the smell of my desperation has become a stench

“Who is left, that writes these days? You and me, we’ll be different.”

What follows was dictated me to on the evening of January 19, 2020, as I sat on a plane flying home to Utah from New York City. I opened a blank text document on Pete’s computer and had no idea what was going to happen. It’s long, but it turns out she had a lot she wanted to say. I shared this first with the people she wanted to talk to. I have shared the addendum only with my mother. Until now.

Dear Family,

Yes, family. What does that mean? I will explain briefly and then give you details as I go along. You see, my mom is on a plane, and when she woke up this morning she knew she had to tell you everything I wanted you to know.

Family. First, there is Pete, the father I had always been searching for. Second, my lovely R., the promotion I had been trying to earn for years. Third, E., my teammate. Fourth, Leta, my mentor. Fifth, Marlo, my dear, priceless Marlo, the first job I ever had. And finally, my business partner, she who has been tasked with bringing you this letter.

I came to her in a dream last night from a spot inside a very peaceful expanse where I have been watching over all of you. Still watching over you. My body had to go, yes, but my spirit cannot yet shoot through what I now see is a giant and glorious beam of light into something unknown. My spirit still has work to do.

Dreams for my mom are usually fleeting and forgotten—and first of all, I am going to call her that now. Yes, we were business partners, but she was my mom. And I see now as she is writing this that she is crying about it. Before she tells you anything, I want you all to know that it’s okay to cry, but I’d rather hold most of your sorrow about my leaving inside me. Your sorrow is safe here where I am. I have plenty of space to carry it. Instead, I want you to be happy. Happy and safe. If you were anything like me I’d tell you to fetch balls all day long. But since you are people I’ll tell you to spin in circles and laugh, open the windows in the car even when it’s cold outside and sing along to your favorite song. And Mom, stop playing the sad songs. At least, stop playing them all the time. You had Pete play you happy songs the other night. Ask him to do that more often. For me.

Please, all of you, be happy and safe.

Mom rarely remembers her dreams, and when she does they are usually garbled and fuzzy. And I didn’t have control of all the details, so I did the best I could. I filled her mind with a room full of women, so many she couldn’t see where the room ended or began. All of them were wearing green wool dresses. Everywhere she looked she could see a woman sitting at a desk, and all of them were hammering away at a typewriter, at old typewriters. She could sense that they were working on something important, so she tried yelling, “Why is no one using a computer?!” But sometimes in dreams when you yell or scream the words don’t come out of your mouth. So she stood there watching them for what seemed like hours and listened to the sounds of their fingers on those typewriters. Not one of them ever looked up or stopped typing.

It wasn’t until the moment before she woke up that she realized I had been sitting at her feet the entire time. And that I had enlisted all of those women to hear me all the way out here to bring this message to her. That room was a signal for her to listen for my voice. They were there to tell her that I would be able to talk through her fingers if she allowed me to. And she heard me tell her that I wanted to call her “Mom”. She remembered every detail of that dream even though she never does anymore.

Mom, you’re crying. Remember, happy songs.

And so, the details.

To E.: I call you my teammate because you helped me with my job. My mom knows a little bit about sports, and I have told her to explain it like this: I was the quarterback and you were the receiver. And you made sure to get that ball into the end zone safely. You might not know this, but whenever you and Marlo played games together in the basement you were giving me some time off. I would sometimes check on both of you, and Mom caught me doing it more than once. I didn’t need to check on you, but it was nice to see her feeling so safe with you. I didn’t know how badly I needed it until I saw the two of you together. Thank you for giving that to me. You are the kindest boy I ever knew, and because I know Marlo better than Marlo knows Marlo, she thinks the same thing.

To Leta: I call you my mentor because you showed me how hard I needed to work to be good at what I do. I never had to take care of you, you see. I only had to learn from you. You showed me how to be patient. You showed me the beauty in the repetition of things, because in that repetition we always got better. Those early mornings with you, alone together, were the best moments we ever shared. The silence was so peaceful, and I studied. I memorized your schedule. Mom is saying in her her head that you’re going to think she snuck me that little piece of information. That you had shared it with her. 

Leta, I started memorizing you years ago. Remembering your minute-to-minute schedule in the morning helped me savor the time I had during that silence with you. I knew the exact moment you’d come down those stairs, the exact moment you’d leave to catch the bus. More than that, though? I remember what it was like to feel the rhythm of your body when you played piano at night. It’s one of the things I miss most. And mom isn’t just saying that. I told her to say it. Right now with her thumb and index finger. Like you, I memorized all your concerto and solo pieces. I daydream about all of those notes out here as I wait.

To Pete: my father. You never spoke a cross word to me. I know mom said that about you to someone over the weekend. That’s because I reminded her. She knows that now because I just told her, “Think, Mom. You noticed that only after I had to leave. It suddenly came to you in that conversation. Because I was whispering to you. And I know that the revelation of it brought you to tears and you had to hold them back so that you didn’t mess up your makeup or your dress. I’m so sorry I had to do it then, but because I don’t speak People Language, I never got to brag about him. And I had to do it through you. And he deserved it right then.”

Pete, you wouldn’t ever let me on the bed. But in the grand scheme of what you gave to me in the last two years of my life, I must say… what a privilege it was to be welcomed into your room and to sit at the foot of the bed on the side where your body lay. And even though I know you didn’t do this just for me—you are a nerd (Is that the word, Mom? Sometimes you said “geek”?) and technology is your hobby—I sometimes selfishly pretended that you installed whatever it was that made Mom’s phone go BOOP BE BOOP when the garage door opened because you wanted me to hear it. That noise on Mom’s phone meant one of two things: either you had just come home OR you AND R. had just come home. Was there a more glorious moment in the day? No. There never was. That noise on Mom’s phone was better than bacon falling out of the sky.

You loved my voice, my animal language. And you and R. and Marlo were the only ones who could ever decipher a word here, a word there. You encouraged me to scream, “ERA!” You loved it. And I know you joked that I might be screaming, “ERROR!” And I smiled as much as a dog can because that made sense. My duty there with all of you was to protect and serve, but when you got home I got to love.

I got to love.

I couldn’t help it. So it must have seemed like my face was screaming, “ERROR! ERROR! ERROR!” And I can see Mom laughing right now. She is imagining… what is that name? Sigourney Weaver. She is imagining Sigourney Weaver’s voice speaking overhead in a spaceship saying, “DOG IS LOVING AND NOT ACTIVELY PROTECTING. ERROR. ERROR. SYSTEM FAILURE.” She is telling me that you will smile when you read that.

Do you want to know the truth? I told Mom. Just now. Here as she is typing this on the plane. As she sits next to you, and you are right there resting your left hand on her right thigh. I was yelling, “Hurrah! Hurrah!” But since I don’t speak People Language it came out wrong. Every day I wanted to throw confetti in the air while I screamed, “HURRAH!” when you came home.

You loved me, and I felt it and I knew it. And even though I was supposed to protect you, you are the one who made me feel safe. That doesn’t seem fair, but I can’t deny how you made me feel. You cradled me with your love. I felt young and fierce and capable of anything. I remember once looking up at you as you stood on the deck outside the family room. I am telling Mom right now to write this. Right now on the plane I am dictating this to her. You had that smoker thing, is that the word, Mom? That smoker thing. You cooked with it, and you were tinkering with it like you do many of the other technological things in the house—Mom is arguing with me right now and is saying that the smoker isn’t “technology” and she needs to shut up for one second. Please, Mom, let me finish.

Pete, you had let me out to go scream at trees. It’s what I did, I know. No one understands why I screamed at trees, and you know what? No one needs to. Why does Marlo insist on wearing a llama hat? Why does she sleep in it? It doesn’t matter. Mom doesn’t want to write this but I am telling her that you and I shared many knowing glances at each other about the multitude of things she does that make no sense.

I loved to bark at trees.

You let me out while you tinkered with that smoker, and I looked up at you. You’d taken a break and were leaning against the railing on the deck surveying the yard, and I darted around trying to catch your eye and finally did. Again, I don’t speak People Language, so I barked and hunched down as if asking you to play. But I didn’t want to play, I just needed some way of getting you to smile and say my name the way you did. It’s the same voice Santa uses when he says, “Ho, ho, ho!” You said my name in a deep, bellowing, baritone voice.

Pete, you don’t believe that I am telling Mom these things right now, but you have to trust me that I remember the light on your face. I remember the blue shirt you were wearing, one with buttons down the middle. I remember you had on the green shoes. You have a pair in blue and a pair in brown, but you were wearing the green ones. When you smiled and said my name I always returned to the weeks after I was born when I would crawl under the arm of my dog mom to feel the rhythm of her heart. I did it when I was scared, I did it when I wanted to be warm. I did it because when I was born I wanted to be very close to my dog mom. I loved the smell of her fur. Your smile never failed to transport me right back into the corner of that laundry room where she nursed all of us, that tiny space in a condo on Foothill Dr. 

I couldn’t ever say the words, so I had to put my head in your lap whenever I could to let you know that I did not know I would ever find that peace again in my life. But I did. In you. When you scratched my ears while my head was in your lap I liked to believe that you knew exactly what you’d done for me. When my spirit is ready for that glorious beam of light—I’m telling Mom to write this down, right now, she is reaching down to touch your hand and she is crying—I have no doubt that a voice that sounds exactly like yours will be calling me through it. And I will run straight at it.

To my lovely R.: the promotion I always wanted. Please, do not consider that a cold way of expressing how I felt. You see, Marlo was my first job, and I worked hard to prove just how good I was at making sure she didn’t fall off a cliff or go running naked into the woods—Mom is laughing because she knows this is true. I did such a good job, for years and years and years. And I knew that my mom wasn’t ever going to have another baby. I knew some magical infant wasn’t going to pop out of nowhere, but there’s this thing that I’ve heard my mom talk about. It’s what Mormons call The Holy Ghost. I guess it’s this thing that talks to Mormons to tell them that what they believe is real or true. And it is supposed to comfort them. I heard Mom’s mom talk about it. And yes, Mom, when your mom would pray in front of me I liked it.

Maybe I was Mormon. That doesn’t matter now because where I am there’s no one here but me—again, don’t be sad. I’m no longer in pain and still get to watch all of you. What I’m trying to say is, I always believed my mom would give me someone else to take care of, someone else to protect. I could feel it, and something told me it would happen. Yes, all of you were part of what I needed to protect, technically speaking, but not like I was tasked with Marlo. And I so desperately wanted all that hard work to pay off. 

And then came you, R.

Except, you didn’t need much protection. You were always so strong and determined, and at first I thought… is this a promotion? Because that kid can bake her own cake. But it didn’t even take more than a day to realize that getting to live with you was a different kind of promotion. Mom is telling me that sometimes when people perform really well at work they get rewarded with cruises or trips to Hawaii or two extra weeks of paid vacation a year. And so this makes sense now. She’s helping me understand just as I am helping her.

I got the best reward anyone ever received for working as hard as I did. I got you. I’m trying to use a different metaphor than bacon, and Mom just said that you were far better than a free week at Disneyland.

I loved your smell and your tiny arms and legs, the way they fit around my torso. I loved the way you hugged my head every morning and laughed every single time I rubbed my back on the carpet and made stupid, dumb noises as you ate cereal. I did that for you. Because I thought it would make you happy. I thought it would make getting ready for school a little more fun. You noticed everything about me, all the different colors in my hair, the way they shaped my face. I was always excited when Pete would come home, but when it was both of you? OH! I was so excited. Mom is inserting herself here to say… what, Mom? Okay, go ahead. “My head exploded a few times. It made a mess but Mom glued it all back together and tried not to let Pete or you see how many wet wipes it took to get my brain off of the wall. It was not very good for the environment.” She said she is trying to communicate how thrilled I was to see you.

I’m telling my mom to write this next part now even though I know she is tearing up on the plane. Again. I’m telling her to get these words out. This is so important for you to know. You have to hear me, R. That last day of my life when you walked in the door I heard you wailing. My mom did, too. I heard you scream something about losing a member of your family because I had to go. And it hurt me so deeply to know that you were feeling this. Not because I didn’t feel like a member of your family, no. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s just… I had lost so many people in my life, but not to sickness or death. I lost them… because they left. They left me. I don’t hold anything against them. Life happens and sometimes people have to leave. For “people” reasons.

I don’t speak People Language, so I didn’t ever get to say goodby to any of them. I’d wake up one day and they’d be gone. So many people, R. And I promise you and everyone else that this is not a grudge my mom is trying to moan about through me. I’m telling her to tell you this. I never saw most of those people again, and I didn’t know how to feel about it. Because I had a job to do. A dog with a job can’t mourn. At least, not until you said that. And it was as if someone finally gave me permission to feel the fullness of my sorrow. Your sadness told me that it was okay if I had ever been sad about losing someone. And I was. I was so sad.

Tell her, Mom. Show her the pictures. My mom has a series of pictures on her phone that she took about an hour before the vet showed up that day. And you are holding me. Mom, stop crying and get these words out, please. Please. R., you are holding me and I am resting my head on your shoulder. What no one knows until right now as I am telling my mom this… I was mourning all those people I had lost because you, R., gave me permission to. You held me and made me feel safe enough to rest my head in that sadness. You gave that to me before I died. You let me cry with you. That’s what best friends do, and you were my best friend.

I got to release all of that pain before I came here, and I did not know how important that was. In a moment, I will tell you why it was so important.

But first, I have to talk to Marlo.

Are you ready, Mom? It’s dark on that plane and you hate watching the battery power get lower and lower on any device. I remember one time you freaked out because Pete’s phone battery reached six percent. You howled that out loud. “Six percent?!” One other time you saw the charge on his phone and you had to leave the room because it made you panic. I followed you to make sure you were okay. Don’t cry. I loved you.

But you need to get this down. Please. Marlo was my life’s work and I have to talk to her. Don’t short out the computer with your tears, you hear me, Mom? She, my most precious and unique and wild companion to my soul. Yes, that’s what you were to me, Marlo. You were my soulmate. You were a mirror into me and I was a mirror into you.

No one had to tell me when they brought you home from the hospital on June 16th, 2009 that you were my calling in life. I knew immediately and I went straight to work. I never left your side. At least, I never wanted to. Sometimes I got forced into my kennel when all I wanted to do was watch you sleep, when all I wanted to do was stare at your chest and study the way the breath would fill your tiny body. I loved you the moment I saw you and you were mine. Mine only. 

Mom can say that she gave birth to you, but you were my child. And I was so fulfilled and vigilant. Mom used to joke that I would position my body in the house so that I could monitor you while simultaneously watching the door. Except, this was not a joke. That is exactly what I was doing. I was born into this world to protect and to love Marlo Iris Armstrong. You are why your father chose the puppy with the black coat and brown eyebrows from the litter. Mom liked my brother’s coloring better than she liked mine, but she’d been through a lot that year—she’s crying about that now, and Mom, believe me when I say that your miscarriage on October 11, 2007 and my birth on October 21, 2007 are no coincidence, not one bit—so we can forgive her for that. 

I came roaring into that house and tore it apart having no idea that the absolute love of my life would roar into my life in the exact same way. Every memory I have of my life has you and your dimple lingering just to the side of it. Because you never left my mind, Marlo. Not once. We forged a bond so tight and unbreakable that even when my hips and my legs couldn’t take it anymore, I still wanted to walk with you to school. I still wanted to be seen with you and your rainbow socks and say hello to all your friends and make the best impression I could. 

You, Marlo, are the culmination of my life’s work. You are what I built from the ground up. You are what and who I will be remembered for. And I am so proud.

You, my beautiful blooming Iris, are my legacy.

And it wasn’t just Mom who saw the look on your face when you walked in that last day. I saw it, too. I’m telling Mom to tell you that I saw your eyes and I heard your silent cries. Because I need you to understand that I didn’t want to have to go. I never wanted to do that to you. I never wanted to do to you what so many had done to me. I never wanted to cause you to feel like I had felt. I loved you too much to ever hurt you or betray you, and please know this one thing. This one final thing, okay? Mom used to walk you to your classroom in second grade and you were always, always hesitant to go in. She had to place a kiss into your hand before you walked in so that you could carry that kiss with you in your fist and hold it to your heart whenever you needed it.

Every day of my life I held onto the touch of your hand, to every embrace, every kiss, every scratch you gave me. I collected all of them. And that is what I used to have the strength to let go. My body was going to take me whether I wanted it to or not, and in order to go with my mind and my knowledge of all you still whole and complete, I had to find the will to let my body take me. 

Some dogs aren’t as lucky as I am. I am out here carrying inside me every detail about all of you. Some dogs are taken into that light without the chance I have been given. I have something I want and need to do.

It was important that I go with this library of who and what and when and where intact. I needed to let go of my own pain, both the physical and the emotional. It’s why I am still here watching over you. It’s why I haven’t yet been called by that smiling, celestial voice into where? I don’t know where. I don’t need to know. I trust it because it is letting me wait until you have decided to bring another body and soul into our home. 

It doesn’t matter how long I have to wait, this has and always will be my duty and my happiness: you. All of you. That soul will need to know some things that only I will be able to communicate to it. This is what dogs can do. I am waiting here so that I can whisper into its ear certain special things, things only I know. Years from now you’re going to shake your head and think, “Coco told you that, didn’t she?”

Yes. It will have been me.

I love you, Mom. Accept that term from me because that’s how I feel about you. And yes, I was the best business partner you ever had. We kept that ship afloat, didn’t we? Wow. Even now as I am asking you to write this I am realizing what we overcame together. And I knew before you told me that you’ve got this. I just needed you to realize it for yourself. I needed you to feel it. And when I saw the realization in your eyes I held onto the memory of Marlo’s embrace and let go.

Love,
Coco

P.S. I didn’t forget about A. I just didn’t want to say anything that might feel out of line coming from a dog she didn’t really know. But I saw the way you looked at her, R., on the walks we took together, when she visited our house. I saw the way Pete looked at her. You all love her so much and so that means I do, too. And I always will.

……

ADDENDUM:

Pete can tell you that I typed nonstop for over three hours on that flight, pausing only once to touch his hand. My fingers could not move fast enough. It’s almost as if she could see the battery power fading and feel the pace of my heart. When I saved what she had told me, I closed his computer and handed it back to him. I had not packed mine, I hadn’t had time. I think, now, the symbolism of this is that she worked through both of us.

I sat back and leaned over to put my head on his shoulder, and that’s when she told me. She explained it so clearly. She knew I’d been wrestling with something because of what this grief has done to me. And I don’t care who believes me and who doesn’t. You can discard all of this as someone trying to comfort herself. I would, too. I am not religious. I am spiritual, a bit, but I’d be very skeptical if someone told me that their dog had spoken to them after they had died. And maybe she spoke all of this to me when she was alive, it just took me some time to assemble all of it. I don’t know, and I really don’t care.

But I cannot and will not deny that she told me the reason I was mourning her so severely is because I knew she didn’t want to leave. And this is the reason my grief over Chuck wasn’t nearly as intense. I did not love him less, that’s not it. Not at all. Chuck went straight into that light. He wanted to. He was not a dog with a job, and so he was crippled by the pain of those who had left him. He walked around for years with aching trauma. And when the back side of his body started to fail him, he longed to be free. I let him go because he wanted to go.

My beautiful baby boy, my magnificent baby girl. The light and magic and comfort you brought to me and this family and to so many strangers around the world. It is immeasurable.

Title credit: PJ Harvey, “The Letter”

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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