My heart breaks as you take your long journey.

I have a lot of things I hope to write about in the next couple weeks, mostly about my vacation out East. But before I go into that, I want to try to write something that has been on my mind for six or seven months now. I have had a hard time trying to find out how to write it, as it has not been easy. It does involve my vacation, and is in some ways a decent place to start. It is also a very sad thing to write about, but I hope it is not depressing. I have never felt that all sad things had to be depressing, and at least for me, what I am trying to write about has been a cathartic experience. Before I begin, however, I would like to apologize to my brother John, whose day I hope I am not ruining. Also my mom, who may feel pretty bad about it as well, and perhaps my dad also, for similar reasons. I trust I have now fully prepared you all, so I will try to get on with it.

My dog died a little over a year ago. I wanted to write about it on the appropriate date, but I didn’t have the right words. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure of the date. I think it was the 23 of August. I know it was a Saturday. She was a little dog. She was a mix of mostly King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, with a little bit of Chinese Chinz. I may not have spelled that right; I don’t really know how it goes. We named her Cleopatra, and called her Cleo for short. My mom had a dog named Nefertiti growing up, and we thought another Egyptian queen would be appropriate. We got her as a puppy when I was fifteen, and from the start, she was my Dog. Or maybe, like in some of the books you read, I was her Human. It could have gone either way. We adored each other.

When I left for Germany, I worried that something would happen to her before I got back. Something almost did. She somehow got pregnant, and miscarried badly. She hadn’t gotten locked in her pen properly that night, and had gotten upstairs. My mom said that when she woke up in the morning, there was so much blood everywhere that it looked like the set of a horror movie. Cleo recovered, and was there to greet me when I got home. She died less than three months later in an accident, the details of which are irrelevant.

I don’t think many other people liked my dog. She had a lot of energy, and didn’t like staying in one place. For most people, she was one of those annoying yippy dogs that you see in car windows and wonder how anyone could possibly love them. But to me, Cleo was a different dog. She was the little bundle of fur curled on my bed whom I often mistook for a stuffed animal until she moved to look at me. She was the little puppy who liked to dig her wet, snuffling nose into my elbow joint. She was the alarm clock that jumped on my bed to lick my face in the morning before snuggling down under my covers. As I said, I loved my dog, even though she was a nuisance to most people. The only people who I think felt as bad about it as I did when she died were my mom, who I think still feels guilty even though she shouldn’t, and my brother John, who also lost a dog early. Most everyone else was fittingly sorry, but they were sorry for me, and not for my dog. It is hard to feel like you are the only person who misses something precious. But then, I never understood people who grieved for lost pets until I lost my own. My friend Chris was the one other person who came close. She had lost a very special pet some time earlier, and at the time I had a hard time understanding how she felt. I have never known anyone so devoted to a pet fish as Chris was, but I don’t think I will ever think it funny again. You just never know what some people love.

Seven years previously (on a day which may or may not have been August 23 but was nonetheless the same as the day my dog died), my Nonnie passed away. I remember my mother mentioning when Cleo died that it was the same day. My Nonnie was my dad’s mother, and since my dad grew up in New York and later moved to Michigan, I never really knew her very well. She had Alzheimer’s disease, and by the time I was old enough to really be able to talk to her on one of our visits, she could no longer remember who I was. I was thirteen when she died. We went out to Albany for the funeral, and the world changed about two weeks later. That was back in 2001. I think I cried for my Nonnie once when she died. Strangely, I cried because I did not feel like crying. It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, a very sad thing to not feel sad when your grandmother dies.

I have, in my life, gone through the various stages of grief three times. The first was the 11th of September, 2001, but it was so big that although the grief was the most intense, I also came to accept it faster. Some things can be too large to really, truly comprehend. The second was for a fictional character who died. I am not sure why it affected me so deeply, but it took at least a week, and possibly a month to get over. Some things can seem too small to merit consideration, and so never receive the appropriate amount of mental rationalization that is necessary to cope with them. My psychology textbook calls this “the peculiar longevity of the not-so-bad.” I like the phrase. The third period of grief, and the most long-lasting, was for my dog. I did not grieve for my Nonnie, except in the remote, removed way mentioned earlier, which was grief at lack of grieving.

A week ago last Saturday I started out on a road trip with a few friends to explore the East Coast. Our first day was supposed to get us as far as Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where we were supposed to camp. We had planned a brief layover in Albany so that I could visit my Bompa (my dad’s dad) for dinner. However, we lost our way and arrived too late for a meal, and by then one of our company felt so ill that we could not carry on. My Bompa, being the warm, generous soul that he is, gave us enough money for a hotel, and then treated us to a glorious brunch the next morning at the 76 (better known to my family as the Latham Diner.) But I get ahead of myself. Before the business with the hotel came up, me and my friends were all seated comfortably in my Bompa’s living room, and he began sharing some old stories about “Cathy.” I knew that my grandmother’s name had been Catherine, but of course to me she had always been Nonnie. I hadn’t even known that my Bompa called her “Cathy” as opposed to “Catherine,” or “Kate.”

All too often, my Bompa surprises me by sharing things I had never thought about. All too often, the things he shares are so heartbreakingly simple that I realize I don’t really know him well. All too often, they remind me that he is ninety-two years old, and I may never know him as well as I should like.

So there we were, seated in my Bompa’s living room as he shared a story about how he and Cathy exchanged letters during the War. And as I sat there listening, my Nonnie came alive for me in some small way. I sensed a small part of her person-hood, that part of herself that went deeper than the Nonnie I had known. I sensed also in a small way how much my Bompa still grieved for her. Being only twenty-one myself, and not ever having had any grandparents closer than two hours away, I find that I do not really appreciate old people very well.

My Bompa and his story about Cathy stayed with me throughout my vacation. About a week later, as I was driving down a beautiful road in Maine, I heard a song which reminded me of them and made me cry. I had heard the song before, but it is not unusual to hear different things in a song the more you listen to it. The song was “Your Long Journey,” sung as a duet by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss off their CD, “Raising Sand.” The song itself is, I believe, an old folk song about a long-married couple parted in death, but waiting in hope for their reunion in heaven. As I listened to the song, I felt I could finally grieve for my Nonnie. I could think of my her when I thought of Cleo, and in thinking of her I could remember my Bompa telling me about writing letters to Cathy. And it isn’t a bad thing to be able to grieve. It isn’t a depressing feeling to feel sad when you have something worth being sad about. In fact, it is a beautiful feeling. It is a feeling of rightness, to acknowledge the special thing you have lost, and what’s more, to feel the loss of it. It is good to break your heart over the heart-breaking.

6 thoughts on “My heart breaks as you take your long journey.

  1. I deliberately put off reading this for days because it was, at least nominally, about Cleo, whom I did love, but whom I mostly loved that you loved. I'm sorry for doing so, but when I sit down at my desk and fire up Google Reader, I'm not usually looking for a reflection on how sad it is to lose one's dog.

    I don't have much to add to my apology, as I'm probably not capable of writing something as eloquent on the subject of grief as this piece. Donal has already expressed my thoughts on its quality. I will also echo Kate that you express well many of my thoughts and emotions on the matter.

    Rest assured, you did not ruin my day; quite the opposite, in fact. Thanks.

    “I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend.” – Red


  2. Laura – sorry I'm so late getting to this but it was most beautiful and very moving, esp. since your talking about MY mom and dad. thank you very much. I love to hear Dad/Bompa tell stories too. It's one of my favorite things about going to visit. And one thing to mention about my mom/Nonnie, before she started coming down with Alzheimer's she was a very fun person to be around – she would say zany things that would get people laughing.

    love, Dad


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