I can still taste the salty slime of my own saliva and snot. I was crying and the mask kept refilling, no matter how many times I broke the directive to keep it on so that I could wipe my face. That was the one stipulation.
As we said goodbye, we had to wear masks and gloves. We were escorted into the clinic, which was tomb-like in it’s silence. People waited in their cars in the parking lot as the vet techs whisked their babies back and forth for treatment.
Just a few hours before, I sat in my car waiting, too. I scooped Bowie out of my Jeep. My once 95-pound mutt was now so frail and exhausted that he didn’t resist. He gathered up his energy to walk in with the vet tech, but looked back at me with a hint of fear as he crossed the threshold. I willed him to understand that he would be OK, that I wasn’t abandoning him.
I was wrong.
Twenty minutes later, the oncologist called. It was bad news. His fever was now 105 degrees — four degrees higher than the previous afternoon when we’d brought him in for routine monitoring blood work. His infection had spread from his urinary tract and was infiltrating his bone marrow. The chemo had destroyed his immune system and he was crashing. The only choice to ease his suffering was to let go.
Inside, he crawled into the exam room and fell to the floor. We hugged and kissed him, and told him that he was such a good boy. We tried to feed him a sausage McMuffin and a milkshake but he just turned his head away. This dog, who had recently been put on doggy Weight Watchers, had not eaten in over 24 hours and had been refusing water for nearly as long. He was done.
When it was over, I cradled his head for a long time and wailed into his fur. I stroked his ears with their black spots, a pattern that I fell in love with eight years ago. I tried to feel his softness through the neon pink gloves provided by the vet clinic, just one more time. But the rubber barrier robbed me of that small comfort.
I knew I should be grateful. People were dying without the luxury of their families in the same room.
At home, I curled into a ball on the living room floor with his favorite purple blanket and wept. When I opened my eyes, all I could see was his ghost. Three kinds of sensitive stomach dog food hunched over the top of the stairs, his list of medications and schedule for when to dispense them hung from my bookshelf. His toys lay all around the living room, where they had fallen days before when we tried to get him to play.
Living in a 600-square-foot studio apartment is hard at the best of times, but this day it was torture. Bowie’s shade dashed through the apartment and into my chest.
I couldn’t stand to be there.
“We have to move.” I said to my husband once I’d caught my breath. “I can’t stand this place any more. He’s everywhere!” Max held me and said that we would, when our lease was up…four months from now.
“How about a drive?” He suggested.
We drove for hours through the fog and mist. A spring snowstorm had rolled in that morning and whitewashed the world. The few people we saw materialized in greyscale. The storm drove all the color from the world.
The next two days were miserable. I couldn’t escape. I fell asleep crying because I could no longer feel his warm little body curled in the crook of my knee, and woke up crying because I remembered that he was gone.
Feeding our other dog, Kazoo, was impossible because all I could see was Bowie rushing to get to his food dish in excitement. I was suffocating in our cramped apartment.
I had not encountered this sensation for years. I lost my brother at the age of 27 to a seizure. Shock protected me from the worst aspects of grief for a while. When that wore off, the distraction of planning his funeral soothed the pain. After the funeral, I had Bowie to rely on. I could always come home and he was there to love me.
Bowie followed me through the darkest valleys of that death, never abandoning me for a second. When I emerged, he was there to guide me back to real life. Nature and writing played an enormous role in helping me to heal from that loss.
Walking Bowie along the Platte River and hiking trails helped me regain a sense of peace. Writing in a journal I bought specifically for grieving my brother helped me sort through my emotions and process what had happened.
On day four, I wanted to heal. I recalled the things that helped me with my brother’s death. The first was Bowie. Second came nature, but I am locked in a city-dwelling apartment. All the trails that surround us are haunted now, because Bowie loved them. Third was journaling. I bought a grief journal online, because all of the bookstores are closed. I am still waiting for it to arrive.
So I sit, in our tiny home now emptied of the most vibrant energy. I try to hold my emotions close so I don’t forget, I fantasize about our hikes in the wilderness, and I nurse a festering wound.
COVID-19 has taken many things from us. It took my husband’s job, and my ability to hug my family. It’s taken people’s dreams and lives. Now, it’s taken our ability to heal.
I know, intellectually, that this will all end, and life will get back to normal. But for now, we all linger, frozen in time, hoping for the space to open, and the chance to breathe again.
Jennifer Stephenson-Steele is a high school language arts teacher and writer who lives in Littleton.