Wednesday, July 25, 2012


                Everything feels big right now.
     Come to think of it, “big” might be the best word to use when people ask me how my year was.
                Geographically. Emotionally. Calendrically.  
                I have less than 48 hours left in Reykjavik and less than 48 hours left of being “on my Watson year.”
                The joyous return I was already envisioning from a porch in Bali twelve months ago feels a bit more complicated. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so excited to go home that most nights I can’t sleep, but as it comes closer and closer to being a reality, I also have been realizing more and more that going home will also be  a loss.
Processing this ending has also been made more complicated as I try to mourn another loss. I’ve been having conversations with my parents over the last year about the health of our beloved family dog, Cally, and the end is, unfortunately, quite near.  They were hoping she would hold out until I was home so that I could see her one last time, but we’ve all decided that she’s in a lot of pain, and it makes the most sense to let her go before then.
I wasn’t sure whether to write about this turn of events on here or not. I don’t generally advocate for grieving through forms of social media (“RIPs” on Facebook statuses somehow diminish the sentiment, no matter how well-intentioned they are), but this is the way I’m able to talk to people this year. I wanted to let you know that this is the reason my countdown to home has become a bit more thorny.  
In a kind of cruel irony, Cally is going to be put to sleep on Friday, probably some time while I’m flying over the Atlantic Ocean.  My countdown to home has also become a countdown to losing her. 

The Watson Foundation has a rule about us not returning to the United States.  They even specify that the only reason they’d make an exception would be the death of a parent or a sibling. The rule seems irrational and ridiculously harsh, but I think I’ve begun to understand it more as I go along. I took it into consideration when I first decided to accept. I worried that something big and terrible would happen at home while I was abroad. I hadn’t thought about my dog.
                Talking about the loss of a pet is a difficult thing. We don’t really have the language to do so. I’ve been in places this year where people would have laughed if they had seen how upset I was about the death of a dog. We don’t have the language for grieving over animals; we want to acknowledge a loss while simultaneously acknowledging that there are bigger losses people face.
                It reminds me of when we first got Cally. My sister and I would melodramatically cling to her, proclaiming our love as if she understood us, and felt welcomed into the family through words alone. I remember countless conversations with my Dad where we tried to get him to say that he loved Cally. He would say something along the lines of being fond of her, or that she was a great dog, but there was a difference between the way he cared for Cally and the way he cared for us.  We would listen patiently but then wail, “But why don’t you love her?”
                We wanted absolutes. We didn’t understand that there can be different kinds of love, that she could be a part of our family even if we loved her in different ways than we loved each other.
                She has been a part of our family for the last fourteen years. She joined a home that was then the home of two girls, ages eight and eleven, who opened up a box on Christmas morning to find dog food and a leash and put together the pieces, hysterical with joy.  She had been painstakingly waited for, counted down for, loved before she even arrived.  I remember training her on snowy mornings, a clumsy ball of fur with black paws skidding on our kitchen floor in New York, small enough to stand on the top of the dishwasher while we were loading it and lick the plates. I remember being furious at her when she ripped up the pages of my new American Girl book, terrified when we took her to walk in the woods at Sugar Pond on a February morning and she slipped through some ice. My Dad put his coat on the ice and laid down on it, stretching out to distribute his weight and pull her out. That’s when we knew he loved her. 

She was a great dog.  She barked too much and was sometimes snappy with other dogs. Sometimes she chased cars, even if we’d run after her, yelling. But she was with us as we grew up, as great dogs should be. She was there for my parents when my sister and I went off to college. She was gentle with children and obligingly wore a pair of antlers when we’d walk her every Christmas Eve on Church Street. In periods of high school angst, if I was upset in my room, and my Mom knew I wouldn’t put up with any kind of consolation from her, she’d open the door to let Cally in instead. She’d wander over to my bed and lick the tears off my face. She adored her time on Prince Edward Island every summer as much as the rest of us, she learned to be a lover of water, chasing countless sticks and Frisbees through the waves, running on the beach.  She was agile, fast, beautiful. On Christmas mornings she opened her own presents wrapped up with tissue paper. She was remarkably good at it.  She was smart.
I can’t remember a time in my life before my family took walks together almost every evening or afternoon. I’m not sure if we’ve always been that way, or if it started with Cally. She gave us a reason to, to escape the house for a while as various combinations of the four of us would take time out of our separate lives, emerging from different rooms to walk her together.  I hope we still do that.
My mom says that Cally hasn’t been eating for a while now. She carries her up and down the stairs every day.  She asked me if I want to skype with Cally before Friday, to say goodbye to her, but the idea of skyping with a dog seems ludicrous and laughable. And maybe I’d rather remember her running on the beach anyway. 

I went jogging this morning down by the water, on what will probably be my last run in Reykjavik. It all hit me for the first time, because, apparently, when you’re miles away and hearing about a loss through gchat, it takes a couple days for it to sink in.
I finished my run and began crying, walked to a nearby park, red-faced and sweaty. People walked by and I tried to cover in some kind of elaborate stretching routine that would hide my face. I thought about the day I had ahead, of coffee dates and meals with people who are lovely and generous, but whom I barely know. I don’t want to talk to them about my dog. I don’t even want to talk to them about this year. Everything feels too personal, too impossible to even begin to describe. I don’t want their faces to be the ones at the other end of these particular conversations.  
I’m ready to go home. 

I walked back to my apartment, snot and sweat and tears blurred on my face, put on a smile, and opened the door to meet three Austrian tourists who had just arrived. 
Much as I can try to mentally prepare myself,  I have no way of knowing what it will actually feel like to be back in the U.S., coming to terms with my own ending, coming to terms with Cally’s. All I can do is go through the motions. Saying my goodbyes in Reykjavik cafes. Laundry. Passport. Flight confirmation. Packing. Then board a plane, take off, and trust that somehow, I’ll figure it out when I get there.
Just like I did a year ago. 

 ...There's a time to let it go.


  1. hi nell--here's a welcome home from me. we say in Tamizh that to the learned, everywhere is home, everybody is kin.

    we met cally. it is easy to understand your loss at this time, nell. the big year has ended with a big emotion to handle.

    look ahead. as you say, you will figure it out.

    everything is forever beginning.

    i raise my glass in a toast to honor you.

  2. Aww, Nell. Sorry to hear about your dog. My old cat, who also joined my life as a present when I was 11, also died this week. I remember we talked in Zambia about wondering if we'd have to say goodbye to them this year. :( Pets are such special friends!