Lulu Is Gone But She’s Not

Fifteen years is a long time to live with someone. Doesn’t really matter what species they are or what species you are. That’s especially true for me when it’s Lulu, our dog who died on September 7. She would have had her fifteenth birthday on September 11. I had hoped to get her to the field she loved once more but she wasn’t well enough. Instead, I brought the field to her. I made her what I named a Seder Plate, a commemorative offering of her favorite outdoor things: various weeds, green and dead grasses, wild flowers, rocks, pebbles, dirt, and a good chunky stick. Whatever I could scrape together. She perked up when I put it down near her. We prepared to let her go on that Friday afternoon at home. She had stopped eating and that was our sign. She was ready.

Her death was beautifully lived. Looking back on it I suppose that’s pretty great considering how easy it is to have doubts and regrets. To think of this thing or that not being quite right. The details. Not only was everything just so but we were a perfect little group of end-of-life midwives to usher her to whatever comes next. We had just the right amount of love and ceremony, respect, gentleness. We did our best and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

It was almost elegant. Our vet and her nurse came to the house and we all surrounded Lulu on the living room floor where she’d been spending most of her time and I’d turned into her special dying place. Our human companions went through the steps very slowly, drew it all out with no rush, no sense of time mattering. Officiants at an important event. We lingered and talked a lot — about Lulu, how we’d gotten to this point. Our younger dog, Tilly, was hanging around at the edges. The medical process was described, the needle for the medicinal catheter inserted and then these two loving women asked if we wanted some privacy before we went any further. They went outside and told us there was no hurry to call them back in.

In her very last moments, while we were saying good-bye, Lulu pushed her head into the tight space between my arms making it tighter because I was already caressing her face. Then she pulled back a little, turned her gaze and took some good long licks at my wrist. Sort of a last-minute attempt at …something.

It seemed like she knew that I would feel the love in it and if that was so then she was right. I wonder if she needed to taste me for reassurance that this next step was going to be okay, that she could trust we had her best interests at heart. Our intentions were good. Maybe she wanted to thank us for helping to save her from the worst things. Maybe it was to take a little of my sweat and salt with her on her journeying way. Maybe to tell me she was ready. Or maybe it was an old habit that didn’t need to be curbed in her last few minutes of life. Rules could finally be forsaken. Like other Vizslas, she was a compulsive licker and while I secretly kind of loved it, she did make us slimy with her tongue so really, I only loved it up until that first feel of sliminess. So we had devised a special command, “That’s Enough”. Maybe she was saying, “This has been enough.”.

It was a perfect terrible parting. Beautiful in all the ways we could make it so, and one of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do.

Lulu, possessing a conflictingly odd temperament, a mixture being both alpha and insecure was not the cutest puppy and for a while, maybe years, she was difficult to live with, difficult to train. Thinking back over the time we lived together, long for a fifty-pound Hungarian Vizsla I am proud of how far we came. My heart splits open a little to think of how much we learned with each other.

In the beginning, I needed to get a handle on things that I found were surprisingly difficult. It required some personality change on my part to make her life a good one. There were things I had to do in order for us to be able to live with her congenially and to fall in love which is what I wanted more than anything. I was self-conscious and uncomfortable giving commands and demanding obedience. I could not wrap my mind around what it meant to be a pack leader and how to put myself in charge of this other living being. Gradually, I became decent at it but not without a lot of struggle and embarrassment, self-consciousness. Funny thinking back on that. It comes naturally now. We found our way and it was a solid friendship. A cherished friendship. She was someone I could depend on. And that went both ways. Steady and predictable and consistently willing to follow and to lead. Always up for a good time. She kept me company countless times. She loved our cat, Maypo, who was above her in our little chain. Let me nap on her as if my head weighed nothing.

It wasn’t easy for her to accept a puppy into the family when she was eleven but she did and came to love Tilly with an ease that seemed like it had always been there. Enough to play, share a few square feet of couch and loan her body as a pillow. They were cohorts in games and perfectly paired raw vegetable catchers, lined up in perfect mimicry of each other every night when we made dinner. They foraged the deer crap and the grubs, grass and sticks together in the fields and ran just for fun. They said “hello” to people on trails in tandem.

Lulu was formally Lucky Luzja. Luzja is Hungarian for mythical female warrior. She has lived life true to her name.

She grew to be elderly. Unable to quite do things in the same way that she’d always done but she never quit doing them. She lost her vegetable catching-precision but she still sat and waited for them to be thrown and her voracious appetite never let her miss a morsel. Not one bit. Her gait changed. She lost her hearing. She still pranced. She still insisted on playing after dinner. She begged us to chase her in circles through the three doorways connecting the kitchen, hallway and living room. We chased in slow motion and pretended to almost catch her. She loved that. She would do a little happy gallop in place if we smiled at her, her body unable to contain the joy. I would wiggle my butt and she would wiggle hers. Smiling.

Now I am seeing Tilly as half of an equation. A quarter of a pack that is missing a big part. I find myself repeatedly trying to sense what she’s feeling, thinking, here on her own without her partner in crime and cuddles. Her big sister who was here from her very first day in this house isn’t here anymore. Right now, she is sleeping on the blanket Lulu died on. It hasn’t been washed on purpose. But it may not mean anything. How can we know? It’s on the bed Tilly likes to run and jump onto with another blanket she likes to be covered or swaddled with. It could be incidental. It could mean every single thing in Tilly’s world. It’s hard not to worry about her feeling lost, lonely. Like I do.

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