Shortly before he died, we said the name “Lincoln” again, not sure why. Willoughby’s head turned quickly. That’s my name. That was my name. Why did you say my old name?
I don’t know what memories flooded Willoughby’s mind in that moment. Just that his head cocked differently. Maybe it brought him back one last time to visit his California family. Maybe he remembered running and playing with his human siblings before his joints got all achey. Maybe he remembered the long, confusing drive to Minnesota, after saying a tearful goodbye to everyone except his dad.
Life. A quick series of moments. Love. Adventure. Grief. Memories. Home.
Lyssi called me at work and asked if I could drive out to Hastings to meet Lincoln, see how we got along. Excited and nervous, I hopped in the car. I was so happy for Lyssi, but I also hadn’t envisioned a senior for our first dog. I thought a Vizsla or a Husky, one that would run next to me for miles and hike with us up and down mountains. Lincoln was not that.
Seconds after I stepped into their backyard, Lincoln trotted down from the deck and waddled over to me. A few sniffs, a trusting nuzzle, and he turned and walked slowly back up the stairs and inside. His work was done. He was okay with me and I was more than okay with him. We all needed each other.
“And out of the mist a tall creature does appear.
His eyes are wide and friendly, his face is full of years.
He says, ‘We’re going on a journey in my hot air balloon,
And the time is now, so we must get going soon.’”
~ Tom Rosenthal, The Boy
Hollywood is full of shit. I love watching Tom Hanks, and his movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was no exception. Until the end. I thought the plot would center more on Mr. Rogers, but it was really the story of an estranged father and son. Estranged because the father was awful. And like every family drama in Hollywood, it ended with a beautiful reconciliation. And that’s great. For everybody but me. I left the theater feeling unseen, blamed, sad.
And then this one movie happened. A cute little Netflix animation narrated by the ever subversive Ricky Gervais. Four siblings are kicked out of the house by their terribly abusive parents (I know, real kid’s movie vibes right off the bat). When they finally return home, they plot to send their parents on an adventuring vacation to whichever destinations are most likely to lead to a fatal accident. Oh, by the way, spoilers ahead and behind. After a beautiful story in which the children learn to make their own real family, they have a chance at the end to save their parents from freezing high up on a mountaintop. Having found forgiveness in their hearts, the children design a dirigible and fly up to make the rescue. Delighted, the parents jump in the dirigible and fly away. Without the children. Leaving them to die. Now of course in the movie, the Willoughby children don’t actually die. But what an honest take, finally, on the reality that some families just aren’t families and never will be. That some toxicity is too toxic. That some unhealthy is so unhealthy that there can be no healthy way. It was like this story had been created for Lyssi and me. An honest reminder that some of us have to create our own family.
And here we were, having chosen our own new last name as a fresh start, now ready to welcome the first new member of our chosen family. And so, as we learned that dogs with past lives may do best to leave their old names behind, we stumbled upon the perfect new name for the first addition to our family: Willoughby.
“And the boy says, ‘Where are we going, where are we going to?
I’m scared of the future and I’m mildly scared of you.’
The creature looked down and said, ‘Don’t be scared of the unknown.
We’re going to a place in which I have grown.’”
~ Tom Rosenthal, The Boy
Willoughby quickly worked his way so deep into our hearts that the word “family” started to make sense to me for maybe the first time. This was the sort of love we’d been missing, and I don’t think we really even knew how much.
That first nuzzle in his foster’s backyard was really our first hug. Willoughby gives the best hugs. He presses his shoulders heavily into our legs as he rests his head between our knees and just stands there. I love you and I know that you love me.
Love is the first thing I learned from Willoughby. A love of the strong, repairing, making everything okay sort.
Hugs, while plenty, weren’t all Willoughby had to offer. He loves to lay his head on my lap and gaze into my eyes, feeling my thumb gently stroke up between his eyebrows, slowly letting the lids shut. Safe and at peace.
Willoughby loved to snuggle. He’ll lean back into my chest as I curl up behind him in bed, and we’ll just doze for hours on the weekend. Sometimes I’ll pull him over, his head onto my chest, his soft furry self cradled in my arm, and we’ll lay there, maybe do some forehead kisses. And if it’s a soft enough couch, he’ll even let me lay my big human head on his kind old bones, so that I can feel like I found a home.
Losing Willoughby was hard. Sleeping at Last sings a line in one of their songs, “When we’re together it’s a holiday every night.” A few days after he died, when we were still avoiding home, crashing on our best friends’ couch, this song came on it was just too much. It was exactly Willoughby.
All Willoughby ever needs is to be together. We’ll sit under a tree as yellow leaves flutter to the ground, me with a book, Willoughby with me, and life will be just right.
“He just wants his pack to be together,” the foster had told us, and she wasn’t lying. The days we both accompanied him on a walk were the best days and put a noticeable spring in his step. When one of us would return from out and about, he could stop anxiously watching the door and come relax beside the two of us.
When I get home from work, too drained, I shut my car door and hear a throaty howl. Looking up at our old apartment window, I see a shining pair of eyes. I ride up the elevator and walk down the hall, the magnetic pull of his love a little stronger with each step. I like to tease him by turning the knob and pausing which is always followed by a metallic sounding whack as he paws at the door. I ease it open a crack and his little sniffer pokes through, happy whines. And when I step in, this entire dog is wagging and wagging and sneezing and wagging and hugging and wagging and all he needs in life is to see me.
And that is a powerful kind of love.
After Willoughby, I better recognize love that deep. I appreciate it more. And I know the gift it is to give love. I hope I will love like Willoughby.
All Willoughby needs is for us to be together. Behind the hospital, laying on the cot in the cold rain, wrapped in a blanket, his forehead inviting final kisses and more final kisses, and that smooth spot between his eyebrows, and a skull that feels so familiar nestled in between our hands. I park and walk around back, joining Lyssi to say goodbye to Willoughby, I think he is okay again. We’re together. He’s so peaceful. We’re not okay, but he is. He has us. We love you buddy. We’re not going anywhere.
“And the creature said to the boy, ‘Are you ready for the ride?’
And the boy said, ‘Yes, I think I am.’
So they sped through the hills, and over mountains they did go,
Over old wooden bridges withered from the cold,
And the boy stared out of the window and smiled at all he could see.”
~ Tom Rosenthal, The Boy
It was odd watching Willoughby explore his new Minnesota home. Sniffing room to room, looking uncertain. He found his new bed. Stepped into it, turned around, and lay down. This is good. Nights were strange. New dogs feel fragile, like oh no what have we done are we even good dog parents, but especially a senior dog. I would lay awake through the nights listening. Lots of licking, maybe allergies, maybe anxiety. Once in a while I’d hear him struggle stiffly to his feet and walk over to the side of the bed. Sniff a little. Just stand there looking at us. Who are they? What is this place? I don’t know this animal, is it going to attack one of us in the middle of the night? Then he would lay down right next to one of our bedsides on the floor and go to sleep.
Soon, and with the aid of time, kitchen scraps, and nibbles of artisan cheese, Willoughby settled into his new home with its cozy routines. And then the funniest thing happened. This fragile senior came alive. Like a puppy. Jumping for the tennis ball, chasing through doorways, and bursting out from behind the corner of the bed, everyone’s favorite hiding spot.
Willoughby loved the world. Every day really was an adventure. Every new thing was an adventure. Willoughby just wanted to be where stuff was happening. He loved to poke his head through the window and feel the cold wind against his face, wiggling his nose off and on as he took in data, and opening his mouth in a silly grin as he took in wonder and happiness.
Weather is wonderful. Blowing, biting snow is the best thing in the world, and must be run headlong into.
Willoughby loved special things, but he didn’t need special things. A treat was always as prized as a bone, because even a treat was an adventure and every day was a holiday. He loved to find new places to explore and play, and he always overestimated his own energy and just how much shock his own joints could absorb.
Sitting on the sidewalk is one of Willoughby’s favorites. It’s so exciting when a car drives by, and what an adventure to watch a person walk inside. Sometimes we can hear voices from the next parking lot over. And we can watch squirrels dart from tree to tree, just out of hunting range. And the smells on the breeze!
When Willoughby was diagnosed, we didn’t know whether we were talking weeks or months. It was weeks. In one of the middle weeks, I took a random day off to hang out with my buddy. It was April, back to hoodie weather, but still cold enough for a little snow. Willoughby and I went for a walk. He ate a lot of grass. A lot. I heard dogs do that when something isn’t feeling right in their tummy. He seemed happy enough though. When we got back to our building, he just stopped. Stopped with such gentle confidence that it was like he was telling me he truly wasn’t ready to go inside. He wasn’t done yet. We stood still listening to the world, watching the world, taking it all in. Seconds turned to minutes, and after five or ten, Willoughby’s old bones grew tired and he sat down. Needing nothing else in the world, I joined him sitting on the sidewalk. The cold breeze picked up and after a few more minutes snowflakes began to blow past, smattering our faces. Nothing more was needed. Willoughby opened his mouth into that silly grin. Felt the weather on his tongue. Squinted his eyes in satisfaction. And sat. For a long, long time.
Adventure is another thing I learned from Willoughby. That all of life is an adventure, from his old family in California to his first snowfall in Minnesota, from the scraps of Parmigiano Reggiano to the scent of summer night drives. Willoughby and I never sat on the sidewalk after that day. But I think about it all the time. He turned and winked at me, and I didn’t even notice until I played it back later. He loved his whole long life of adventure in this world, and he drank it in until the very end. He knew better than me about adventure, and I wonder sometimes if he knew what he was teaching me.
“And all of a sudden, the train it did stop.
The creature said to the boy, ‘This is where we both get off.’
And the creature said, ‘This is where I must go.’
And at the water’s edge, nothing more was said.
The boy looked at the creature, not a single tear was shed.
And the creature laid his hand upon the boy’s head,
And gave him a wink of his eye.”
~ Tom Rosenthal, The Boy
I love Willoughby. And that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve discovered about love and grief. It doesn’t end. The grief or the love. I promised I’d never leave Willoughby, and I still won’t.
Late one April night we took Willoughby to the emergency room. It had been a pretty normal day with normal life weirdness and stress and moments. There had been a highlight that morning, though, listening to SYML’s brand new album, DIM. “Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . . I’m with you always.” We weren’t ready for that night. It hit too hard, too fast, too unexpectedly. And then, after a confusing emergency room visit, it dragged on cruelly.
After sitting up with him through the night, Lyssi carried a hurting Willoughby down to the car. We drove, half blinded with tears. Watched them lift him onto a stretcher and take him away. He needs to pee, he hasn’t gone for his walk, hasn’t gone potty yet.
It was weird. Always the adventurer, Willoughby and his adrenaline had perked up again, and they weren’t sure. They called us to explain and offered to run some tests. It would take a few hours. I dropped Lyssi off at home and went to a work meeting. The phone call came sooner than I expected and the test results were brutally direct. It was time for Willoughby to go.
SYML kept playing as I drove back to the hospital. “I want some more time, I can’t give you up. One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me. More than a body, you’re more than my heart, you’re my blood. Stay with me, stay with me.” I didn’t know you can cry that hard.
In the cold rain we talk to Willoughby about what a good boy he is and about how much we love him and we promise we aren’t going anywhere, we’re right here. He’s tired, but we see peace, and we feel his love, and then something happens and his eyes suddenly get really big and then he goes to sleep.
Willoughby’s still here, really. He visits in feelings and memories. He sits with me when I write about him. He looks at me when people talk about their own loss and grief. He makes me laugh still. Sometimes we find each other again in a dream and he runs toward me through the grass like he did at that rest stop and I feel like maybe we can have him back, because while I say he’s still here, really, he’s also really not.
Grief is hard and confusing. Death is bad.
I learned about grief from Willoughby, too, one last thing. About how it’s so infuriating that the world just keeps spinning when it has really ended. How angry it is when your best thing in life, the thing that keeps you going, is taken away. How scary and painful home becomes. How heartbreakingly awkward it is when your routine should be gone, but you accidentally glance up at the window again to hear his old man bark, and then remember that you will never hear it again. How comforting it is to find it later in a video. I learned about how badly you need your closest people when bad things happen. I learned how frustrating and lonely it is when people don’t touch the pain because they think you don’t want it touched but all you want is to talk about Willoughby. I learned how confusing and disorganized and random and powerful grief is with its crashing waves.
And I learned that after all this, I will still always have Willoughby. And that I will always miss him. That’s what happens with love.
“And the creature turned around and walked slowly to the sea,
To go to a place where forever he would be,
And with one great leap, he leapt into sea,
And in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
The boy stood still, alone now on the shore.
He stared into the distance and hoped there would be more.
The yellow rose fell to the floor
And drifted away on the wind.”
~ Tom Rosenthal, The Boy
I miss you buddy. <3