HM Clare-Sully-Stendahl


by Clare Sully-Stendahl

I. A Photograph

I’m seven years old. It’s summertime. We’ve just hiked up a mountain and we’ve stopped to eat lunch before heading back down. I’m sitting cross-legged on what appears to be the edge of a cliff, but I’m guessing that’s just the angle of the camera. At any rate, it looks impressive.

I’m wearing a white shirt and blue shorts and brown boots. There’s a ridiculous floppy blue sunhat shadowing my face, but you can just make out the deep red sunburn spreading across my nose and cheeks. I’m smiling up and to the left of the camera with my lips slightly twisted: either I’m in the middle of saying something, or else I’m in the middle of using my tongue to fish bits of ham and cheese sandwich out of my molars. It’s hard to tell.

Lying beside me, looking directly at the camera, is Sophie. Our black Standard Poodle, two years old at the time of the photograph. She’s panting happily, her long pink tongue emerging from beneath her nose. Her collar and leash show up bright blue against her body.

Behind us, on a neighbouring mountain, small dark green trees stretch out and fill the rest of the frame. We are adventurers, perched on our rock. My pale white hand covers her jet-black paw, bridging the distance between our bodies. We are best friends, and there is nowhere else that we would rather be.

II. A Diagnosis

It’s a Wednesday in late November, nine years of photographs later. My dad is just getting off the phone with the vet when I walk through the door, thinking ahead to tea and physics homework. If Shirley pushes a crate up a driveway with Don pushing at a sideways angle of 32 degrees . . .

“There are some strange lumps on her X-rays. He thinks that it might be cancer. We have an appointment with an oncologist tomorrow.” And suddenly, just like that, I feel as though I am the crate in my textbook, with Don—evil, malicious, calculating Don—pushing me off my course by 32 degrees.

We reason with each other, keeping obsessively calm and upbeat as though the others are children. “They might be benign!” “Look at how healthy she is!” “An oncology referral in a day? Wish it was like that for humans!”

We cannot deny it after the appointment. I walk through the door the next day and am greeted with sad, resigned faces. I will not cry, I tell myself as I hear the words. Hystiocytic sarcoma. Masses. Everywhere. One to six months.

I cry.

III. A Poem

The first poem I ever memorized was “The Span of Life” by Robert Frost. I was six. Sophie was one.

The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.

It hit me that Sophie would one day be an old dog. It made me uneasy and I tried to cover it up with a blasé kind of innocence. “Sophie won’t be like that!” I screeched, trying to protect my parents. “Even when she’s old she’ll still be running to the window to look outside!”

She was that kind of dog. She tore through life, banging her head on things and drinking from scummy ponds in forests. She walked with her tail arched over her back, flipping her paws up after each step. Men yelled at us from across the street. “Did you teach your dog to walk like that?”

“One . . . two . . . three . . . GO!” I would whisper in her ear when we were outside and she would take off, me desperately holding on to the leash, running as fast as I could behind her.

She made people happy. Not just us, but everyone. “Doggy!” squealed small children. Young couples smiled and pointed. Old men fed her treats.

Even after her diagnosis we had people stopping us on the street. “Is she a puppy?” My father had an elderly woman comment on how “full of life” she seemed. We took her to the duck pond and she quivered and moaned and pulled on the leash with her tail sticking straight up in the air.

But of course she did slow down.

She got up to investigate things.

Then she didn’t.

Barking backwards.

Then she didn’t.

Sleeping, her head on her paws, as cars honked and children cried and leaves rustled.

Then she wasn’t.

IV. A Conversation

The old man beside me on the bus is wearing soft blue jeans faded from years of washing. His eyes are closed, and out of the left one a single tear tracks its way a couple of centimetres along his cheek, where it pools and puddles in one of his wrinkles.

“Are you all right?”

He turns to look at me, opening his eyes.

“Ah, yes, I’m fine. I just had chemo so I’m, you know—”

“I am so sorry,” I say, and I really mean it.

“Oh, it’s fine,” he says—and he isn’t trying to be brave. “We’ll all be there one day.”

“My dog has cancer,” I blurt out. I instantly regret it. What kind of a person am I? Here’s this man crying on public transit on his way home from chemotherapy, and I’m telling him about my dog?

He smiles a real, sad, comforting smile. “I’m so sorry,” he says, and I can tell that he means it as much as I did.

I nod and we sit in silence for a bit. He turns back to me.

“I’ve lost all my hair!” he says, gleefully resigned, gesturing to the baseball cap on his head. “I’m going to go to the barber tomorrow to get him to shave it all off.”

“My grandfather had cancer,” I reply. “We said that he looked like Yoda. From Star Wars. With the tufty hair.” What am I saying? First the dog, now this? I need to learn to shut up.

But he laughs, really laughs, and I know that he understands. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be bald!” He looks excited.

He doesn’t ask about my grandfather, and I don’t tell him any more. Horrible as it sounds, everybody knows that grandfathers die.

It’s the people on buses and the dogs that are supposed to live forever.

V. By the Numbers

In the end, we get four of those one to six months. Fifteen weeks. One hundred and five days.

It takes a while to adjust after the diagnosis. We are all heartbroken. Devastated. Sad. My mother suggests that we go see a movie to take our mind off things, so we go to About Time, the new Richard Curtis. We’ve heard that it’s decent; funny and light. A romantic comedy.

It turns out to be a romantic comedy in which a father dies of lung cancer, and we exit the theatre feeling, if possible, worse than before.

We don’t know how long she’ll have. I pull a milk carton out of the fridge and glance at the expiration date. December 17. It hits me that Sophie could expire before our milk does. The cartons become unknowing prophets, throwing dates at me. January 14. February 22. March 3. She meets all the deadlines.

She makes it until Christmas. December 25. She sticks around for my father’s birthday. February 7. She keeps going until mine. February 27.

The milk carton says March 23. She’s not around to see it.

She doesn’t make it to my mother’s birthday. March 17. She is put down four days earlier, on the 13th. Killed on a yoga mat on our living room floor. It costs us seven hundred and eighty-two dollars to do it. And forty-six cents.

We put her name on my mother’s birthday card anyway, because it looks empty without the “Sophie” and the drawing of a paw print that we are all so used to seeing.

VI. Two Hours

We had the four months, and then we had the two hours. The two hours between the decision, the phone call, and the knock on the door.

We sat around her in a circle. I put my hand over her paw and she, never keen on affection, moved it away.

My dad and I took her for a last walk. We wandered slowly up the sidewalk in a little bubble of grief, separated from everyone else. Sophie stopped and stared up the sidewalk into the distance. She didn’t want to return inside.

When she did turn around, she led us slowly back along the route where she knew she might see worms. She liked to poke at them with her nose.

(She also liked the neighbourhood pet store, and homemade yam fries, and Vampire Weekend’s first album.)

She ran out of energy and had to be carried back in. We resumed our horrible waiting.

The ringing of the intercom still came as a surprise.

We kiss her over and over and hold her to us. Just one more goodbye. There’s blood on the yoga mat that I will never again want to stretch on, and she cries out in her final moments. My dad holds her head. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Then the drug has done its job and she’s dead. Limp. Still warm, as I kiss her again and again on her familiar-smelling muzzle. I will never smell that smell again. She’s wrapped in a blanket and picked up to carry to the vet’s car. My dad has a hard time lifting her. Her head flops down, hanging over his arm. My mom has to help him arrange her against his chest.

We go to separate rooms to cry, to sleep, to try to understand. We order pizza for dinner and drink red wine. “To Sophie,” we say as the glasses clink together.

“To Sophie.”

VII. A Conversion Factor

“Seven dog years for every human one!” they say. Seven for the price of one!

It’s more like a subdivision. Seven parts for every whole.

It’s hard for us to adjust to life without her. No more “Hello, Sophie!” when we come home. No more “See you in the morning!” before bed.

My mom cries in front of the park garbage can with the realization that she will never put a baggie of Sophie poo in there again. My dad picks me up from school and we listen to Bon Iver with red-rimmed eyes. We buy chocolate milkshakes. It seems impossible that she’s gone.

Sixteen days after she dies we receive a ceramic urn wrapped in paw-printed tissue paper. Sophie loved helping us unwrap tissue-papered gifts.

We also receive a small print of her front paw. I picture the person whose job it is to do that. To press a dead dog’s paw into a dish of clay. I wonder if she still had clay bits on it when she was cremated, or if someone wiped it off.

The urn and the paw print are just two more objects to remind me of her. There’s also the bed, still in the corner. The water bowl, still half full. The purple ball, still underneath the sofa.

The leash and collar, still hanging in the front hall closet. The only clue that Sophie isn’t just out for a walk, about to bound back in.

There are the memories that flash before me like scenes from a movie. Sophie throwing up in the car. Eating my kindergarten Valentine’s Day chocolates. Banging her head on the table. Stealing a muffin. Jumping from a dinghy and paddling frantically to shore. Catching a ball in the elementary school playground. Sneaking treats from the bulk bins at the pet store. Chasing ducks into the ocean. Leaping in the snow. Sleeping on my bed. Crying as she plays with a new squeaky toy. Howling as I play the violin. Eating grass. Learning tricks. Going for picnics and hikes and walks on hot summer days.

Living life, and bringing us along with her.

She was my best friend, and I will never forget how wonderful it was to have her by my side.



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