I stopped posting regularly after describing our 5-day, 14-hour trip home from the hospital for a few reasons. Eventually I hope to cover more of them, but one of the biggest was this post. I wasn’t ready to write it for a long time and it’s still hard to get out now, but before I could move forward, this was something I had to do. It’s a lengthy one and it’s okay if you don’t read it; I just felt like I had to acknowledge it.
When we got home, Ross was a week old and everything was so wonderful, so new. That first morning in our own home I woke up to the sound of his cry and practically floated on clouds as I walked over to the pack n’ play. I will never forget how blissful it felt to lean over and pick up my son before carrying him back to bed to cuddle with him while he ate. I thought my heart would burst out of my chest.
But even in the midst of the joy, there was pain. When we had stopped at my parents’ house on our journey home, we discovered that our dog, Orion, was not well. They had mentioned a vet trip during a phone call about a week or so prior as we waited for Ross’s arrival, but nothing had prepared me for… this. As soon as I saw him, I knew it was over. Within a split second, my emotions went from the elation of putting Ross in my grandma’s arms for the first time to the complete and utter devastation of knowing I was about to lose my best friend. The shock of it took my breath away and my legs collapsed underneath me.
Kyle and I went upstairs with Orion to make the decision I had been dreading since the day I brought him home as a puppy, and I missed seeing my dad and grandma meet my son. We both cried as we took turns gently holding Orion’s tiny, broken body. I could barely breathe from the pain. The decision was clear– he wouldn’t even be able to handle the 2 1/2 hour drive home the next day. It was one of the worst moments of my life.
And then by the morning, he perked up. He wasn’t back to normal, but we started to hope that maybe this wasn’t the end, maybe we’d get to have a little time as a family of four after all. We stayed an extra night with my parents before completing the last leg of our trip.
Those first days with Ross finally at home felt blissful in so many ways– but not carefree. Inside I felt as though I was walking on eggshells, terrified that the smallest movement would bring everything crashing down. I was acutely aware that time was short. The clock was ticking; I just didn’t know when it would stop.
Three days after getting home, Orion quietly turned 15 years old. I had wanted to make a thing of it, but now the circumstances didn’t feel right. Instead, I gave him a few of his favorite treats and spent the day cuddling with my two babies. I loved seeing them together– it was something I had pictured so many times throughout my life. Orion was always going to be the first dog my children knew. He was meant to be there, keeping watch by their highchairs for stray bits of food and scurrying out of the way as they took their first wobbly steps. I knew he wouldn’t live forever, but he should have had several years as a ‘family dog’ by the time we had to say goodbye to him. I just never thought it would take so long to have a family.
Two days after Orion’s birthday he took another sharp turn for the worse: now he couldn’t easily move or lay down without crying out in horrible pain. Watching him suffer was agonizing, and we decided to find a vet near our new place and book an appointment first thing in the morning. My mom came up to watch Ross so Kyle and I could both go to the vet, even though we had originally wanted some space to bond with our baby alone for the very first time in his existence (we didn’t have the advantage of having him “baked in-house,” as my friend Arwen would say). Knowing we would likely come back without Orion, I asked her to take the first and last picture of us as a family of four.
To my relief, the vet was hopeful that trying something new might buy us a little more time since it was difficult to determine the underlying cause. And, desperate for any other option, we jumped at the chance. He prescribed us a new medication, wished us luck, and told us to call him if anything changed.
But the next three days were horrible. Orion’s pain never let up, and he needed someone to hold him still every moment of the day and night. He could barely eat or drink. He couldn’t sleep. Kyle was trying to focus on catching up on the classes he’d missed as we traveled home following Ross’s birth, so my mom and I alternated between taking round-the-clock care of Orion and Ross, the far easier of the two. Although Kyle had spent the last 10 years with Orion, he was mine first. The final, horrible decision was mine to make. And while I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, there was no way I could continue to let him suffer. I called the vet back in defeat and made an appointment for the following evening while tears streamed down my face. We had one last night together.
Tuesday, February 9th, Ross was just 16 days old when we left him with my mom as we bundled Orion into his favorite blanket and out into the cold night air. For months now as we anticipated Ross’s impending arrival, I had been reassuring Orion that he would always be my first baby, and that is what I whispered to him again as we walked to the car through the falling snow. Every step I took felt against my will.
Holding Orion in the vet’s office and waiting for the inevitable was even worse than I had imagined. They gave him a sedative to help calm him and then left us alone for several minutes to say goodbye. As I carried Orion back to the chair next to Kyle for those last moments together, the room started to tilt around me and for a moment, I thought the floor was going to fly up and hit me in the face. My ears rang and I felt sick to my stomach. We talked to him as his eyes began to close, telling him what a good dog he had been and how much we loved him, promising him that my Grandpa would be waiting for him on the other side. I held him close as his body eventually went limp against me and his raspy breathing became slow and steady. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever felt; he was there and yet not there. It seemed like a horrible betrayal, bringing him there for something he could not understand. Briefly I let myself imagine wrapping him back up in his blanket and running out into the night. It hasn’t happened yet, part of my brain reasoned, I can still change my mind. Instead I forced myself to stay seated and go through with it, wondering how it was possible to hope that the vet would both hurry up and also that he would forget about us.
Orion has been in my life since before he was even born. While I was in 8th grade, my best friend’s dogs were expecting puppies, their last litter. Early in the morning on February 3, 2001, the call came that the puppies had been born. Alisha had been spending the night at my house, so my mom drove us back to her house for our first look. There were three of them: two boys and a girl, and they were so tiny! Each one was just a few inches long, maybe a couple ounces in weight, and still completely pink with hardly any hair. I was in awe of them, never dreaming that one of them would become my best friend as they huddled together with their eyes still closed, .
I loved watching the puppies grow over the next weeks when I went over to Alisha’s house. I’d laugh as they skittered all over the hardwood floors in the kitchen and peek out at us from underneath the table. The girl was claimed first, and then one of the boys. Only the runt was left, and I saw an opportunity. I promised my dad that I would pick up after him in the backyard and feed him every single day. “Are you sure you want to take care of this dog until you’re 30 years old?” he asked me. At 13 that seemed like a lifetime away, but I was sure.
The first night he came home, I slept nearby him on the kitchen floor with a sleeping bag and a tap light (remember those?), but once he was housebroken he ended up in my bed, a habit that lasted for the rest of his life.
Sometimes I’m still surprised that my parents agreed to have Orion join our family (as perhaps was expected, my dad ended up picking up the yard after all). But, they had watched my life change just a year before when severe chronic pain became part of my life and a surgery confirmed my endometriosis. I think they recognized companionship and stability for me in him, and he was just what I needed. Over the years as my health worsened and the surgeries and diagnoses continued to stack up, Orion was always there. He never minded spending the bad days cuddling next to me in bed; in fact, he preferred it that way.
Leaving him with my parents when I went to college was painful. For my first year away, I sent him a package of treats to make up for missing his birthday. On summer and holiday breaks, we’d fall right back into our routine: Orion would lay down by my knees while I read before bed, and as soon as I put down my book, he’d sit up, wait for me to settle again, and then curl up next to my stomach to sleep. Before I’d leave to go back to school, I’d often find him sitting on top of my bags in hopes of keeping me home. The first time Kyle came back with me he was mostly amused at meeting Orion, who was protective despite his size and not quite ready to accept someone new into our lives. Eventually they grew to love each other too.
When I look back on so many hardships, milestones, and events in my life, Orion is always there. He was there for me during my first break up and all through the rough days of high school, when my tears would soak into his fur. He was waiting for me to come home from the hospital after every surgery besides the very first. For every move to a new place, he sat on my lap in the car. He celebrated with me when I graduated from middle school, high school, and college. He was next to me when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 for the first time in 86 years. He was there when I got ready for dinner the night Kyle and I became engaged and while I did my makeup for our wedding. When my grandpa was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2010, Orion stayed faithfully by his side as he recovered from brain surgery. The last words my grandpa said to me just before he died were about him: “nice fellow,” he breathed, when I held Orion up to his bedside. And the hell of infertility, Orion was there for that too.
We were peas in a pod, the two of us. I could read his every expression and understand his every bark. We grew up together.
I know that no amount of wishing would have kept him alive forever. He had lived a long life and our story was always going to end with goodbye. But I hate that it came so close on the heels of Ross’s birth. After so many years full of loss, that was supposed to be our time of celebration. Instead, a fresh loss brought new grief that seeped into everything. I was torn between relief that they’d had the chance to meet and guilt that I’d left Orion for almost three weeks as we waited for Ross’s arrival. I wondered if he gave up on life because he believed I was never coming home or if he had felt replaced during the last days we had with him.
My inability to deal well with grief is one of my biggest personal weaknesses. I haven’t managed to figure out the balance between letting the pain consume me and trying to avoid as much of it as possible by hiding my feelings away. I didn’t know how to process the mix of extreme emotions in February, so after a day or two of crying at the sight of his things and struggling to sleep without him curled up next to me, I let myself pretend like it never happened just to get through. Instead of dealing with it, I put away his sweaters, his blanket, his bed. I let myself imagine that he was staying somewhere else. And then somehow almost six months passed without him, and here we are. I miss him.