My first dog, Willow, was named for my favorite tree and favorite character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was twenty-one when I adopted him at 8-weeks from the Concord NH SPCA. He was like a “son” to me, just as important as any human being. I trained him as my Hearing Dog when he was five, and throughout his life, he helped me to feel less anxious in social situations (where I can’t hear the words around me) and he helped remind me that I feel part-dog way down in my soul.
Willow was by my side every moment of my adult life, except when I was traveling abroad, and sometimes I took that for granted. I assumed he would live at least fifteen years, not almost eleven. I assumed he couldn’t possibly get cancer, or die before my child would be able to remember how wonderfully they connected, that Willow was his brother, not just a dog.
But last year, he did get cancer, suddenly, and months later, he died in my arms.
I made photo story books to tell my son Ronan about Willow’s life and their experiences together. I made collages of Willow photos to hang around our home. In every room, there is a picture of Willow. These things are necessary. They are soothing. But they don’t make the pain any less. They don’t bring back the smell of his paws, or the softness of his tongue licking my tears, my lips, my cheeks, or the wisdom in his eyes.
Willow understood me in a way that no one else has ever understood me. And now he’s gone, at least physically. Like our home, No Smoking, Willow has left a great gulf inside me that will never be filled. In the language of one of my favorite books, The God of Small Things, there is a Willow-shaped-hole in me. There is a No Smoking-shaped-hole, too. But these vacancies are inescapable. As we grow and age, things around us disappear, crumble, and die. Yet still, we have to go on growing and learning and finding other ways of being happy, other creatures to love. The holes, the things that haunt us, make us better writers and probably better humans. I have to think of it that way, or else, I’ll crawl into those holes and just stay depressed. Sometimes, I do that, but I do my best to turn those holes into tunnels with light at the end. An opening to crawl back out into the world. Because there are millions of beautiful things out there, a million ways to love. But remembering is important, too, even if it makes us despair. In writing, every emotion, every thought, every desire, is a tool we can use to connect to someone else, to share our sorrows, our ecstasies, and to help others feel less alone in the world the way that Willow made me feel less alone.
In the vein of sharing my brilliant, beautiful soul-dog and son with you, here are some of my favorite memories of Willow: