I learned so much about myself from my dog and now she’s gone. December 19th, three days short of her fifteenth birthday, the same day my husband turned fifty-one, we put Ruby to sleep. We were not prepared to lose her but when she collapsed and lost control of her bowels, we would not let her suffer. We spent the entire day with her, knowing it was the last time we would look into her eyes, touch her soft fur, and feel her love. As I watched her throughout the day, I knew she was done. Her heart didn’t stop beating right away and we doubted the decision for a moment. Was she trying to tell us something? No, our girl just had a big heart. Letting her go was excruciatingly painful. My last few minutes with her are unforgettable and they wash over me as I’m writing now. As hard as it was to witness her leaving us, I knew she knew how much we loved her.
December 20th: I stay home from work and honestly can’t remember what I did all day, other than come up with a plan for our future: Andy and I would raise a guide dog, which would fail the ultimate test and be returned to us. The emptiness the day after Ruby left our life was offset briefly by a delicate white orchid plant from Ruby’s vet Dr. Chapman.
December 21st: I go into the office and everyone is thoughtful and very careful when they talk about Ruby. Everyone thinks I’m going to break but I am comforted by my plan. I tell them I’m going to raise a guide dog so that it will fail its mission. They humor my delusion. I don’t realize that I’m just trying to control what I can’t. Even with a plan, I am devastated. I don’t have to rush home to feed and walk Ruby so I walk from Times Square through Central Park, until I find myself inside a pet store on Lexington Avenue. A woman holds a tiny puppy and laughs when it licks her face. I see a Lab in a cage. No need for concern. I can’t imagine replacing Ruby. I continue home and walk in our apartment knowing she won’t be fast asleep on her pillows piled up at the foot of our bed. I am drawn to her portrait and give her a little kiss. It’s crazy but I don’t really care.
December 25th: Christmas Eve, we participate in the Monday night candle lighting ceremony on Rainbow Bridge, remembering Ruby, her best friend Lucy and all the homeless animals needing families to love them. It’s a wonderful place for support when your guts are hanging out and your heart feels like it’s been crushed in a car crash.
December 26th: Day after Christmas, we pass a Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant and decide to honor her memory by eating lunch there for the first time. On the menu is an unexpected delight, an expensive white wine called Conundrum that we love. It’s a sign.
When Andy and I get home, we gather all her photos and put them in the photo album we bought before Christmas. We scrutinize the images, remembering the Christmas Eve we were snowed in with our friends and their two Collies and come across a photo of Ruby from the summer and feel grateful the sailboat owner let her cruise with us up the Hudson River.
December 27th: It finally stops raining and Andy and I drive to a nature park called Poet’s Walk, Ruby’s favorite place in the world, where she sniffed and strolled every weekend for the last six years of her life. We remember how hard it became for her to walk up the last big hill. It feels good to be outdoors but it isn’t the same without her. We stop at the top of the hill, declare it “Ruby’s Black Diamond” and pretend to wait for her. I think about the agreement we made in August to merge Ruby’s ashes with her best friend Lucy’s, who died of cancer, after almost a year of chemo. After spending every day together for the last ten years, Lucy was gone and Ruby was alone for most of the day. We knew she wouldn’t last very long.
I ordered grief drops from a New Hampshire farm and started a morning ritual I wish I could experience just one more time. I would lie down next to Ruby, look into her eyes and massage her spine and hind legs. She watched me wondering if I was going to torture her, clean out her ears, blow in her face, annoyingly loving things I did to her. Then when she realized I could be trusted, her eyes would close. I cherished these moments together. They filled me up with love for the entire day. I hope they did the same for her.
December 28th: nine days after we spent our last day with Ruby, we feel her presence. Wistfully, I sense a shadow sweep past our kitchen window, which sends chills down my spine. It’s unseasonably warm weather for Christmas and Andy feels her sitting next to him while he barbeques lamb chops in the backyard, with that hopeful look on her face, willing some meaty goodness is going to come her way.
December 29th: I can’t stop weeping as I read and rewrite Ruby’s Time. We’ve just come home from a merry dinner party and she is not waiting for us at the window we built especially for her. We miss her instantly as we unlock the door. I’m trying to let go of the sadness. When we climb into bed, we allow ourselves to imagine that she’s lying between us, waiting for the perfect moment to plant a kiss on my husband’s chin.
December 30th: I dream about Ruby but she looks like a cross between a Lab and a deer. I am in her body as we come across a deer eating food from our compost. The deer is clearly ill. I’m so grateful to see her again. I experience the happy feeling of coming home from work and seeing her smiling face.
December 31st: I talk to her portrait. We hired a very expensive photographer to take pictures of her two years ago, when she was twelve going on thirteen. At the time, we wondered if we were schmucks paying more than I care to admit for a photo session; we knew we were self-indulgent. Now we can’t wait to order more copies from the contact sheets. What I confess to Ruby’s portrait is that I want to let go a little bit, shift from depressive weepy to reflective calm; I want to honor her memory and wonderful life. I can’t control my feelings as much as I try. The void is deep and wide. The hole in my heart reminds me of my mother’s death. The pain is not eased by the white chocolate cake I inhale, while my husband is out of the house recording a song he wrote before Ruby’s illness took us by surprise. “Better than Words Can Ever Say” is a love song written by a man who was afraid of dogs when he met us. How lucky he was to find us. How lucky were we to be found.
January 1st: It’s the first day of the New Year without Ruby. I’m feeling sorry for myself, heartbroken and missing her face and optimism. We were together for such a long time and had such great adventures. I have a dialogue with her in my head. I tell her that the day I found her in the pet store changed the course of my life. I didn’t want a dog until she crawled into my lap and rested her head on my thigh. Something felt so right between us.
January 2nd: And I laugh for the first time since her death. I remember how Ruby was indignant when she didn’t get what she wanted. The expression on her face was unmistakable. She let us know she was unhappy and it always made us laugh. Ruby loved like a Lab. She loved dinner parties and licking escargot oil out of the shell. She was also territorial and more than once reared her flawed vicious self to a few of our friend’s dogs, even she and Lucy would occasionally go at it. But most of the time she secured her place under our dining room table, signaling to doggie guests to keep their distance. If scraps fell from above, they were hers.
January 3rd, we pick up Ruby’s ashes at the vet’s office and while she is with us again, I’m really missing my connection to her. I play back the last 24 hours of her life:
December 18th – It’s 5pm and I’m at a Town Hall meeting in the office. I have my cell phone with me because I’m worried about Ruby. When I left the apartment earlier today, I sense something is wrong, despite a trip to the vet last week that resulted in mildly elevated levels in her kidney and liver but nothing really unusual for an old dog. When my phone rings, I don’t recognize the phone number but pick it up quickly and quietly say ‘hello.’ Dr. Chapman, Ruby’s vet, tells me she collapsed on the street and that our dog walker carried her to the office. I run to mine, approving the tests she recommends. I hesitate leaving for about 10 seconds, while I’m listening to our vet, who sounds concerned. Then I grab my coat and rush out the door, hoping to find a cab but wind up on the subway. I leave a message for Andy as I run from 86th Street and Lexington Avenue to the vet’s office at 84th and Third. Our dog walker and her boyfriend sit in the waiting room trying to remain calm. I talk to them for a few minutes until the reality hits me, ‘what the hell am I doing out here, I should be with Ruby.’ In the examining room she’s on her back, looking frightened and very vulnerable. When she sees me, she settles a bit as the vet performs the ultrasound; Ruby does not have cancer but the clean bill of health leads our vet to a prognosis, potentially more complicated. Ruby might have a brain tumor, an MRI is recommended, which I don’t realize at the time requires general anesthesia. We’re all concerned Ruby will not be able to walk when we lift her off the table to the ground, but she does. I follow her as she high tails it into the waiting room happy to see Stacey and Jim. They explain what an MRI requires. I’m clear that putting her through this type of test at her age is not going to happen but agree to meet with a neurologist the next morning. We leave the office for our apartment 3 blocks away. Ruby walks very slowly and I see Andy crossing the street to meet us. When we arrive at our building I wonder if she is going to make it down the steps and feel optimistic when she does. Once inside the apartment, she takes a drink, turns her nose up at the food sitting in her bowl since breakfast and lies down in the living room. Her eating habits have been finicky for the past few weeks. We try to make her comfortable. Andy comes back from the supermarket with filet mignon, broils it and Ruby seems engaged in steak for dinner. I hand feed it to her. It’s now 4 hours since she’s been rushed to the vet’s office. She needs to go out for her final walk and I take my cell phone with me. She steps off the curb to do her business and collapses, losing control of her bowels. I call Andy, who rushes down and carries her back inside. I sleep on the floor by her side all night long, not really accepting that it is probably our last night together. I calculate we’ve been together give or take 5,400 days and nights, somewhere near 780 weeks.
It’s December 19th, Tuesday morning. I call the neurologist, who tells me not to let her suffer, which is what I want to hear. Ruby is lying on the rug when I reach for my cell phone and record her last photograph: her spirit is quiet, vivid and elegant. Her head rests on her fleecy bed and if you look closely, Andy’s hand touches her back, letting her know he is there for her; the warmth of her last sun in life shines in the window. Those last few hours, so beautiful and excruciatingly painful, are illuminated in a halo of gold.
I’m not in the photo but she is looking at me. I know this is the end and I believe she does too. I can’t breathe thinking about it now. It is impossible to imagine not seeing her again. There is still time to linger. I walk out of the room for a second and when I come back, she’s moved for the first time that day, settled in by Andy’s feet, closer to the sun. Nothing can prepare me for the loss.
Ruby’s tongue is cold as she kisses me for the last time. She tastes my tears and I feel her enter my heart. I travel back in time, over fourteen years; Ruby is a rambunctious 6 month old puppy. Speeding home on the Santa Monica Freeway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the hot pink sunset falling into the ocean; Ruby keeps jumping, squirming out of the passenger seat, insistent on kissing me. I conclude the situation dangerous, and the tape in my mind is judgmental, ‘she’s an excessive kisser, too affectionate.’ Thankfully, the tape in Ruby’s head is only wired to give and receive love. Her gold eyes shine with purpose and she keeps coming at me, until her wet, gentle tongue connects with my nose. She looks at me like she’s won a basket full of biscuits and I learn my first lesson from her – that the concept of excessive kissing and being too affectionate is really my problem, not hers. And it was an awakening that was long overdue.
January 21st, I wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of Ruby’s bark and conclude it must have been a dream. When Andy wakes up in the morning, he tells me he heard Ruby bark last night. Instead of taking her ashes upstairs with us, we left them downstairs for the first time. Guess she was pissed.