Confessions Of A Proudly Broken Man
A man who weeps for his dog, he is a man with a shattered heart. In him beats a heart far better because she tracked her lovely way through.
August 26, at 2:15, I lay on the floor of a bereavement room and said sodden goodbyes to Maggie, a golden retriever just slightly small for the breed. A beautiful nonconformist with a sun-size soul. It was merciful for her, this goodbye. Easy and tender for her. Excruciating for me. Yet that’s part of the deal I made with her when I drove through the Georgia fog to adopt her spirit into mine. To bring her bounding through the doors of our life.
For all the hope Maggie gave us — ever brave and kind — science finally had its say that morning. The ultrasound images spoke out loud what Mag’s recent times had whispered into our rattled hearts. Her body was laced with cancer. Of the hopeless kind that pulls a young, vital, happy girl into the swamps of sickness and courageous suffering. It came on hard and fast, out of a chill dark we scarcely had time to know we were living in until the light left her eyes. Her head trusted my arm as she left this wilderness life.
My arm held strong. My soul did not.
I am proud to say I am broken by all this. Shattered. Withered into little shards of grief. Each a jagged little shrapnel piece of what used to be. I am yanked off the shores of my manhood, washed away on the tears of a wounded little boy. And, yes, I am proud. Proud of this. I am glad to say she so affected, loved, and changed me. I’m a stronger man because I have wept this day like choirs of women and children. It’s a downpour of love. A waterfall. I so loved her. I love her still. It will not stop.
But please don’t think me weakened. That sick young girl has taught me otherwise. From her I learned anew this truth: There is no stronger man than one who has so loved and lost and wept for so good a dog. Been shouldered through life and death by the dog who seems wired into the heart of God. There is no stouter man than one who cries aloud for so great a soul in so small a vessel.
Maggie swims this outflow of my grief. As I write this without her here, the hollows of my heart flood with a lonesomeness. One like no other. My hand longs for her. I crave to hear her drawing the breath of our house, asleep only steps from my sleeping. Waking me at 4 am with her dreaming — the rem-sleep fun of her slumber land. Yes, gone from this place, she is. Gone, and I will weep a very long while for her. Trying to drown the bottomless hurt of her absence.
But as I do, she is present.
Maggie, like our great Savannah (her cousin we lost to cancer years ago), is a present tense. Alive and more than well within me. After I put her down, I drove home through the prisms of grief, and I walked to the field where Mags and I shared many a ball game, romp and tender chat. I found the place way too still, quiet, and yet there she was. Death no match for the fact she had been there. A field made sacred by a God-made good dog.
Once such a dog has been where you are, she remains. She is.
Please pray for us, wherever you are, no matter your faith. This was harder than putting down Savannah. And that was torment, losing her to merciful death. Maggie was just a few quick days from her 5th birthday. Only 5. Just a girl. A chip of a lass. I feel like a highway patrolman knocked on my door at 3:30 in the morning with that news that throws jarring hot rocks through a parent’s heart. For the much-too-soon day of my girl’s ending, I was not ready. Not braced. I thought I had ten more years with her. Right now I ache out loud here for another ten minutes.
Yet I am a man fresh from a stout dose of heaven. Maggie looked at me in her last moments of this life, and what came up in her eyes said all is not just well, it’s way more than well. Thank you, my daddy, for helping me. For loving me as you have, so much in so little time. I am to be well, and I’ll stream through the breaks in your heart, just after I’m gone, and long after. That’s what the look said. Her quiet eloquence. If you’ve witnessed such a look, you know.
In that look, God reminds me that perhaps dogs live so short a time because they just need less of it. Life takes them less time to fulfill what love and grace and fun really are, and what life is for.
But reader, do pray for me and pray for Jill, my wife, who heroically removed the toys, the beds, the empty places that helped me come back to a house that would break my heart less. It was so beautiful an act of love. One Jill has twice done now. I love her for this, and for being the kind of woman who can harbor the love of a girl so good as Mags. Pray for us, for we are deeply broken, down in that place where the love of good dogs is made, and stored, and lives on.
And as you pray, resolve to live, big. Run from all that’s regretful and coarse. Haul your wagging tail away from anything that is not love. Golden retrievers do. In this, they are better than we are. In this, Maggie made, and makes, me a better man.
Amid all this hurt, a dear friend far away reminded me to rest in my humanness. Weep into the sackcloth of her absence. I am no fit company for anyone in the hours just after that goodbye, and that’s as life is. Yet I am so thankful for the love that rains out of a world of people who understand the love of such a dog. I stand under its balm, even now. Lonesome as a desert. Sawed to my quick with a hurt I didn’t know a man was able to feel. Yet God abides with me. So many of you have spent your breath speaking and writing love to Jill and me. In this, God own tonic is made. We are healed. And this makes us family. Mags belongs to all of us. Our matriarch.
Yet now, I must speak another kind of farewell. I’ve wound my way through these serpentine thoughts to the one I have dreaded to lay before you. Hating the finality of it, yet knowing it is essential to the epitaph. So hard to utter, but I must say it here, as I whispered it to my girl at 2:15 on that August afternoon:
Goodnight sweet Margaret River. Aka Maggie. Aka Mags. Your short night of sickness is over. Rush to the gold dawn. Run for the day that lasts. Full of fun and boundless love, run. Rush to God. You strong, fearless, princess of a tomboy girl, who ran miles at my feet through this life. Run, girl! You good, good girl! Run for our eternal life!
I’ll be along, soon enough. Both of us, when it’s our time. And there, we’ll all run again.
Thrive on, in sweet mercy and peace, Mags.
So Good. So Loved. So Brief Was Your Blooming
Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet, we celebrate God, whose ways are truth.
I dedicate this essay to the people of Cleveland Park East Animal Hospital and Upstate Veterinary Specialists, whose love and compassion healed us, even in the face of incurable disease. They managed Maggie’s suffering with majestic compassion and mercy. They know our illness of grief so terribly well. They have treated it, and us, with hands of a great love and dignity. To all who care so for animals and those who adore them, great tides of love to you.