Sunday, July 24, 2011

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

I was sharing a midday meal with Jeff and Clare at an outdoor cafĂ© in Paris when, remarkably, the sun came out for the first time in our four days there.  As the waiter retracted the awning overhead, we all remarked how blue the sky was and how we might actually have a day and a half without rain to explore the city before our flight home that weekend.

And then the text came through. Call me on my land-line when you’re able. Need to talk. xxoo, Mom.

Mom hadn’t texted me the entire three weeks we’d been gone, so clearly there was only one reason for her communication: bad news. For a minute I thought about pretending I didn’t see the text. Or flat out ignoring it. But I knew I couldn’t.

I stepped away from the table and as the phone rang overseas, I wondered which of my three dogs was hurt. They were under the care of our trusted house- and dog-sitter, but our rescue-Dachshund, Jack, was already pretty old and decrepit when he’d joined our family two years ago, so I figured he was the reason for the text. Or maybe Duke. After all, he’d been having seizures for years, and despite our efforts to control them with various supplements, perhaps he’d had a particularly bad one. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Gigham, our beautiful 60-pound alpha poodle.  She was so strong and energetic we were sure she’d be the last dog standing. We'd often joked that Gigs believed she was supposed to be an “only child” and was simply awaiting the day when this would be the case.

Mom answered the phone, and without so much as a hello, I said, “Which dog is it?”

Gigs at Three Weeks Old
“It’s Gigham,” she said, sighing. “She died the day after you left for France, but I didn’t want to tell you any sooner because I knew how much you and Jeff needed this break. And I didn’t want to wait until you got home because I thought that would be an awful bit of news to hit you with after a long day of travel.”

I stood there, speechless, on a crowded street in Saint-Germain-des-Pres and tried to wrap my head around what Mom was saying, but the only thing that cycled through my brain was Gigham, dead, Gigham, dead.

Mom shared the details, seemingly trying to get them all out before she lost her ability to speak.  Something about the plant-based sweetener xylitol that Donna was baking with and Gigham raiding the kitchen countertop and xylitol being deadly for dogs and Donna finding Gigham’s stiff body the next morning. But my mind was still stuck on two words: Gigham and dead. 

It didn’t make sense. Gigs was one of the most alive dogs I’d ever met. She’d launch herself from our back deck without so much as one paw hitting any of the six steps down to the yard. When we hiked, she was the one to run fastest and farthest, exploring everything possible, while Duke would stay closer to Jeff and me. And Gigs was always the ringleader when it came to finding unauthorized snacks whenever we left home. She would do the dirty work—popping open the bread drawer or the trash can door—and then share the spoils with her less proactive canine siblings. Sometimes, when we ran back in the house for something we’d forgotten, Gigs would already be at work in the kitchen, trying to decide where the likeliest treats could be found.

I was quiet as Mom continued talking, but then my breath caught in my throat, an audible gasp of despair. And that’s when Mom broke down and we cried together on the phone.  I glanced back at the table and saw Clare crying, no idea what had happened, but clearly knowing that something was up otherwise why would her mother be leaning against the side of a patisserie, one hand on her forehead as tears streamed down her cheeks?

A Kiss From Gigs
Gigs was a bossy dog, and Jeff or I would often remind her that it’s no accident that she was considered a “bitch.” She’d growl whenever Jack or Duke invaded her personal space, yet wouldn’t think twice about pushing them out of the way if either happened to be lying in a spot she decided she wanted. Once, she sat right on Duke as he lay peacefully on our bed.  Eventually, Duke noticed the excess weight and conceded his spot to his pushy sister.

Despite her ruthlessness, Gigs was also the family protector. Even though she slept with Jeff and me, Clare would often see Gigs patrolling her bedroom at night, poking her head in, having a glance around and—once satisfied that all was well—leaving as quietly as she came. Whenever I got out of bed in the middle of the night to pee, she always followed me to the toilet then sat in front of me facing out, as if she was my bodyguard.  Though she’d made an art form of badgering Duke, Gigs was his greatest asset whenever a seizure struck. Once, she began barking nonstop and with an unusual tone, and when we went to investigate, we found her holding Duke up against the couch as he was having one of his seizures. When she saw that we’d arrived, she ceased barking and stepped away to let us take over. She was a brat, to be sure, but she was a brat with a big heart.

I said good-bye to Mom knowing there were more details to be discussed, but all I could do in that moment was stand on that busy sidewalk and share a three-way hug with Jeff and Clare. Our dogs are not “just dogs” to us. We cook homemade dog food for them. We take them on road trips. They sleep in the bed with us. They are family. We are a pack. And we'd just learned that one of our pack had died. 

Gigham. Dead.

We scrapped our plans to return to the Louvre that afternoon, and I cancelled my scheduled dinner with an old friend who’d relocated to Paris. We bought a chocolate mousse pastry in the patisserie and walked to the nearby Saint-Germain-des-Pres cathedral, where we lit the tallest candle possible for our precious Gigs. Then we set the pastry right next to it for her.

When we left the church, the blue skies were gone and the rain had begun falling again.

Gigham Spazmaginarum 12/14/2005 - 7/6/2011
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