For a long time I have largely avoided writing because I had done it so much I began to feel it got between me and experience, the way cameras and video recorders can get between you and watching your child grow up. The recorder, the reporter was always there, translating experience into simile and metaphor before I’d had a chance to taste, let alone digest, what was happening. But writing has been my main mode of digestion for most of my life—to make sense of the exchange between my inner world and the outer world, to extract nourishment from the meanest and the most expansive movements of these worlds.
Today I walked in the fields and woods of Thacher Park, the first time in many weeks because I have been so busy—busy-ness, busy-ness, busy-ness and I no longer have my sweet joyful dog expecting and needing me to take her for her weekend excursions. And myself, though I need these walks as much as she did, myself I can put off and deny in the face of work that must be done during the precious little time I am not at work, at The Job.
Every time I go to Thacher Park now, since Heidi died in May, I weep a little. Sometimes quiet, tears rolling down my face for brief moments before the wind in the trees or birdsong or the peace of the place soothes me and I walk on. Sometimes I stop and gasp with sobs, seeing her smiling face looking up at me with joy and adoration. Never for long, though. I think the disinterested benevolence of those woods has much to do with this, but I also know that it is because I am slowly digesting the enormity of her absence. Like a snake who has swallowed an elephant.
Heidi had been sick for a year and a half at least. She started throwing up after meals months before emergency surgery to remove her spleen and a tumor the size of a navel orange. We didn’t know whether it would be worth putting her through the pain at the time— the vet gave her two months tops post-surgery—but we could not bring ourselves to euthanize her then, when the last time she had seen us was in the examination room and I could not stop crying and holding her. So damn the expense, and the pain of recovery, and the dismal prospects. We gave the go ahead, and brought our doped-up girl home a day later, wincing at her slow movements and the twenty-seven shining staples along her shaved belly.
Two and a half weeks later, on a mild March Saturday morning, I coaxed her into the back of my old Ford Escort wagon and we went to get those staples taken out, picked up my friend Eileen, and went to Thacher Park to walk through sloppy mud and melting snow. It was a bit too much for her, those two miles or so of trails, and she lay down on the drive home instead of holding her pretty head up for me to see in the rearview mirror. Heidi spent the day sleeping and I felt guilty for having pushed her, but Sunday saw us back up there in the woods, for a shorter walk this time, and she was a little better. A little stronger.
Every weekend after that we walked in the woods, as we had been doing since autumn 2002, when I sought solace after an ill-conceived foray into law school. Every weekend I said good-bye, letting Heidi lead me wherever she wanted to go. We walked every trail we had ever walked, and even found new ones. Every step was precious, every time perhaps the last time we would walk this way together.
Spring bloomed, summer ripened, and August offered me wild raspberries for first breakfast three yards from Beaver Dam Road—the small ritual I had observed for years made sweeter now by the question of her presence, the ever-present last-ness of each ramble. But Heidi lasted. Longer than the vet’s prediction, longer than my most hopeful hopes. We walked through autumn, then winter, until I fractured my hip in January and was forced to stop for weeks, each one passing interminably as I let Heidi out to throw up in the backyard after every meal, wondering how much longer she would last, each weekend passing irretrievable.
We walked again, and again, and spring came again, and we passed the anniversary of Heidi’s surgery. She remained joyful and always willing, eager to go on our rambles though slowly starving to death, throwing up more and more often, until one Thursday night in early May she couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes all night long we ran a slow race to the back door, and by dawn I knew the time had come. Even though I knew she could continue this way for weeks, or maybe months, longer, I didn’t want her final days to be lingering, didn’t want her to die when she could no longer go up to her Place, the woods.
Friday morning I called in sick, then called the vets and made the appointment for Monday evening. Dr. Jarvis would come to our home to spare Heidi from having to spend her last moments in fear. I allowed myself a few tears, a moment of tears, then vowed not to cry, not to mourn—not this weekend, not our last weekend—and then we went to Thacher.
Twice a day that weekend we went to Thacher, except Sunday, when I could not coax Heidi from her spot on our bedroom floor in the morning. I went alone, thinking I must get used to it. I walked fast along the trails, escaping the fact of her absence, which sat inside my heart like a great, heavy stone, and then I saw, sitting on top of a boulder, a large rock. It called to me. I lifted it and felt its weight as I walked back to the car. Heidi’s headstone.
Later that day my younger son accompanied us to Thacher, then Heidi and I went again on our own Monday morning, and Monday afternoon my older son, Heidi, and I climbed the Long Trail up the steep hillside across Beaver Dam Road. We stood and looked down at the valley as the wind gusted around us. And walking slowly down, down to the car it really was the last time.
Heidi died on her soft, red flannel sheet, in the grass under the old cedar tree back of our house, with birds singing and the westering sun shining in her golden red hair, all of us around her, petting her and telling her what a good girl she is.
And I did not dissolve into tears as I thought I would. All the holding back I had done that weekend really had turned my grief into a heavy stone that filled the whole of my trunk, both solid and cavernous at once.
Today it is August 28, and I have missed many weekends at Thacher Park. So much can get between you and life. I stopped writing because I wanted to experience without the reporter constantly interpreting. And this is really valid, except I think about how often I have been filled with gratitude to my former selves for setting down in words their experiences, so I could read them and taste those moments in their immediacy once again.
Today I passed by the wild raspberries, hoping to find a few lingering berries at the end of their season, but the clusters had been picked clean by birds and other hikers. I found a few broken berries on one cluster and picked them, held them in my hand for a moment then popped them into my mouth—more crunch than sweetness. Faint regret for allowing busy-ness to come between myself and this small, yearly ritual, but I swallowed and walked on. I started thinking about writing, about the taste of wild raspberries in August, and saw with reluctance that the reporter was back and the trees were passing by unnoticed as words strung themselves into sentences in my head.
Midstep in my thoughts I was arrested by the sight of a perfect cluster of raspberries just off the path, a long way from the bushes I usually visit. Red and fully formed they hung there before I reached out and gently pried the caps from their heads. I held them in the palm of my hand, wondering at their perfect forms as the reporter in my head said, “how like the faintly ridiculous bathing caps those lovely water-ballet ladies wear.” Then I ate them, one at a time, savoring their perfect sweetness as I walked slowly on.