I was standing in line at the post office, browsing through pages of search results for full length oval wall mirror on Amazon. I was living with my mom, moving into a one-bedroom apartment soon, and using images of its floorplan to guide my decorating ideas. I was taking screenshots of everything that informed my new bachelorette aesthetic. I thought I could control the chaos of my emotions with mood boards, and I called the apartment an opportunity. As a distraction, it worked fine enough.
I missed the ritual of taking care of someone — medications and meals designing a sense of shared fragility. I’d always thought that I only wanted to be responsible for myself, but now that I was alone, I wanted to need and be needed — to belong to someone who belonged to me.
The text read: BUG, your Rx is due now. Reply REFILL to fill, HELP for more info, & STOP to opt out of Rx alerts. I did not reply. A woman behind the counter asked if she could help me, and I stepped forward to hand her the orange USPS delivery slip.
It was that time of day when my grief would come to me through an automated text. I was teaching then, and I liked to run errands after work before the long highway commute back to my mom’s. I thought that if I could keep up the school day’s momentum while I was still out in the waking, working world, I earned the right to fall apart by the time I got home.
Eventually the texts stopped coming, and in May, I returned to the animal hospital to collect Bug’s ashes. It was the first time I had ever walked inside the building without his twenty-pound orange body slung in a carrier over my shoulder, and my arms felt eerily light. That morning, after several months of partly waiting for the voicemail, partly postponing the trip, I called and asked if they had come in yet. I noticed that I shifted back and forth between how I referred to him, still undecided: sometimes he, sometimes his ashes.
A poem I had written earlier that year read, is it corpses that? or corpses who?
I approached the front desk and said, I’m here to pick up some ashes, with a confidence that immediately broke against the receptionist’s sympathetic expression. There was a weather in my voice as I spelled out our last name. The Candle of Remembrance — a signal to waiting area clientele to keep their noise level at a respectable volume as an animal somewhere within the hospital was undergoing euthanasia — sat unlit on the counter. I checked ashes off of my phone’s reminders list.
No one was sitting in the waiting area. A wooden bench along the walls created a three-sided rectangle. A Keurig was stationed in one corner next to a bulletin board cluttered with dog walker flyers, missing pet notices, and ads for behavioral classes. I spotted an 8×10 flyer that was pinned near the middle. It had rainbow text superimposed onto some clipart of a rainbow, making it difficult to read. As I got closer I made out, Empty Leash Support Group / Every other Monday / Call Kym / 555-0919. I ripped off one of the phone number takeaways.
By this time, I had begun to talk about Bug with new friends who hadn’t met him. He was already becoming myth.
You should write about him, Lucy told me. About how you grew up, and he stayed small. I was old enough to know that there were people who could die in your heart. Every time I wrote about Bug, I knew he hadn’t.
I have always preferred the private control that my imagination affords me. I like being alone, with no one to correct my heart’s eye-view of the world. I thought this would be an excellent quality if I were to keep his spirit alive, but slowly, like a supernova, the bright dead light reached me and I knew I had to let him be dead.
Jakob told me about the time he banished a ghost from his college dorm room by saying, Hey man, you’re dead. You died. I’m really sorry. He said that sometimes, if a person dies suddenly, they have to be told that they’re dead. We knew he was going to die, I told him, disappointed that Bug wasn’t a ghost.
I kept returning to friends who knew Bug when he was alive. I stored screenshots of their messages, and cherished them like sympathy cards.
I called Kym of the Empty Leash Support Group, but found out that the meetup was no longer active.
In the news: If you’re in the hospital or a doctor’s office with a painful problem, you’ll likely be asked to rate your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 meaning no pain at all and 10 indicating the worst pain you can imagine. But many doctors and nurses say this rating system isn’t working and they’re trying a new approach.
One recent study had medical professionals supplement the pain scale with the question, Is your pain tolerable?
I questioned whether or not my pain was tolerable, and when it wasn’t, I began to wonder whether or not it was relevant. In an aching world, I feared that some might find this level of grief over an animal absurd. I didn’t know where I could go to mourn.
Anne Carson asked her mother, Where can I put it down?
I missed him. Miss. I kept sending out my longing toward a target I couldn’t hit. I didn’t care. I let my grief accumulate — his absence measured in the volume of moments he’d been gone.
I let it get heavy. Where could I put it down?