dreams do come true

Since I relocated to Indiana last fall for school, my husband and I have fallen into habits about how we keep in touch, all of which revolve around the puppies. I FaceTime him when the boys eat, he FaceTimes me two hours later when the girls are patiently waiting for one of us to say, go ahead.  I get up early, here in the eastern time zone, and usually there are a few texts from him from the night before when I do, pictures of the girls curled up asleep, or funny things that they had done. I feed the boys, head out to swim or run, and I'm usually making my own breakfast when a text pops up on my phone, good morning.

Wednesday. I was about halfway through my 6am swim when I realized that there hadn't been any texts from him that morning, and I got a bad feeling. I'm an anxious worrywart by nature, but I couldn't shake it.  I kept swimming, more and more frantic, until finally I pulled myself up on the deck to dig my phone out of my bag and text him, just checking in, just making sure you are okay. He texted back, good morning.

He called me later that morning, sleep still crackling his voice, to tell me that Sofie hadn't wanted to eat her dinner the night before. He instead cooked her boiled chicken and rice, which she ate and then vomited back up - spectacularly, all over the back porch - throughout the night. I told him that if he was worried, to just take her over to the emergency vet, but he said no, she was happy and running around and didn't seem sick. She had been at our regular vet the Friday before; she had been chewing her food slowly and doing this weird thing that we called, eating her face. The doctor thought she had a toothache, she did some blood work and sent her home on a soft diet with extra tooth-brushing (yes, of course we brush their teeth).

He was standing at the vet when the door was unlocked at 8am. Sofie got an injection of Cerenia, a powerful anti-vomiting medication that I remember from when Graham got sick in 2012, she gave them more blood to test and that was that. But she still wouldn't eat.  


Which puppies do you have? I would call.

The bad puppies, my husband would reply, off somewhere else in the house.

We divided them so many ways. The boys and the girls.  The good puppies - Graham and Molly - and the bad puppies - Sofie and Hunter. They weren't bad, not really, they were just rambunctious and troublesome when they were younger, and somewhere along the line, christened by who they were. Graham is the sweetest. He still fully believes that he only weighs 8 pounds, he prances through the world, he has an innocence to his soul that is born of a life where you are confidently loved from the start. Molly is the cutest, she adorably leaps and pounces and jumps when she barks. Hunter is the loudest, but also the snuggliest. He routinely wins the Best Morning Couch Snuggler Award; but man, he barks too much. Sofie - she's just the best. She tries the hardest, she listens better than any of our other dogs, and no matter who you call from the upstairs bedroom, she comes running.

Everyone has a family that looks different, and you can never know from the outside why it is that way. No one can see what they tried to create and failed, or when they questioned their future, or the decisions that they made on how to fill up their lives, on what kind of love became home.  I never dreamt of having dogs, not one - certainly not four. But after my divorce was final in 2009, I decided to adopt Graham, an 8-pound puffball that peed on the Christmas tree and curled up in my running shoes and helped to heal over the cracks. One became two, became three, four. We didn't understand that we had been less than whole until we were a family of six, and then it was like we had never been any less. A force greater than what we could choose; once we were complete, the door slipped shut around us.
You don't realize when you are growing into your identity, but I became the girl with four dogs. I get messages all the time, I have one dog and I'm thinking of getting another can you give me some advice?  When I was volunteering at IM Boulder a few years back, the pro women switched places and when I said, hi, I'm Katie to my new pro, she said, oh my god do you have four golden retrievers?  My husband wanted to print a handout for the dog park that said, no, they are not all related; their names are Graham Molly Sofie Hunter; they are 9/8/8/4 years old; yes we run the vacuum every day. It was my family, and I adored every minute of it from the inside, even when they barfed on the bed at 3am and wouldn't leave me alone to pee.  Somehow it was more fundamental than us all living in the same house together. It was - it is - the best part of who I am, all wrapped up in laughter and barking and so much floating blonde hair.


Thursday. Friday. Saturday. The vet called as soon as her tests came back and told my husband to take her over to the critical care hospital, drop everything, go, right now. Her kidney values and calcium had risen dramatically since the blood work they had done the previous Friday. I talked to the critical care doctor on the phone, and she told me that it was serious, but not yet a life or death situation. But Sofie got worse instead of better, and late Friday night, the vet told me that I needed to come home.

My flight landed early Saturday morning and we drove straight to the hospital. They brought her out to see me and it was shocking, how lifeless she was. She had a cone on because she kept chewing her catheter out but she hung her head as they walked her down the hall. Maybe then I knew, maybe I refused to believe what I saw, but it was different than all those times when Graham was so sick. In that moment, she had already given up.
There weren't many things that it could be, and after 48 hours in the hospital they had narrowed it down to two separate diseases that they could test for, but the tests needed to be shipped off to Michigan and would take a week. I remember looking at her then, the first of many breakdowns, because I wasn't sure she had a week. I wasn't sure she had any time left at all.


I had a song that I would sing to her. All of our dogs have millions of nicknames and stories and songs and characteristics that belong to each only, their funny little personalities, the different ways that they know how to love.

Sofie darling
She's the best dog
In the world


Sunday. We slept fitfully. I woke at 4am and immediately called to check on her. There was no change, or at least not a good one, her kidney values continued to rise dramatically despite all of their treatment. We went back over to see her and they took us in the back. When they opened the door to her little kennel, she didn't even look up, she didn't move at the sound of my voice. I climbed in there with her, I took off her cone and pulled her into my lap and she slept there for hours, her small frail body shaking and twitching while being pumped full of every drug on the planet. I told her then, she could have whatever she wanted, even if it was to go, that we would be okay, that I didn't want her hurting for us. After her morning battery of tests, the doctor came to talk to me and finally said what I had been waiting to hear, maybe even since the moment I talked to my husband on the phone Wednesday morning. She had lymphoma, not the big lumps kind, but the scarier, silent, kind that is everywhere, that can kill almost before you notice. She wasn't getting better and it was probable that the damage to her kidneys was irreversible at that point. She wasn't going to get better.


As an adult, she found us. We don't know much about her life before, but we know that it wasn't great.  It wasn't what we gave her. She had double ear infections and yeast infections and skin infections, it took months of vet visits to restore her body to health. She came with no manners, no socialization, she was aggressive to our other dogs but terrified of people; seven years later, there were still glimpses that she hadn't forgotten.  
When our first two dogs came home, life was chaos and we both threatened to send them back in our most frustrated moments. With Sofie, we never considered it.  We gave her patience, and love, and closeness; she so obviously wanted to please us. We gave her a family - but really, it was so much more about what she gave to us. I went back and read the first words I ever wrote about her here on this blog, her first day home, when she climbed up on the dining room table to eat a sandwich. The same thing happened last November; my husband left his breakfast on the coffee table while he walked down to get the mail. He came back to an overturned plate, barbecue sauce everywhere, breakfast, gone.


Sunday afternoon. Her care was palliative at the point, the vet taught us how to give her subcutaneous fluids and sent us away with a bag full of drugs, all focused on her quality of life. She told us that Sofie had days left to live, maybe a week at the most, and I was fierce that I did not want her to die alone in a strange hospital. We brought her home to celebrate her life, to give her peace, to surround her with everyone that had loved her, to make sure that she knew that she was safe and cherished and would never be without us again.

Coot Lake, that afternoon, her favorite place in the world. She loved to swim, she had a killer belly-flop, she would leap off the dock to chase down a tennis ball, she would lay down in two inches of mud at the shoreline of the reservoir and just pant, her open mouth a smile. I walked her for hundreds of miles there throughout her life, often alone, sometimes with friends or with one or two or three other dogs. We went, one last time. A close friend of ours came with us to take some photographs, another stopped by to give her love. She was too weak to walk far but we tossed a tennis ball for her, my husband picked her up, and she climbed up on a bench beside me.
I cried - predictably - the whole way home.


There was a part of me that identified with her wild, damaged side.  When she would cower at a loud voice, or go hide in her crate when the world got too busy, or slink behind the table when she was bad, my heart hurt a little. And I would pull her out and tell her, look, sometimes you are a bad girl, but we will always love you. That little broken part in her was linked with some little broken part in me, and for that reason, God forgive me, I loved her more. Because she needed it more.  
It didn't mean that I loved my other dogs any less, but they had only known a life of family and joyfulness, and she had suffered in order to find her way home. We said it all the time, no matter how much love we gave her, there was never enough. She would climb up on our chests, stand on our ribs, smack us in the face, even while we were petting her, sometimes we would smile about it and tell her, I AM giving you love!  I'm giving it to you right now! while she continued to demand more. I told her all the time, every single day of her life I would squat down beside her and whisper, you are loved, there is so much love for you, little one, there will always be enough. I'm not sure she ever believed it, and it is my greatest fear that she departed this life without knowing that there was someone out there that loved her the most - that I loved her the most. Maybe she knew. I hope she knew.  


Monday. We hadn't slept. She was having tremors, full-body minor seizures, and they woke us all in the night. I curled my entire body around her and held her close, trying to absorb the shocks, keep her still, and for the first time, she sounded distressed. She talked so much in her last days, she had so much left to say, her life was so unfinished. And while I held her, she twisted her head back and looked me in the eye, and I saw it.  Please.

We rushed her back to the hospital, knowing that there was nothing that they could do, praying desperately for some late-stage miracle. And instead, the vet told us again, gently, you have done everything for her.  There is nothing left to do but say goodbye.  
There is a small dirt track near our house where she loves to run, so we drove her there, slowly rolling her tennis ball so she could chase it down. Her back legs weren't working that well, she was on pain medication and she wasn't moving quickly, but she was happy then. She spent the whole morning with me on the couch, snoring like a dump truck, tucked next to my legs as I sat on the couch and stared, unseeing, at my laptop.

Her tremors started again that afternoon, she was walking around just fine and then she was shaking and quivering and talking, her little wookie voice, so loudly. I wrapped around her there on the kitchen floor and I told her, again, my heart crumbling, we will be okay, I don't want to let you go but I will, you can go. The poet took her upstairs and they all got into bed. I was so angry, raging inside, at the unfairness, the ruinous desperation of it all; I got dressed in my running clothes and headed out. I ran west, in a fury, tears rolling down my face, my chest hurt from the altitude and I never understood when people said that they welcomed the pain but I needed it. I ran and ran until I was out of road and then it jackknifed me, I bent in the ditch, sobbing, crying out with the unbearableness of seeing her fade away, watching tears drip onto my running shoes as I said her name over and over. Sofie. Sofie. Sofie.

When I got back to Indiana, I threw out those running shoes.


In the days that followed, after I flew east to slip like a ghost back into my life, I couldn't sleep and I was plowing through the internet, as you do. I found that she had been registered online at some point before she was ours. I was amazed that we had never known this, or found it before. She had an official registered dog name - I am sure I am describing this wrong - but when I found her birthdate and clicked on the link with the call name of "Sofie," there it was.  

Dreams Do Come True.  


Tuesday morning. I took her to the dog park early, at first light. It was cold, maybe 15º, and when we pulled up, there was no one there. We have been going to that dog park for nearly six years, we have been there all hours of the day and night, and I've never seen it empty. And while I am usually someone that looks for signs, I had spent the four days prior stubbornly refusing to see any, but that morning, that morning where every breath ached, it felt like one. Like a gift, a hand carefully opening and closing, goodbye.
She and I made two slow laps around the park, she was still looking for tennis balls and I would toss them a few feet for her to follow. I sat at one of the picnic tables for a minute, and I told her everything I needed her to hear, one last time. We walked back towards the entrance, when I got there she wasn't behind me anymore. I turned, and she was standing, so still, so regal, just as the sun came up behind the buildings.  I watched her watch me, quiet in the bite of the winter air, and then she picked up her tennis ball, she came to me, and we left. Just as she climbed into the backseat, two other trucks rolled into the parking lot.   


Everyone always asks, who is your favorite? and then they catch themselves, laughing, oh, of course Graham is your favorite. That's probably true, he was my first, the relationship that I have with him is like nothing I've ever experienced, he will never leave my side.  
But I loved her the most.


Tuesday. She hadn't eaten in nearly a week. The night before, friends brought over girl scout cookies, and she sniffed at a tagalong, so I gave it to her. Someone started googling, how much chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and I'm sure I was rude when I said, I don't care she can have whatever the fuck she wants. She ate a few cookies, it was the first time she had chewed and swallowed any food. Hope, bitter, in my chest.

When we got home from the dog park, my husband had made me breakfast. I ate it, leaving the bacon for last, and I offered her some, which, amazingly, she took. After she had eaten two pieces, we excitedly called the vet, maybe she's getting better, but the doctor patiently reminded us of the realities of her physical body. When we got off the phone, I offered her a bowl of her soft food, and she cowered her head and ran behind the kitchen table to hide, and that tore me apart.  

I googled, how long can dogs live on bacon only that morning, on my phone. It's still there.


It was simple, and too fast, when it came. 6 days. That's how long it had been since she got sick. She jumped up on the couch and laid her head on my leg with a sigh, a tennis ball still in her mouth. I stroked her head, I told her that we were so lucky, that she was such a good girl, we told her that we loved her, over and over and over, until she was gone.  

I thought that her dying would be the worst. But the worst was when it was time to take her away. I fell apart.  I couldn't leave her, I couldn't let her be alone, she would be so scared without her mama. My husband had to pull me away, he took me upstairs so I wouldn't have to watch. That brave amazing man, he carried her out the front door. I heard him step into the sunshine, with her in his arms, and he let out a cry of rage and sorrow and despair at the brutality, the ugliness, the brittle way the world empties when a brilliant soul is set free.  


We went out to dinner that night. I had gone to the airport to fly back to the boy puppies and my flight had been significantly cancelled or delayed, no one knew; I finally just rebooked for the next day. Maybe the universe knew we needed one more night. At dinner, both of us in tears, we explained to the waitress what was going on so she wouldn't think I was dumping my husband. The manager came over later to tell us he was sorry. You see, he had a dog that had died just two weeks earlier, and he told us all about how she was sick for so long, she was fourteen years old, he missed her every day, but all I thought, uncharitably, was, you got six more years than I did, nearly another lifetime with the one you loved, fuck you for all the time you had, that is more than I will ever get. I don't want to hear about other dogs, I don't want to be told any shit about a bridge or what she is doing up in heaven or how she isn't in pain, because that is all just useless bullshit.  
Wherever she is, she is not here. She is not with us. I don't know what to think right now about the afterlife, or reincarnation, but I know that she was happiest when she was in the midst of our pack, draped across the bed, my brother my pillow, so no matter where her soul is now, it is not in this place where she was so loved by us. If she is not here, she is lost, all of us are lost, she is not snuggled up under my legs on the couch while I work or curled up between the pillows as we sleep. And grief thrashes through me, over and over, pulling me under. It is unbearable. I cannot bear it.


I don't know how to exist in a world without her in it. I can see, with perspective, that my brain is grasping at millions of straws in an effort to hide from it, or numb myself away from it, and I'm doing my best to steer clear of those things. It's ironically the same response I see athletes have in the week after ironman, where it suddenly seems like a good idea to buy a new car or get a devastating haircut or quit your job or get pregnant.  

I can't talk about it. Not with anyone, not yet. And I can't imagine talking about anything else. My husband understands. Unlike when my grandmother died, I can feel that there is someone else who shares in my heartache, and that we are grieving in different ways but there is room for both of us to feel whatever we need to feel in order to move forward. He's the only one I want to see, or to talk to, because his pain mirrors my own. I can't imagine trying to explain to anyone else about what she meant to me - to us - or how my family has dimmed in the last week. How quiet it is without her, the ringing silence of the hole created when she left.

I'm not sure when I'll smile again.

I can't sleep. I'm waiting for her little cat-like leap onto the bed, to be smacked in the face with a paw, to feel a butt drop down next to my head. I'm having nightmares, panicked dreams that she is searching and can't find me, that she is lost and alone, I wake up sweating and sobbing, her name dust in my mouth. I am haunted, I can't stop reliving her final moments, it is still happening, a broken record that mercilessly jilts right back to the most devastating moment of your life.  

I don't know how to move forward, and part of me doesn't want to. Every day that passes is another day since the last time she climbed up on the couch next to me and laid her head on my knee with a tortured sigh. We would laugh, they all do it. It's so hard to be a puppy.


I would have done anything to save her. The vet said it, smiling and sad, you guys did everything for her, far more than most people would have done. But it doesn't matter, it wasn't enough.

I know that time will help. I know that there will come a day where someone will ask me about my dogs, and I'll be able to say, yes, we used to have four. I'll be able to tell someone the story of my girl, about how she did whatever the fuck she wanted in this world, we would tell people, her name is Sofie, with an F, that stands for fuck you. I'll laugh a little when I talk about her little wookie voice or how she never learned not to eat poop or that she would jump up and down nonstop while we were filling the food bowls, about how she would completely ignore me and go splashing full tilt into the lake anyway, because she knew I wouldn't actually be mad. I was the softie, I was the one that let her get away with all of her little tricks; when she stole toys from our other dogs, I was the one who would steal them back and sneak them to her. Some day I will be able to talk about the Cabinet of Forbidden Toys, and how we didn't need it anymore, and it won't feel like my heart has been cracked open, drained and dry, dust to dust.

I had this dog, I'll say. She was such a goof, she truly wished that she could talk, she always looked like she was bursting to tell you her favorite knock-knock joke and had just rolled out of bed. I loved her, my little bunny girl, more than anything.  
Her name was Sofie.  And she died.