THE LONG GOODBYE
BY: Kathleen DINAN
That last day, crystalline in memory, was slow motion, each moment so distinct, etched, sharp as the thin crust of frost that cracked under his last footsteps outside. Black dog on white ground, his legs barely able to support his cancer-ridden body. Eye contact came to be everything at the end, in contrast to when I first rescued him from his former life of neglect and abuse nine years before. It took a year for him to look me in the eye, even longer for his tail to rise up from between his legs.
Those last months, he'd hold my gaze across the expanse of marsh grass, he'd search for me from behind the cabins along the river, he'd look back at me every so often on our walks that became shorter, slower. That last morning, as we made our way to the cabin from the fire pile, he looked up, directly overhead, then over to me, so I looked up, too: juvenile eagle—silent, four feet above us, wings outstretched, flying west.
This goodbye was forecast and scheduled, unlike the white Lab, two decades ago, gone in a flash under the wheels of a truck in Brooklyn. I wasn't there that November morning; the man I wouldn't marry was. We buried her together, though, and that was the beginning of the end for us. No quick end for the black Lab, the starry-eyed Minotaur who took his last and deepest breath in my arms. Yin to the white Lab's yang, he was stoic, calm, soulful. She was frenetic, neurotic, always in motion. He, I had cremated, scattering his ashes in waters mostly, but also in the beloved grassy valley in northwest Montana, speeding west, a handful of him scattered to the eighty-mile-an-hour winds.
My father was cremated, too; I wasn't there when his ashes were spread at sunrise on his favorite golf course. By the time I arrived at his deathbed, the youngest, the last of the six of his children to reach him, he was in a waking coma. But he recognized me, I know it: his breathing got rapid and it seemed he was trying to say something to me. During what turned out to be one of our last phone conversations a month before, while watering a rooftop tomato garden a country away from him at sunset, he told me: Out of all of you kids, I don't worry about you. In my shock, I couldn't think to ask why; his words mystify me still.
Months after the surgery that saved his life but also nearly killed him, when it was evident that the vet was right and his cureless cancer had returned, I was always looking for signs. When he began to falter and nights became difficult, I'd sleep on the floor next to him, mostly staying awake to listen to his breathing. Years before, as my father lay dying, I slept on the floor of my childhood bedroom, my mother in the bed nearby, my father in their room next door.
One morning, from the cabin floor, asking for a sign that I should start to think about the end, looking up, there it was: a shooting star in answer. When the day had come weeks later and the vet would be on her way in hours, we took the last walk, going farther than he'd been able to go in months. As I questioned whether I was doing the right thing, a harrier hawk sped at us from the north, circled us twice, and continued south.
I left the cabin after he died and they took him away, walking north into the late day. Half a mile in, for no reason, I looked up. Cooper's hawk? Eagle? Some stealth bird, very close, its black and white mosaic underwings stretched long, soaring west. A gift, a sign, a forgiveness, I hoped.
More than a year later, after I'd scattered all but the little bit I'm keeping, it was time to give up the last remaining ashes of him. Out to the end of the island, on the squally Vernal Equinox, I threw him to the winds. Up, out, away—he swirled in all directions and back to me, into my eyes, my hair, my nose, my mouth. On the trail back north to the cabin, spring's new green all around, a lone black Lab pup flies around the grassy curve to me: a memory mirage. Alert, playful, hesitant, looking back for permission to go. The man appears, laughing, and I ask the pup's name. She's Raven, he says.
These days, what happens is: I'll see a bird in the distance—hawk, eagle, crow, dove—and there's that moment when I don't know if it's flying towards me or away from me.