"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." ~Confucius
I discovered this quote in late May of this year, in the epitaph of a book I was reading. Though the book itself ended up being no good, I found this saying of Confucius' to be pretty neat so I jotted it down on a piece of paper and tucked it away somewhere. I don't want to say that it "came in handy" this summer, but it definitely applied.
As of today it's been six months since the passing of my beloved Golden Retriever, Shadow.
He came into our home in April of 2000, a new presence in our lives during a time when we had just lost a close family friend and were facing the end of another's battle with cancer. My family had just moved to a new neighborhood forty miles away from our old neighborhood, and finally getting the dog my brother and I had been asking for (and which our previous house couldn't have accommodated) was our solace. The three of us--Shadow, my brother, and I--grew up together, and while he was theoretically our dog, Shadow took to our mom immediately. She became his Person, and he remained unyieldingly loyal to her for his entire life.
Shadow saw us through a lot of funny stories, like the time he literally ate my homework, or the time when he drank a pot of oil my mom had used to try dumplings and cheerfully wreaked havoc from both ends for a week. He absolutely loved fruit and was always sneaking into our neighbor's orchard for the apples and pears that fell from the trees in summertime. Going running with my dad thrilled him, even though he would get bored or tired quickly, and he was endlessly patient even when my brother and I went out of our way to annoy him.
When I went home for spring break in April, he was fine. And then he wasn't. He declined suddenly, within the span of less than a month, while I spending my summer working in an on-campus lab four hundred miles away from home. I wasn't there to watch him get sicker and sicker, but I heard about it from my parents. It started out as stiffness in his hind legs. A loss of appetite. Then a fever. And then the vet said cancer. We didn't want to do the scans or biopsies to confirm. What was the point? "He's too old," the vet told us, "to be a candidate for surgery." And we weren't about to put our ten-year-old dog--the equivalent to an eighty-year-old man--through chemotherapy.
I saw him twice before he died, on brief weekend visits, and flew home one last time to be with him in the vet's office when we had to let him go. It was quick, and I was holding him, and I felt it when his heart stopped beating and his pain finally ended. Two days later, I went back to campus and returned to work.
What followed was the worst summer of my life. I wasn't alone on campus, but I felt alone even when I was with my friends. I spent most of my time in my basement lab, where I was typically the only person working, and even when the other girls were there they didn't really talk to me. I've never felt more empty. My parents, troopers that they are, healed fast and by my next visit home they were fine even though I wasn't.
We're not so good at talking about grief. No one is. All we're ever taught to do is be strong and bottle it up. The stiff upper lip and all that. No one's ever taught us what we're supposed to do with our sorrow, our rage. Unaddressed and unexpressed, it has nowhere to go but deeper into oneself. It becomes a part of our identity, this grief. And we think that's a legitimate way of dealing with it. If you bury it deep where no one can see it, that's got to mean it's gone, right?
I've healed to the point that I can write this without crying now, but I can't downplay the tightness I'm feeling in my throat and chest. At six months, my grief is lighter now--less like an open wound and more like a scar. Other people won't know it's there (I can pet other peoples' dogs now without tearing up, and I suppose that's progress), but I know it's there and I have a feeling that it always will be.
Of course, in our own grief we forget about that of others. While I was home over Thanksgiving, my little brother broke down and cried in the car when I was driving him home. I hadn't realized how much he still missed Shadow until then.
I'm not of the belief that dead people or things can hear you, but since Shadow died I've made something of an exception for him. So, darling boy, if you've got access to the Internet in Dog Paradise or wherever you are, hugs and kisses and MilkBones to you from me. Miss you, sweetling.