property that would allow her and give her the room she needs to run and play. We would be here for a couple of years, see her on all our visits home, and then reunite when we moved back and got a place where she could happily roam and play all she wanted.
One day’s notice
Last week I got an email from my mom. They had taken Dixie to the vet and they were pretty sure she had lymphoma. The rest of this is my thoughts from the following day.
When we moved to England the rational side of me knew that getting a message like that was a possibility, but the optimist side of me had completely suppressed any thought of it. Yet here it was, only 6 months after our move.
She had slowed down a bit in recent months, but she always did in the summer. She had also developed some arthritis, so not chasing down the ball quite as quickly seemed natural. But man, would she still chase down that ball. On our visit just two months earlier she had even managed some impressive frisbee catches. Now that I think about it, the last time I ever threw her a frisbee she snagged it right out of the air. I do hope someone can say something similar about me one day.
So I hoped for the best, but suddenly the rational side of me was squarely on top, telling me I would never see my dog again. I got up the next morning and went about my day, a hard workout on the way into work that went pretty poorly and left me feeling like I was going to puke, whether from the workout or the news I’m not sure.
I sat there at work, trying my best to focus. I never even bothered changing out of my running gear, though. I took a break for a walk but think I forgot about lunch.
Surely I was overreacting. It wasn’t even a certainty. And it’s a dog, and she’s old. What did I think would happen? I’m supposed to be the logical, unemotional one. When did I get soft? I’m a grown man and I didn’t take it this hard when my dog died when I was a kid.
I grew up in an area where dogs were largely just there to do a job: help on the farm, or on a hunt, or as overzealous enforcers of “private property” signs (although still not as overzealous as some of their owners). If they didn’t do their job, whether by will or by ability, they had no worth. It wasn’t in a cruel sort of way, just a part of life. Most people in the area had grown up in hard times where it was tough enough to provide for people and to tend to them when they got sick, let alone dogs. If anything the cruelty was people seeing dogs that were cared for better than they could care for their kids.
So sure, worse things can happen. People get lymphoma. I can’t fathom what I would feel if something happened to Jessi or one of my kids. I can’t even pretend like I can. But something I remember getting told a number of times as a kid that really annoyed me went something along the lines of, “just be thankful horrible terrible thing X didn’t happen.” One side of that is true: we should always be grateful for what we do have. But on the other side of that, something isn’t all fine and dandy just because there’s something out there that sucks even more. It still sucks. And acknowledging that it sucks doesn’t somehow diminish those things that suck even more. Just like celebrating a great achievement doesn’t somehow diminish even greater achievements. It’s fine to celebrate what I feel like celebrating and fine to be sad about what I dang well please.
Dixie may have thought her job was to keep a vigilant watch on her ball and chase it down to the ends of the earth, but she was so much more than just there to do a job. I’m not exactly a sociable or outgoing person. I don’t really make a lot of friends, and those that I do make are mostly just that: friends. Some I might even go so far as calling good friends. But outside of Jessi the last truly great, deep friendship I had with someone I could regularly spend time with was my college roommate (oddly enough, he’s also quite furry and was very good at chasing a ball around a field). For the last decade, there was Dixie. She was my best friend, and the only thing even close.
It didn’t matter that she couldn’t speak. I don’t do much of that myself. It wasn’t necessary; like any great friend she just knew. Every single day when I got home she greeted me with an excitement that I still hope I can have about just one thing once at some point in my life. Through the depths of grad school she was there guarding the door to my office, and one of the main reasons I managed to actually get outside that claustrophobic office occasionally. For five years she was the only reason I ran at all. Ever. And despite being in a PhD program at one of the top engineering and computer science schools in the country she was still more clever than most people around me.
But it seems there’s an additional element in dealing with the death of a dog, and I think it boils down to a feeling of responsibility. They’re so absolutely dependent on us for everything. Could we have found that something was wrong sooner? If we had been there would we have noticed some subtle change in her behavior? Speaking of us not being there, we left her and moved 4,000 miles away to England. Could that have even contributed? Whenever Jessi or I even got home late or were out of town she would go on hunger strikes until we were both safely back.
Over the last five years she had gradually had to share more of our attention. First a kid. Then twins. And all the while my work became more consuming and my runs became longer and point to point commute runs instead of laps around the neighborhood where I could take her. But she was always there. And always ready to play ball.
Even when she was a pup back in Pittsburgh I had always had this grand vision in my mind, that one day we would be able to move to the mountains somewhere where she would have plenty of room to run wherever she wanted. We could go on adventures every day. That vision has continually crept nearer and I’m actually quite hopeful that that’s our next destination. All the while I managed to convince myself that she would still be around for that, to live out her final years there.
After running home and then managing dinner as usual I was eventually able to get to sleep and knew that the next afternoon or evening we would hear the prognosis from the vet. Instead I was woken up early by a call in the morning. She was already gone. We barely had 24 hours from finding out there was something wrong to her taking her last breath.
In the end she did live out her final months on a farm in the mountains, with plenty of room to run and my parents giving her more attention than we ever could have and not having to go through the stress of being brought overseas to another country. And her final action was to once again remind me to get out of that claustrophobic office and go play ball or have an adventure. It’s so easy to pay attention to the urgent instead of the important, especially if the important has always still been there the next day with just as enthusiastic of a greeting.
But still, it sucks. It doesn’t matter if it was inevitable, and if all things considered it was peaceful and she lived a great life with a great final 6 months. I never imagined I would feel this way, or even that I could feel this way. I actually broke out in hives. Most of my body between my knees and shoulders was one giant rash. For all the unreasonably stressful things I’ve dealt with, that has never happened. I didn’t even know that’s something that could happen. My initial reaction was to think I had suddenly developed a food allergy.
Eventually that rash, like everything else, will fade. The rational side of me can be both a blessing and a curse. It can quickly shoot me up or down, but also caps how far in either direction I can go. I’ll head back up, but right now I don’t know if I even want to yet. Someone passed along to me that it’s better they go first, because we can understand and if it were the other way they can’t understand. Can understand and does understand aren’t the same thing, though, and this one seems like it’s going to take a while to get from the former to the latter.
The rest of days
This section I added just now when posting this.
The next few days were pretty rough, but as I mentioned in my original thoughts: worse things have happened and people have moved on. It will still suck, and so far I’ve moved from having it constantly on my mind, to just feeling awful and having to sometimes stop to remember why, to generally feeling ok but still frequently remembering. A few days later we took a family trip that had already been planned to explore Cornwall, which was still pretty awesome. The owners of the place we stayed at even had a border collie whose behavior and mannerisms were uncannily similar to Dixie (which was really tough but at the same time helpful).
Have I still lost sleep, eaten horribly, and had my training for the NYC Marathon derailed a good bit? Of course. I even missed a couple of random UK Thursday thoughts for the first time since spring. Life happens. Hopefully leaving this here will help life move on.
One thing I did to distract myself in those 24 hours after finding out there was a problem was to set about making my list of favorite desserts, something I should have by all means done long ago but never did. Actually one of the few things that brought me joy in the following days was getting random excited messages from one of my British friends that I had sent a box of American junk food to as he went through all of them. To add a bit of a lighter note, I’ve posted that list as well. I hope that it can also help someone… of all the things I feel qualified to call myself “desert / snack food expert” would be near the top.