Monday, March 23, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

It’s been exactly one week since my husband and I had to make a decision that was equal parts obvious and heartbreaking—that of accelerating the process of our cherished Duke’s passing. While I’ve felt zero remorse about our choice, I’ve certainly had my share of moments since then ranging from somber to blubbering. Fewer as the week wore on, but still.

As my sadness subsided, I managed to jumpstart my writing routine and even returned to the gym for three days straight. (Since the new year I had begun to view my monthly membership dues as a donation to a not-so-nonprofit wellness organization, justifying my absence from the gym by virtue of my limited remaining time with Duke.)

But still. During a lively phone conversation with my father-in-law this morning, our poodle’s passing came up and once again I found myself wiping away tears I thought I'd exhausted.

All week I’d been trying to think of some way to commemorate Duke within the home because, let’s face it, it’d be kind of creepy to continue maintaining the makeshift shrine I erected on a table in the foyer. I mean, at a certain point a girl’s got to tuck away her dead dog’s ID tag and quit lighting candles for him, right?  But I had no idea how, what.

Until I emerged from my workout in the outdoor pool at the gym this afternoon and sat poolside checking email on my phone. There, in my Facebook “other” in-box, was a message from a friend of a friend, someone I’d never heard of or met, a complete stranger. I noticed immediately that her message contained one of my favorite photos of Duke, which I assumed she had downloaded from my Facebook status or the most recent story on my blog. But then I realized it wasn’t my photo at all, but rather a beautiful charcoal portrait, a replica of my photo of Duke, in which she’d managed to capture the soulful imploring eyes of my big furry son perfectly.

And the tears came again. This time, however, they weren’t for the loss of Duke, but rather the kindness of the artist, this woman I’ve never met, who had not only been moved to draw my beloved Duke Buddy but also offered to send me the portrait. No cost. No strings attached. Just one of those rare and wonderful connections made for no other purpose than that of expressing one’s humanity.

Ain’t life grand?

"Duke" by Eileen Potts Dawson

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P.s. I’ve since done more checking into the artist of my soon-to-be-hung portrait of Duke (ok, so maybe I’m a bit paranoid as a result of a past stalker experience triggered by the publication of my book) and would like to reciprocate her kindness by sharing her contact information for anyone wishing to have a companion animal portrait created. Eileen Potts Dawson can be reached at

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Duke Buddy

It’s a relief, really. To no longer see him laboring for each breath, no longer sensing his frustration at the inability to stand, to walk to and through the dog door for a proper tinkle outside, on grass, the sun on his back. No longer seeing his shame as he lies in his own puddle of urine, aware of it yet too weak to give it much thought beyond his confusion of why this happened. It’s a relief to no longer wonder if that empty look in his eyes is caused by the sedating effect of the pain medications or by their lack of efficacy. Or perhaps it's simply the look of a dog who understands that his body is shutting down, the imminence of death not the same trigger for personal angst so often felt in humans. Pure instinct. Acceptance. It’s time. I’m leaving.

The necessary cleanup after his body is taken away, the laundering of bedding made wet with the fluids of decay, the paperwork to receive his ashes in a week’s time, the relocation of dog bowl and dog bed and collar and leashes onto a storage shelf in the garage—these all serve to distract, as if movement and tasks, all practical, can somehow fill the void left in the wake of his passing.

A make-shift shrine is created on the table in the foyer: flowers, originally given to my daughter on the closing night of her school play; a small Buddha candle holder with tea lights replaced and lit as each burns out; the photo his human sister captured and framed for me as a gift; his bone-shaped tag with DUKE etched on the front in all caps and “My humans are…” on the back along with our names and contact information; the last marrow bone he took delight in, made all the more enjoyable by its being stolen from the blind elderly dachshund who also shares our home—an antic performed repeatedly during his life, no matter that he often had his own bigger, meatier bone, an antic I corrected more times than I can count, returning the dachshund’s bone while scolding him, secretly smiling at his audacity, this one chink in his well-deserved sweet-boy reputation. It was just two days ago that he performed this antic for the last time and I, sensing it would be the last time, welcomed it, allowed him to keep the spoils of his theft. Now that bone, chewed clean, serves as the strongest reminder that less than 48 hours ago, my big furry boy was still enjoying himself despite the cancer that continued to grow and spread throughout his body, had no idea of the stroke that would seize him hours later, slamming him to the floor, teeth bared, limbs twisting.

A notice is posted on Facebook with the requisite condolences following in the comments section. The muted ting of my iPhone’s bamboo sound ushers in each text of support from my siblings, honoring our unspoken rule to give one another time after the death of a canine family member before imposing a live phone call. Heartbreak was always a private matter in my family of origin, the loss of a pet being a surefire trigger for crumbling the walls that so often kept our emotions at bay.

That evening the lingering odors of urine and death are masked by the scents of a homemade dinner rich in hot spices and cream and served with good wine with which we make toast after toast to his endearing personality, each sip of alcohol an attempt to swallow the sorrow that has already taken root, sorrow heretofore trumped by the loving decision to end his suffering, his laboring to birth himself into whatever realm, if any, lay ahead. No doubt the right decision. But the absence of doubt does little to lessen the hurt.

“How’s your day going?” asks the woman behind the counter, as she rings up my items at the home d├ęcor store the next day. “Not good,” I say. “I’m grief shopping.” She cocks her head like a dog trying to make sense of an unusual sound before completing my transaction in silence and handing me the set of blue throw pillows that I’ll return three hours later.

The following day my daughter goes to school, having already taken a personal day to fully and openly mourn the loss of her fur-sibling. My husband dashes off to work after a brief kiss goodbye and a strong suggestion that I get outside, go to the coffee shop to write, do something—anything—to move past my tears. A friend calls to lure me out into the world with an invitation of lunch at my favorite restaurant. I accept, negotiating more time so I can shed my sweats and actually clean up a bit, personal hygiene having been abandoned in my heartache. Over lunch we talk about him and even laugh about how four days earlier he had repeatedly mounted her dog on our way to the teahouse, a behavior not typical during our regular walks together. We joke that he must’ve wanted to go out with a bang.

I return home, mood shifted, sadness in check—for now, and take up the rhythm of my days: fold a load of laundry, write a grocery list, settle into the couch with my laptop to write. The dachshund wanders from his bed by the fire, seems a bit lost. I scoop him up and nestle him into my side.

Yes, I tell him, he’s really gone. Our pack will never be the same again.

I think about all that I will miss in his absence. The way he tucked his muzzle over your shoulder and into your neck, his form of offering a hug. How he stood patiently at the foot of the bed each night in the dark until he heard my husband’s snoring, the signal that he could now hop up without repercussion, working his way up the bed throughout the night until by daybreak he’d be sharing a pillow with you. The way he smiled so broadly, eyes forward, concentrating on the road while riding shotgun during errands. (On more than one occasion, the driver to my right would comment on how human he looked while we both idled at a red light.) That time I glanced up from replenishing the hors d'oeuvres at one of our dance parties to see him on hind legs, his front paws on someone's shoulders, in the middle of a conga line as it snaked its way through the living room. His propensity to hop onto the seat of whichever dinner guest dared leave the table for a bathroom break, ignoring their food and sitting quietly in their place as if enjoying the conversation. How he never gave a rat’s ass about being the alpha, preferring peace to conflict, not once having ever snapped at another dog. The way he melted your insides with those eyes, a look of tenderness and empathy so strong you knew you were in the presence of pure love. 

Most of all, I will miss his gentle nature and the kindness he offered every being he encountered. He was, and will always be, my beloved Gandhi-poodle.

The Duke of Ellington
aka Duke Buddy
December 14, 2005 - March 15, 2015