Heater, Mother of Lance

I Wish You Could Have Held on for Another Day, Part One of Two

On January 10, 2018 I walked back into a concert venue from the lobby where I was waiting for a ride. The concert was not over, but my friend wanted to leave. I walked back in because I needed to give him something, I just didn’t know what. Just a look? Just a nod of my head? Anything that would say, we did have something. He’d given me so much and I wanted him to know that I knew.

The telling of this story must begin with that moment in that concert venue. It might not make sense at first, and this will feel at times like a giant tangential ramble. But what is my soul if not a giant tangential ramble? I promise, though, that it is all so very interconnected. It is all so beautifully tethered.

First, I should issue a trigger warning: Some of what follows may be very difficult to read, especially if you have lost a beloved pet. Some of it indirectly references suicide. I will try to be as delicate as I can.

The title of this post refers to this song. I’ve been listening to it all year but didn’t really pay attention to the lyrics until about a month ago. And it speaks to so many parts of my life:

On Friday afternoon Marlo held Coco’s head while Pete and I cradled her body so that she would feel our warmth and love when she took her last breath.

Dame Eleanor Ritzford-Fitzsimons “Coco” Puffs died at 3:21 PM on January 10, 2020. She lived a very full and magical and maddening 12 years.

This is the cake Pete’s daughter made in celebration of his birthday and her life.

 

We had gathered family and friends, including Coco’s best canine friend Zuzu, to join us in our living room—I know, right? Coco had a canine friend? Old age, I suppose, softens a lot of hard edges. She had many lovable, jagged edges that I personally watched recede in the last two years. And with each one I saw a part of her go with it.

Everyone was generous to be here on such short notice. Four hours earlier the vet examined Coco’s eyes and then her nose that had been dripping blood all morning. The previous afternoon Coco bled from her backside and left a trail from the living room where she’d been sleeping all the way to the backdoor where I found her begging to go outside.

I will try not to sob as I write these details, and, again. Some of it may be hard to read. But it’s important for me and for those who loved her to remember these things, to remember why and how and when it all had to happen. WHEN. Why that day, Coco. Why that day?

The begging was only apparent in her eyes. She made no noise. She did not howl or yelp or shriek like a dolphin whose insides have been set on fire. She displayed none of her usual antics when presented with the opportunity to go outside and tell the world that she was in charge. And my god, she loved to do that. She always lurched out the back door like a mad, naked king who needed all of his subjects to know that he was ready to hang every single last one of them shitheads. He just needed to finish gnawing on a chicken leg that was bigger than his head, wipe his mouth on his sleeve, and spit in the face whatever poor servant was closest to him right then. Why do I miss that? It was awful and yet so very much her.

Coco had stopped barking or talking before Christmas. And, yes, I do mean talking. Those of you who heard her can testify. She garbled nonsense loudly and did it with such confidence that we all agreed she spoke an unknown, alien language. I once put it into Google Translate and it came back as I WANT YOU TO LOVE ME BUT FIRST I NEED TO DRIVE YOU INSANE. Not joking.

This worrisome change in behavior preceded an odor that developed at the beginning of the year. And then, her lethargy. Yes, she was 12 years old. But a dog who used to play fetch until she fell over was suddenly looking at a ball rolling across the floor, shrugging at it, and with disgusted exacerbation lying down immediately as if to say HAVE NONE OF YOU SHITHEADS HEARD OF NAPS.

Coco has always made the all caps in me come raging forth.

We took her to the vet last Tuesday morning with these concerns and agreed to some bloodwork. The vet also thought that the surgery she had on her eye in October may have caused an infection. She sent us home with a refill on the anti-inflammatory she took for arthritis, an antibiotic, and a gel to rub on her left eye. She’d call about the bloodwork, she said, the moment the results came back.

The following day I was dressed as if I was headed to a royal ball, with glass slippers and mice who’d been turned into coachmen. The day was jammed with Many Things to Do and I would not have time to shower and dress when I got home, so off to the grocery store to grab some cheese while looking slightly overdressed. What? This rag of a gown? You should see what I wear when I am buying fancy cheese. Oh, and I don’t touch groceries. I travel with a trained raccoon who wears a bowtie and leather wingtip shoes. He has a briefcase full of reusable grocery bags and a bottle of air freshener because he farts incessantly and I refuse to take the blame.

I was standing next to a giant pile of Yukon Gold potatoes at the grocery store trying to gather all the ingredients for a meal I wanted to make for Pete’s birthday. We didn’t think his kids would be with us on Saturday, January 11, his actual birthday. So we decided we’d celebrate it that night. I wanted his kids to see the birthday present I’d commissioned for him.

Pete doesn’t have a ton of photos of his kids—side note: I am Pete’s personal photographer just because taking photos is What I Do, and when someone needs a portrait of him I have a stash on my phone that I send to him. It’s the least I can do given that he patiently and long-sufferingly waits for me ALL THE TIME as I stop to take a photo of a crack in the sidewalk. One of the reasons I wanted my friend Cat to take our family portraits last fall was so that I could have someone paint his kids for him. I’ll never post photos of his kids on this site or anywhere else—their privacy is a sacred thing to me. They welcomed me into their home. Me, a very raunchy and irreverent writer who has been accused of exploiting my children to the point of endangering their lives. Their trust is very important to me.

What about my own children? Do I not care about their privacy? Do I not now the stain I will carry on my soul for eternity because I once wrote about giving my ten-month-old baby an enema. Please, do go on. I’ve got all day.

(That child talks about that invasion of her privacy three times a week to her therapist, and they are making good progress, thumbs up!)

I can’t show you the whole paintings—there are two. But if their mother gives me permission I will show you portions of them to give you an idea of what Kristina captured. She is the artist who painted Pete’s portrait last year, the portrait of me during my separation in 2012.

 

I did not give her a lot of time to finish these before his birthday. A few things went haywire last year—ha! A “few” things! Heather B. Armstrong just wrote that! An UNDERSTATEMENT. Mark this day down! I will have this date tattooed on my boob with RESISTED EXAGGERATION in all caps, maybe a nice sans serif font? And a snake underneath that! Because, oh! The shit storm that followed my last post. The intrigue! The people involved who think they are being sneaky! Someone in particular is still mad that I got my washing machine fixed in 2009 by saying that Maytag sucked on twitter, and hoo! I haven’t ever been able to carry that kind of anger around for very long, and I am watching a master at work.

She once wrote a very long piece on her website about how tasteless it was of me to feature fabric I’d bought to re-cover the cushions for the furniture on my front porch. I wonder if she’s ever looked at the state Instagram in, oh, since it started.

Was that a tangent? No. In fact, it’s important. Because even if I was as angry at someone as she is angry at me, I’d never go out of my way to say something horrible to her knowing that her dog is dying. I think most of us wouldn’t. I think most of us want to understand ourselves by understanding other people. And we, like everyone else, make mistakes. What we learn from that mistake is the most important part of why our brains took a shit and we made the mistake in the first place. Understanding other people gives us tools to understand why our brains took a left turn when it should have taken a right and we ended up crashing through the wall of a Jimmy John’s.

One of those few things that went haywire is spacing the fact that Pete’s birthday is so close to Christmas. And I am really, really bad when it comes to giving gifts. I’ve talked about this before and won’t get into it again. I mention it only because Kristina came through big time. Like a hero. Caped and radiant and sharing with me so much of her own pain that I now understand my own so much better.

Thank you, Kristina. I love you. My heart holds places for certain people in life and you are one of them.

But there I was in the grocery store looking like a mad woman in an elaborate dress sorting through potatoes when Pete texted me. The blood work on Coco had come back and it indicated pancreatitis, possibly acute. They’d have to perform some invasive procedures on her, however, in order to know for sure. And even then the prognosis could be devastating.

I am not proud that I abandoned my shopping cart — I admit, I have done this once before when I was at Costco having not heard the news that they’d expanded that specific Costco to be the biggest Costco in the world and when I turned one specific corner I suddenly could not see the horizon and had a full-on panic attack — but I starting crying so hard that my tears blurred my vision. I did not anticipate this turn of events in any way. I had to run to my car and cover my head with a blanket I keep in the backseat for Marlo. But not before a kind woman saw my chest heaving as I wept, as I tried to hide it long enough to make it through the parking lot. She grabbed my arm and lingered long enough so that I could hear her as she said, “Life is really hard sometimes.” And then she nodded at me with such kindness in her eyes. Strangers can sometimes make you want to believe in a divinity that is watching over you.

Pete and I love so many of the same things. We like to spend our time the same way. We love to linger at the dinner table after the kids have left to talk about politics and art and music and our shared lust for the exploration of life. I have to talk about one tiny little thing briefly because it will show you why I am so in love with this man: I thank six bands/solo artists in the acknowledgments section of my book. We saw three of them live last year, had tickets to see another one but had to cancel because kids sometimes need to be fed and loved? UGH. We saw another one live in 2017, and the last one no longer exists as a band. I never thought I would find a man in Utah who is as moved and inspired by music as I am, who seeks it out and can find himself paralyzed by a single note.

I found him.

Pete and I also both believe that a dog Coco’s age who has lived a life as grand as hers deserves dignity and peace. She deserves to live her final days at home, surrounded by the kids who think she is the divinity watching over them. Not on a table at the vet hooked up to an IV.

The following day is when she started bleeding. After she’d been outside for ten minutes, she came into the kitchen and I cleaned her up. The bleeding had stopped so I made her comfortable, and we decided we would see how see felt throughout the night. And to our delight she perked up a bit. She gladly ate dinner and Pete let her on the bed—this is a BIG deal, HUGE deal, BIGGER THAN AN ORANGE ON A TOOTHPICK—and we watched Amy Schumer so that I could laugh about all the very relatable things she said about menstruation. The irony of that juxtaposition itself made me laugh. And I needed to laugh.

Coco made it through the night like a champ.

Friday morning all the kids were at school and Pete was at his office downtown. I was still in my bathrobe — shut up, I work from home and a really nice bathrobe and being able to lounge around in it while working is a luxury, don’t you even suggest otherwise — furiously trying to get through some email at my desk in the basement when I realized I wanted to top off my coffee. When I got to the top of the stairs Coco was standing there…

One sec…

Okay.

She was standing there and would not let me pass. I was trying to understand what she was attempting to tell me when the smell hit me and almost knocked me over. The stench. An undeniable smell of rot and death.

I leaned down to scratch her ears and noticed the blood dripping from her nose. I don’t know how I did not drop my glass, that is something I would absolutely do. I’d make a situation like this a thousand times worse by creating a tapestry of shards of broken glass scattered underfoot. I ran back to my desk to grab my phone, and always always always I text someone before I call them. This time, there was no text. I called Pete and tried to form words. I don’t even remember what I said. I don’t even know if I was coherent.

He knew that this was urgent, and my god. That man. He has done all the heavy lifting throughout this whole experience. He called the vet to let her know what was happening and she said we needed to bring her in immediately. I rushed to get dressed as he rushed home to hold me. Not once has he hurried me through this pain. Not once has he ever tried to control or explain or “fix” my grief. Because he feels exactly like I do about that dog. The grief has ravaged him as much if not more than me.

He brought my car around to the front of the house so that Coco wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs into the garage, and I affixed her rainbow unicorn leash to her rainbow unicorn collar. That was just a tiny part of the bag of gifts I got for her birthday. She loved the squeaky skunk. She ripped all the stuffing out of a squirrel. She gnawed on the green and blue tennis balls. She performed a total smack down on a round, treat-dispensing dog toy that is supposed to stimulate her brain as she figures out how to get the treat to fall out. Except, she was Rocky Balboa at his peak and that toy was Dolph Lundgren strung out on heroin.

Pete steadied me by hugging my shoulder and pulling me closer to him. And then he took the leash and walked both of us out through the snow to the car. Coco stopped, sniffed the air, and then huffed and puffed like she always did in front of the house. To let her kingdom know the guillotine was waiting and eager. I heard it. And that’s the last time I heard it. The last time I will ever hear it.

Pete made sure neither of us slipped, and then he picked Coco up and set her in the backseat. These details. This is life. That leash and that snow and the arm of a man telling me he noticed all of it, too. He was breathing it in and holding onto what time we had left with this divinity who always watched over us.

Coco made no noise during that car ride. This is significant and that significance will become apparent. Soon.

Both Coco’s nose and her backside started bleeding when the vet entered the room. And yet. Still. She was chipper. And Coco has never been chipper in the presence of a vet, nuh uh. Nope! She normally becomes homicidal and dials up the skilled, masked crew she knows who can kidnap people to terrorize them for a few days. Instead, she was smiling. She was smiling. She grinned through all of the blood that was pooling underneath her. That nub of her tail was wagging, my god the shit people gave me for that when I brought her home 12 years ago. Do y’all remember this? I spent days uselessly trying to defend myself by scream-typing I DID NOT CHOSE TO DOCK HER TAIL. THAT WAS NOT MY CHOICE. SHE CAME INTO MY LIFE WITH THAT NUB. And sorry, guess what? Look at that nub! When she wagged it and you saw how it wagged you were incapable of escaping the memory of how you looked at life when you were a child. When a puppet made to look like a blue monster ate cookies so violently that even a hyena was embarrassed for it. And we thought that blue monster was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. We didn’t think we’d ever be able to breathe again through the laughing.

In less than two minutes of inspecting Coco’s head and chest and back, the vet told us what we already knew. This kind of bleeding was an indication of nothing but a grim and short and painful future. She knew we did not want to rob her of her nobility or grace. And then she told us we needed to act quickly.

I can’t stop listening to this song now. The lyrics, the exact way Thom Yorke wants you to feel by structuring the chords and the echo, the way the “oooh oooh” paired with the trumpet is talking to you as if from some other dimension where your dog has given her spirit to someone who needs her spunk to rule a kingdom.

There is so much more to this story, but I need to leave this here right now. I will write the rest of it tomorrow. But today the totality of the grief has made me hideously ill. I thought I had the tears under control. I am learning they control me.

I got out of bed last night after Pete had fallen asleep so that I could go downstairs to the part of the rug where I held her and felt her pulse in my hand slowly stop. I am so dramatic, I know. I am the absolute worst. But I turned on that song and my body involuntarily curled itself into a fetal position and I bawled. And I suddenly found myself whispering over and over again, “I am so sorry.”

I had no idea how much I loved that dog. I never knew that if you dropped a pebble into the depth of that love that it would never hit bottom.

……

“…the sad part is, that I will probably end up loving you without you for much longer than I loved you when I knew you.

Some people might find that strange.

But the truth of it is that the amount of love you feel for someone and the impact they have on you as a person, is in no way relative to the amount of time you have known them.”

— Ranata Suzuki

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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