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Bondage of Self Ain’t So Hot

On Sunday, I stood blank-eyed in front of a display of Hostess products at Safeway. The Manly Fireplug came up behind me. “Think of it as sitting shiva for Louie,” he said. “You can eat whatever the fuck you want.”

I pondered that for a moment. “When did they come out with Caramel Ho-Ho’s?” I asked. He shrugged. I bought some tapioca pudding instead.

Sharing custody of Louie with the Ex, and my two years away in New York, have accustomed me to not seeing him for certain lengths of time. So it’s not like I’m hysterical with grief. I tend to cry during stupid television shows, or when I make the mistake of replaying parts of the euthanasia in my head. It ranks up there as one of the more intense experiences of my life. I think about the Ex now the way I imagine you’d think about someone with whom you survived a plane crash.

The numbness began wearing off today. I pruned some trees around my back deck, and sat in the sun looking around at my container garden, which I had repotted last weekend. Oy vey, the symbolism!

Otherwise I’ve been trying to remain vigilant; monitoring myself and doing my best to separate self-pity from normal sadness. I don’t always know the difference, nor do I really understand why this distinction is so important to me right now, other than the fact that I’m self-conscious about how self-centered I’ve become. I suppose writing a memoir, and keeping a blog, will do that to you.

Which is why I welcomed a new freelance job offered to me, writing profiles on Bay Area artists for a small newspaper. I doubt you’ve heard of this publication. Still, for the first time in my life I was getting paid to write, and I could build up clips to show other papers or magazines, should I end up liking the work. But interviewing another artist for an hour or so, transcribing their words, and then shaping those words and a few observations into something coherent, was a way of thinking about someone else for a while.

But then my editor asked if I’d cover this local conference for high tech investors, and wanting to please him, I said yes. I should have listened to my gut. The conference ran this past Thursday through Sunday. Louie died Friday, and I had to go back the next morning and bravely blink back tears as I sat through presentations on semiconductor design and investment strategies in the renewable energy sector. (Hmm, I think that might qualify as self-pity).

I’m not cut out to be a reporter. A artist profiler, sure. They know they’re getting interviewed ahead of time. But walking up to complete strangers with a tape recorder and asking them questions about a subject that I have:

a) no real knowledge of, and
b) no real interest in

was utter torture for a well-documented introvert like myself. I realized that this new-found Interest in Others doesn’t extend to Vice Presidents of Marketing Strategies.

So I had to turn in two articles on this conference, which I worked on until the last second, all the while nursing a resentment that was nobody’s fault but my own. In fact, I turned the whole assignment into this major crisis in my head, such that when I finally finished, I’d blown more than a few synapses, which is how I ended up sleepwalking past Hostess displays and (imagine this) turning down the Manly Fireplug’s proposition of hot sex.

But today is a gorgeous day in San Francisco. The Fireplug and I have front row tickets for Kiki and Herb on Sunday. I’ve recently perfected the art of making a grilled ham and cheese sandwich and, emboldened, bought The Joy of Cooking. Tonight the Fireplug will play guinea pig for Fettuccine with Salmon and Asparagus. After which, allowing an hour or so for proper digestion, I hope to get lucky.

Why’d You Have to Break All My Heart?

Thanks for all the comments and emails and well wishes. It’s hard for me to believe that only two weeks have passed since that visit to the vet and the three-month diagnosis. The vet started Louie on three separate meds for his heart condition, at which point he pretty much stopped eating. Since he’d always been crazy for food, I couldn’t help but worry. I tried everything: peanut butter, hot dogs, eggs, salami. Sometimes he’d eat broiled chicken, so I bought a couple bags of frozen chicken breasts.

Nor did the meds seem to help much. His back legs continued to weaken. I started carrying him up the two flights of stairs in my apartment. Pretty soon I had to carry him down, too. But he was able to walk down the block to the park, and he’d wag his tail when I’d come home.

But he kept getting weaker, and pretty soon he couldn’t walk more than half the block on his own. On Friday I was home all day with him. He still hadn’t eaten, and I could literally see his heart pounding in his chest, off-beat and irregular. I don’t think he slept at all that day. He had a couple of miserable moments trying to navigate his weak back legs when going to the bathroom, at which point the Ex and I took him to the vet Friday evening.

The three vets on duty, two of which had seen him before, all agreed that there was only one option left. My gut had told me the same all day. Their consensus made the decision easier; still, I was prepared to dislike the vet who would give him the injection. But since she cried, too, it was hard to hold a grudge.

We signed a form asking for him to be cremated, and his ashes returned to us. And then we held Louie while he died. The only thing harder than that was leaving him there.

When I came home, I saw that the light in the stairwell, where I had carried Louie every day for the past two weeks, had burned out. And when I turned on my bedside lamp, the bulb flashed and burned out as well.

I’d had Louie for twelve years. He’d outlived most of my friendships, and all of my boyfriends. He’d seen me sober, then not, then sober again. I’d adopted him when I was twenty-four, which seems like a different lifetime now. In some strange way, his death felt like the death of my younger self, that optimistic boy in Minneapolis. I admit I can be a little dramatic.

For the first week after his diagnosis, I felt like I was drowning in regrets, for the ways in which I had not been a good dad to him, when I was drinking, when I had left him for grad school in New York. At one point during that first week, we were out on my back deck, and he hopped off the side to pee in the bushes, and his back legs gave out on him and he fell in the grass. I tried to lift him up, but he looked as though his pride had been hurt and he wanted to just lay there for a while. The phone rang inside, and for a minute I stood at my bedroom window, looking out at him. His back was to me, and he lay in the grass, in the sun, and my heart was breaking because I felt like there was already this line between us, over which I could not follow him. I wanted to know what he was thinking or feeling, but I’d never really know, because he was a dog, and he couldn’t tell me. Nor could I tell him how sorry I was for my past mistakes, and be sure that he’d understand.

After a couple of days, though, I could see how wallowing in regret was just a form of self-indulgence. No doubt he had forgiven me a long time ago. Still, I needed those last two weeks to forgive myself. Every time I carried him up and down those stairs, my heart broke a little more. But in that moment I was nowhere else; I was carrying him, I was with him, my mind focused on the task at hand, at holding him in a way that was the least discomforting to him. And it filled me with a sense of purpose. For the last two weeks I waited on him hand and foot, and treated him the way I wished I had always treated him.

There is a part of me that can’t imagine a world without Louie. There’s a part of me that still wants to believe, against all evidence, that if I love someone enough, they will be exempt from illness or death. There’s a part of me that winces when I get this sentimental. But Louie was one of a kind. Everyone says that about their dog, but in this case it’s true.

That night I replaced the bulbs that had burned out. I threw away his meds. I put his water and food bowls in the dishwasher. But I left his bed in my room for a little while longer.