There but for The Grace of Dog
My mother loved dogs.
So much so that when she got really sick—when death was no longer an abstract what-if after her stem-cell transplant—she confessed to me that the ashes of Ginger, her beloved chocolate-brown dachshund, were still in a tiny wooden box, wrapped in a blanket, tucked away in a dresser drawer at the foot of her bed.
“I couldn’t say goodbye,” Mom explained from her wheelchair one afternoon. “I don’t want Ginger to be alone.”
We sat there as her oxygen machine let out its rhythmic sighs. Loss, I realized, isn’t the same as letting go.
During her final months, my mother and I lived together in an Airbnb apartment near the Los Angeles hospital that offered the cutting-edge treatments she couldn’t get back home. I brought my dog, Greta, to stay with us, hoping her soulful eyes and chopstick legs would be our one bright spot, that her wagging, Whippet tail would soften the rough edges of our days.
Mom liked to say Greta was a “Velcro dog” — she stuck close to me and was easily spooked. In those first few days of living together, Greta appeared uneasy. All the contraptions of my mother’s illness were suspect, like the puffing oxygen machine or the way my mother’s walker dragged across the floor.
At first, I worried bringing Greta was a mistake. I feared her shyness was making Mom feel even more alienated.
“I hate who I’ve become,” she once cried, surveying the kitchen table crowded with orange pill bottles, syringes and Zip-Locs full of bandages.
When a young girl at the grocery store gaped at my mother’s moon-shaped face and swollen eyes, I worried that back in our apartment Greta only reinforced my mother’s fear that she was something to be avoided.
“I’m like Quasimodo,” she said with her signature smirk.
But slowly—and then seemingly all at once—Greta became Mom’s guardian. She escorted my mother’s every move around the apartment, and monitored the visiting home nurses, sniffing their clipboards and growling low. During weekly physical therapy sessions, Greta would perch herself on the bed while the therapist massaged my mother’s wooden muscles and swollen legs.
Then most unbelievably to me, Greta began cuddling close to Mom at bedtime, sleeping by her side until morning as the oxygen machine heaved on. Best of all, Greta kissed my mother’s hands, licking the unsettling black bruises as if they weren’t there.
My mother died a month later. When I held the box that contained her ashes I felt that same pang—I didn’t want her to be left alone. So, I went to her bedroom dresser and found the little box wrapped in a heart-print blanket. I poured Ginger’s remains into the same copper urn that held my mother’s. We scattered them together under a grove of date palms, just as she had wanted.
In the end, my dog had made it easier for my mother to live, but in death, her dog made it easier for me to let go.