I begrudgingly began the task of cleaning late Friday afternoon. It seemed an unfair use of my PTO time, but a necessary evil. The dairy trucks that barrel by our property daily create a cloud of dust that permeates any available opening and settles onto countertops, window sills and floors. I’ve thought often about hiring someone to clean, which feels like a lot of privilege for an 880-square foot home. But I digress.
Or maybe a better word choice would be - deflect.
As I squeezed my way behind the orange swivel chairs in the living room, dragging the broom behind me as if it weighed a thousand pounds, I suddenly froze. I waited until the last second possible to turn around. I knew exactly where I was headed. The next section of wannabe-wood flooring waiting to be swept was the small strip where Cooper died.
Monday, June 13th, was my birthday. It also marked one month since our Anatolian Shepherd mix and my constant companion for the last ten years succumbed to the lymphoma that sped through his ten-year-old body. Apparently, lymphoma can strike as young as six and the prognosis is grim, so I’m grateful I had an entire decade with Cooper, even if he tested my patience 90% of the time. He taught me a lot about the subject, and about not giving up on someone even when the going gets tough.
Exactly one month earlier, on the morning of Friday, May 13th, I had lifted Cooper into the car to drive back to our farmhouse in the country. We’d traveled to Fort Worth for some (human) lab work, and I was desperate to get him back to his favorite porch as quickly as possible. We were about ten days into his cancer diagnosis but the steroid treatment was already losing ground. He’d shuffled around the camper the night before, restless.
As soon as we started on our drive, the radio display on my Subaru foretold how the day would unfold. “Day I Die” by The National, it read on the screen - a tune I’d never heard but knew to be true. I glanced in my rearview mirror a thousand times on that drive. I canceled a meeting and asked my client, who is now a good friend, to pray for a safe arrival home. Please don’t die until we get there.
Once home at the farmhouse, the waiting began. I’d been unable to secure an appointment with the vet, neither in the city nor in the country so there was nothing to do but wait. Each heavy breath broke my heart a little more and I wanted the suffering to be over. His suffering meant my suffering and I felt so fragile in those hours. Please don’t leave me, I’ll never be ready.
That night, a storm befitting a Friday the 13th rolled in unexpectedly. I’d let Cooper out to lay on the porch, to observe the landscape as he did every day of the two months he’d called our cottage home (as opposed to the camper where his best view was of the neighbor’s feet through the mesh fencing).
As the storm raged, I looked out to see him bracing himself against the wind gusts and sheets of rain pelting his face. I opened the door to call him inside. He staggered just inside the door and stopped. His pupils were the size of saucers, black as the night sky. He stood for a minute, staring at me as he searched for some explanation of this experience, of how he felt, of what was happening. Those sixty seconds felt like hours as the understanding passed between us that our time together was ending.
My intention had been to go to bed and hope for a peaceful passing during the night. In fact, I’d reluctantly climbed into bed and tried calling him into the bedroom. When I didn’t hear the familiar padding of his footsteps down the hall, I rose. In the living room, I found him standing in the exact same spot with the same empty stare. It’s okay buddy, I won’t leave you.
It was then that he staggered over behind the orange swivel chairs to that fateful strip of floor. I’m not sure if he was hiding out to spare my pain, or needed a small, tight space to feel at ease, much like dogs prefer a den-like crate for safety.
I grabbed a soft throw and settled into one of the orange swivel chairs. I propped my feet up in the window sill, set my glasses on the table, and tried to close my eyes. I scoffed at the idea of sleep, but it was well past my normal bedtime and I was exhausted, both from my circadian rhythm and the emotional day.
The thunder and lightning found a second wind, lighting up the night sky with a fervor that would preclude sleep. Cooper’s breath had slowed to an unacceptable pace, despite the natural chaos surrounding us.
I was positioned at his tail, so I walked around and slid behind the matching orange swivel chair, sitting down cross-legged to rest my hand on his head. Whether startled or fighting the inevitable, Cooper jerked up at the same time as an impossibly loud boom of thunder. It rattled the picture windows I knew I shouldn’t be sitting so close to but what choice did I have, really? I eased his head back down to the floor. Seemingly soothed, he took his last breath. And nothing about the rain outside could match the flood of tears.
Ryan arrived early the next morning and we buried Cooper in the bottom pasture, overlooking the cows he loved to pester. I’ve turned a blind eye to his headstone most days, but I finally stopped this past week and had a cathartic cry. I walked my first perimeter lap in two months with Cookie, traversing the stretch of green grass that felt empty without a white fluffy tail waving in front of me like a metronome.
I knew Cooper wouldn’t live forever. Truthfully, my husband and I had talked about the future more than once; how we wouldn’t get another big dog because we had so much more responsibility on the farm. Now, it’s more likely an aversion to the heartbreak that comes along with it. There is a certain level of detachment we can maintain with farm animals.
The Cooper memories come like little aftershocks. Abrupt. Unexpected. Inconvenient. But I wouldn’t trade any moment of the grief I’m now processing for a life without his companionship. He taught me how to love unconditionally and receive that in return, a fact not lost on me as I celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary on Friday.
If the aftershocks ever fade away, I will return to his headstone to connect to his spirit. The lessons he brought into my life should never be forgotten, just like the memories of this defiant, stubborn, smiling, goofy dog that stole my heart.