Suddenly, now that a date has been set and puppy products purchased, it’s real: the puppy is coming, and I’m hit hard with missing Gadget. My whole body aches with it. I fall asleep missing him and wake up missing him. My friends who have gone through this tell me it’s a normal part of the transition period, but it still hurts like hell.
Here are the top ten things I miss most about Gadget — in this moment.
1. His Breath
At night, my loneliest time, I miss the sound of his breathing, the lullaby of someone else in the room with me: the steady snore, the periodic “whuff” or snort, and most of all, the nightly, settling-in, extra-long, dog sigh. (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know the sigh I mean.)
Many years ago, a friend who is a midwife and childbirth educator told me that the rate of sudden-infant death syndrome is lower among babies who sleep in the same room with their parents than among those who sleep alone. This made intuitive sense to me: a baby is still learning everything — why not how to breathe? I picture a baby’s inexperienced lungs receiving rhythmic respiratory reminders throughout the night.
These days, my insomnia is particularly bad. I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. When I wake, I gasp, drawing a huge, shuddering breath, my muscles screaming with pain. Gadget, my partner, was an extension of my body/mind. Without him, I’ve forgotten how to breathe; I have grief-induced sleep apnea.
2. His Snout
I know it’s supposed to be called “a muzzle,” but that feels alien, distantly formal, like calling Betsy’s — my human partner’s — “face” her “visage.” I love dog snouts in general, but Gadget’s was, of course, perfect.
He loved to have it rubbed. Scratching the underside, his chin, made him purr. If I stopped, he’d shove his face into my hand for more.
Rows of little hairs grew along the top, and no matter how long the rest of his coat got, there were always new little tufts there to massage. If I got distracted, letting my fingertips wander to the bony bump on either end of his snout, just below his nostrils, trying to figure out what they were, he’d pull his head away in annoyance. I’d apologize and return to running my knuckles, up and down, up and down the bridge of his snout — from his eyes to his nose — and he’d go limp and sigh with pleasure.
3. His Nose
Of course, his nose was part of his snout, but it had a wonderfulness all its own — black and wet and spongy. I love all dog noses, but his was, of course, perfect.
When we did scent work, I thrilled at his nose rising in the air, nostrils quivering. I was fascinated by watching him scent out the remote control I had asked for or the Kong I’d hidden for him.
There was something marvelous in him being able to do so easily something that will forever be impossible for me. I was proud of him, which was silly, because that boils down to being proud of him for being a dog. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly why I was right to be proud.
4. Talking to him
The other day, Betsy and I had a minor squabble, then she left the room. I turned to Gadget on his bed and said, “Yeah, well, that’s her issue, isn’t it?”
But Gadget had been dead for two months. There was no dog bed, no crate, no Gadget. I was talking to nobody. When this happens, I try to distract myself with something else, like writing this blog.
When I was crabby, it was good to turn to Gadget and complain. At the end of my gripe, I’d ask, “What do you think?”
If he didn’t respond, such as if he was sleep, I interpreted as agreement. If he looked over, I might elaborate until he flopped back down, or I felt better, whichever came first.
When something good or exciting happened, he was the first to know: “I got nominated for a Pushcart!” Or, “Betsy’s coming home early!”
Sometimes I just filled him in on the plans for the day: which personal care assistant (PCA) was coming when, what time I hoped to be able to take him for a walk, if there was anything special I might need from him, how I was feeling.
Now what I want to tell Gadget most is how terribly, terribly I miss him.
5. His nose, again
Each dog-nose print is unique, like a child’s hand print. A couple of weeks before Gadget died, one of my PCAs cleaned all the “dog nose” smears off the glass doors. I probably asked her to, unable to contemplate a future when I would miss those smears.
When the glass was really smeary, it got in the way of my seeing the flowers or birds in the back yard. Now, I’d rather not see so clearly.
6. Talking to him, again
When my psychological symptoms got bad — from parasites and bacteria damaging my central nervous system — I lost a lot of friends. As a result I learned how to isolate myself when the rages, depressions, and dark obsessions moved in, blotting out the rest of the landscape, so that I would not take my feelings out on people I cared about. I learned to keep quiet until I “normalized.”
But now I realize, I wasn’t isolated, and I did have someone to talk to: Gadget. Not only was he always with me, but I could say anything to him. He didn’t care if my feelings were “rational,” or “fair,” or “reasonable.”
If I was in a rage, I took him for a walk. Then Gadget was happy, I was happy, and whomever I was not raging at was happy.
I actively trained him as my service dog, but when the need arose, without my realizing it, he became my therapy dog, too.
Now, when I’m alone, I really am alone, and it’s the loneliest I’ve ever been. This time, there’s nobody to blame: no microbes, no people, not even myself. There is just terrible, terrible longing.
7. His breath
People keep mentioning “puppy breath” to me. Some email excitedly, “You get to smell puppy breath!!!”
Others warn me against it. Two of my PCAs disagree.
“Skunk breath,” one says.
“It always smelled like turnips to me,” the other says.
“Raw turnips or cooked turnips?” I probe.
I’d been looking forward to puppy breath. Now, not only am I unsure whether to anticipate or dread it, I also am realizing it won’t smell like Gadget’s breath.
“Dog breath” is not typically considered a compliment, but that is because most dogs don’t receive good dental care. That’s why older dogs usually have “dog breath,” because it’s actually “tooth and gum disease breath.” Since Gadget’s teeth were brushed daily, unless he’d just eaten something very pungent, his breath just smelled like breath.
If you love and live with someone, as long as they don’t neglect oral hygiene or haven’t just eaten crushed garlic with sardines, you tend to associate their breath with the good things: kisses, laughter, snuggling. I want all those things back. And yes, I know, I’ll get them from the puppy, but I want them from Gadget.
8. Talking to him, still
A lot of people talk to their dogs without their dogs understanding the words. We expect dogs to understand our emotion and intent, but only other people to understand the words. However, for the last two years of his life, Gadget often understood me better than most people — literally.
In 2007, I developed sudden-onset intermittent vocal-cord apraxia. This means that a lot of the time I can’t speak English, though I can make involuntary noises like laughing, crying, or shouting in surprise. Sometimes I cannot say a word, sometimes my voice sounds the way it did before Lyme disease, and sometimes it is hoarse or stuttering, with varying degrees of intelligibility.
Fortunately, I knew basic American Sign Language (ASL). However, if nobody around me had known ASL, I’d have been a hammer looking for a nail. Again, I was lucky: a few friends, Deaf and hearing, signed, and so did Gadget.
Gadget could not, of course, produce sign, but what counted was that he understood my signed commands for almost all his obedience and service skills. I’d taught both oral and manual cues when we’d trained, never dreaming how necessary the signed commands would be.
Last year around Christmas, I couldn’t voice at all. Betsy went to her family’s house for the holiday, and my mother stayed with me. Mom had taken an ASL class but was unable to remember what she’d learned. On her first night, I tried in vain to sign, gesture, point, mouth, and vocalize a request for her to shut the door. (Due to pain and exhaustion, I was unable to write her a note.)
Finally, I hit upon the obvious solution. I called Gadget (by making a kissing noise), then signed, “Shut door.” He understood immediately and shut the door. Now my mom finally knew what I’d been trying to say!
“He knows more sign than I do!” My mom said. I gave Gadget a treat and a pat, and he went back to bed. For the rest of our visit, my mom and I relied heavily on Gadget to help with communication.
9 & 10. His nose and his breathing, finally
I am trying to get back to my practice of meditation. It has helped me cope with loss and isolation before.
When Gadget was sleeping, or just lying near me, I’d watch his nostrils dilate and contract. It was a form of meditation — I watched his breath instead of my own. We shared the same rhythm. It was beautiful.
When he lolled against me or put his head in my lap, I felt the light whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of warm air against my thigh, it was the most soothing caress. I didn’t care that his beard left dirt and dog food smears on my pants.
In meditation practice, when you lose focus, you are told, “Come back to the breath.” In this blog, I keep circling back to the breath. I started with it, and I must end with it. When he stopped breathing, his life was over — his last expiration, my pain and inspiration for this blog.
I long for his alive, breathing nose.
-Sharon and the muse of Gadget
We welcome your comments, as always.
P.S. I’m working on getting some video up as interludes that show Gadget following signed commands.