This caustic fluid
Sears my cheeks and stains your fur
My love has been selfish; not giving like yours
My confidante, my strength
I lie here wishing for time to pass
With a hope that tomorrow my breath comes with less pain
The wound of loss scaring over
Never to heal, the you I know pressed somewhere deep in me
Even knowing this day would come
The pain has been so great
Your companionship guiding my journey
Through moments of time which have built me and broken me
Success and failure, happiness and heartache
Your unconditional love gave me strength and purpose
Always when I needed it most
You helped me through the toughest hardships, devastating loss, and times we didn’t know how to recover from
You helped forge my path I have not had to walk alone for the past 14 years
And this burden of life, so heavy without you
I struggle to find my footing… to want to fly again
My dearest friend
I will always howl your name in the wind
Find happiness in simple moments
Think of you when it’s time to lick the ice cream carton
Or shovel snow, dig holes, rake –and roll in- leaves,
When I need a reason to go on a jog, or a reason not to
When I pack the car for a camping trip, or go to the beach, or a long drive
I will learn to love unconditionally, beautifully, just like you taught me
I will miss you forever
May 1998- we are all at a lovely outdoor luncheon… family, friends, the graduating class. While many peers are opening cards full of money, or a car key, or a plane ticket, I open a light blue envelope. Words indicated congratulations are on the card, then as I open it, 3 pictures fall out. A german shepherd puppy featured in all 3. While most of my friends were heading out in the world, I was heading home, facing months of rehabilitation for my knee that had been reconstructed just one month earlier… in fact I was still in a brace most days.
Tatika looked more rhino than dog with her giant pointed ears coming together at the top looking like a horn. Her name is Swahili for “tangled and confused”, as I had fallen in love with East Africa and had planned on returning after graduation, until my life drastically changed course one morning. But Tatika was going to see me through the tough road ahead.
We were inseparable for the next 2 years.
January 2000- one of 10 of my toughest “goodbyes” in my life. I left a detailed list for my parents of how to communicate with my dog. Of course she was so smart, she could understand so much from so many. She was so perceptive, and caring, and conscientious. She understood the temporary meaning of “stay” versus the much longer amount of time indicated with “I’ll be back”, and I didn’t want my parents to hurt her feelings by using the wrong one. There was of course much more on this list which I don’t care to type now… it’s all I can do to do this much.
I left for Georgia, driving the big red van I had bought from my parents, only returning twice in 10 months… once for a good friend’s wedding and once for a family reunion. Then in October I pulled up the driveway with a Uhaul trailer on a small green pick-up, a Boston terrier in my lap, and a new boyfriend. We stayed for several days, packing away my life, and off we went again to Georgia. This time Tatika was in my lap when we pulled away and the tears were streaking my parents’ faces.
Georgia memories are happy ones. Camping, hiking, jogging, swimming. I think back on that time and know we lived every moment. I suppose that’s your 20’s… living… we hiked and explored almost every weekend. Weeknights we went to the beach or walked around the neighborhood and visited the other dogs (I have no idea what any of the owners’ names were). Tatika taught Snickers how to be a dog: how to get dirty, how to swim, how to play chase, and how to guard the car. She probably taught us much of the same… she helped us get our first Christmas tree together (an adventure in itself), catch fish (she loved to run into the water while we wrestled them to shore), and play ball until the sun gave up. And god did we ever hike. She laid in the tent one night while we lie awake listening to raccoons scream like a pack of hyenas in frustration at our dangling food supplies. She was with us in a windstorm that drove me to retreat to the car with snickers while she and Joseph tried to stick it out in a tent that was blown flat against their bodies. And there was the time we were certain a serial killer had happened upon us in the dark of night only to shine our headlamp on a skunk riffling through our cooking gear… she seemed to know not to bark that time. Like most “thru-hikers” she even had a trail name to go by: Powernap 5000, as she could stop, drop, and nap for 5 minutes, then be able to play like we had not just put in 15 or 20 miles that day. She was there when we surprised an entire platoon running drills on a remote section of trail one day… the commanding officer asked us to push on quickly and not interfere… she couldn’t help but steal some sniffs from the soldiers lying along the trail trying to blend in with the ground. And there was the time we ran out of food and all had to eat ramen noodles alongside a creek… to this day it may have been the only time I saw her eat a noodle.
She was there when Joseph got down on his knee… and she was there to walk the ring down the isle.
March 2002- This goodbye was particularly hard. This time we left Tatika, Snickers, and Kitty with my parents. Joseph gave them strict orders not to play them to death… it is of course out of love, but probably needed to be said all the same. My parents may be the closest people I know to understanding the love of our pets… Joseph’s parents too… maybe that is part of where we get it from. All this time we knew that if something were to happen to us, those 3 would go to my parents and continue to be loved… people always want to call it a bond because maybe they feel that love is not what you share with a pet… my bond is love.
We went to hike 2,200 miles. We carried pictures of them the whole way and glued them in the trail register at the end in Baxter State Park in Maine. We missed them so much.
October 2002 – another tough goodbye. Everything we owned was in the small green pick-up. Sitting in the front seat was Joseph behind the wheel, Snickers in his lap, Tatika in the middle and across me in the passenger seat, and Kitty perched on the top of the headrest. We drove like this (Joseph and I switching positions back and forth) for 5 days, barely stopping to sleep, to Alaska. My parents were laughing and crying as we pulled away… something about the Clampets… I was particularly worried about my Dad this time. He had bonded deeply with Tatika, and she was concerned with him. My mom has always been the type to make friends, very busy, active, outgoing, generous and lively. My dad is much more withdrawn, guarded, honest. There’s a sadness around him that takes more than a casual “hello” to break through. Tatika’s presence dissolved the melancholy. I knew it, and she knew it. Whenever carepackages arrived once we moved, Tatika would sniff the latest emotions from back home, tail wagging, head emerged in the box.
For years we lived in a 16×16 cabin. No plumbing, and no worries. Always dirty, always covered in dog hair. We explored our new home and lived our new adventures. Inseparable again. We resumed all our old activities, hiking, camping, canoeing, but with an Alaskan twist. I can remember a long 26-mile canoe trip we did with Joseph and I, Snickers and Tatika all piled into one canoe. We hit a section of unexpected rapids that was all we could do to navigate, while keeping all four of us in the boat and not flipping over. Adding to our dilemma, we rounded a bend and standing in the rapids was a full grown moose just yards away. We didn’t even come up to its belly. We drove the oars into the rocks below, doing our best to not move an inch further and not tipping. Tatika, ever the guard dog, stood up and went to the front, but as if she knew all our lives depended on it, she didn’t bark. She just watched it carefully until it strode out of the river, always protecting us.
And so she did and so we were for the next 10 years. Yes, I’ve gone on journeys without her, the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, and several other races and training runs, but I always had her in my thoughts and looked forward to being with her at home.
Even as she slowed down these last few years, we still walked on the beach or through the woods. She looked forward to my niece and nephew sleeping over. She continued to love playing basketball until the day she died… literally.
I could go on forever thinking, writing, and loving Tatika, but like everything else, I don’t have the time or stamina, maybe someday…
Even in her final moments she put me first, as she did for 14 years. I struggle with the idea of euthanasia. It’s not to say that it shouldn’t be considered when pain can’t be alleviated, or our companion mentally has already gone. But it feels to me like I would be betraying one who trusted me and gave me everything. I had called the vet Friday morning because I knew the end was near and I didn’t want her to suffer, but tearfully tried explaining to Joseph that I didn’t want to have to do that to her. She knew… I knew. She was in my lap all morning. Within an hour of calling the vet she started letting go… her last gift to me… leaving me without having to make that decision… in my arms… in my love… our love. In her final minute the entire dogyard sang out and the house dogs joined in howling… she was not alone… she was loved by all.
I did not give her an amazing life… she gave it to me.