Early this morning I had a pretty legible dream about familial guilt. In its climactic scene my childhood dog walked into the room and I crouched down and hugged him for a long time. In dream-time you can usually get away with a gesture or a hint at something instead of a full fleshing-out, because your subconscious is focused on moving the plot along and patchworking these things it’s retained into some longform psychological allegory about how your mom never taught you to wipe your butt the right way, but this dream really dedicated time to the hug. My brain gave me everything it had: my fingers deep in the fur, his breathing, his heart. My cheek on his warm, elderly shoulder and those little eyelashes blinking on my neck. My bud. My guy.
He died when I was away at school, and was in declining health for a long time before that, so our relationship toward the end of his life was abbreviated. Home from Thanksgiving his face would be greyer, home for Christmas he’d be kind of deaf, home for Summer he had a tumor. And on and on until one January my dad called me to tell me that they put him down. It wasn’t terribly emotional for me — he was an old dog, the prognosis had been evident for years, and it was pleasant in a way to know that he wouldn’t be trudging through the house anymore like a sad, deteriorating cloud. My memory could buff away this period. I could put him in a Tupperware labeled “his middle years” and let him stay there forever.
But waking up from that dream this morning was fucking affecting. I haven’t thought about him in a year, probably. Haven’t missed him in even longer. But over Thanksgiving my aunt made a kind of offhanded conversational offering — “Your father should get a new dog. It’s time.” — and on some level it must’ve gotten machinery moving for me.
Had I ever mourned this family member, or had I just decided what my opinion on the matter was and then not done any of the work of processing basic emotions?
So you cast the nets and you dredge things up. See what stirs.
He’s who I whispered, “I wanna marry you,” to when I was twelve, just to see how the words would sound. Hot tears on his fur after a fight about whether my idea of formal attire was formal enough. The heavy pump of a tail against the wood floor upon making eye contact from across the room. Acknowledgment in the basest, most carnal way that you are alive and part of a family. You are pertinent and you are seen. A dog.
I don’t know that my brain was trying to tell me that I should think about my dead golden retriever so much as it was reminding me not to lose the eyelashes on the neck under all the cancer. There’s still vital and usable stuff embedded in something that’s dying, and you have to learn to let them both exist at once in a mental venn diagram. There’s the thing that was alive, there’s the reality of what’s here now instead, and then there’s the overlap area where you live. They’re both yours. Both valid, both whole, both continuous and coiling and coiling and coiling deep into the center of the seashell of your chest. Stored in whatever code we use to identify ourselves to ourselves. You are Christine because X. Because here is this memory. Here is this fur and this pulse and here is you, still breathing, and there’s your lamp that’s on and your toothbrush by the sink. It’s never punctuated finitely, and that’s fine. That’s what we learn. To just hold both and let that be enough.