In Memoriam: A Companion Gone, But Not Forgotten

It’s been a year since our dog, Xena, died. She was loved, and we learned so much about raising dogs from her. We remember her in gratitude for the time that she was a part of our family and in sorrow because we miss her every day. To honor her, we wanted to share a few memories of a smart, athletic, and always-surprising dog who made us better pet parents.

There was no better car dog, but she didn’t start out that way. When she was young, she would get motion sickness and throw up in the car. We worried that she wouldn’t be able to go on road trips on with us – needlessly. As she grew older, she got the hang of it (and of not looking out the back window) and loved riding, sleeping, and just hanging out in the car. She never ate any groceries, never had accidents. She did thrash a box of tissues and an occasional roll of paper towels – something about them just provoked her; we speculated that because of where they were located, they touched her face and annoyed her, which, naturally, caused her to retaliate. She was always so excited about the prospect of having an “adventure” in the car.

Xena preferred human companionship to canine, and she hated being boarded. At least until we found a fantastic dogsitter, Melody. Melody let Xena up on her furniture – including her bed – and to our immense surprise and delight, Xena became friends with her (shy) dog, too. It was such a relief to know we’d be leaving Xena in good hands, and she’s always return to us happy and healthy, as if she’d just had a fun sleepover at a friend’s house. We were truly fortunate to have found someone we could entrust with our girl, and we know Xena’s life was incredibly enriched by her time with Melody. This experience taught us that even as an older dog, she was more flexible than we suspected…and it was with this faith that we adopted a “sister” so late in Xena’s life – a sister who was, without being asked, a gentle companion and helpful guide to her.

She was also a very well-dressed dog…letting us put her in jackets, vests, sweaters, t-shirts, and boots. The boots came in handy when she played in the snow, something she loved as much as we do. Prior to putting her in boots, snow and ice would freeze in between her toes, and she risked burning her paw pads on very hot pavement. Once, at a campground, she even cut her foot on broken glass that was hidden in the dirt – so out came the boots. They were functional and stylish!

Grieving the loss of a companion animal is not unique to us, I know. It helps to me to think of this lovely poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye, as a reminder that Xena’s energy endures, and to know we’re not alone in our sadness.

Do not stand at my grave and weep 
I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning’s hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die.

Perhaps because the memory is still fresh, I sometimes relive the night that she died. I don’t want to, but it just plays out in my mind: how she still gamely ate what turned out to be her last evening snack, even though she was already in distress; how, as we drove to the emergecy vet’s office, we were both thinking that we might be coming back home without her; how the vet sounded when she told us she wasn’t sure she could get her stabilized; and how peaceful she looked when it was over, covered in a soft blanket, no longer struggling for breath. It was a horrible night, a night that will haunt us for a long time. It was the kind of experience that made me question whether I’d get another dog because I knew that it was likely that dog would die before I did, and I’d have to go through the trauma of the end, again…and its aftermath, like the big, obvious hole that’s left in your life when your longtime companion is suddenly gone.

And yet, I knew that I would do it all over again, that another dog would benefit from all that I had learned from her, and that I would be an even better guardian because of it. That I will suffer heartbreak again, when that dog’s time comes, and that I’ll question whether it’s sensible to subject myself to the cycle…but I believe that it is sensible, and worth the pain. If protecting myself from future pain means missing out on the rich experience of having a dog like Xena, then I’ll knowingly walk down that road with my canine companion, ready to accept both the highs and the lows – and hoping for many wonderful years.

If I could get a message to you today, Xena, it would be this: there are so many years of good memories, of hiking and camping, of cross-country moves and hotels, of many balls chased…and yet, it seems like it wasn’t long ago that I pulled you out of the pile of puppies at the shelter and you licked my face. We were supposedly “just looking”, but I knew you were coming home with us. You grew up, you grew old, and finally, you left us – as we knew you would, someday. I know you’re still around, somewhere, that you still run through the grass at the fort, that you still wait for that nightly treat. I know you’re not here in physical form, but I wait to feel you stretch out along my legs at night, and when I don’t feel you there, I am bereft, once again. We miss you.

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