by Calyn Ranieri
Still sweaty from my three-subway-one-latte-then-five-block-walk-run commute. The air conditioning in the office was always a few degrees cooler in the morning, as a mercy. New York City summers almost mandated it.
Work email. Then personal email. One new email from Mom. Mom? An email? At 7:30 am on a Tuesday morning? Mom is a caller. A call-every-day-er. A call-multiple-times-per-day-er.
A link, to a veterinarian, specializing in pet euthansia. The air conditioning lowered seven more degrees.
I knew this day, this awful day, would come. Of course it would come. The day that my sweet, fourteen-year-old, seventy-pound family dog would be ready. The day that Death would find him, wrap him up in sleep, and take him to a place I wasn’t allowed. He’d stopped eating a month ago. When he lay down on the hardwood floor, his bones made a thumping sound that sent shivers down my spine. He was sick and tired, and ready.
I, was not.
I was terrified of grief. My grandmother had died, and I loved her. But mostly, my sadness was for my father. My uncle had died, and I loved him. But mostly, my sadness was for my mother.
Peripheral grief was heavy, but manageable.
What would it be like? To lose something that was every day? To wave goodbye to a living thing I’d built my life around, and send him off to a place I didn’t know or understand or even was sure existed?
In December, the middle of the school year, a sixth grade class in North Carolina received a new student, taller than all of them, ignorant that Birkenstocks were part of an unspoken uniform. I alternated between eating lunch in a bathroom stall, the administrative office, or feigning a Salem-like severe unseen illness so that my mother would have to come get me, and I could bury myself into her chest while the car remained in park in the parking lot.
One week, my mother’s car stayed still, outside my school, at 11:45am, for four days in a row.
A child begs for a puppy. Not much else, can we count on to happen during the lifespan.
Birth, beg for a puppy, death.
But I did not beg. My mother did. She’s told me this, when I was older. She told me that week she cried herself to sleep and begged the universe for a bandaid for my twelve-year-old heart.
Barney became my refuge. From tall jokes and lunch trays placed on empty seats next to groups of girls in Birkenstocks.
I read books on training dogs. I showed classmates pictures of my puppy. I met a girl who had kind, green eyes and a dog she loved, too. And, in a remarkable turn of events, Rachel had room in her heart for the tall transplant.
And I had a friend.
I trained Barney. I fed him and walked him and groomed him and used his fur to wipe away the black river that ran down my cheek when a boy told me he didn’t love me and I thought my life would end right then and there. When I failed my first high school math quiz and when I received emails with collegiate mastheads that began, ‘We regret to inform–’ and when I fell in love and when I fell out and when life grabbed me in its wind and spun me in six thousand directions, Barney was constant. He was home.
I read my mom’s email in that office, now freezing. Covering my salty shoulders with a cheap, itchy cardigan. Tears rolled over my cheeks all day. I had never felt such an uncontrollable surge of emotions. I wasn’t ready to lose him. But that didn’t matter, because he was ready to be lost.
After making an appointment with the veterinarian, I booked a flight home for two days later. Then, I did the only act that would make sense in that moment, and called Rachel.
She listened, in the way only she could. Patiently, with intention. She left space after my words to let them sit in the air, before she responded to them. She reminisced with me, about when we met over a decade ago. About playing with my puppy. About growing up together. About how dogs are anchors to a constantly evolving definition of the word home. And then she told me she’d come home this weekend, and drive the four hours from her first year of medical school back to Asheville. And we’d drink wine, and we’d talk about life, and we’d talk about dogs.
When I got to Asheville two days later, Barney was a shell. He was like paper. But when I lay next to him on the floor, his tail wagged. And when I sat up, he sat up and then he ate hamburger meat and I called the vet and cancelled the appointment for the next morning.
And the next day, Barney had a good day. And as long as there was hope that he would have another, I would not, I could not take him from this world.
That night, I met Rachel for dinner. It was a sticky July night. We sat outside and put ice cubes in wine and ate guacamole. She barely touched it, but picked up the bill anyway. I talked the entire time. Barney and commute and roommate and will the L-train shut down. She listened, and laughed, and gave me two and a half hours of undivided Rachel attention. She did her party trick: listened to what I just said, then repeated it back to me in a way that was more efficient, organized and insightful.Tenfold. This was her superpower.
She was heading out of town for the Fourth of July weekend, but promised that, when she was back, we’d have a sleepover (like the middle schoolers who lived in our hearts begged us to do whenever we were together again, even at 25).
We shared a quick hug. We weren’t big huggers. We didn’t need to be. Friendship like this didn’t need physical contact to make us feel connected. Quick hug. Love you. See you in a few days. And then she squeezed my hand. And we both knew it was for Barney. For in case it happened before she was back.
Barney had another good day, then another.
And then Monday.
Monday. Monday, everything changed.
Monday, the Earth stopped, and then began rotating on a different axis. Monday, the atmosphere changed its composition.
I received the call in the afternoon. The phone became the heaviest thing I’d ever held, and my body floated up to the ceiling and hovered there. My chest moved into my stomach, and my stomach fell through the floor. My limbs started detaching and floating off my body, one by one. The air thinned, the oxygen was sucked into a vacuum. The trees grew, huge and terrifying.
I don’t remember much else about Monday, July 1, 2018. But I remember Barney.
I remember melting into his fur. I remember rolling and thrashing on my floor, all night. I remember moaning and making guttural noises I’d only ever heard an animal make. I remember telling God to go fuck himself. I remember apologising and begging him to undo it. To give her back.
I remember Barney, being soft. I remember him being soft, and strong, and sturdy. I remember that he was the only thing that occasionally stopped me from screaming. Because when he was close to me, I didn’t want to scream in his tired ears.
The next day, Barney collapsed. He would not eat, move, or open his eyes. He was exhausted. He had exhausted.
A veterinarian came that day, and injected him with something to create a soft sleep. While he drifted, I cradled him in my arms, and I whispered thank you into his ears. ‘Thank you. Go find Rachel.’ And then the veterinarian injected something else. I felt Barney’s pain leave him.
And then I felt him leave me – forever.
Barney lived fourteen beautiful years with me. He left this world with ceremony, on an unseasonably cool July day, under a weeping willow tree, after living a life as long as nature could possibly allow.
Two days prior, Rachel had just picked up ice from a gas station. She was one exit away from her destination. A semi truck barrelled into the back of her SUV, which became instantaneously engulfed in flames, and swallowed her whole.
That week, it snowed in July.
Grief is the most extraordinary experience I have ever had.
It robbed me of lightness and laughter and trust and faith.
It shamed me, and humiliated me.
The guilt. The unrelenting guilt and unbearable shame.
Guilt for being here. Guilt that she’s not.
Guilt for grieving a fucking dog. Guilt for even considering doing it. Guilt for writing it down. Guilt for telling you about it, right now.
Guilt for grieving Rachel at all, when someone lost their first baby girl, their older sister. A patient lost their future doctor, who they’d send their Christmas cards to for years to come after she saved their child, and then made friends of the parents. A future husband lost his beloved, his one and only. A future baby lost her Mommy. A garden lost its planter. A puppy lost its home.
In fact, the guilt I felt for grieving a dog, when my best friend was dead, was excruciating. So, I didn’t. I didn’t grieve Barney. I didn’t speak of him. I didn’t look at pictures of him. I didn’t cry for him. I stored that pain in a place that I couldn’t feel.
Instead, my body used every muscle, every cell, to grieve Rachel. It prioritised and delegated on its own, without my consent. It talked to her, dreamt of her, starved itself. It didn’t sleep. There were only nightmares, awake, numbness. Nightmares, awake, numbness. There was screaming and sweating in the middle of the night. There was denial, anger, more denial. There was whispering ‘fuck you’ to every church it saw. There was a funeral, every day, for a year.
But one day, almost a year and a half later, during no particular moment, with no particular catalyst, I broke. I wrote a letter to Rachel, begging her to forgive me. ‘I need to take a break from grieving you and grieve Barney. I know you understand. I’m sorry anyway.’
“My body used every muscle, every cell, to grieve Rachel. It prioritised and delegated on its own, without my consent. It talked to her, dreamt of her, starved itself. It didn’t sleep.”
When Barney died, I could not hear his name without vomiting. I hated myself for robbing my family of the chance to grieve him. But I can now see the version of myself they saw. The robot of a person who inhabited my body for one year.
I never went back to New York after that week. I moved back into my family’s home, and my mother took every photo Barney was in off the walls and put them somewhere. I was maxed out on grief. And I think she thought even an ounce more would kill me. I think she was right.
I still think about the selflessness of my father, mother and sister – to sacrifice their own grief so that I could collapse into my own. I pray, if ever grief comes for you, you have as soft a place to crash into as the mountains of Western North Carolina.
I think about myself. The woman, still sweaty, from her three-subway-one-latte-then-five-block-walk-run commute. I think about her crying in her office, pondering and strategising grief like a board game. I think about her asking how. This is what I wish I could tell her:
Grief is shapeless. It is not linear. It isn’t even cyclical. It is an entropic mess.
It is a disaster. It is personal. More personal, more intimate, than any other human condition.
It is lonely. It must be this way. My grief is mine. And yours, yours. And ours will always look different.
It is manipulative. It is dangerous.
It is constantly evolving. Sometimes, it will be a sore throat. After screaming into a pillow for hours the night before. After dreaming of your best friend. After begging and bargaining with God, whoever and whatever that even is, to just have one more moment with her.
It is a soft smile, looking at a picture of a tall, brown-eyed twelve-year-old, holding a puppy.
Sometimes, grief is quiet. Sometimes, it is deafening.
Sometimes, it’s slow. Sometimes, it’s a tsunami.
In fact, for a long time, grief felt like the biggest thing I’d ever known. The most unsurmountable, the most mysterious, the most terrifying. The most overpowering, supernatural experience ever.
But it is not. There is still one thing bigger.
It is love.
Love is bigger. Love is better. Love is gratitude for the dogs who saved us, who held us while we grew up. Love is the profound spirit of Rachel, and the twenty-five years of green-eyed, friendly smiles she gave to anyone in her path. Love makes room to know, to remember, both.
Love is forgiveness. For the way we grieve, for the fractures in our hearts and the speed at which they heal.
Love is community. It’s you, reading this now.
Love is gentleness. Love is the reason I knew Rachel and Barney.
It is the genesis, and it is the antidote.
That was the answer I was searching for, when I opened that email in that air conditioned office.
Love will conquer this. And so will you.
Almost a year and a half later, I let my mother open the box with the photos of Barney.
She took one out. All of us on an Easter Sunday. Barney in the middle with a green ribbon around his neck. She placed it above the fireplace.
And slowly, spaces that had remained empty for a year started to fill back up.
Calyn Ranieri lives in Portland, Oregon. This is her first published piece.