The Art of Losing
It takes place during a hard time in the story of my family, in the months following the sudden death of my mom’s dad, my Poppa. He was very young, less than 30 years older than I am now.
This is one of those stories that always shocks my mother when I tell it in detail. I was so young, she says, and she is amazed that I can remember. Sometimes I wonder if sadness helps things to stick in the brain, just as trauma sometimes sweeps them under the rug and joy makes them hazy.
We were together at my grandmother’s house, somber and silent. My grandmother’s entry, once a wonderfully fun place to slide on the cool marble in socks, became someplace deadly.
Death changes things.
The only thing that made that hard gathering bearable was the presence of Jebby (short for Jebidiah), my old friend. He was a big loping dog, a German Shepherd-Doberman mix, used to numerous milk bones when the grandkids came over.
I adored him.
He would watch us dive into the pool after limes picked from the tree and colorful rings and batons.
But as happy as he was to see us, it was clear that he missed Poppa. I am still convinced that dogs primarily bond with only one person. Jebby’s person was gone, and he wasn’t coming back.
I don’t remember all the details and the whys of my grandmother’s decision, but I know that she made it impaired in the thrall of grief, not really knowing what she was doing. She was going to put Jebby down. He was sick, I think, but now I wonder if he wasn't really just heart-sick.
My mother and her sister chose different ways to handle this information with their children. My aunt didn’t say a word to my cousins as they prepared to leave the house.
My mother drew my brother and I aside and told us the truth, gently. Whatever she might have thought of her mother’s decision, it didn’t show. I think, now, that she thought we’d had enough of leaving without saying goodbye. I know she had.
I hugged Jebby’s neck, trying to communicate all of my love and sorrow and wishes to see him again, hot, frantic tears falling onto his fur. I blew him a kiss.
I couldn’t stop crying as we prepared to leave, confusing my cousins to no end. I’ve always been one to feel deeply, but this was a little over the top for a simple family goodbye, even for me.
I stayed silent, as my mother had asked me to do.
To this day, I am thankful for the way my mother handled that situation. There are so few sad things I’ve had the opportunity to know about in advance. So few goodbyes I’ve known were final. So few losses I’ve had a chance to prepare for.
I think about Poppa a lot these days. I wonder what it would look like if he was still here. He was the man who called me “Cupcake” and rejoiced over the birth of my brother, the first grandson. He loved steak and artichokes (just like I do). I’ve been told that he occasionally burst into song to make fun of the musicals my grandmother loved. He taped every John Wayne movie that played on TV neatly onto VHS, cataloging them (and other movies he taped) in alphabetical order in a handwritten book.
I remember Independence Day on the deck at their house, family tension finessed by his presence. We haven’t spent a fourth of July together in years. It’s never been the same.
The story of the time he invited a guy working at a local gas-station home for Thanksgiving dinner is still legendary in my house.
He always said that he wanted to die young and make a good-looking corpse. We just didn’t think he’d actually do it.
As a child, I never doubted that I would see Jebby again, any more than I doubted that I would see Poppa. One of the things I’ve liked least about my theological exploration is the doubt which has been cast on the matter of animals in the afterlife. I’d still like to believe that all dogs go to Heaven, though, especially Jebby.
I can’t wait to see them both, again.