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: Clematis in full bloom

Growing up, my mom had a purple clematis in our front yard. Every year it would grow up our porch railing. Along with the johnny jump-ups that popped up every spring, the clematis was my favorite flower.

When I rented my first house, I bought a clematis bulb and grew it in a pot for a few years. It did okay, and I transplanted it to my yard when we bought our house. It’s grown exponentially over the past three years! It’s now a very happy plant, and every spring when it blooms it reminds me of home.

a purple clematis vine

What flowers or plants remind you of home?

On home and being homesick

Pittsburgh has been my adopted city for more than a decade now—for basically my entire adult life. I love the city’s geography, the number and quality of parks and cultural attractions, my job at the library, and the comfort that comes with extreme familiarity.

But I still get homesick.

My family is from Coatesville, a little steel town across the state from Pittsburgh, about 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia. Coatesville shares many similarities with Pittsburgh, and that’s probably why I’m so comfortable here. Both are steel towns that suffered greatly when the steel industry crashed. Both have pockets of poverty that stand in sharp contrast to wealthier areas. Both have a working class feel, even though Pittsburgh’s economy has moved to healthcare and tech.

A Wawa coffee mug

Nothing says “home” to me like Wawa.

Pittsburgh, however, doesn’t have an operating steel mill, though there’s one nearby in Braddock (I know it’s strange to feel nostalgic for a mill–and yet, I do). Pittsburgh does not have cream chipped beef or shoo-fly pie or Philly cheese steaks (don’t be fooled by the poor imitations you find at otherwise very good hoagie shops). Until fairly recently you couldn’t get Tasty Kakes in Pittsburgh food stores. Pittsburgh still doesn’t have a Wawa—think Sheetz, but so, so much better.

When I was kid, my family did a lot of day trips to air shows, NASCAR races, and gun ranges. Each of those trips began with a stop at Wawa, where we’d stock up on Gatorade, foot-long hoagies, and various kinds of Tasty Kakes for the day. My mom would often pick up Wawa hoagies on her way home from work if she didn’t feel like cooking or there just wasn’t time. (As I type this I’m drinking coffee from a Wawa mug in a bagel shop near my work.)

And while there are a few Dairy Queens around, they aren’t the old-fashioned kind where you order ice cream through a window and eat it on a picnic table outside. You have to go inside to order, and the only seating is also indoors. That always feels strange to me—eating ice cream in a heavily air-conditioned room instead of outside, where you have to eat fast, before it melts all over your hand.

In the summer we’d ride our bikes to DQ, get ice cream, and ride home. That same DQ was where my grandparents would take us after dinner when were little, and we’d sit by the train tracks to watch the SEPTA trains fly by.

Coatesville is right next to Lancaster, which has a large Amish population. My family itself is part Pennsylvania Dutch, and those foods are a large part of what home means to me: shoo-fly pie, pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day for luck, and creamed chipped beef over toast. Recently I’ve discovered a source of shoo-fly pie at a local farmer’s market, but it’s not quite the same.

But even if Pittsburgh did have all these things, it wouldn’t matter, because the biggest thing Pittsburgh is missing is my family. Lukens Steel, Wawa, Dairy Queen, Tasty Kakes—these all have meaning to me because I shared them with people I love, and who love me.

I love Pittsburgh and my life here, but I will always think of Coatesville as home.