Beth pulled me aside in her veterinary practice and with tears in her eyes told me that she’d found a mass on Sawyer. It would not be long until he was gone. She wanted photos to capture his unique spirit, before he passed. The rest of the words lodged in her throat along with the reality of his impending passing. She could only utter, “Soon.” I nodded.
It wasn’t long before that day that I’d photographed Sawyer, a happy mutt in his prime. The photo hangs proudly on the wall of the veterinary practice where Sawyer quietly, always in the background, looked over everyone present, just as he preferred.
Later that week I called Beth and asked her to tell me the story of Sawyer. How do you prepare to say good-bye to the spirit that unexpectedly came into your life and bestowed a mountain of joy on your door steps? How do you let go of the one that was there as you prepared to marry your soulmate, as you bought your first home and brought home that first baby? The one that smothered that baby in kisses. The one that welcomed in countless other rescue dogs, ushering them into what it means to be accepted into a pack.
In Beth’s grief journey, she made a bucket list for Sawyer and brazenly checked every goddamn thing off of it twice. When she told me about the list I remembered what a wise man once told me, “We photographers are not here to capture memories. We’re here to create possibilities and from that memories are made.” So we set to making the bucket list part of the photo celebration of his life. Suddenly, the possibility presented itself to celebrate a life even as it was leaving us. The possibility to grieve in the direct proportion to the depths of love made itself known. The possibility revealed itself that moving forward sometimes means stopping and steeping one’s soul in the now.
I arrived at their home. His condition had worsened. And through tears she confessed that she would likely cry through the entire experience. In truth, this was as much a part of her necessary experience as me standing across from her with the camera. Then I was ushered into the sacred space where grief and celebration meet.
His favorite activities revolved around food and snuggling. His family entwined themselves around his tired body. He eased in as they stroked his head. They oscillated between quiet solemn moments of reverence and tiny spurts of laughter over their precious memories.
His bucket list also included a cornucopia of any food he could imagine to eat that was safe for him. On that day Beth’s mother baked a dog-friendly cake coupled with a bowl of milk. He reveled in every ravenous bite and sloppy sip. His family laughed as he happily feasted, tail wagging all the while. Eyes all a glow.
The next day we sat beside one another with tears streaming down our faces as she watched a slide show of every bucket list snuggle and messy cake moment. In that space where devastating pain and perfect thankfulness meet, she was finding something to hold onto, something lasting to carry as she faced carrying on without this dynamic soul in her life.
We all know these creatures have a finite time with us. David Sedaris said, “…with the death of a pet, there’s always the urge to crowd the parentheses and string black crepe over an entire 10- or 20-year period. The end of my safe college life, the last of my 30-inch waist, my faltering relationship with my first real boyfriend. I cried for it all and spent the next several months wondering why so few songs were written about cats.”
While this sentiment bears a lot of heart ache, the pendulum swings the other way. The parentheses are crowded just as fully with each of the new beginnings framed within their legacy. The soul mate you married. The baby that came along and tugged on those ears and tail. The first day of that new career, when they greeted you at the door as you arrived home, matching your joy and enthusiasm. They share in each of our joys and swear they can lick away every wound.
Pets take their place in the story of the world we’ve made with them. Through their proud display in our homes, they anchor us to everything between the parentheses. They anchor us to the purest love we’ve ever felt, as remarkably experienced as the uniqueness of each one of those precious beasts. The truth is that sometimes they give us a reason to live. Sometimes we give them a reason to live. Sometimes we simply, warmly and quietly share our lives together. Every life is profoundly changed for the better when touched by a pet.