Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Tender Journey of Mourning a Dog

I am back in Florida for the winter, and as soon as I arrived I started to miss my dog Chloe intensely. And mourn her loss.  The same thing happened last year when I came down at this time. Last year, I thought my reaction was simply delayed grief—Chloe had died in September of 2013 and I had arrived in Florida last January.  And fall is always surreal to me anyway, what with the holidays and all. I don’t really become myself again until after the New Year. But, here we are again, in January of 2015, meeting the same fresh grief even though over a year has passed since my beloved friend’s death. I thought in many ways I had moved on.

Given that I enjoy over-analyzing everything, I’ve started to analyze this as well.  What is about Florida—rather than New York, my literal and heart home—that makes me miss my dog more? And, more curiously, what is it about Florida that makes me remember her more.  Is it the fact that Chloe loved the water, especially Florida salt water, because of the quality and number of fish those waters offered? And because the water on the intercoastal side of Canaveral National Seashore, where I took her every day, was so wonderfully clear Chloe could see the fish easily, and chase them for hours? Or because sometimes--inexplicably and wonderfully—sleek and playful dolphins would join her in her chase? Was she simply happier here?

It’s hard to say. First of all, I think dogs can be happy everywhere, and Chloe had a good life. I took her to the water nearly every day up in New York as well, where she could troll for fish in the Hudson River or one of the many Catskill mountain streams. And while there are certainly more fish around the bays of Canaveral than the still-struggling Hudson River, I don’t think dogs are so concerned with quantity.  But who knows? Chloe was an exceedingly smart dog and could probably count.  In French.  Anyway, she fished there, she fished here; she had fun there, she had fun here; so why do I miss her more when I am here?

And even if she was happier here, why was that?  It can’t be because I was or am happier in Florida because frankly, I am not.  There’s the great irony. The only reason I come to Florida in the winter is to escape the terrible seasonal depression that used to slay me every October through March up in New York. After several years of experimenting with every possible medical and alternative solution (and yes we tried light boxes, yes we tried magnetic therapy and Vitamin D; and supplements, and herbs; and prayanaya and mantra and kriya; and even meds) my doctor finally advised me to simply go south for the winter.  “Follow the sun,” he said. And because I trust this man, and because I happen to live a lifestyle that allows me to follow the sun, I did.  And Chloe, for the last four years of her life, followed with me.
I have since discovered that the major factor of my seasonal depressions is and was actually Christmas, and that it takes me several weeks to recover from that onslaught, but that’s another story for another day.  We’re here to talk about Chloe.

It occurred to me this morning, as I was strolling through the weekly farmer’s market and remembering how Chloe used to enjoy coming here—especially when we got to Organic German Pretzel Man and he gave her a sample of his famous apple cinnamon strudel—that Florida can be a devastatingly lonely place for the young and single. That’s primarily because there are so many Olds and Marrieds here. I’m talking the cutest little old couples you have ever scene, enjoying their final years together in quiet, benign companionship.  In New York, the energy is of striving, achieving, go-getting; here the energy is more simple and accepting. People simply have routines and follow them. Paths aren’t being blazed per se; they are being strolled and revisited. With walkers and wheelchairs.  And no, I’m not trying to be depressing here; nor am I being judgmental. I think the retirees are beautiful in their non-striving. They are simply being. And enjoying. It’s very Buddhist, in a way. And they don’t even know it.  Hey man, I’m so Buddhist I don’t even know it. There’s a teaching in there somewhere.

I have a blind friend from New York who used to spend every winter in Florida. Now he has a new partner and she has convinced him to winter in Mexico this year because the old people in Florida are, in her opinion, too depressing.  My blind friend, who was born sighted and lost his vision in his late twenties, could empathize. Plus, he is an eternally good sport. His relationship to Florida as a blind person was one of weather and temperature and smell and sensation. Give him warm calm waters in which to swim, and hot sun to dry him off and he’s happy.  “So I’m fine with Mexico if that’s what she wants.”

But weren’t we talking about how much I miss my dog?  I realized this morning as I walked through the market—alone—that the reason I miss her so much when I am here might be that I have fewer friends here. And that when I first moved here five years ago, she was my only friend.  I’ve often joked through the years about how I had become a stereotype—a single, crazy dog lady who divorces her husband, adopts a dog, decides she values canine companionship more than that of the human male, and Never Gets Married Again. I mean, I didn’t decide ten years ago never to get married again but that seems to be what has happened.  But again, let us bring the subject back to the dog.

I think the relationship shared between a single woman and her dog who find themselves together in a new an unfamiliar setting is a very special relationship indeed. There were times, when I first started coming to Florida and didn’t know anyone yet, when I wouldn’t speak to another human for days. I never really realized how innately shy I actually am until I left New York. The realization only resulted in making me more shy. In the meantime, I conversed with my dog.  I don’t mean we conversed literally, beyond the silly baby talk I subjected Chloe to (and enjoyed) on a daily basis.  I mean that we communicated, silently and thoroughly, about what her needs were and what I could do to make sure they were met.  She let me know when she was hungry and when she was tired, when she needed to relieve herself and when it was time to nap, what gave her pleasure and what did not. She even—I kid you not—used to remind me when it was time to give her her herbs and acupressure sessions.  In turn, she did her best to keep me happy.  This is nothing you haven’t heard before. We had a routine, as caretaker and caretakee, that we both benefited from. What I didn’t realize is how deeply our lives were entwined as companions. I didn’t realize this until she had un-entwined herself, left her body, and moved on to the non-physical realm, where she now resides, huge and expansive, like a sky full of stars. 

These people I see in Florida—these sweet old couples—they’re entwined, too.  How do I explain to them that my other half—the person I’m currently mourning—was actually a dog? What is a crazy dog lady to do?
I remember once, years ago, well before I had adopted my first dog Wallace, receiving a Christmas card from one of my then-husband’s acquaintances, and it was one of those custom-made cards containing a photograph of herself and her dog. It was the first time I had seen such a thing.  I remember feeling two emotions of which I am now ashamed: pity. And alarm. As in: don’t ever let me be the person who sends out a picture of myself and my dog as if we were a couple.  And now, this past Christmas, what did I find myself wishing? That someone, anyone, had taken a picture of me and Chloe dressed up in Santa Claus hats so that I could have sent that out as a Christmas card.

It’s just regret. And guilt. I’m allowed to say “just” because I know these states of mind are fleeting and that once I release whatever it is that needs to be released in relationship to Chloe, and in relationship to Chloe in Florida, I’ll probably come back and delete this post, because I’ll have started to feel embarrassed about having expressed myself in the first place.  Or maybe I’ll have something more meaningful to say. 

In the meantime, Christmas is over, the sun is shining, and I have work to do. There are books to finish and albums to finish and animals at the shelter to take care of. So that’s where I will be. Thinking of Chloe, grateful for her goodness, and inspired to pass it on.