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On Becoming Fluent in Dogspeak

“What’d you have for dinner?” “Meadles and nootballs,” I answered. Giggling ensued, as well as the beginning of what I later learned to be my tendency toward  spoonerisms.

Another time, the table was filled with a dozen or so packets of wrapping paper, the result of a school fundraiser when my nieces were young. We all stared in confusion because no one in the family could remember what they’d ordered. After a minute or so, the silence was broken by someone holding up two packages and saying, “I don’t remember this one more than I don’t remember this one.” What did that even mean? I still don’t know but at the time it was cause for side-splitting laughter and it came to be a phrase we used often.

On a family trip up north, someone pointed out a roadside produce stand’s sign that advertised bushel bashets of apples and pears. The next few miles had us confessing our love for college bashetball, warnings not to put all our eggs in one bashet, and declaring ourselves a bashet case over something so simple. We literally couldn’t breathe, trying to be the first one to sing A tishet, a tashet, a green and yellow bashet.

All very clear cases of you had to be there.

I always thought we were the only family that created out own lexicon but maybe it happens more often than I think. Families – whether it be those to whom we are related by blood, or groups of friends that become our chosen family – develop shortcuts to communicating. Specific words, a look, or a particular gesture become shorthand for acknowledging one another in ways the rest of the world doesn’t understand.

Losing my mom two years ago felt like losing my voice. Not my physical voice but my ability to speak the language that was closest to my heart. Not the silly words that we’d accumulated throughout the years, but the capacity to convey the irreplaceable, sometimes complicated, but always loving relationship I had with the most important person in my life.

I’m still trying to navigate the path of learning who I am since my role – my identity – as a daughter morphed from the present to the past.

On the rare occasions I’ve been able to string together a few words in the last two and a half years, I’ve written that grief is neither linear, nor segmented. I still believe that to be true.

At the end of 2019, I lost my dog to an illness that took just four days over Thanksgiving weekend to manifest, worsen, and prove fatal. Henry was the dog I got when my other dog turned 10 and I started thinking about the inevitable end that was creeping up. I knew he wouldn’t take away the pain of one day losing Indi, but he’d be a transition through a time of adjusting to life without her.

Opposite of what I’d hoped, it was Indi who helped me get through Henry’s sudden passing at 4 years old. She grieved too, going from room to room for weeks, sniffing and just wandering aimlessly through the house. I’ll never be convinced that she wasn’t looking for him.

Less than six months later when my mom died, Indi – who turned 14 two days later – was once again my comforter. Family and friends showed me infinite kindness during that time. But when time marched on and life continued, it was Indi who was still literally at my side day and night. She didn’t ask me to explain tears that came from seemingly nowhere and when I lay on the couch for hours at a time, she scooted even closer and lay with me.

Sure, she did the same thing other times, but at some point she’d become bored, want a walk, or her Greenwich Mean Time belly would deem it dinnertime. But never during times of stress. She simply didn’t leave my side.

Ask any dog owner and they’ll tell you that dogs just know. They know when something’s wrong, and when we need them even more than usual. Over time, they become versed in our language not by communicating with words but by their innate, uncanny ability to sense emotions and whatever pheromones I’m convinced we give off as a result.

Research shows that the brain rewires itself — a process called neuroplasticity — in response to emotional trauma. I truly believe that dogs are a positive part of that process. Many of us have experienced some of what are thought of as life’s more significant stressors. Indi’s been there through all of mine. When I had one miscarriage after another over several years, she was there. When I navigated life through and after divorce, she was there. When my mom died, she was there. Her presence is inextricably bound to not just those periods of grief, but to my learning to carry them. A lesson I’m still learning today.

I’ve learned that carrying grief is a process that changes over time. At first, it seems like physically and emotionally learning to carry the weight of the world. For a while, the goal is simply not to drop it. Or to be completely crushed by it.

However, as I’ve learned to carry several experiences of grief over a lifetime, they no longer remain separate, distinct entities. They have a way of morphing until the edge of one is no longer distinguishable from the edge of another. Being reminded of one instance often leads to another as they become fluid and enmeshed.

Indi has walked beside me when I struggled to carry grief, when I had to set it down to rest, and when I wanted to scream and set it on fire. She has listened to me in ways that no one else can and has been my one true companion every minute of every day for more than 16 years.

The thing about dogs is that the language thing goes both ways. Again, tell a non-dog person that you can distinguish your dog’s barks and whines and you’ll sometimes get a raised eyebrow and a yeah, sure look.

Once when she was stuck behind the couch cushion and yelped continuously, I knew she wasn’t playing. I’ll admit I kinda laughed when I saw her unhurt and wedged in, but I’d heard the fear in her “voice” and knew she was in trouble. When she howled the famous beagle arooo through the screen door, I knew she’d seen someone who had the audacity to cross in front of her house on her sidewalk. And when I heard her constant, low barking out the window, I knew someone was approaching the house and she wasn’t having it. (Unless their foot crossed the threshold, at which point even an axe murderer would be greeted with kisses and a wagging tail.)

We might not speak the same language, but we communicate every single day. 

That is, until I made the heartbreaking decision earlier this month that I needed to let her go. Her body simply would not allow her to experience enough joy anymore. I love her enough to help her regain a level of happiness I choose to believe she’s experiencing right now. I believe her joy now includes chasing both Henry and my mom who she loved to the point of squealing every time she saw her, desperately trying to find a way to convey that level of pure delight.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to learn how to carry my sadness for her passing… without her here to help me through it. It’s been almost four weeks and I still don’t know how to walk in the door and not find her on the other side of it. I don’t know how to walk around the kitchen without constantly making sure she’s not underfoot. Or how to accidentally drop food and remember I must bend over and pick it up.

Losing Indi feels like losing yet another language, and the entire reason to speak it. Because yes, I readily admit that I talked to her every single day, and often in that annoying-to-others dogspeak that sadly is sometimes sweeter than how I speak to humans.

It didn’t take long to realize after losing her that this is the first time in my life I’ve lived completely alone. I still don’t have words for the experience that feels both empty and completely consumed by her absence.

Mostly, it is unbelievably quiet.

I’ll love you forever, my sweet girl.

3 thoughts on “On Becoming Fluent in Dogspeak”

  1. I’m glad you wrote about your girl. I know your heart is broken and I’m sorry. I love the pictures, but especially the one with Henry under her neck and her behind the curtain. I love you.

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  2. So sorry for your loss, I understand how much it hurts. Indi was a wonderful dog and your beautiful ,heartfelt tribute to her was one I could relate to. Someone else is waiting for you, you just haven’t met them yet….when you are ready……take you time.💕

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  3. This is so beautiful Patricia! Today I was at my friend Judy’s home and I read it to her. She’s a dog person and immediately told me about when they had to part with Toby, their last dog. We cried together and grieved our lost animals. Thanks for writing this and sharing it. It’s a powerful way to share love. Indi is so happy that you told his story.

    Sent from my iPhone

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