Grief, Joy, and my Intense and Fickle Love
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Zoe Weil first came into my life after she read my essay about how walking my neighbor’s dog had helped me heal from head and brain injury—and how, after several years, when they moved, I thought my bloodied and torn heart would never mend. Zoe wrote to me that she understood that specific sort of anguish over the loss of a beloved dog: in her case it had been the death of Elsie.
We quickly learned we had much in common: a profound concern for the health of the planet, mutual friends, and a gigantic love of animals. Zoe is the co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education which empowers people to build a more just, healthy, and peaceful world. Watch her brilliant and inspiring TEDx Talk here about the interconnectedness of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection; the wisdom of Star Trek; and how we have a responsibility to educate our children to be solutionaries. It soon became a top-rated and most-watched talk.
She’s also the author of seven books, most recently The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries. And she has a wonderful monthly blog with Psychology Today called Becoming a Solutionary bursting with wisdom, insight, and sometimes painful truths on the state of our world along with practical suggestions on how to move us to a better place.
I greatly admire Zoe’s visionary work, so I was delighted when she agreed to write about her beloved Elsie for Beyond. She explores their relationship with her trademark candor and compassion, delving into the glorious expansiveness of love as well as the sometimes measure and inequality of it that many of us do our best to shy away from. As with all of Zoe’s work, it allowed me to see the world from a fresh and enlivening perspective. And it got me thinking: How much are we willing to love?
Grief, Joy, and my Intense and Fickle Love
We were supposed to go camping that Labor Day weekend, but the remnants of a hurricane were heading our way, so we bailed on our plans. Then my husband, Edwin, said he needed to go into work briefly. Disappointed that not only had we canceled our trip, but also that he would now be leaving to treat a cat at the animal clinic where he worked as a veterinarian, I whined, “We’re not even supposed to be here, and now you’re going to work.”
About an hour later he called to ask if I wanted another dog. I absolutely did not. We had three dogs already, two of whom were very old and required a lot of care. But my otherwise even-tempered husband sounded so eager, and it was a long, rainy weekend, so I said we could give her a try. What had transpired in the brief time that he was at the clinic was this: a volunteer had come to pick up a 6-month old stray to transfer her to a shelter for adoption, and en route out the door, in the crowded treatment room, the dog made a beeline to Edwin, colliding with him. Edwin was instantly smitten.
On the drive to our house, he began calling her Little Cupcake. When she arrived, after tentatively being greeted by the other dogs, she plopped herself down on the living room rug as if to say “I’m home.” And thus began the greatest dog love affair of my life – a life lived with many dogs over many years.
It took us weeks to give Little Cupcake a more suitable name, but we didn’t stray far from Edwin’s first inclination. We named her Elsie, or L.C., short for Little Cupcake. And then, over the course of a couple of months, I fell so deeply in love with Elsie that I became worried I might start to love the others less, especially Ruby, who was my favorite at the time. And that’s what happened. I pretended to love Ruby as much as ever, but I knew the truth.
My love for Elsie felt like my secret joy and my secret shame. How could I be so fickle and stingy with my love? Is this what affairs are like? I wondered. I was curious how many parents had favorites among their children, and how they went about hiding their feelings if they did. I felt grateful we’d only had one child ourselves.
A 30-pound dog, we expected Elsie to live well into her teens, but she was only nine when she was struck with squamous cell carcinoma in her mouth, an aggressive cancer with a terrible prognosis. We did everything possible to cure her, making weekly 5-hour trips to Boston for radiation treatments, but that vicious cancer took her anyway in less than half a year.
I’ve lost other loved ones to cancer – my beloved father when he was 58 and my best friend Jayne when she was 50. Both times I wondered how I would endure the grief. When Elsie died, the loss was overwhelming. No one had ever stared so soulfully into my eyes. No one had cried with such unremitting joy upon my return from a trip. No one had given me hugs at every opportunity or held onto my arms so tightly in an embrace as she did. And absolutely no one had ever anticipated my wakefulness in the morning and lay staring at me so that the first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was the beautiful face of someone who adored me. And all that love that she showered upon me every day of her life was equaled by the love I felt for her.
The last day of Elsie’s life I brought her down to the ocean at low tide, and she lay on the damp seaweed as I sat on a rock by her side for her final hours. To this day, I cannot see that rock without remembering the agony of her death and the almost unbearable pain of covering her soft, beautiful body with earth as we buried her in our backyard. Edwin etched her name and the dates of her life onto a big rectangular stone to mark her grave, adding “Beloved Little Cupcake.”
Day after day, I wept. “Do you think we’ll ever be happy again?” I asked Edwin, leaking tears inconsolably. He promised me we would, but I wasn’t sure I believed him. It didn’t matter that our other dogs were in the bed with us. The bed was empty without Elsie. It didn’t matter that they, too, were beloved members of our family. They weren’t Elsie.
We planted a smokebush on her grave, a larger memorial than usual, which meant that we had to water it every day or two. This felt like a curse because every time I approached that shrub I’d have to suppress the wails that wanted to erupt when I’d think of her perfect stout body with its velvety fur decaying under the earth. There was no word to describe the combination of sorrow and fury I felt at the capriciousness and injustice of cancer that kept taking away my loved ones, first my dad, then Jayne, and now my sweetest perfect girl, Elsie.
As time went by I began to cry less often, which I remembered was how it worked. When my father died, I cried so much I wondered how my body could produce so many tears. I sobbed at traffic lights. I woke weeping. Then, many months later, I realized I hadn’t cried in a week. More time passed, and I realized I hadn’t cried in a month. Now, 37 years later, I can sometimes go a couple of years without crying about his horrible death and that terrible loss.
After Elsie died, it seemed unlikely to me that I would find that sort of love again, but five months later, Edwin and I were ready to adopt another dog. We began tentatively to look at local shelter websites. And then I saw her: a 20-pound mix of a dozen breeds brought to Maine from an overburdened shelter in Georgia. She had gigantic ears in different colors and a big black spot on her right hip.
I went to meet her, and when the shelter worker introduced her to me she ran so fast into my arms that she rammed my face with her nose, just like Elsie had done with Edwin. There it was: the beginning of love.
When I brought her home for her three-day trial period with our other dogs, Edwin knew within seconds that she would be ours, and we hers. He came up with the name Poppy, which fit her exuberant nature. The old dogs we’d had when we adopted Elsie had long since passed away, and another dog had joined us in the intervening time – Hershel, a fluffy little dog who’d been left by the road tied to a tree – so we were a family with three dogs again: Ruby, Hershel, and now Poppy.
When we adopted her, Poppy couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs. A year old, she had no concept of relieving herself outside instead of inside. She was unable to jump into the back of my small car or up onto our bed. Ruby and Hershel had helped her learn to walk downstairs, go to the bathroom outside, jump into the car and onto the bed, where she claimed the spot between our heads. She became gloriously, irrepressibly happy virtually all the time, and she wanted to share that joy through seemingly endless play.
Fifteen-year-old Ruby let Poppy know when enough was enough, but Ruby died seven months after we adopted Poppy, and little Hershel became the sole object of Poppy’s attention. She drove him crazy, and we realized that Poppy needed a playmate closer to her age.
We found a four-month old pup at a shelter a couple of hours away. Accustomed only to other dogs, she cowered when she met us, whimpering as she took her time slowly inching over. How different this greeting was from Elsie or Poppy. She cried the whole way home from the shelter, inconsolable at losing her shelter pack. But soon enough, she glommed onto Poppy, and the two became best buddies. We named her Pippin and referred to her as Poppy's puppy. I had no expectation, or need, to love her as much as I loved Poppy.
Like Elsie, we soon discovered that Pippin had gigantic feelings. When we went away for two weeks, leaving our dogs with our housesitter whom they had come to love, she cried out for 30 minutes upon our return. If I go downstairs to do the laundry, she whines and wags her whole body when I come back up a couple of minutes later. She loves me the way Elsie loved me, more than I could possibly deserve. She also wraps her arms around mine to give me hugs, also reminiscent of Elsie. But much as I love her, and I truly love her, it’s not as much as I loved Elsie or love Poppy.
Why is that? What is it about love that leads so many of us to place it on a scale? Where does this favoritism come from? Why did I mention above that Jayne was my best friend instead of just saying dear friend? Why couldn’t I have loved Ruby as much as I always had after we adopted Elsie? Why did my intense love for Ruby fade into a more subdued love? Why couldn’t I have just loved them equally? And now, why do I sometimes compare Poppy and Pippin a wee bit unfavorably to Elsie? If I speak my comparisons out loud about Pippin, Edwin agrees. If I speak them about Poppy, he tells me I’m not being fair. That’s because for both of us, Poppy has filled the Elsie-sized hole in our hearts, and Edwin doesn’t like it when I imply anything negative about that perfect love.
Would opening my heart so wide that I love them all as passionately as I loved Elsie simply be too much to bear as we lose our animals over and over again? It’s so much easier to mourn for a week or a month than forever. I still avoid looking at or visiting Elsie’s grave – which I can see from our bedroom window – because even though it’s been five years since she was diagnosed with that vicious cancer, I still ache for her, and I don’t want to relive the pain of losing her if I can avoid it. If the extent of grief is in direct proportion to the level of love, loving so much is dangerous indeed. Why love so deeply at all when the loss can be so debilitating? Why not love them all more manageably with warm, gentle, abiding, but not utterly overwhelming love?
Hershel is aging, thirteen as I write this. So far, I’ve mentioned him only in passing, primarily so Pippin’s adoption made sense. Did you notice that? Did you have to ask yourself just now, “Who’s Hershel again?” Just as with Pippin, I love Hershel very much, but not the way I love Poppy or loved Elsie – except in moments when I choose to connect deeply with him and feel my heart fill up and up and up. But if I’m honest, I don’t want to love him that much. I don’t want to face more grief. At least with animals, one expansive, overwhelming love at a time is all I seem to be able to experience and endure.
What I loved most about this post were the questions raised.
WHY do we helplessly love some creatures so much more than others? WHY do we form these intense relationships with our pets when we KNOW they will likely die before us and it will feel like the worst thing that ever happened? And is it possible to love all creatures equally?
I know that to love all of creation without preference or favoritism is to be enlightened or god-like. And I can imagine how wonderful it would feel—to totally delight in every living being that one encounters. There is also sort of guilt involved and knowing that one is falling short, when we put things on a scale and have favorites. On the other hand, having favorites is also so much fun!
I am rambling here. I love current dog friend, Minnie, so much I don't know what to do. And she really loves me. Having this intense connection with a creature of a different species is really quite bizarre. But there it is!
I can so relate to this, thank you. Tears are flowing again for my dearest little friend of all the world Fifi. We have rescued many dogs and I love them all, but Fifi was beyond compare. She was not taken by disease prematurely like Elsie was, but instead lived to a grand old age and one day just looked up at me as if to say, "I have to go now Mum" Love and miss you every day my darling girl.