"Dashes to Ashes," Sequoya Review

April 2020, Available Here

Dashes to Ashes

By Keily Blair

            She dashed into my aunt’s dining room sometime in December of 2006. It was long before I had even completed a sentence. She cleared the baby gate set in place for her, as though stubby corgi legs and a recent spay couldn’t hinder her from reaching me. My own wounds had only recently healed, shallow knife wounds that would fade in years, but back then had meant a nice week-long stay at the Parkridge Valley behavioral health facility. I think my grin nearly split my face when I reached down to meet her.

            It was August of 2019 when her mind finally left. Two years prior, I’d been shocked by the idea of “dog dementia.” I’d seen Alzheimer’s in humans. It ate away at my great-grandmother until she could no longer eat on her own. My family had collapsed in their grief, and I’d been unable to comfort them. Grief eluded me through the deaths of several relatives, classmates, and friends. It was a language I couldn’t comprehend.

            It found me with her. It sparked as fear and smoldered over the years as she lost more and more of herself. Some days she’d wander the house, scratching at empty bedroom doors for my mom to let her out. There’d be a faraway look in her eyes. Her breaths would come in frightened pants like they always did during thunderstorms and fireworks displays. She’d forget the commands we carefully went over in her puppy years, the ones that I’d boasted she had learned faster than any dog I’d seen.

            When a person has Alzheimer’s, people feel sympathy for their loved ones. It scares people so much that they consume whatever the media and doctors say is best to stop it, though nothing has been proven. There’s a bunch of movies and TV shows about it that leave people in tears as fictional characters fade away.  I recall another of my great-grandmothers began to think her own daughter was her sister, and it broke her and everyone around her.

            People wanted to know what was wrong with her. “Why is she acting like that?” or “Does she need to go outside?” Explaining became exhausting, especially when the usual response was more like sound than empathy or sympathy, “Aww, poor thing!” Some people just laughed like her confused, panicked actions were the quirky antics of a senior dog.

            How could they have known she was my best friend? That one day, she’d stop recognizing everyone besides me? That the entire world would terrify her? That I’d have to make the choice to end my best friend’s life?

            I walked into a classroom the Tuesday after, having survived two classes knowing she wasn’t waiting at home to jump on me and whine like I’d been gone months, not hours. I hadn’t broken until then, not really, but something about the quiet of the classroom brought back the sound of her yelp when the sedative entered her. It conjured an image of her on the floor, tongue lolling about as the sedative worked its way through her. The guilt of leaving her in such a state finally filled me, and I finally knew what grief was. I told my professor, “I can’t do this.”

            My professor excused my behavior to my group. “She had a bad day yesterday.”

            Her body was still lying in wait to be cremated when my parents and the rest of the family dried their eyes and forgot her the way she forgot them. Except there wasn’t anything eating away at their cognitive function, nothing to slow down their memories. They talked about the simple things in their lives, the worries that I didn’t have enough room for. I’d choke out my words on her, and they’d patiently wait for my sentence to end before asking their questions.

            “How’s school going?”

            “How have you been?”

            Of course, they didn’t hold her every time the kids in high school picked on them. They never had a point where the only excellent thing in life was coming home to a stubby, playful black corgi mix whimpering and wiggling, tail wagging in an erratic blur. They didn’t break down into tears, only for her to trot over and nudge and lick their faces until they stopped.

            They never had a moment where their only friend in the entire world was her.

            So they didn’t spend all their time wondering if her life had been “good enough.” They didn’t think about the white that suddenly peppered her black fur. They didn’t think about whether or not her cheap, six-ingredient diet caused her brain to expire before her body, or if she had enough exercise and playtime to ward off the disease. They didn’t wonder if the Neutricks or Senilife the vet sold them would’ve helped her hold on a little longer.

            They didn’t think about how much money the last two years had cost them, the frantic efforts to keep her alive. They didn’t throw out nearly four hundred dollars to surgery, hundreds more to monthly allergy shots and skin condition treatments. Hundreds desperately bled away into anxiety treatments, anything the vet said “might help.”

            So while they asked what color the urn was, excited over the box that would hold her remains, I was wondering how much it would weigh when I finally had her in my hands again. She was heavy, but not like I remembered. I placed the urn in the living room, only to avert my gaze and hurry past it like she was still watching me with those frantic eyes. Still, I talked about the pretty, cherry wood box with its empty picture frame for days with anyone who would listen.

            I recited the items that came with her cremation package, dutifully relaying every piece to anyone who cared about such things: a lock of fur, a clay paw print, an ink paw print, a sympathy card, and literature on pet loss.

            I left out how I opened the pouch with her fur and curled in on myself in the office, moments after laughing at some forgotten joke my fiancé and I shared. My sobs were so loud, so sudden that they immediately pulled him back to me. His eyes had been dry for days, but he held me as I spoke of her.

            Later I arranged her worn, red collar around the urn. The frame was still empty, though my fiancé had reminded me to order a photo every day since we picked her up. There was an ink paw print her vet sent me, along with a sympathy card. There was a generic message and a list of names reminiscent of my high school yearbook. Among the scrawled names likely scribbled in passing, there was a short message one of the receptionists inscribed.

            The “sorry for your loss” was noise to me. I had heard it countless times, with the same fleeting sympathy. It was the “of little Odie” that made me pause in my desire to toss the card. Instead, I placed it next to her urn.

            I told myself I’d spread her ashes when she was gone, but I haven’t found a place worthy of her.