The Gift and Cost of Love

My mother was crying when I walked into the kitchen around sunset, her hips sunk into the linoleum counter top. She was slouched against the handle of the refrigerator door holding on to it as if to hold herself up. I looked over at my father who sat in his usual place at the head of the kitchen table. He had his stoic face on but his sadness was palpable. My sister sat across from him. She too was crying.

“What’s going on?” I was afraid of the answer, hoping it had something to do with my 98-year old grandmother since anything else was sure to be very bad.

“My Pepper dog is dead.” My mother kept her head down but I saw her tears fall to the floor.

No. That can’t be. When I left for the beach that morning she was fine. “Are you kidding?” The words sort of fell out of my mouth, hope trampling reason. It was clear she wasn’t kidding. Everyone stared at me with their jaw somewhat dropped but they didn’t say anything. “What happened?” It just seemed so implausible— not after 14 years and to date the dog had never been sick.

“We think she got bit by a rabid squirrel, or ate something poisonous.” My dad tried to keep his tone even but I caught the quiver. “Mom found her in the backyard in the bushes after calling her in for dinner and she didn’t come.” Then I saw the tears cascade down my father’s cheeks. I’d seen my dad cry only one other time, when JFK was assassinated. That’s when I ran out of the house. And kept running.

No! This can’t be happening. Not Pepper. Not my beautiful pound-hound Shepard. Not my best friend, sometimes my only friend, always there all these years to let me know I was valued. I should have taken her to the beach regardless of the hassle of looking out for her all day, kept her with me, safe, like she’d protected me from lonely. I should have played frisbee with her more, done more road trips, spent more time with her. I ached for more time with my bright-eyed, big eared dog.

I ran as fast and hard as I could, for as long as I could, trying to outrun reality, trying to outrun the hurt in me. My Pepper dog was gone, the first loss of a loved one I’d ever experienced, and the idea of her gone from my life was so profoundly empty, black, lonely, lonely, lonely it made me physically ill by the time I got to the bridge, stopped in the center and threw up over the side into the L.A. wash. When I finished, I leaned my face against the cool metal rail, and cried. 

“I HATE YOU!!” I screamed at the heavens. It was dusk by then. No one was around. Not a whole lot of people even knew about that bridge. At one end was an upscale residential neighborhood, on the other were exclusive condos. “How could you take her away from me?! I HATE YOU!” I yelled at the top of my lungs through my tears, knowing I wasn’t speaking to anyone; no one, nothing was hearing me. I guess what I meant was, ‘I hate me.’ Right at that moment the loss hurt so badly that I hated myself for loving her.

“May I help you Miss?” He asked softly, but it startled me anyway. I hadn’t seen him approach. He had come across [the bridge] from the condo side. He was Indian, from India, with the softest brown eyes I’d ever seen. I think he thought I was going to jump off the bridge.

“My dog died,” I told him. I started crying hard again as that reality sunk into my heart. I don’t know why I told him. So often when people ask we’re supposed to pretend we’re fine because they really don’t want to know anyway. “I really loved her.”

He nodded, let a few moments pass in silence then said, “My aunt died last week. I am still very sad. I miss her very much.” He stood erect a few feet from me, his head slightly cocked to one side. He let his eyes rest on mine for only a moment then he looked down, consumed by the black hole of loss.

“I’m sorry about your aunt,” was all I could think of to say. The man had put his aunt on par with my dog, and I was humbled, and grateful.

“I’m sorry about your dog,” he said. “I hope your sadness will temper in time with good memories.” He gave a slight bow and moved across the bridge.

His kindness tempered my pain, a ray of light in the suffocating blackness. I watched him until he disappeared into the neighborhood beyond, but did not lose sight of his wisdom. 

I left the bridge soon after him. On my way home I let my mind wander over my time with my Pepper dog. I cried. I even smiled once or twice through the tears. 

My sadness has tempered over the years. Most times when I think of her the memories are sweet. But to this day, 35 years later, the pain of her loss still fills me with unmitigated terror, a now ever-present awareness of the enormous cost of love.  

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