Losing Elsie and Loving Again
What may await if we open our hearts and minds to the seemingly impossible.
Posted May 19, 2019
One year ago today, Elsie died. Of the 10 dogs with whom I’ve shared my life, she was the one I became most deeply attached to.
A 30-pound dog, we expected Elsie to live well into her teens, but she was only nine when she was struck with squamous cell carcinoma in her mouth, an aggressive cancer with a terrible prognosis. We did everything possible to treat her, but that vicious cancer took her anyway.
I’ve lost other loved ones to cancer – my beloved father when he was 58 and my dearest friend Jayne when she was 50.
Both times I wondered how I would endure the grief.
When Elsie died, I felt similarly. The loss was huge.
No one had ever stared so soulfully into my eyes as Elsie.
No one had cried with such unremitting joy upon my return home from a trip.
No one had given me hugs at every opportunity or held onto my arms so tightly in an embrace as she did, multiple times a day.
And absolutely no one had ever anticipated my wakefulness in the morning and lay staring at me so that the first thing I saw upon opening my eyes was the beautiful face of someone who adored me.
And all that love that she showered upon me every day of her life was equaled by the love I felt for her.
Losing Elsie meant losing all this and more. It seemed highly unlikely to me that I would find that sort of love again.
Day after day, I wept. Then, slowly but surely, I began to cry less often, which I remembered was how it worked.
When my father died, I cried so much I wondered how my body could produce so many tears. I sobbed at traffic lights. I woke weeping.
Many months later, I realized I hadn’t cried in a week. More time passed, and I realized I hadn’t cried in a month. Now, 34 years later, I can go years without crying about my dad’s death.
Five months after Elsie died, my husband Edwin and I were ready to adopt another dog. We began tentatively to look at local shelter websites.
And then I saw her: a 20-pound mix of a dozen breeds brought to Maine from an overburdened shelter in Georgia. She had gigantic ears in different colors and a big black spot on her right hip.
I went to meet her, and when the shelter worker introduced her to me she ran so fast into my arms that she rammed my face with her nose.
There it was: the beginning of love.
When I brought her home for her three-day trial, and Edwin met her, he knew within seconds that she would be ours, and we hers. He came up with the name Poppy, which fit her exuberant nature.
When we adopted her, Poppy couldn’t walk down a flight of stairs. A year old, she had no concept of relieving herself outside instead of inside. She was unable to jump into the back of my little car or up onto our bed. If I picked up a stick, she cowered.
Poppy has learned to walk downstairs, go to the bathroom outside, jump into the car and onto the bed, where she sleeps nestled between us. She still cowers at sudden movements, and that may never change, but she is gloriously, irrepressibly happy virtually all the time.
And while I miss Elsie every single day, I am blessed with such big love again, which I hadn’t thought was possible.
Today, as I remember the agony of Elsie’s death a year ago and the terrible pain of covering her soft, beautiful body with earth as we buried her, I look at Poppy, and my heart aches and sings at the same time.
Sorrow and joy can co-exist in such a surprising way that I can weep holding Poppy in my arms, simultaneously consumed by love for her and deep sadness for Elsie’s loss.
Because I write about the importance of becoming a solutionary, I offer my story of Elsie and Poppy as a window into what is possible that we may think is impossible.
That we have the capacity to hold opposite emotions in our hearts at the very same moment is a reminder that we can hold other opposites simultaneously as well: anger and empathy; fear and courage; frustration and acceptance; sorrow and gratitude; burnout and motivation.
When we notice our capacity to experience such contradictory feelings, we may discover that we can also hold seemingly contradictory thoughts: vehement disagreement along with an understanding of a different point of view; wholehearted rejection of a belief system and genuine curiosity about another’s mindset.
When we can hold disparate emotions and thoughts at the same time, we open the door for communication and connection that may be far more nuanced and powerful than we had imagined, hoped for, or considered possible.
We may then be able to build bridges of understanding that lead to more successful responses to conflicts.
We may have revelations that derive from unraveling complexity that lead us to solutionary solutions to the thorniest of challenges.
Is it possible to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems? Is it possible to find peace and reconciliation between groups that have hated one another for generations? Is it possible to put the survival of other species before the satisfaction of every human desire? Is it possible to reduce fear and greed and more effectively cultivate compassion and generosity?
All of these things are possible, just as it is possible to love again even when loss threatens to shut the doors on such a possibility.
Knowing that something is possible is the first step toward making it so. The next step is readying ourselves for action, which may mean challenging ourselves to seek out new information; opening our hearts and minds with more effort; or diving more deeply into complexity and contradiction to see what unexpected and previously unfathomable possibilities might emerge.