BY MICHELE HERMAN | In this year of loss piled atop loss, I suspect I’m not the only one whose reactions feel perverse: It’s easier to grieve the little ones.
I find myself grieving for Century 21, where I used to spend many hours among the racks in a pleasant treasure-hunting trance. I grieve for Ramen Thukpa on Seventh Avenue, the cheap, friendly noodle joint where my husband and I often had a pre-movie dinner with our friends Dorothy and Bob. I find myself stricken anew each time I remember that The New York Times no longer includes a local news section or TV listings.
Then I remember to cut myself some slack as I realize that all losses hurt and none of them require ranking. And we humans — if we’re lucky, I suppose — have a lot of built-in filters to prevent us from collapsing under their weight, whether the loss comes in the normal course of events or was utterly preventable.
My home and career and family are intact. But we did suffer a personal loss in August. This loss has little to do with the pandemic and yet will always be inextricably linked with it: the death of our 15 ½-year-old wire-haired dachshund, whose precipitous final decline arrived at about the same time as COVID-19.
When I try to describe Ruggles, I bumble. He was a short dog and a long one. He was an affectionate dog and a self-contained one. He was a gentle dog and a comically fierce one, at least when asserting his dominance in homes where other pets lived, even ones who towered over him. He was an easygoing dog who could be a royal pain, especially on walks — he hated heading out but loved walking back.
He was a noisy dog, until his hearing went and he became a silent dog (be careful what you wish for). He was a dog who humped the side of his wicker basket every evening after dinner and then, with solemn purpose, hopped in, dug himself a nest of bedding, and curled up like a baby to sleep. He was a dog who courteously stayed in bed until he heard us rustling in the morning; he was dog who could no longer hold his bladder and woke us up at dawn.
He was a happy, tail-swishing dog until the last few years, and then one day late this past spring he tucked his tail deep under his chassis and never brought it out again. That was when his blood work began to be full of abnormalities and his systems broke down and could no longer absorb nutrients. Even as he nibbled peanut butter, avocado, cheese, bread soaked in heavy cream from my slick fingers, he lost weight.
His once-athletic build turned to a caricature of broad, bony chest tapering to a narrow bundle of hip and leg bones. He grew so weak that his paws slid out from under him on the wood floors. The day he walked away from London broil was the day I knew it was time to make the fatal call to the vet.
Ruggles was our first dog, and will be the only dog for my husband and me. He was a dog who adored his two human brothers. In his prime he could identify them by smell halfway down the block and would go running, ears flapping, jubilant when he arrived in their big welcoming bodies. He was a dog who suffered his own grief when they left for college and their visits grew ever shorter and less frequent.
For fifteen and a half years Ruggles and I spent our days together and, in the separate ways of our two species, we talked all the time. A dog, especially a small, shaggy one with soulful brown eyes, also breaks down even the toughest urban barriers. Through Ruggles I made dozens of new friends, human and canine. A Sunday walk down Hudson Street at brunch time was a walk filled with conversations with tourists.
Through Ruggles I got to know the door staff on the block, I studied the world near ground level. Fifteen years of spring flowers, fifteen muggy summers, fifteen years of gales off the Hudson, fifteen years of trips up the steps to Garber’s hardware and its good dog cookies.
Ruggles’s life ended gently on our living room floor, with both our grown sons on Zoom, looking a little shell-shocked. I would have preferred to have our regular vet, Tracy Sane, but his office was not letting humans through the door, and I couldn’t bear the thought of dropping Ruggles off, never to come pick him up again. Dr. Sane recommended a vet who makes house calls. You’ll love her, he said. She was from New Zealand and was kind.
My hand was cradling Ruggles’s flank when she gave him the shots that stilled his tired, leaky heart. I thought I might find the procedure creepy but I didn’t. Nor did I doubt my decision or the timing. I was doing the final mitzvah for someone I loved. Through his rib cage I felt his heartbeat ebb. Then I picked his warm body up and placed it in the carry bag, which the vet would take to the crematory.
I have always found grief a troubling, slippery state. I’m not sure I even know what it is exactly: an emotion? a state of being? a weight you absorb and carry around for life?
Having lost my father to the long, hideous illness called lymphoma when he was 58 and I was 25, I know now to anticipate the inevitable shifting of perspective that comes with death. At first the difficult last phases take up all the space in your working memory, so when the quiet comes, it’s full of relief and guilt. Later the mind rejiggers. It relegates those wrenching images to the vault, allowing all the happier ones to rush back into focus.
I am not there yet. When I picture Ruggles, I can see only the old one with the sad, resigned face, the one whose shaggy curls had fallen out, leaving only the downy undercoat with the bones poking through. He looked like a little old man-baby. A dog-owning friend of mine from the next building over saw me holding him near the end and didn’t recognize him, even mistook him at first for a new puppy. Later she told me that he looked luminous that evening, as if he was already not of this world.
At first my husband and I kept catching ourselves in the dozens of Ruggles-related habits we weren’t even aware we had — scanning rooms for him, checking for pee on his plastic sheet, feeling the urge to say “night pup,” which was always the last thing I did before getting into bed. Sometimes I felt very sad. But sometimes I went about my business and felt numb or guilty.
And then, right in the middle of my guilt fest, the grief breaks through. When it comes it rips right through the skin of the quotidian to remind me that someone I loved dearly, someone I lived with so intimately and peaceably, is gone and not coming back. In a way the pain feels sweet: pure and full of nothing but love.
I hardly cried when my father died, and I feared I was a monster. But now, decades later, the pain of that primal loss often sneaks up and the tears flow. Then I remember the wise words of a friend who wrote this on the occasion of my aged mother’s death three years ago, and I offer it to those suffering much worse losses than mine: Whatever way you’re grieving is the right way to grieve.