On the Loss of Azul
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened”
A delivery man came today with a cardboard box. On the outside it says "Handle With Care," "Fragile,” "Do Not Drop." The packing slip says 1 lb. I've never opened a package so carefully. Inside is a shiny wooden box with Azul engraved in gold. My best friend, my 12 year old dog-- my greatest bond-- in a box.
I wonder what else he is delivering today?
New shoes, a computer, books?
My love along with items people have ordered from catalogs. I am angry that she is in a box, reduced to specks of bone and calcium and dust.
Outside of our rural Topanga Canyon home are the animal sounds she loved: scream of wild peacock, whinny of horse. Her good friend Nemo the black lab barks down the road. Is he missing her too?
She was just here, vibrant and hiking. Twelve years old and fifty five pounds and not a trace of arthritis.
This is my first loss of someone close to me. I’ve never held a box of ashes. My baby is in a box. A fucking box.
My heart is in the box with her.
I hit the floor on my knees sobbing from a deeper place than I’ve ever accessed as if there is a gaping hole in my chest. Maybe if my heart was removed it wouldn’t hurt. I could toss it aside, grow another heart. The neighbors probably think I’m dying.
Five days ago Azul had a sudden shaking episode. Even though she was lifeless when my neighbor put her in the car, I drove like hell down the hill to the emergency vet clinic. Please don’t let her die, I begged the universe. I clung to the fact that is was a radiant spring day. That she’d been hiking and eating big bowls of food even until that morning.
The vet was waiting in the parking lot with a stethoscope. When she tested Azul’s heartbeat and said, “I’m so sorry, she’s gone,” I screamed like a wild woman. It was a ripping apart, a shredding.
An ultrasound revealed that she had a large tumor on her spleen. How could she have a tumor? She hadn’t shown signs of anything wrong.
“There’s no way you could have known,” the vet told me. “Dogs don’t usually show signs until the organ ruptures and that’s it.”
“What if I’d moved faster? Put her in the car right away instead of consulting the neighbors?”
“Wouldn’t matter,” she said with a sad smile. “ If you’d known, you would have had to put her down. Even with surgery, the animal has a poor quality of life afterwards, and they only live for a few more months. Many do not even make it through surgery.”
“I can’t believe she’s dead,” I said. “She seemed perfectly fine.”
“You’re lucky she went this way,” the vet said, her kind eyes locked into mine. “She didn’t have to suffer. And you didn’t have to watch her suffer.”
Maybe I should’ve been grateful that both she and I were spared a drawn out suffering, but I couldn’t feel grateful right then because I was obliterated by her unexpected departure.
But something told me I needed to feel that way. To know what others might have felt. It was as if—in that moment, on my knees, hugging my dog’s dead body that lay on a green rug in a little room— I was not in my body. Yet the pain was so acute that instead of one heart in my chest, there were fifty that belonged to me— engorged and beating wildly.
When I got home, I researched Azul’s condition. Hemangiosarcoma is a rapidly growing, highly invasive form of cancer. A frequent cause of death is the rupturing of this tumor causing the patient to rapidly bleed to death. Owners of the affected dog often discover the presence of Hemangiosarcoma only after the dog collapses. Splenectomy gives an average survival time of 1–3 months.
I also learned that dogs are of a pack mentality. They don’t want to appear weak because they would be taken out by the pack so they act like nothing is wrong. Humans often don’t know anything is happening until it’s too late.
I miss you like I’ve been severed inside, gutted, wrenched apart. You were my light and I want you here forever. But I suppose that is selfish. You had other plans. You want to run through the gold streaks in the sky.
“You are at this level of intense pain because you had such an intense bond with her,” a friend said as I was trying to digest that Azul would no longer greet me at the door, that her body was on its way to the crematorium.
So I’m in hell because I loved her so intensely? Would I trade the depth of my love to be spared this degree of pain? We don’t get to make these bargains after the fact. And really, we can’t make this kind of bargain ever because our hearts have their own agenda when it comes to loving someone.
Inside your scent is everywhere, on the foot of my bed, the blanket you died on. Your leash on the hook. Your food can in the fridge. Your poop on the side of the road across from my car. My car you died in. I can’t believe you’re dead. Shock. How it wakes me in the night. I don’t know how to be in this world without you. To love something so pure and so good. You never judged, you never asked me why. No one has ever loved me quite this way.
Throughout my twenties, I categorized phases of time in my life by places I lived, relationships, or periods of travel. But within these categories, there was one constant: my dog. She was with me through multiple moves and several relationships. She witnessed my worst anxiety and patiently waited for me to return from the depths of it. She loved me for every part of me— flaws, mistakes and all.
Shortly after her death, at my sister’s yoga studio, I mentioned to a friend how deeply I loved my dog. How attached to her I was.
“Non attachment, non attachment,” she chirped, reminding me of the yogi philosophy of being at peace with the present and not being beholden to anyone or anything. But it was true— I was attached to my dog: I got her when I was a college kid. I’d never lived alone without her.
What is the line between love and attachment? How can being attached to someone you love so dearly be a bad thing?
Perhaps we are so attached to our animal companions because no single human gives what they give: unconditional love without judgement, criticism, or argument. Dogs are excited to see you when you’ve been gone for ten minutes. They always want more of you. What human exercises this degree of pure love and devotion?
Baby steps. Today I throw the half used can of food away. I put my nose in to inhale the scent of the food you loved. I don’t even like that smell, but you did and if it brings me closer to you then I’ll smell it. I’d eat it myself, swallow it all if it meant I could be with you again. I dump the water out of the bowl that you drank from. The water that touched your sweet mouth with the gray and white furriness. The water, your mouth, your sweetness. It breaks my heart to think of your purity. And yet, the purity is what makes me love you deeper than I’ve loved humans.
People often assume that grief for an animal can’t match that of grief for a human. That’s like saying I know your heart. I have a divining rod for your pain. What if that person was closer to their pet than some human family members?
Whether skin or fur, you are grieving a being and the loss can be just as profound, a pet loss bereavement counselor told me.
I’ve never known life without a dog. My family has always had one or two or three. But Azul was the first dog that was all mine— my only dog as an adult so far, and really I wasn’t much of an adult when I got her. Now I’m learning the strange emptiness of living completely alone. What it means not to have someone to care for. I fed her, bathed her, walked her, cuddled her, adored her— things a mother does for a human child. My child had fur.
Azul loved me with an intensity of spirit that is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever encountered. To be with her was more comforting than any other presence. Each night at the foot of my bed for so many years she would sigh as if to say, you are enough.
Do we love our animals so much because they make us feel like kings and queens? Because we can do no wrong in their eyes? Or simply because they know how to love in the truest way?
In her booklet on pet loss, Dr. Kathleen Ayl writes: “The grief sustained due to the loss of a pet can often exceed grief that’s experienced from the loss of a human. Where else do we find a relationship where we can be fully authentic at all times and not be judged? How many people accept us no matter how we look, what mood we are in, what we drive, or where we live? Not many, but our four legged friends do.”
I cannot expect anyone who hasn’t had the experience of deep bonding with an animal to understand the beauty one can know with a fur being. We cannot measure one another’s bond anyway. A bond is so individual.
Your bones on my table next to your photos and the wooden box with your ashes and your name engraved on it. Azul. Blue. Your name. Azul. Blue. Your blue eye, your heart, your love. Nothing like your love.
In Spanish, there is a distinction in verb tenses between generalizations and those that are specific to the current time frame or moment. Mi corazón está roto means: I am heartbroken right now. In English we just say, I am heartbroken. There’s no distinction between temporary and permanent.
I am the heartbroken one. My new identity.
I loved all of Azul— her calloused elbows, her brown eyebrow dots, the quizzical look on her face when I asked if she wanted to go for a walk.
I’ve never known a sadness like this and I don’t know what to do with it.
When you are deep in grief, it feels unstoppable, non-negotiable. It tears its motor through every cell in your system and has no mercy. Sleep (if you can sleep at all) gets you to morning which brings the reality check of permanence. Grief, when you’ve never experienced it before, is bizarre new landscape to traverse. To me, it feels like a form of insanity. The very notion of forever can send your mind spinning out of touch.
So often people run away from pain and into drugs, the arms of random lovers, or any of the many other distractions. As torn apart as I was by Azul’s absence, I didn’t have a drop of alcohol for more than two months, nor coffee, as sleeping was already unattainable. Just prior to her death, I’d been having a wild fling with my neighbor, but grief made me numb to pleasure, so I stopped sleeping with him. Instead, her death prompted me to speak with animal communicators and read “Animals In Spirit,” “Animals and the Afterlife,” and, “The Big Book of Reincarnation,” as a way to makes sense of and grow from this profound loss.
What I’ve learned about grief is that it gets lighter. The missing doesn’t go away, but it softens. Perhaps healing is simply that we get more used to not being in the presence of the lost loved one.
Today is the Fourth of July. All around America, people honor our country’s birth of freedom. I will miss the fireworks tonight because I am dog sitting for a friend who’s away. I will sit home with her dogs, but I will quietly celebrate my individual freedom from grief— celebrate the fact that I can look at Azul’s box of ashes without falling apart, can hold photos of her and smile instead of cry.
I always said how hard it would be to watch Azul get really old. I cringed when I thought of how it would be to see her unable to walk and get into the car. As if her death would be easier. As it turned out, I didn’t have to watch her become a dog I wouldn’t recognize. My last vision of her was healthy and hiking. This is a gift I can now appreciate.
Someday I’ll adopt a dog. But for now, I celebrate Azul and all she taught me, both from her presence in my life physically, as well as what she continues to teach me from the other side.
About The Writer
Brittany Michelson's work is published in The Whistling Fire, Bartleby Snopes, Effluvia, Toasted Cheese Literary, Glossolalia, Speech Bubble, Every Day Fiction, Flashquake, Backhand Stories, and other online journals. Print work appears in PoemMemoirStory Magazine, If & When Literary Journal, The Poetry of Yoga, and an anthology by Bona Fide Books. She is a private homeschool teacher and teaches one college composition course.