This is not a bellydance post. This is about a little dog named Millie.
On Friday May 12th, we let our sweet Millie go. She woke up to Pete and I staring at her (we barely slept so we could savor her last bit of time with us). We gave her a breakfast of freshly cooked burger and then took her to a nature preserve for a final walk before heading to Smith Ridge Veterinary Center. She was happy and walked better than she had in days…weeks even. We felt the horrible pangs of, “should we do this today?” Millie had mast cell cancer. We had, over the years, treated her tumors in every possible way (except for the several thousands of dollars daily IV chemo treatment option). We had her on supplements and medication which worked well for a while, then she underwent surgery for a full tumorectomy, then a cryosurgery, then an oral chemotherapy and then another oral chemotherapy. We were out of options.
Millie was 16 years old, highly anemic, uncomfortable from a gigantic bleeding tumor but she was still– Millie. Her energy was fading, her back legs were wonky and sometimes slid out from underneath her, she had become mostly incontinent and that tumor made it hard for her to get in the right position to sleep peacefully. We wrestled for months wondering how we would know when it was “time.” A dog that can walk and shows desire for food seemed like a dog that was worth fighting for, but we began to realize and accept that she was not comfortable and her day to day joy was declining. Car rides that she used to love became stressful for her, afternoons lounging in the sun became, “take me back inside.” Her life had become bandage-changing and perking up only for meals. It was time to do the right thing for her, even though she seemed willing to live through the discomfort in order to stay with us. Millie never wanted to miss a party. Her love of life was her signature brand.
The process of letting go was incredibly sad and painful, but there was also tremendous love, beauty and gratitude for all Millie had given us. Our veterinarian/good friend was amazing on the morning we said goodbye. Millie loved being at her house and hanging out with her on our vacations so there wasn’t the usual stress of seeing “the vet” in her final moments. We sat on some blankets under a tree on a beautiful Spring day, sobbing and kissing our sweet pup. We hugged and said kind words to her and to each other. When I heard the words, “She’s passed,” I kissed her head a thousand more times and tried to think thoughts for her transition to be as peaceful as possible. Her little body, wrapped in blankets, surrounded by love.
The scene is burned into my mind forever and I beat myself up over things like, was I too early? too late? what did I regret? what would I do differently? Now, I am grieving. I don’t sleep, when I eat …it’s usually crap. I stare at photos and videos and sometimes cry hysterically without warning. I have no attention span for anything that isn’t about Millie. Typical grief stuff. Today, I am trying to process and make sense out of her life and her impact on mine. Focusing on Millie’s contributions seems a fitting way to honor her, and that’s where I want to be right now.
Dogs expand our capacity to love
Millie was a puppy mill rescue who was full of mange and suffered poor conditions. She was later adopted by a member of our family and enjoyed being a family dog– she even had a dog BFF. Sadly, her dog BFF was killed in an accident and the family situation changed so she became “dog to single guy.” That’s when I met her, visiting friends and family throughout the US on a cross-country trip. I was immediately struck by her quirks and she slept under my bed, snoring wildly all night. Near the end of our visit, my bro-in-law said, “Wouldn’t you like to take her with you?” I did, yes. But Pete was a firm, “No.” So a day later we packed up our car to continue our trip and became dog owners (ha! I won).
Millie’s charming quirks were amusing and I loved her sincere face, but I didn’t know how to bond with a dog that wouldn’t let me pet her. She loved being near us but wasn’t fond of hands. I had never been a dog owner before but I was really looking forward to the cuddles and belly rubs and ear scratches which I could only sneak in when Millie was half asleep. This lasted for at least a year. Then, over time, she gave us the green light and learned to love affection –but it was still on her terms. This was alternately frustrating and endearing. But we accepted that this is how Millie wanted to be loved. We adapted. We enjoyed her and it was an honor earning her trust. We also learned to appreciate those snugly moments a thousand times more because we earned them.
Dogs fill a void and teach us the value of presence.
Leaving NYC and moving to the burbs, I felt like the only person around who didn’t have a house and 2.5 kids. I had shag coats and rock t-shirts when everyone around me looked like they had a professionally designed wardrobe. I bellydance for the bulk of my income and that seemed to be a conversation stopper instead of a starter. Slowly, I began to find my way, stumbled upon some pockets of great community and learned to love what my state has to offer, but I still feel very “square peg” in the suburban round hole. Millie was a true companion who was impossible to feel lonely around. She was always near me. We spent so much time together that I used to tell her, “I’m going to feel lost without you when you leave me.” There is just something about the company of a dog who is, literally, always glad to be with you.
Now that she’s gone, I realize that I need to cultivate more community. I’m an introvert so I don’t really like putting myself out there but I do need people. I already feel a creeping loneliness without my girl and once I’m healed, I will do more to feed my need for companionship.
Dogs are comic relief
All it took was a funny look, an aptly timed snort, unbridled enthusiasm for a tiny little treat and I smiled or laughed –even in a crappy mood. I was just telling Pete about the time I left Brooklyn at midnight, exhausted from rehearsal, and discovered the highway was closed with a non-moving wall of traffic. As I was about to spew profanity, Millie and I both turned our heads and looked at each other. She looked positively thrilled. With her doggie smile and happy half-closed eyes looking at me, it seemed like she was saying, “This is amazing. I get MORE time in the car with one of my favorite humans.”
Dogs, near the end, will love you even more.
I know that shelters are swamped with dogs that have medical conditions or simply get too old to perform in the way that people like them to. This always made me sad, that people wouldn’t honor their commitment to an animal in the best way they could. Of course, financial restrictions are very real and I wouldn’t judge anyone for being unable to spend top dollar on expensive medications or treatment. But, if people abandon their pets because it’s no longer fun or convenient, they are missing out on a deeper level of connection.
The love that a senior dog has for his/her companion is extra special and I cannot explain how or why. Millie knew Pete and I loved her. I have no doubt about that. She knew we cleaned her messes, rubbed her head to comfort her when she didn’t know why night felt like day, she knew we cared for her when she was getting weak and that we would protect her. I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. They solidified our bond.
Millie was a dog who lived, loved, snorted, played, road-tripped and ate with gusto. I don’t know how long it takes to find joy again when a being like that leaves this earth. Pete and I are forever changed because of her.
Yesterday, Pete and I shared a moment of sadness and cried in each others arms. He suggested we go outside because it was rainbow weather. Well, the sky did not disappoint. It was the most beautiful rainbow I’ve ever seen in my life and a perfect arch. We drove to the nearby beach to admire it. Standing there, smiling and crying with Pete…under the magnificent colors, it felt like a gift. I said, very softly, so it would feel less crazy “Hi Millie.” We stayed as long as the sky performed…in spite of the chill. As I walked back to the car, a man approached us and said, “I think you’re the couple I snapped a photo of under the rainbow.” He was kind enough to share it with us. I call it Millie’s rainbow, which you’re welcome to think is a bit nuts. But I think it’s ok to be a bit nuts when your heart is hurting and you’re trying to heal. I miss my girl. I miss her terribly. If you knew her, you just might think she was capable of lighting up the sky too.