My dog Shorty is beautiful. Since my husband died, and Shorty came to live with me, our relationship has changed somehow. Profoundly. He was always “fond” of me, from the day he was brought home, as my Christmas present about eight years ago. With a red bow around his neck, he could barely contain his boundless energy. And yet, somehow, I was disappointed. He was a small dog, which is what I had been hinting that I wanted, but not in the fuzzy, curly, fluffy-type way. Shorty is beefy, if you can call a 10-pound short-haired dog beefy. He is muscular. My daughter and I marvel at his fit and trim physique on almost a daily basis.
However, when I first saw him, I immediately started ticking off all the things that he wasn’t. I’m not particularly proud of that, but I also do remember telling myself: “Maybe I will grow to love him someday.”
On the day he died, my husband and I were scheduled to have a therapy session. I saw him the day before and suggested that we make the meeting about how to work together to get the house cleaned up enough to list on the market. We had come to an agreement – five months before- that we would sell the house. It seemed like the logical thing to do. The right next step in our divorce proceedings. On the Saturday before Thanksgiving of the year before, he had announced to me that he had fallen in love with someone (he met online) and he wanted a divorce. After much rancorous back and forth about mortgage payments, who left whom, and several other disheartening topics, we agreed that we would have to sell the house. It would be the only way forward. The only way we could each stay afloat financially.
On that day in September we were going to start the negotiations in earnest. He was living in the house with our daughter, and our cats, Yummy and Mouse, and our dogs, Benji and Shorty. The appointment was for 10:30 that morning. Stan was late, which wasn’t his usual, but I knew he didn’t really want to sell the house, so I figured maybe he was “forgetting” about this appointment. I tried his cell several times. I called our daughter. I asked her to check on her dad—did she know where he was? She called me back. She told me he was lying at the foot of the stairs, bleeding from his head. He wouldn’t wake up. She told me she had already called 911 (good job). I told her I was on my way, and asked if she could get some towels to use to apply pressure to his wound—I didn’t know what it actually looked like. She was hesitant and said she didn’t think she could do that. It was weeks later when I realized why my daughter couldn’t get the towels—it wasn’t because she was afraid of helping (even though she has a well- documented fear of blood). It was because her father’s body was most likely sprawled across the bottom of the stairs, and all the towels were at the top of those stairs, in the linen closet.
She didn’t want to have to climb over her father’s body lying on the floor to get there. How could she?
I stayed on the phone with her, driving to the house. I told myself to be extra careful and uber vigilant. On the phone, I listened while the EMTs arrived and assessed the situation. I heard the words “head trauma” amidst the sounds of them devising their plans to remove my husband. I told my daughter to ask them where they were taking him and to gather up all his medications and put them in a bag.
By the time I arrived at the house, the EMTs had already left. With my hand on the doorknob, I told myself to breathe. I walked up the first flight of stairs to the second floor, to where he would have been. I stood there, staring at the staircase. The one leading up to the third floor. The one he had painstakingly finished by hand. At the bottom of the stairs, all over the floor, I saw more blood than I had ever seen in my life. Then I heard the dogs barking in the upstairs bedroom. I stepped over the blood and made my way up the stairs. The door to the bedroom was closed, which meant that my husband had intentionally wanted them to stay in the room when he had gone out. To do what? Get a drink of water? Get more wine? Text his girlfriend? I have no way of knowing why he left the bedroom. Or even when—earlier that morning, or was it sometime in the middle of the night. Did he lose his balance right at the top of the stairs, or somewhere in the middle, maybe distracted while looking at his phone? The steps are steep ones, left over from the early 1900s and the railing was in two parts—the upper half on the right side, the lower half on the left. What happened? Why did he fall? In his beloved house.
After I let the dogs out of the bedroom and ushered them down the stairs to the back yard, I grabbed the towels to put on the blood while the dogs were out back, very late for their morning pee. I noticed my husband’s glasses askew on the floor, his cell phone a little further away—two things he never went anywhere without. Should we bring them to the hospital?
Would he need them?
When we finally reached the emergency room, we were ushered into a makeshift family room. The ER doctor was firm yet kind. Among the string of words she spoke I heard, “severe head trauma” and “inoperable” and “brain stem compression.” She asked us for his picture, to change his identify from John Doe to my husband, to my daughter’s father. She asked if we had any questions. My daughter, maybe not receiving the unsaid message from the doctor’s news, asked when her father would wake up. The doctor looked at her for a moment. “He’s not, sweetie.”
Calling from the hospital, I had somehow found a foster home for Benji and Mouse.
Yummy had moved in with me a couple months before, to keep me company and to keep the mice at bay. But what could I do about Shorty? He was a special dog. The person he stayed with had to be just right. I will be forever grateful to my brother-in-law, AKA, landlord when he offered, “Why don’t you just take Shorty to live with you?”
That night, Shorty and my daughter came home to live with me. That night we all slept in the same bed: one mother, one daughter, one dog and one cat. For the next two weeks we all slept in the same bed. Shorty, I noticed, was becoming especially attached to me. He followed me everywhere—leaping off the bed for a midnight trip to the bathroom, underfoot in the kitchen while I made dinner, snuggling on my lap as soon as I sat down on my comfy chair. He likes to get close to me, really close, as close as he can. If I am lying at anything greater than 90 degrees, he climbs up my chest and wraps his little body around my neck, like an orange, short-haired scarf. And he moans and sighs too—for my hand to rub the top of his head, or to gently caress his silky ears.
He doesn’t really care for other dogs, I’ve noticed. Not like he used to. In fact, he mostly growls and barks at other dogs on our walks. Before, Benji and Shorty always went out together. Benji, the bigger, gentle Shepherd-mix stayed in his own lane. He was a rescue dog from a kill shelter and he always was skittish, especially around loud, unexpected noises and anything with wheels. On those walks together, Benji set the pace and forced Shorty to walk, more or less, a straight line. Out to walk and do his business, and then quickly home, no room for exploration. Shorty, on his own now, the only dog on the walk, acts as if he doesn’t know where to go next. Or, wants to go everywhere. He does not want to hang out in the dog park.
Not anymore. Not if there are dogs. He’d rather walk with me. Or run in the field with me chasing him. And then run home and snuggle on the couch.
I can’t say I blame him. We are all feeling our way in this new normal: my daughter, me, Yummy and Shorty. Getting used to the strange, making it real. Taking the walk from room to room, touching down on unknown territory, waiting for a glimpse of something familiar, a slight glow to what, anchor? Why do we yearn for that? What will it bring? A release from the thing that is hard to name, harder even to allow—the presence of absence.
The house is sold now and we continue to wake up in the mornings (or afternoons), drink coffee, clean the apartment, take walks, work, look after our own hearts and wonder at the mutability of it all. Shorty stands at attention at my feet, his ears upright and alert, his nose twitching ever so slightly, his orange coat glistening from the sun and his beautiful eyes filled with love.
Michelle Pauls is a writer and theatre artist. She created, wrote, directed and acted in the pandemic art mini-web series, SPEAKING OF FAMILY… which you can see on YouTube. Michelle can also be seen in the new HBO show, Mare of Easttown. For over 15 years she ran her own theatre company in Philadelphia (Walking Fish Theatre) where she produced mostly original work. She has worked as an actor mostly in the NY/PA region and won a Barrymore Award in 2010. She is on faculty at Penn State Abington where she teaches Intro to Theatre, Scene Study, Theatre, Gender & Race, & Devising a Performance. She is a trained facilitator in Theatre of the Oppressed, which she has used to examine race, racism, gender issues and more in her teaching and theatre work. Her grief work includes examining and writing about the loss of her marriage and her husband, as well as continuing work on the Passage Project–using theatre tools to help those on hospice and their families celebrate life and choose a death worth living for. You can see more about her here: www.michellepauls.com