Saying goodbye is hard
There’s a lot of pain and loss in the world right now, and this is a post about losing my dog — the late, the great Uli Mclovin Hodgkins aka Uli Bear aka Uli the Grey aka Uli Booli. So, yes, writing is my therapy, and this will undoubtedly involve some self-indulgent self-therapy, but if you stick with me, I will try to spin a story at least somewhat worthy of my incredible companion for the last 13 years.
I have a friend who recently became a father. I saw him for the first time in several years earlier this month and my first question was: “What does it feel like, being a dad?”
Predictably, he lit up with a smile. He’s Brazilian, and English is his second language, so he worked hard to find the words. He said, “I can’t describe it. It is love, but it is a totally different kind of love I didn’t know existed before.”
I understand completely. Though I don’t have a child and so don’t know that unique love, I think it is a perfect analogy for the strange, possibly irrational love many dog owners feel for their dogs. I loved Uli in a way I didn’t know love existed before having her in my life.
Uli wasn’t easy. In fact, she’d be better described as many different stages of difficult. Perhaps with one exception where our roles reversed, but more on that in a minute.
There was young Uli, rescued from the Charlottesville SPCA in 2007 at two years old with virtually no training. Wild, with limitless energy, incredible speed and an insatiable love for running away. She barked at everything that moved. If a door was left open even a crack, she was out of it. She would probe fences for weaknesses, and so we dubbed her “The Velociraptor.” Escape, and the game would be afoot — chase me, get close, too slow, try again.
Then there was the growing separation anxiety as she got older. Suddenly, this dog you could leave out in the house for hours with no consequence (except the occassional loaf of bread pirated from a counter top … she LOVED bread!) turned into a tornado of destruction. At first, shoes and remote controls, then chunks of door and wall chewed and scratched out. She once bent a sturdy metal crate into a pretzel trying to escape because we put her in this usually safe space in someone else’s house. She snapped her canine tooth in Chicago and we had to schedule a root canal in Madison, Wisconsin. She once ate through an ENTIRE FRONT DOOR (glass panels and wood frame) when I left the house for an hour. Why? She just wanted to be in the front yard. I found her lying in the grass looking pleased as punch, somehow just a tiny bit of blood on her fur. Uli 1, Door 0.
Then there was old Uli. Very mellow. Very sage. I could even finally let her off leash to trot along beside me or, often, just behind. A place the young Uli would have NEVER accepted. But like all old things, age caught her. She dislocated her hip in November 2019 and staged a miraculous recovery… miraculous but requiring an immense amount of human effort to help pull off. There was Cushing’s Disease. Waking up in the middle of the night for emergency potty breaks. Pills. So many pills. Extra vet visits. Constant vigilance to make sure she didn’t slip and fall on our hardwood floors or try to take the stairs on her own. (Short aside…when she was still in a VERY precarious state after her hip injury, she somehow escaped out of her overnight kennel at the vet’s, made it down a staircase, helped herself to a vast store of prescription dog food, and made it back up the stairs. The vet staff told us they watched it all on video the next day. This, in a nutshell, was Uli. Both charming and vexing in her determination).
The point is, like all of us, she aged, and age is hard. Very hard. Both on those experiencing it and their caretakers.
But as I reflect on all these stages of Uli, it’s very clear to me how much credit she deserves in my personal growth as an adult.
Let’s just say I’m not perfect. I’m stubborn. I am not inclined to change. Where humans have failed to lead me to change they sought or needed from me, Uli’s will and very nature as a dog gave me no choice. When I wanted to be selfish and travel or do whatever I wanted to do, which I’m great at doing over human objections, Uli said, “Sorry. You have to take care of me. Figure something out. Because if you don’t, I’ll either destroy your house or I’ll die. Your choice. By the way, I love you no matter what.”
Young Uli taught me patience and how to better regulate my emotions (anger and frustration, usually, but others, too). Anxious Uli taught me how to change and adapt and problem solve, because sometimes life throws you a curve ball and you just have to figure it out. Old Uli taught me to give of myself in a way I wasn’t always sure I had in me. Selflessness over selfishness, and then the discovery that selflessness is actually a gift to yourself and your beneficiary.
To walk the trail with a dog through its life is to sign on for a series of very real life challenges. I’m so grateful for the growth. I never expected it.
I don’t think anyone needs a lesson on the value of a dog as a companion. It’s basically THE reason people choose to bring a dog into their life.
But Uli’s gift of companionship diverged from the usual at a very important time.
My ex-wife, Carrie, and I went through a very difficult period that really spanned a number of years, resulted in a yearlong separation and ultimately divorce. I don’t think Carrie or I realized it was happening at first, but when we began to become more distant in Scotland, Uli was my constant walking companion. I had not taken up hiking as a serious pastime at that point, but with no yard, her need to go out for walks was an entre. We started walking…further and further and further. I’d estimate we covered 2,000 miles in 14 months. Every inch of Edinburgh and more. She kept me occupied and fulfilled at what might have otherwise been a lonely time.
Uli settled into an unusual era of peace and tranquility when we moved into our new home in Charlottesville in 2015. She was 10. She had a wireless fence and could roam the yard all day, whether we were home or not. I call this her “Bilbo Baggins phase,” when she had come home to the Shire from life’s great adventures and contented herself ruminating upon them.
When Carrie moved out, Uli was, with no exaggeration, my rock. I chose to suffer that very difficult year of separation telling almost no one what was happening. I made the mistake of not calling on the people in my corner. But I never felt alone, because on my worst days, Uli with some supernatural instinct would insist on lying as close to me as possible. She was a constant companion at my side. She spent countless hours lounging in her bed on the porch next to me while I read books. On weekends that I dreaded for being alone and having nothing to do, she gave us something to do in the form of so many great walks in the mountains, over rocks, through streams. The Blue Ridge Mountains were our playground, and these were beautiful times of solitude within the healing power of nature that she loved as much as I had learned to.
Not long after our divorce and when I entered into a new relationship, Uli started to slow down. It was probably coincidence, of course, but it felt like she knew she could relax. Her work was done. She had given back and carried me at the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I needed carrying.
On Saying Goodbye
Boy, this part’s hard. It feels too cliche to boil this part down into life lessons, but as I’ve gotten older and more cynical and the distractions of and weight of the world have led me to generally feel less, it was a rare gift to have a moment where I was so intensely present and so immensely overwhelmed with feeling.
Uli died on September 11, 2020, almost 13 years after she came into our lives. Though Carrie and I divorced, we remained civil through the process and emerged on friendly terms. Because of our mutual desire to co-parent Uli, she became a final fragment of family that reminded us to be as kind as we could to each other.
And so Carrie and I came together on a grassy patch under a big pine tree behind the wonderful Georgetown Veterinary Hospital for one last visit with her. She had developed pancreatitis and wasn’t responding well. She had stopped eating and drinking. She made it very clear it was time.
She was mildly sedated when she was brought out to us, and I wasn’t sure how aware she was that we were there. It didn’t matter. It felt good to touch her one last time and feel her breathing.
But Uli loved something so dearly in the years Carrie and I were together. She loved what we called “the double pet.” We would chant “double pet, double pet,” and she would wriggle and squirm up the bed to get within our reach and lavish in four hands scratching and petting her entire body. We remembered “the double pet,” and started to scratch her ears and neck, side and rump, together while singing “double pet, double pet.”
Uli opened her eyes. She looked at us both. She smiled. As if to confirm it wasn’t just some reaction of the muscles, she lifted her head a bit, set it back down, and smiled again, that silly pit bull grin. We broke. We laughed and cried and dripped snot and made strange noises with no volume control because it was just too much. Too perfect. A perfect goodbye. Uli closed her eyes and went back to sleep. We called the vet down. Dr. Donald Peppard isn’t just the guy who gives your dog medicine and sends her on her way. He’s the guy who knows your dog, who your dog is actually excited to come see, who tells you because he’s been her vet for years and knows how precocious she is that it’s really sad to see her like this, and he means it because there are tears in his eyes.
Dr. Peppard sat with us for a good while and talked, then he gave her the drugs that would stop her heart. As he injected the drugs and felt for her heartbeat, Uli’s eyes opened wide and she looked at me. Right in my eyes. I don’t know what she saw, or if she saw. But that moment will endure in my mind and it was another of her gifts.
Carrie and I lingered around for hours at the spot after Uli was taken away. Ever the planner, Carrie had bought a beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery in Vermont that was made in honor of their passed brewery dog, Damon. We got to stay in that moment, remembering her greatest adventures, without letting go of it too quickly. We could do that thanks to the work Uli had helped us do being OK around each other, and the act of unity itself honored her legacy.
Life has a sense of humor when you’re open to observing it. The first song on the radio as I drove home was George Michael’s “I’m Never Gonna Dance Again.” So cheesy, it deserved a laugh, but it felt wonderful to sing. The second song, the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” Possibly my favorite song about time and life marching forward.
I got home and reminisced with Desiree, who has been an incredible dog stepmom and bore much of the weight of caring for Uli in her old age. She let me stay in the moment a bit longer, because I wasn’t ready to start the process of “moving forward” yet. But time does that for us. A couple of whiskeys and fond memories later, I was falling asleep after an emotionally draining day. The morning came. There was Bella the dachshund to let out. Skye the weimaraner to take for his walk. All pushing me forward, out of that moment, because that is how our experience of time works.
But is “forward, ever forward” how we experience time? Exclusively, anyway? I had the distinct, vivid impression in my last visit with Uli and into the night that I was everywhere with her at once. I had memories of her in moments I had completely forgotten ever happened. I relived acutely the hard work of caring for her these past few months. I remembered her first day with us in her forever home. The memories were literally rushing over me, like her life was flashing before my eyes. All I can say is that this felt very real to me, and I hope it’s a shred believable.
I felt, for at least a short while, that I existed in all of those moments with her, that they were happening now, all at the same time. If you’ve ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or know the story of Dr. Manhattan from “The Watchmen,” I’m not the first person to have felt time at least could be experienced this way. It’s a theory rooted in Einstein and the concept of spacetime.
I remember a day in a lit criticism class while getting my master’s in Edinburgh where we were debating “Slaughterhouse Five.” The teacher argued vigorously that Vonnegut was being satirical in his depiction of a race of aliens experiencing time as one continuous spaghetti string of then, now, forever and always, in which they could look to and experience various points of their choosing. The conventional view is Vonnegut was poking at our human tendency for wishful thinking. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just look at the nice parts of time, and never look at the bad.”
I disagreed with the teacher just as vigorously. You’d have to ask Vonnegut, but I think he was commenting on the inevitability of good and bad in our existence and our ability to shrink the space and time of the bad or expand the space and time of the good through the one true element of control we have over reality … our perspective.
Either way, I went home after that class to be greeted, as I was nearly every day for 13 years, by an overjoyed Uli whose only conception of time was that any time I was gone was too long. And its end always worthy of celebration.
Thank you to everyone in my life who gave Uli so much love over the years, helped take care of her, watch her, let her crash their parties and get into their hearts.
Thank you, Uli. It’s hard to say goodbye.