In the middle of the night, a high-pitched whine pulls me from a tunnel of sleep. I shove my arms into my fuzzy robe, stumble like a zombie across the floor, search the carpet, then the bathroom tile. Where’s my dog?
The fog of sleep lifts. One the veil is removed, I remember the veterinarian’s shot, the drop of Dickens’ head, the doctor’s whisper, it’s over.
If it’s really over, then why do I hear my dog’s cries? It’s his voice. I follow the whines around the room until I’m face-to-face with an upright fan that not only sprays me with cool air, but cries like Dickens.
Two days earlier on a hot, sticky July day, I’d stood at the grooming counter, while Dickens’ pink tongue flicked in and out, panting hard.
Just the usual, I told Lexi, the groomer. She was a head taller than I, and on this suffocating July day, she had pulled every strand of her dark hair straight back, held together by a red rubber band.
The usual meant cutting Dickens’ fur close to the body, leaving the curly hairs long on his legs and ears, like a Schnauzer. I also asked her to keep one long tuft of hair on his head. Kids loved to twist it into a Mohawk. Fortunately, Dickens was good-natured. He loved whatever attention he could get. We combed and curled his hair, dressed him up in argyle sweaters, bow ties, leather jackets, t-shirts, and funny hats. Then he’d prance around the room, his head high, showing off.
Lexi scooped him up, but I lingered awkwardly by the counter. I had one more request, and I felt awkward saying it. Then, I blurted it out: Would you mind, uh, clipping him…uh...uh...a little closer?
Lexi’s face scrunched up. Her glasses fell sideways. She ran a hand through Dickens’ fur.
Nope, can’t do it. If I clip him any closer I’ll burn ‘im.
I flinched. Something about the way she stressed the phrase burn ‘im sounded rather mean...angry.
Don’t you know, dogs pant in the summer? That’s how they stay cool!
Did she really think I was that stupid? My whole body shook, and I was tempted to pick up my dog and march out the door.
But then I looked at Dickens...so hot...panting very hard. He needed this haircut...now.
Hours later when I returned, Lexi was nowhere in sight. Another groomer retrieved Dickens. So, I just paid the bill. Left no tip. I wanted to a message to Lexi, I didn’t appreciate how she’d talked down to me.
Looking back, my anger had nothing to do with Lexi or the way she spoke. In reality, I wanted a miracle, and when Lexi didn’t offer one, I was mad.
I knew Dickens panted too hard. I hoped for a quick fix. When Lexi didn’t share my concerns, I felt angry, defeated, alone, and scared.
The morning after the haircut, Dickens crept down the street like an old man. At the corner, he pulled on the leash. He wanted to walk in the park. He pointed with his nose. Look. There’s trash. The garbage cans are full! Other dogs are already there.
I should have let the poor guy have his way, but I wanted cucumbers and radishes from the Farmer’s Market.
I tugged in the opposite way, but Dickens wouldn’t go. So, I picked him up, threw him on my hip like a toddler. We headed towards the strum of guitars, bellows of folk singers, and the shimmering white tents. Outside the entrance, I sat Dickens on the sidewalk, and a wide-eyed girl with long, straight black hair ran up to me and asked, Can I pet your dog?
She looked like a girl who might kiss him on the lips, which he hated. To my surprise, she took two slim fingers and ran them along his spine. When she approached his tail, she raised her fingers quickly and cooed Oooh! Fingers across his spine, Oooh!
Dickens and I weaved in and out of the fruit and vegetable stalls. At the cash register, a woman sidled up to me and chuckled. Looks like someone’s having a bad hair day. I finger-combed my hair. Then I saw her wink at Dickens. His curly, long blonde hair flew around his ears, and, of course, there was the Mohawk.
What kind of a dog is that?
I’d been asked this so many times, I’d prepared an elevator speech: He’s a Chihuahua-poodle, rescued from a Louisiana kill shelter at four weeks old. Rocky, a dog rescuer, found him, drove him and his litter mates up to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and there I picked him up.
Dickens was so tiny, he fit in the palm of my hand…too small for even a cat collar. I named him Dickens, after the author. Once he started nipping our ankles, sticking out his tongue, and essentially taking charge of our house, we knew he was a real little dickens.
Sometimes he’d spin in circles...play with me, play with me. On walks, he’d pull on his leash and tell me which path to take. If I had other plans, he’d turn rigid, throw out all four paws. During one of these tug-of-wars, a neighbor called out, Looks like he’s taking you for a walk.
As we left the farmer’s market, a cool breeze blew through town. The folk music faded and Dickens pranced down Main Street, his head high, his long feathery tail waving side to side.
I had no reason to think this would be our very last walk.
At three in the morning, the bed shook. I turned over to see Dickens sitting up, his black lips curled, his pink tongue flicked in and out. His stomach expanded, then contracted, as if he wanted to vomit.
I carried him downstairs, and quickly he squirmed loose, gasping for air. On the floor, he paced in circles, then, stopped and glared at me: Do something!
My son, Kyle, thundered down the stairs...eyes wide. What are we gonna do?
I don’t know. The animal hospital doesn’t open until eight.
I carried Dickens outside. He sucked the cool, dewy air. Under the garage light, beneath a billion stars, I watched for foxes, skunks, and coyotes. After a few gulps of air, Dickens calmed. I stood on guard, my eyes shifting from the horizon, then to my dog...back and forth...until, at last, the sky glowed red.
At eight o’clock, I leaned against the animal hospital’s glass door with Dickens in my arms. He gasped and a woman in flowery scrubs ran to us, unlocked the door, checked his gums, and said, I’m going to place him in an oxygen cage.
Another attendant herded me to a strange, private room, where there was no exam table, and across the back wall was a row of smoky-tinted horizonal windows with the shadowy figures of running dogs. I analyzed their barks, but none were Dickens.
Above me hung a nearly a life-sized painting of a German Shephard. I moved closer until I could read the brass plaque:
If love could have saved you,
you would have lived forever
Thirteen years...a long life for a big dog. But Dickens was small... just ten. I felt sure we’d have another ten years...or so.
I thumbed through the books scattered across the dresser: Goodbye Brecken, Paw Prints in Heaven, The Goodbye Book.
On my right was a nearly wall-sized pink and purple poster with cartoon figures of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, birds, and lizards. They had gathered on a grassy knoll, and the poem explained, When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to the Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together….
I understood then that I had been placed in the Dead Pet Room, where pet owners wait for bad news.
But...there had to be a misunderstanding. Dickens wasn’t that sick...maybe he had a touch of asthma…maybe he’d gotten a little too hot. He looked just fine yesterday...didn’t he?
The door groaned and in came a woman in a white lab coat carrying a clipboard. She flipped papers back and forth. Her eyes stayed down. Then, I watched as her bottom lip trembled.
Dickens not only had an enlarged heart, but fluid was leaking into his lungs. An x-ray showed some kind of mass.
I’m so sorry, she whispered, reaching into her pocket for a tissue. You can see in his eyes, he’s so sweet.
Dickens died that evening, a crushing blow for me and my husband. I did not want to go to bed. I was convinced I could not sleep without Dickens’ warm fur and his little heartbeat.
Once in bed, though, sleep pulled me under.
Hours later, I awoke to the clang of metal. I jumped up and ran towards the sound. The standing fan. The cage around the fan blades had slipped, so metal struck metal.
I whacked the fan with my fist, and the clang dulled to a low hum.
With no dog to feed, no dog to let outside, no dog to take on a walk, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.
So, I went back to bed.
Around noon, I heard the whine again...shrill and pulsating. Dickens!
I leapt up, searched the floor, bathroom, closet. Where could he be? But then I flashed back...his tiny little
head falling to the exam table.
Still, I could hear him whine. I followed the sound across the room, and once again I stood face-to-face with the fan. The cool air blew in my face and beyond the whoosh of air, I heard Dickens cry.
All day, my grim-faced husband and I shuffled about the house. We figured we’d get past our grief faster if we erased all physical signs of our dog: his uneaten food, his bed, his sweaters, toys, ties, and the stairs that brought him to our bed.
Even with all that gone, I felt his presence.
I’d turn to the sun-drenched spot on the parquet floor where he used to nap.
I’d hear him lapping water from a bowl. Or I’d turn to the top of the sofa, his favorite sunny spot, where he’d watch for rabbits. All day my head twisted back and forth, unable to accept Dickens was gone.
Three days later, I could still hear Dickens’ high-pitched whine, the clicks of his toenails, the thump-thump of his little body bouncing up the stairs.
I’d never believed in ghosts or spirits. So, why this?
Would I be like Elwood P. Dowd, the Jimmy Stewart character in the movie Harvey? Would I wander around town with my invisible friend, whistling for him, throwing a ball, carrying a limp leash, watching people shake their heads in pity?
My phone rang.
We have Dickens, said the chirpy bright voice from Forget-Me-Not crematorium. What would you like us to do with him?
Do with him? I wanted to say, Hook electrodes to his temples. Catch a lightning bolt. Zap him—like Frankenweenie.
But that was not on her list. I could have him cremated and then arrange to pick up his ashes at the animal hospital. Or, for an extra one hundred dollars, I could go to the crematorium and watch Dickens burn in the oven.
Do people really do this?
I was too afraid to ask. I did not want to know.
Thus, I told the chirpy girl, Please, please, just do what’s normal.
In Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, she describes “a kind of madness” that consumed her after her father died. On the train or in a café, she’d feel his presence.
“This was comforting,” she writes. “These were the normal madnesses of grief. I learned this from books on grieving, on loss and bereavement. They spilled over my desk in tottering piles.”
Maybe...Dickens wasn’t really haunting me. Maybe it was my own brain trying to adjust, process this strange, altered reality...life without Dickens.
I don’t take Macdonald’s word for this. I do my own research and discover that visits from the dead are so common among Native Americans and other indigenous tribes, they consider the afterlife visits normal...a natural part of grieving.
In Scientific American, writer Vaughan Bell, referred to such apparitions as “grief ghosts.” A man sees his dead cat. A woman sees and hears her daughter who died of a heroin overdose. In Sweden, a study showed that eighty percent of elderly people have seen their dead spouses.
“[They’re] a normal reaction to bereavement,” Bell wrote, “but are rarely discussed, because people fear they might be considered insane or mentally disabled by their loss.”
Maybe I’m not completely crazy.
When I cancel Dickens’ next grooming appointment, Lexi is not in. So, I explain to her assistant that Dickens has died.
I hear a long, slow, agonized groan.
Really…really…it’s okay, I say as needles prick the bridge of my nose. It’s okay…just let Lexi know.
I hang up. Then, I smell coconut...the mousse Lexi used on Dickens after she’d given him a bath. I smile...how I loved burying my face into his pina colada fur.
After I tell the groomer about Dickens’ death, I hear no more cries, no more whines. Dickens has surely packed up and moved on.
A few days later, the phone rings, and it’s Lexi. Her voice quivers as she says, I’m…I’m sorry I didn’t call right away.
She hesitates. I just…well, I just needed time to think about my words.
It’s a phrase I hadn’t heard since my kids were little. It often happened on the playground. One kid would say something mean to another. Then a mother would step in and shout, Think about your words!
But today, I question, are words the real problem? Or is it our emotions that bring on trouble?
I had been scared, unbalanced the last time I saw Lexi. I wanted her to perform a miracle...make my sweet little Dickens well.
I think of Lexi poised in front of her mirror, practicing her words…wanting to get them right...hoping to express to me what this loss means to her. It’s not my loss alone.
I’d been mean and petty. I didn’t leave Lexi a tip. She’s the bigger person. She takes and effort to call me and console me.
I turn on the fan and force my face into the rush of air. I listen. I concentrate, but nothing...no whines...no cries.
At the animal hospital, the receptionist hands me a purple bag with Dickens’ remains and a laminated wallet-size card of “The Rainbow Bridge.”
On my laptop, I go to Petfinder, and there’s a puppy who looks a lot like Dickens with one ear up, the other flopped over. My finger itches, but I do not inquire.
Where is Dickens? I can’t imagine him at the Rainbow Bridge waiting and waiting and waiting. He’s far too impatient for that.
Thus, I make up my own ending: Dickens meets up with his old Dachshund friend Chili, and they run through the grass, chase the geese. Then somewhere along Dickens’ travels, he meets a sweet girl, like the one at the farmer’s market, who knows the perfect way to pet dogs. She’ll run two fingers down his spine and feel that electric spark: Oooh! Oooh!