I just spent a week at Esalen near Big Sur at an impossibly amazing writing workshop with two of my favorite writers, Cheryl Strayed and Pam Houston. They were brilliant, hilarious, gracious, kind, down-to-earth, and utterly inspiring. While listening and learning from them, I wrote fifty single spaced pages of notes and new writing. One of Cheryl’s writing prompts was, “Write about something you did for the last time.” It’s raw and unfinished, but here’s what came:
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Bunker sat in the passenger seat as we bumped down I-80 toward his favorite off-leash dog park. Rachel was in preschool for the morning, and my weekly OBGYN appointment wasn’t for a few days. The baby was due in eight weeks, but I couldn’t think about that now. I held the steering wheel and replayed the moment two days earlier when the veterinarian told me that Bunker was terminally ill. I wondered about the longitude and latitude of the spot in the vet’s office where, head tucked slightly, hands gently clutching a clipboard with the damning x-ray, he said, “I have some bad news.”
What a generic way to tell me that my dog was dying. He could’ve said, “Jesus Christ. This is bad.” Or “Fuck, man. Fuck. The moment you’ve been dreading for the last eleven years is here. Right now. Brace yourself.”
We hit a pothole as we exited the freeway toward Point Isabel and I was back in the car, out of that veterinarian’s office. The office was where, someday too soon, I knew Bunker would draw his last breath. Don’t go there now, I thought. Be here. Be here with him. I put my hand on his head. He sat in the passenger seat, looking calm, making his zen buddha face that I loved so crazily. He opened his mouth, gave a happy smile, let his deeply grooved old tongue drop, baring his chipped yellow teeth. He blew hot, fishy breath on me and I smiled then inhaled as deeply as I could.
I didn’t know this would be our last walk in Point Isabel, the off leash dog park we both adored. I didn’t realize that this would be his last attempt at swimming, that in a mere few days, he would decline so rapidly that we would take him to the veterinarian and inject him with a lethal dose of medicine to end his suffering.
Point Isabel is a long spit of land surrounded by the San Francisco Bay, and on clear days, there are views of the city, the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Sausalito and even the open ocean. Dogs run free through this hundred-acre expanse of grass and trees and trails and open space. They can swim in the water, fetching balls in the canal or on the beach, and they can run as fast as their legs will take them. They’re free: no tether, no leash, no rope.
Bunker tried to run, but barely hopped once before stopping. Oh, sweet boy. It had only been three days since the diagnosis—the doctor had told me that Bunker had about 8-10 weeks to live—but he was already having difficulty walking. His chest looked like a too-full barrel. A barrel full of cancer.
He walked slowly, one paw, two paws, then three, four. Step. Step. Step. Step. He tried his best to scramble down the rocks to the water. But he stopped halfway, his back legs shaking, his front paws planted for stability. He looked out into the distance at a bird that, in his heyday, he would’ve chased with such hilariously futile gusto that I would’ve laughed myself out of any funk I’d felt that day. Now he watched the bird, blinked a few times, then turned to me, pleading quietly for help.
I scrambled down, picked him up, and he relaxed in my arms, trusting that I could carry all ninety pounds of him up the wet, steep rocks back to the path. I did, of course, because Bunker had convinced me for the last eleven years that I was capable of anything. After I set him down on the ground, I got on my knees, put both arms around his failing body, and cried. “Please don’t leave me,” I whispered. “Please.”
He stood still, just like he always did when I hugged him, and I had the pain in my throat again, the emotion blocking my windpipe, the reality of this prognosis so real and awful that it felt very truly unreal. I let go of him, sat down in the dirt again, vaguely aware but not giving a crap that people were walking by us, watching me weep on my knees next to my dog. Maybe some of them understood.
“Bunker,” I said. I wanted to say his name again, to have him hear me say it. I wanted to watch his ears perk ever so slightly, and for his eyes to meet mine. He turned to me, his cloudy eyes so full of thought and concern, and for a moment, just a split second, I saw fear. I thought maybe he was afraid to die. But I knew innately that Bunker had no fear of death. I was the one afraid that after he died, I would not want to live anymore either.
How could he help me if he was dead? Who would I turn to when I felt like I couldn’t live anymore? I was so accustomed to leaning on him in my most desperate moments, which were more frequent than anyone knew.
I sat down on the dusty ground, grabbed a rock and chucked it as hard as I could into the water. Of course Bunker sat next to me, leaning his big fat butt against my big fat butt, and I wept.
I did not know how to be an adult without Bunker. I did not know how to navigate the bad days without his touch, his smell, his devotion. Without him, I imagined the world would quickly ruin me. And I sat there thinking, Well, it’s been nice. It’s been a good 33 years. I patted my very pregnant belly, not even thinking about the new life I was creating, just trying and failing to imagine my life without my dog.