Making Time for Grief
Memory fascinates me.
When I was a trial lawyer, I relied on the memories of my witnesses. I can still feel the sting of frustration when a victim or witness testified differently than their original statement to law enforcement. Such inconsistency was immediate fodder for the opposition.
“Are you lying now or were you lying then?”
Every January, I endure a rush of memories around the loss of my first dog Molly. Molly’s birthday was January 29, 1998. I don’t recall the exact date of her death, except it was on Martin Luther King Day in 2010. My brain does not allow for the storage of death dates, with one notable exception: my dad.
But I digress.
What I remember about January of 2010 can be replayed like scenes in a movie. The thing about hemangiosarcoma, is it sneaks up on dogs and shatters the hearts of those who love them. If you are lucky enough to share your life with a dog, you will understand when I tell you that in mid-December I started to think there was something “off” about her. Nothing major, mind you, just a slight dimming of her spirit light.
Within a few weeks, her left eye gave out. Something about pressure behind the eye and the veterinary ophthalmologist recommended its removal. I should add that before January of 2010, I did not know veterinary ophthalmologists existed. I’m proud to say I approached that surgery with good stoicism. It helped that I knew a one-eyed dog who ran flyball – Molly’s sport. Having also gone through two ACL surgeries with her, I came to understand that we humans bear the burden of emotion as it relates to our dog’s physical challenges.
January 2010 also brought with it a first-degree murder trial on my professional calendar. Scheduled for January 25th, it involved a man who drove to his wife’s workplace and sprayed her with bullets as she was driving out of the parking lot. If I had to guess with the benefit of hindsight, I was feeling significant anger that the case could not be settled. But criminal defendants have an absolute right to a jury trial and this defendant was no exception.
In those days, I could not spare much time to feel anything at all. While I no longer recall exact dates, I remember the morning I took Molly for her eye removal surgery. I remember getting ready for work and noticing that she seemed lethargic. I dropped her off and continued on to work. I remember getting the call from the surgeon explaining that her system was crashing and they could not operate. I remember hanging up and walking into a colleague’s office, shutting the door and bursting into tears.
I remember picking her up, driving to the University Vet School and staring down the pre-vet student, as he tried cheerfully to explain that her chest cavity was full of tumors and her heart was drowning in fluid, but surely we could try chemotherapy. I remember agreeing to allow the University staff to drain the fluid from her heart, but declining chemotherapy. I remember promising Molly that I was taking her home for good. I remember starting my first ever death watch.
Can one ever really plan for death?
I did my best.
Every day thereafter I would leave for work, bracing for the possibility that she would be gone by the time I got home. I sent an email to my trial judge, carbon copying my opposing counsel. I explained my situation, including the fact that I lived alone and was solely responsible for my dog. I thought I was being proactive and helpful by alerting everyone that I might have to unexpectedly to take my dog to the vet to have her euthanized. I also clarified that my expected absence would likely occur during jury selection, which would hopefully not be too disruptive.
The judge’s response was shocking. He admonished me for the “informality” of my communication and told me, in no uncertain terms, that jurors were not to be inconvenienced.
As I write this, thirteen years later, I still catch my breath at his overt cruelty. I contemplate the myriad of ways I suffered; the helplessness I endured. I think about what power and the need to control does to people. And to this day, I carry an ache around the darkest, coldest month of the year that is rooted in the past.
I remember meeting with the judge and counsel in his chambers on the first day of trial and him attempting to soften his prior response.
“No worries, Your Honor, she’s already gone.”
I remember the absolute hatred I felt for him as I stuffed my emotions deep down to a place where they couldn’t betray me.
Four years later, writing would become a vehicle for all the pain I kept to myself. I wrote about Molly’s last day here. Reading that piece reminds me that I was still trying to suppress my grief. Or get beyond it. Anything to not actually feel it. I wanted desperately to be like my dogs, who live in the moment 100% of the time. Even now, living in the moment is admittedly my preferred way to be.
Now, as I give myself permission to feel that which I did not allow myself to feel in real time, I give in to a palpable feeling of release. And celebrate the conclusion of another dark and frigid January.
Sad that people can be heartless about animals. Jan Favorite
I have three grown children, but one of the hardest things I have ever done was have the family dog, their companion, my youngest child's sibling, put down. I still wonder: should I have done things differently to prolong his life? Your grief is real and these shadows follow us throughout life. I'm guessing some folks without pets don't realize that they are like our children.