It is a warm and lazy afternoon. I am on my mother’s bed, listening to the ceiling fan humming, trying to squeeze in a power nap. The door is nudged open and he enters, tottering slowly to his bed, emitting a little grunt as he leaps into it. Then there’s the 20-second ritual of rotating about till he’s reached an optimum comfort level from the cushioned blankets. Settled, with his head resting on the edge like a lazy alligator, he blinks slowly and nods off to sleep. I watch his body rising and falling far too rapidly and the terribly familiar knot builds in my stomach.
Five days later, on the 14th of November at 2:30 am, Poncho, our 14-year-old dog passed away. After months of struggling with a heart condition and fluid in his lungs, he took his last breath on his green square bed in our living room. Yes, I can see the irony, death in the living room.
I don’t want to do this, sit and reminisce and write about my beloved’s life. My insides are still trembling from the vision of his glassy, cataract-chewed eyes draining of all recognition and love into a serene blankness. I cannot stop re-playing the last hospital visit over and over in my head; shuttling between oxygen tanks and X-ray machines, desperately torn between buying time and praying that he would leave us in a dignified manner.
And yet I’m plodding on with this arduous task of delving into my memories to unearth all the delightful treasures he’s etched his paws on. I have to boil nostalgia into tears and revel in the pain. I need to eke the most of this experience called grief to heal myself.
To begin with, Poncho was not the poster boy for sweetness. He harassed new guests to our home by constantly barking at them and charging at their feet, desperate to assert his authority by declaring ‘I may look tiny but I will chew you up!’. All our efforts to train him over the years were an absolute disaster. I remember the time we took him for a combined session with another dog parent at their plush home. While the extremely expensive and qualified animal behaviorist was shooting out instructions, he promptly ignored them to run off and take a dump on our host’s cream-colored carpet.
He was a stubborn little sausage-shaped fool who could root himself to a spot, determined to have things his way. Over the years, we have all been snapped at for trying to pick him up against his will or whilst cleaning his teeth or ears. As far as making friends were concerned, Poncho was picky and very few made the cut. He refused to play ‘fetch’ and would instead drag his blanket around and taunt people into grabbing it from him. You could never eat in peace with him around. If he got a whiff of your meal or heard the crinkling of a wrapper, he’d plonk his butt right in front of your line of vision, hoping for a bite.
Much like us, our dog was far from perfect.
It’s hard to read and write the word ‘was’. His absence expands, not merely restricted to the spaces he inhabited but moving around us like cool mist, touching our skin, hair, thoughts as we go about the process of moving on. Poncho was the adhesive that held our oft-disconnected family together by looping us together with the daily tasks that were needed for his well-being, his ridiculous antics and towards the end- his sickness.
In the moments I experienced a desolation borne from self-loathing, his soft sighs comforted me. Long before I became a mother, he was the first to elicit the sacred, selfless love that is synonymous with parenting. When I think about the love that flourished in my family because of him, my sadness is draped in gratitude.
As my sister and I stood at the crematorium, watching the flames embrace his body before a metal door shut us out, our worlds fell apart. At 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, a body’s skin, bones and organs melt away. An hour later, a man handed us an earthen pot filled with his ashes. His remains.
My fingers feel a small jagged bone that did not fully disintegrate. No, this is not the end. Poncho remains all around us, refusing to be reduced to physical matter. We see him basking in the sun, content without a worry for the next minute to come along. We hear him whining in his sleep as he has a terrible dream. We hold the blankets that despite the flowery odor of fabric softener, still smell like him. We remember every single bump and wart on his soft, velvety body.
He remains with us in the stories we regale about his marvelous life.