It’s been just over a week since we put Reggie to sleep, and I’ve noticed that the tears now come unbidden and unexpectedly, inevitably when I least expect them.
I can do the dishes most mornings now without looking out on the dog pen and weeping, after having spent so many mornings checking for Reggie outside before our morning walks, wondering over the previous night’s dishes how long we’d make it at his slow, unsteady pace before turning back for home. I can, most mornings, do yoga in Reggie’s favorite resting spot–a sun-soaked segment of hardwood floor that still feels like it’s “his”–without tears streaming down my face like the first few mornings. And I can meditate now in the spot where Reggie’s food and water bowls used to be–a spot that feels empty and open now, somehow perfect for meditation–without tears, just gratitude for another sunny morning with open windows and birdsong, and the memory of the countless times I’d meditated in my apartment in Keene with Reggie lying a few feet away, waiting for me to be done with sitting so we could get down to the business of walking.
The times I might expect to weep for Reggie, in other words, aren’t necessarily when the tears come. When I get home from campus on Tuesday and Thursday nights, for instance, I now know not to look for Reggie lying in the bedroom as I ascend the stairs to the second floor: I know to brace myself for his empty spot. But it’s those random moments when I’m not expecting to be broadsided by grief that catch me unprotected, like this morning when I was folding laundry and casually caught a reflected glimpse in the mirror of the Empty Spot where Reggie used to lie, or those moments in the middle of the night when I get up, half asleep, to go to the bathroom, taking care not to step on a dog who is no longer there.
This morning I found myself suddenly weeping over a passage in Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which I’m still reading (slowly) after having first mentioned it here last December. Ackerman describes a visit to Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, which leads her to recount the familiar story of how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, providing companionship and comfort to injured and dying soldiers. It was Ackerman’s description of Whitman embracing one soldier while telling him that death is nothing to fear that drove me to tears, the image of one soul helping another go gentle into that good night ringing too close to home. How great a gift it is to provide companionship to the dying, and how great a mystery is dying itself?
I’ve learned–I’m learning–to be gentle with myself during this tender and tenuous time, recognizing that just as Reggie’s final days were precious because I made a conscious effort to be mindful of every moment, so too do these days of grief deserve their own attention. I’m learning not to fight anything: not the tears, not the memories, not the moments of sadness, relief, or gratitude. Whatever arises, I try not to fight it; I try not to judge it; I try just to watch it, open-eyed and attentive. I tell myself not to miss even a moment of this experience, because this too has worth and value: an emotional legacy that cannot and should not be denied.
I’m learning to be gentle with myself…and having learned to be a little gentle, I continually learn how to be even more gentle, letting go, gradually, of how I think grief should be or how it ought to progress. If you cast aside even the notion of “process,” all you’re left with is this present moment, this present emotion, this present teardrop, none of which has an exact comparable, ever.