I’m having the dreams again.
The death dreams. They started the morning Gadget died and lasted every night for a week. Then they went away for six weeks, until right before the puppies were born. This timing seems backwards — the punishing sadness of death right when I’m so elated over new life — but what I’m learning about grief is that often feelings that seem to be the opposite of what they “should” be are actually flip sides of the same coin.
As I mentioned last week, I’m planning to raise and train a successor to Gadget. I’ve had my eye on a very special litter of pups that was to be born New Year’s Day.
But the litter arrived two days early. Maybe there’s a puppy as eager to meet me as I am to meet him? I got an email from the breeder December 30 that seven bouncing baby bouvs had arrived — five boys (picture above) and two girls. I’d been eagerly anticipating this litter since before I knew Gadget would not be here to help me raise the pup. When I heard the puppies had indeed arrived — and early! — I was goofy with excitement. I’m already stockpiling adorable supplies.
Puppy Love, Puppy Loss
The song, “Puppy Love,” has such a happy title, but it’s actually a lament. I tasted that — lay down to sleep that night, anticipating puppy pictures, and was jerked awake three hours later to a “Gadget death dream.” The dream was about this blog.
In the dream, I was working on After Gadget, but Gadget was still alive — and dying. I’d received angry comments to a recent post. Apparently, I’d wronged someone’s aunt (it was a dream, after all). It felt vitally important that I make things right in this mythical blog. Meanwhile, Gadget was in his decline; he should have been my priority, and I felt tortured that I was neglecting him. I was struggling to simultaneously cure the blog problem and take care of Gadget’s every need.
I woke up with that awful, shaky feeling, looked for Gadget at the foot of my bed, and remembered that, of course, he wasn’t there.
Immediately after Gadget died, every night, for a week, I dreamed that Gadget was dying and needed me terribly, and also that he was dead — both felt equally true. Every morning, I jerked awake to check his breathing, his heart rate, make sure he hadn’t vomited, give him his next dose of pills. Yet, I woke up heavy with the sadness of his death — chest tight and eyes itching with tears.
Here’s where the flip sides of the coin comes in. While these two ideas seem contradictory — “Gadget’s dead,” and “I need to help Gadget now” — in fact, I think my grief-addled brain equates them. The overriding feelings in the dreams are equal parts heartache and urgency. Instead of, “He’s dead, therefore he’s beyond my help,” I land on, “He’s dead, therefore I must act now to bring him back.” The knowledge of his death actually heightens the emergency. If I can only act fast enough, do exactly the right thing, I can erase his death.
A Lifestyle of Rescue
Gadget was a rescue in the usual sense — a dog who’d been thrown away, essentially for being a dog — but I didn’t just rescue him by adopting him. I continued to rescue him from health problems from the moment he arrived with chronic diarrhea and skin problems, to stopping his heartworm medication when I realized it caused him seizures, to diagnosing his thyroid condition myself when the vets missed it. I spent eight years working to keep him healthy. Then, he got lymphoma, and I spent six months completely obsessed with beating his cancer — with saving him once and for all.
I look back at photos from our first year together.
We both looked so much younger and healthier than in the pictures from recent photos, even when he was in remission. I wasn’t even aware that struggling against Gadget’s health problems was as much a part of my lifestyle as trying to adjust to my own illnesses. Now, not only have I lost my best friend, assistant, and around-the-clock companion, I’ve suddenly and extravagantly failed at what I’d devoted myself to for almost a decade: keeping Gadget, and our partnership, alive.
My rational mind knows I did everything I could; but what I think I know and what I actually feel have very little to do with each other. For example, I know that death is permanent. I don’t even believe in an afterlife. Yet I keep looking for Gadget. On the rare occasions I break down and sob, what I ask myself, over and over, is “Where is he?” I am literally and figuratively still looking for him, only most of the time, my (rational) mind pretends otherwise. Most of the time I don’t cry because I don’t truly believe he’s gone.
My heart — or, if you prefer, subconscious — is more honest. My dreams demand that I give Gadget what my deepest self awaits: a miracle.
See Right through Me
This makes “the blog dream” so transparent. Here, in my little internet domain, I have control. I decide the topics, the layout and photos, and choose each word. Where it mattered, I was powerless; I tried as hard as humanly possible to prevent this blog from coming into existence. I never wanted there to be an “After Gadget,” or not for a very long time. Gadget and my relationship had always been about creating safety, independence, and freedom for both of us, but in the end, I couldn’t give him the control over his destiny that he’d faithfully provided me his whole adult life.
My mind keeps falling for its own tricks, and old habits of trying to save Gadget die hard: As soon as I started blogging about the dreams, they stopped, because my conscious mind has taken over the work of my dreams. Day after day, I’ve written, revised, and edited this post. I type lying down when I’m too sick to sit up; I use the thesaurus constantly because my injured brain is too tired to find language on its own. I keep trying to get it right, pouring my energy into Gadget again. If only it can be perfect enough — then what?
In canine cancer, there are just a few grains of fact scattered on a shore of unknowns. When Gadget was diagnosed, I had to cram years and years of research into weeks. I had to rely on unfathomable drugs, unproven supplements, controversial herbs, and vets who could never live up to my expectations of omnipotence and omniscience.
On the other hand, writing is my home. It is my center, my wheelhouse, and my sword. In fact, it’s really the only part of my life for which Gadget was not essential. (To give him his due, he provided fabulous fodder for several humor columns, but he was by no means my only subject.) Through writing, I personally convinced my federal representative to cosponsor a bill relating to Lyme disease, one of my disabilities. Through writing, I’ve escaped an inert body again and again to live a hundred characters’ lives. Through writing, I’ve earned respect and paychecks; I’ve knocked down doors not open to my corporeal body.
When I used to write, before Gadget’s cancer and my Lyme, Gadget sometimes curled up under my desk or rested his head on my knee. But we maintained separate worlds, followed our own minds.
The rest of the time, we maintained a constant connection. Even when off duty, running free at the pond, Gadget would turn and check on me. Was I still there? What did I want? Where were we going? He was always looking back at me.
Now that I’ve devoted this blog to him, will he appear, looking back over his shoulder, across the kitchen or the yard, along the street or between the trees?
A small part of me wishes it were so. But I know it’s no longer his job to seek me. It’s my job to eventually, somehow, stop looking for him; to show the world what he taught me; and hopefully, to find myself again.
This blog represents my baby steps. In every picture or video I sort through, in every sentence I craft, I recognize his focus and intelligence, his beauty, sense of humor, and quiet dignity. This work wrings the tears from me, because to think deeply about Gadget and what he meant is to feel deeply my love and loss for him. I can’t stay frozen in my denial when I write.
What’s been clear to me for many years is that Gadget made me a much better person than I would otherwise have been. Not just in my treatment of him or other dogs, but toward myself and other people. And although he was not necessary to my writing, I’m discovering he helped me here, too, in a sneaky way. He bred patience, thoughtfulness, and focus, all of which I need to communicate his own character. Further, to write well, it helps if you can bring integrity, courage, and kindness into your process. If this blog works at all, it is in large part because Gadget helped me internalize these traits.
Where does the puppy come in?
There’s no doubt that Gadget made me a much better dog trainer, as well as a more caring and empathetic canine caretaker and partner. I have a treasure trove of experience — what I did right and what I have vowed I will do differently next time — that will be invaluable when I raise the new puppy.
When the puppies were born, the timer on “next time” began ticking, closing in on “now.” Gadget imparted a mountain of practical knowledge, of techniques, “how-to”s, and tricks.
But he also taught me in less quantifiable ways, because he tested me. Gadget was not an easy young rescue. He required patience, creativity, ingenuity, patience, intelligence, patience, courage, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. I know for sure I will need to call on every ounce of this learning — especially that hard-won patience! — to raise a puppy into a service dog while I am severely ill.
Birth, Death, and Dreams
Some believe that all the characters in a dream represent a part of the dreamer. That would mean that not only am I the person struggling to make this blog work — this enterprise built on what was lost. I’m also the one who desperately needs my help, and the one who is gone forever.
The Sharon partnered with Gadget is gone forever. A piece of me died when my partner breathed his last. Indeed, Gadget’s absence sometimes feels so painful, I can barely catch my breath. I’ve learned how literally accurate the term “heartache” is. It’s not a metaphor at all.
As to the others in the dreams? The one who needs me and the one embarking on the daunting new venture? The puppy, of course, is the first, and I am the latter in relation to the puppy.
Babies are ultimately needy. I will have to help the pup with its every need in the first few months, and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of its life.
There’s also no denying this puppy is already saving me, has been saving me since before Gadget died, when I knew a puppy would arrive this winter, regardless. That knowledge gave me something to look toward when all felt lost. The puppy is my hope for joy and laughter, a sense of purpose, and my eventual re-emergence into greater independence and freedom.
In other words, the puppy is the blog. This entirely new, separate creature who will not be Gadget, but whose care, love, and training will be so heavily influenced by all Gadget taught me.
Much like with blogging, I’m following a unique path. I haven’t mastered the art of frequent, pithy, focused little posts that seems to be the quintessential blog. I’m still laboring. And as a first-time puppy raiser with so much riding on it, I’m going to efforts just to prepare for the pup’s first few days in my home that most people find unfathomable (and a little bonkers).
I’m OK with that. Some thought I was nuts to adopt Gadget. They thought him wild, uncontrollable, totally unsuited to being trained by a young disabled woman as her service dog. But I knew otherwise. I saw his potential and knew he was a dream.
He still is.
Sharon and the Muse of Gadget
We welcome your comments.
Coming up in future blogs: Gadget’s service work videos, more puppy pics, the puppy-preparation steps that leave jaws hanging, musings on the benefits to numbness, the race to find a suitable outdoor powerchair before the puppy arrives and needs to pee, admissions of guilt, the implications of doorbells, and more.