Every end is a new beginning

Lexi sitting by Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons Park.

Monday, June 4th, we said goodbye Lexi.

Her life was full of things she loved, and we strove to maintain her quality of life right to the end. With degenerative myelopathy, there’s not really a tipping point. It’s a slow, steady progression that robs the dog of her mobility and eventually her breath. Although the disease itself is not painful, in the final stages of respiratory failure and esophageal paralysis, the dog suffers and the chances for a life-threatening complication are high.

Over the past two weeks, we noticed that sometimes she would try to bark, and nothing would come out. We noticed that she got overheated even in the air conditioning when it was in the low 70s outside. She was too weak to walk in her harness anymore. She flipped over a few times and couldn’t right herself. Her eating slowed down. She was less comfortable, or it took a lot to make her comfortable.

I spoke with our veterinary neurologist. She said, “I know it’s hard because she’s still Lexi, but from this point, no time is the wrong time to say goodbye.”

I looked at Lexi, and Lexi looked at me. Dogs can’t speak, but in that moment we communicated. She was ready. I was as ready as I was ever going to be. I called Lap of Love, an in-home veterinary hospice care and euthanasia provider. We scheduled the appointment. And then we went out and had fun.

D.J. came home, and we took Lexi and Jaina to Allegheny Commons Park. Lexi rode in my lap so that she could stick her nose out the window and smell the fresh air. It was a beautiful day–blue skies, not too hot, not too humid. Perfect weather for sniffing. Her body felt so warm against mine. She rested her head on my arm, and I wanted to stay like that forever. Lexi always sniffed with her whole nose, inhaling deeply and letting out big puffs of air–snorfing, as we called it.

We pulled her in the wagon around the Aviary and the dog park where she herded so many other dogs in her younger years. We walked around Lake Elizabeth. She sniffed the other dog smells, the duck and geese smells, and the green tree smells. We sat in the grass together, just sitting, just enjoying the presence of us as a family.

A selfie of the four of us.

Together, the four of us have hiked National Parks, climbed mountains, driven halfway across the country, explored the city, and so much more. We’ve cuddled in bed together, the four of us crammed into our queen bed, Jaina usually curled into a ball and Lexi usually spread out to her full length, taking up the most space of anyone even though she was the smallest. Lexi always knew when I was sick or hurting, and she would nudge me with her nose to distract me with her cuteness. She would also nudge us if she wanted pets or a treat–she was never shy about telling us what her demands were.

When an ambulance drove by the park, we all howled together, me and Lexi and Jaina. We took selfies and laughed. D.J. helped Lexi explore by supporting her so she could “walk”. Although she couldn’t pee on her own anymore, we expressed her bladder a little at a time so she could leave her scent around “her” territory, like she used to do during our daily park walks.

Lexi was too weak to use her harness anymore, but she could get around a little with more support from one of her human servants.

After the park, we drove to Starbucks and the dogs got extra-large pupaccinos. When we got home, we enjoyed a Feast of Cheese, and then we sat outside until the vet arrived.

Dr. Aspen was kind and gentle, and made Lexi’s transition peaceful and easy. We sat in her favorite spot by the table where I write, and I held her in my lap. I petted her ears and her head, stroked her fur, and kissed her nose. I told her how much I loved her, but of course she already knew.

Jaina smelled Lexi’s body at the end. We curled her up into a basket and wrapped her in a blanket, and the three of us walked her out to Dr. Aspen’s car. Jaina was sad, but she understood what had happened. She’s been a little mopey over the past week, but she’s not confused or distressed.

This week we picked up Lexi’s ashes. I still cry every day, usually many times every day. Jaina has been sticking to my side like glue. I suspect she is both sad herself and senses that I am sad, so we have been comforting each other.

The house feels so quiet and empty without Lexi. She may have been a short dog, but her personality was huge. She knew the sound of our car and would start barking her “welcome home” bark as soon as we shut the car doors. I set my watch by her–she was always on top of breakfast and dinner times, outside time, and bed time. Sometimes I think I hear her whining, but of course it’s a bird outside (perhaps a cat bird imitating her?).

Saying goodbye to someone you love is never easy. I don’t believe in heaven, and the Bible says animals don’t have souls anyway. I do believe that death is transition, that it is a beginning that comes after the end, but what form that beginning takes I can only guess at. If nothing else, Lexi helped me become who I am today, and my life would have been much different without her. I can feel her presence everywhere–not just in the physical spaces she inhabited, but in the deepest places of my soul.

I miss her. I miss her happy barks and the way she snored while she slept. I miss her corgi waddle and her perfect downward-facing dog stretches. I miss her grrs and her nudges. I miss the soft silkiness of her fur and holding her paw in my hand. I miss the cold wetness of her nose and the warmth of her eyes that saw me in a way no one else could.

I miss her, I miss her, I miss her. I know I always will. But she is my dog, and she will always be my dog. I wouldn’t change our life together for anything. I am full of joy and laughter and gratitude for the fourteen years we shared, even though I’m crying as I write this.

Every end is a new beginning.

#PhotoFriday: Happy 14th Birthday, Lexi!

Lexi was born on April 4, 2004. She’s my lucky 04/04/04 dog. On Wednesday, she turned 14. Maybe I’m being superstitious, but that, too, seems lucky.

My family adopted Lexi shortly after my childhood dog Maverick passed away. She was six weeks old, a little young but already weaned and spunky as anything. I’d taken Maverick’s death the hardest, I think, and was angry at my parents for not doing more to help him (as an adult I realize my anger was misplaced and that my parents did every reasonable thing they could and ultimately made the right decision). We had two young German shepherds, but my mom decided we’d adopt a Welsh corgi puppy for me–even though I’d be heading off to college soon.

Me holding Lexi as a puppy.

Me and Lexi in 2004, the summer before my senior year of high school. I demanded she be in my official photos.

Lexi has always been an adventurous dog. We went on lots of walks together, and when I did go off to college my mom took her to agility classes. When I graduated I found a place that would let me have pets, and Lexi moved to Pittsburgh with me.

Lexi, Kelly, D.J., and Ruby

Lexi and Ruby were ring bearers at my handfasting ceremony in 2010.

We’ve hiked and climbed mountains together in National Parks, gone on long road trips, and done a fair bit of just hanging out at various coffee shops in Pittsburgh. She knows me better than anyone—she can sense my moods before I even know what I’m feeling. She’s quick to draw my attention to her with a “grr” or a nudge when she knows I’m sad or distressed. I can (and do) set my clock by her.

Lexi

Lexi a few days before her 14th birthday.

Our time left together is getting short, but we’re celebrating every moment of it. Lexi is my girl, and I love her to the ends of the earth and back.

Why don’t you get a real/better/higher-paying job?

“Mini pens” by Valerie Everett, used under a Creative Commons license.

Coming out of a writing retreat or conference is always difficult. The transition from being surrounded by writers who understand the struggle (of writing, of creating a life conducive to writing, of getting published) to people who don’t feels like an extreme version of jet lag. (It’s the same when I come home from a Star Wars convention and have to get back into the swing of interacting with people who won’t get my references to Thracken Sal-Solo.)

This transition is made more difficult by the fact that I often feel like it’s impossible to communicate my experiences in these spheres to the people I’m closest to. Namely, my family. To be clear, I am NOT blaming my family for this communication barrier. I’m not mad or upset at anyone I’m related to (at the moment… ;p). It’s just difficult to express certain writing things to non-writers. I could try harder. And maybe I should try harder, but I never seem to have the energy.

I can’t tell you when I first knew I wanted to be a writer. Of course at various times in my childhood I wanted to be a veterinarian, a country music star, a NASCAR driver, and the first woman to land on the moon, but I was always writing. I don’t remember ever not wanting to write.

As I grew up, the desire to have a career as a writer solidified in my soul, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. I’ve built my life around writing. I have two degrees in creative writing, and I’ve been careful to find writing-adjacent jobs to keep me sane. Unfortunately writing and writing-adjacent jobs like being a bookseller do not generally make one rich.

I’m okay with that. Success to me doesn’t equal a nice house in a flashy neighborhood or a brand new BMW 678i (am a yuppy)*. Success to me is being able to write. Success is every single time someone tells me one of my stories touched them. Success is making the world a better place through art.

No one in my family really understands this, and that’s not a criticism or complaint. Everyone in my family is creative in some way, and my parents always encouraged my creative pursuits. The disconnect comes in me wanting to make writing a career and not just a hobby. Really, I can’t blame them.

I’m the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university. I’m the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree. And my parents worked really really hard to give me the opportunity to go to college. They paid for most of my undergraduate degree, leaving me with only moderately crushing debt instead of overwhelmingly crushing debt. I was always the smart one in the family, the one who would become a doctor or a scientist or something.

But in this as in everything, I am my father’s daughter, and I didn’t follow the plan. Instead of becoming a chemist or a linguist (two potential career options I explored early on), I majored in creative writing and then proceeded to work a series of low paying jobs ranging from AmeriCorps volunteer to a glorified customer service rep at a library while I pounded away at first one book and then another on my quest for literary stardom (or something).

Maybe publications should come with certificates of achievement. Certificate of achievement template | designed by Vexels

“Why don’t you look for a higher paying job?” my mom asks me frequently. Or, “When are you going to look for a better job?” It’s not that she thinks I’m lazy or unmotivated, it’s that she thinks I can do better. And yes, I can, but that might mean taking time away from writing, and I’m not willing to do that. I’d rather be an artist scraping by than have a fancy house and cars and not have time or energy to write.

My grandmother was palpably disappointed when I quit my full-time library job and dropped out of library school (though she was less disappointed when she realized I had several jobs already lined up and wasn’t just going to be a stay-at-home bum).

Again, no one is asking me these questions because they think I’m lazy or stupid or can’t get my shit together (though yeah, sometimes I cannot get my shit together). It’s because they just don’t understand why I don’t want a normal job with a normal (i.e. above poverty level) salary where I can get my two weeks of vacation and have a 401k and just, you know, write on the weekends or something.

This also means that it’s sometimes difficult to share accomplishments from my writing life, because no one in my family knows what they mean or why they matter. Again, that’s not a criticism or complaint, it’s a communication barrier. Sometimes I feel like I’m on a different planet, and the commute back to Earth is a killer.

I love my family, and I recognize how lucky I am to have them. Not just my parents, but my brother,** my grandparents, and my in-laws are wonderful people whom I know I can count on when the shit hits the fan. My parents never discouraged me from writing, they just encouraged me to maybe think about doing something else to make money while I write (which is good advice, it really is, I’m just too stubborn to follow it).

Most of the time, I don’t care that my mom doesn’t know what the Pushcart Prize is. Most of the time, I can deal with the writing life grind no problem. But every now and then, it feels a little bit lonely not being able to talk about these things with my family. It’s hard to explain writer’s block to someone who’s never experienced it. Even if they’re sympathetic, they can’t quite get it the way other writers can. It’s like we’re speaking different languages, and even though we can communicate the basics, some things get lost in translation.

Again, I really want to reiterate that I’m not complaining or upset by this. It is what it is. I still love my family, and they still love me. That’s far more important than them knowing the latest small press trends.


*This is an inside joke my dad and I have about BMW drivers being various levels of yuppy.

**DON’T LET THAT GO TO YOUR HEAD, KYLE.