Willoughby

I don’t have many words these days.

Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.

Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.

Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”

Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.

What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.

He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.

So then what does perfect mean?

Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love. Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.

Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.

I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.

I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.

I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?

Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.

We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.

“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.”
~ SYML, DIM

Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.

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
!”
~ SYML, STAY CLOSE

Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.

“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.”
~ SYML, DIM

Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.

“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . .
I will protect your light.”
~ SYML, DIM

And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.

I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.

This WEIRD Weekend

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There is still that soft breeze you can feel touching your skin and blowing gently through your hair when you go outside.

There is still that song that moves you deep inside every time you hear it.

There is still that cup of coffee you make in the morning, the exact way you like to make it.

There is still that friend you used to phone with before life got so busy.

There is still the taste of pizza–to taste again, or even just to think about for a while.

There is still that pair of running shoes, and you were so excited when you bought them, and maybe you’ve forgotten how exciting they are to you, and maybe if you scrub them off and shine them up a little, you can feel the same excitement.

There is still that one scene of Michael Scott’s, after Oscar accepts his little homemade scarecrow goodbye gift, that has made you laugh from deep in your belly time and time and time again.

There is still the sound of geese, honking you awake in the morning, on their way back to their summer home somewhere up north, honoring this strange and strong force called life.

There is still a dusty comic book sitting somewhere in a box, waiting to be rediscovered.

There is still a stranger’s real smile as you walk by each other keeping an awkward little distance because you’re pretty sure you’re supposed to right now, but my word, that smile felt close and comforting.

There is still your little kiddo’s uncontrollable laughter when the whole box of cereal spills on the floor.

There is still your hand that can feel and touch and hold your other hand, clasping, intertwining your fingers, squeezing, massaging your palms, proving for your own sake that you are still here, grounding you in the reality of life in its most beautifully basic form.

There is still your favorite game to play.

There is still your blanket you’ve been missing.

There is still a quiet trail in the woods.

There is still that YouTube video of yoga for beginners that you saved to your watchlist a while ago when you were in too much of a hurry to give the new thing a try.

There is still kombucha.

There is still that journal you’ve been meaning to start writing.

There is still the old album on your computer full of happy photos of adventures that, though “past,” are still just as real a part of your life as this present moment.

There is still the nap that you’ve wished, on every other day, that you had the time to take.

There is still the magical painting on your wall that you could just stare at.

There is still the tail-wagging, hyperventilating, zoomies-inducing excitement of your doggo that OMG YOU ARE HERE WITH ME TODAY!

There is still your comfy couch.

There is still your piano with eighty-eight wonderful keys that have always, always, always been there for you to come back to when you need to find your heart again.

There is still your best friend.

There is still a bubbly creek you could sit down and listen to.

There is still that book you’ve been looking for time to read.

There is still a warm bath to take, and I bet that eucalyptus scented Epsom salts aren’t out of stock today (I could be wrong).

There is still pen and paper, and you’ve meant to start drafting your big dream project for years now.

There is still a floor, and there are still hands and knees you can crawl on, as silly as that seems, and if you try you may find again this weird feeling, now foreign, that you used to call “play” when you were so little, so silly, and maybe actually so wise and so in touch with life.

There is still a closet you’ve been meaning to clean.

There is still that book you want to write.

There is still Winnie-the-Pooh.

There is still the old jigsaw puzzle you never opened, and maybe you don’t know just how fun those can be.

There is still your favorite shirt.

There is still intimacy–loving, comforting, caring, silly, needed, amazing intimacy.

There is still a massive, loud, rushing waterfall for you to sit and watch.

There is still that movie you’ve been meaning to watch ever since it won an Oscar four years ago.

There is still the new hairdo you’ve been wanting to try.

There is still conversation.

There is still that other career you’ve been waiting for time to research and explore.

There is still the documentary you saved to your list for some free afternoon.

There is still a letter you can write to someone who means more to you than maybe they realize.

There is still the blog you’ve been nervously waiting to start.

There is still your phone’s internet browser with, I bet, a bunch of tabs you opened to read on some hopeful but imaginary future date when you’d “have time” again.

There is still the recipe you’ve been waiting to try.

There is still a colorful and imaginative storybook or twenty-two that your little girl or little boy would love to hear you read, if you’ll let them turn the pages.

There is still a field or a pot full of flowers that have been waiting for you to see them.

There is still the friend you’ve wanted to reconnect with.

There is still a walk you can take.

There is still a meditation practice waiting to be tried.

There is still the friend who told you they’d always be there for you if you needed to talk.

There is still a mountain (big or little, it really doesn’t matter) that you’ve been waiting to climb.

There is still the language you’ve been wanting to learn.

There is still that weirdly and powerfully magical little moment where you glance outside and, look, the sun is coming out!

There is still your body, ready to wrap itself in a safe and comforting hug.

There is still life.

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