Have you ever lost an animal companion so suddenly and unexpectedly that you struggled to come to terms with it for weeks, months, or even years? If you follow this blog, chances are you view your pets as part of the family, just like I do. I’d like to tell you about my experience of healing by writing about the loss of Henri.
Early in 2013, my beloved Bichon, Henri, started showing signs of illness. He was gaining weight rapidly and he had strange skin issues, like a rash that wouldn’t go away and cyst-like sores. I was no stranger to a Bichon’s allergies and the vet didn’t think it was too big a deal. He was more concerned that Henri was getting fat and we both figured he was just eating too much and not getting enough exercise.
More problems kept popping up—the skin rash was a staph infection and he had fungus growing between his little toes. The vet ran tests and amped up the meds. Then, Henri went blind. It was horrible, but I was prepared to do anything for that little dog. I researched how to care for a blind dog, started a blind dog blog, and of course gave him plenty of bully sticks and games to play with. Henri is wicked smart and could solve puzzles in a snap, blind or not.
Then, his hearing started to go. Trips to specialists were almost daily, because his sores wouldn’t heal and he kept getting more. He hated the constant poking and probing as much as anyone would! He was on so much medication I didn’t know how his little body could handle it. I had to wear gloves to give him one of the pills. I had to put eye drops in his poor blind eyes twice a day and it was obvious this scared him. One consolation was that, since he was blind, I had to carry him everywhere, so at least he was getting lots of snuggling and so was I.
Gradually, we were starting to realize that Henri was not going to get better; he was only going to get worse. Before long, he didn’t want to be petted and comforted any longer. He didn’t want to sleep. He barked all the time, confused.
We made the hardest decision a pet owner could make, and on his last night with us we gave him a steak dinner. He couldn’t even smell the steak in front of his face. But once he had a lick, he devoured every bite.
I was so grief stricken after he died that I was inconsolable for days. Understand, I didn’t want to admit that Henri’s condition was fatal until about a week before he died. Maybe that’s what the vet was telling me, but since they couldn’t even name the disease—it seemed like some kind of multi-system, cascading thing of mysterious origin—I denied that he couldn’t be fixed until the very end. His breed should have a life expectancy of at least fifteen years. Henri was only seven-years-old when he passed.
My friend Amy Martin encouraged me to celebrate his life (and that’s something I tried so hard to embrace), but I wasn’t ready to stop mourning. I wanted to hold onto him somehow.
That’s when I decided to make Henri a character in the book I was writing at the time. We come into the story as a new character is introduced, driving into the small town of Shirley…
Driving into Shirley from the east always shocked Aaron Walsh after he had been away for a while. He’d be driving through the gentle rise and fall of the highway, traversing mostly highlands between the taller peaks, for miles. Then, he’d round the last summit, Widow-maker Point, and then bang!—the valley plunged, a deep crevice in the countryside below the granite cliffs. The transition was breath-taking. He usually felt contented by the vision, flooded with memories of a happy childhood spent rampaging through the forests with friends, siblings and cousins. But not that day.
That day, the scene made him feel homesick and sorry for himself. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in a cozy lounger and watch a Mystery Science Theater marathon under blankets. He turned up the volume on a melancholy country song and let his mood settle in. Aaron reached up to squeeze Henri’s collar. He hung it from his rearview mirror after the vet had returned the collar, empty, along with other personal items. The grain of the fabric was worn and soft, slightly oily from years of use.
Henri had started out as his wife Chloë’s, dog years before, but the dog had taken to Aaron. Aaron loved to give Henri bacon treats and dinner handouts under the table. Chloë bought him for a show dog. He was a Bichon Frisee with Champion lineage—his sire was actually named Champion, no kidding—but Aaron had spoiled her chances in a matter of months. He smiled, thinking about how mad his wife was when Henri got too fat. He remembered that glorious, flowing-white tail that Henri would wrap around his wrist while he petted him. Aaron had grown up with hounds and mutts, and he never would’ve imagined a fluffy white dog would or could steal his heart, but he had.
Then, Henri started showing signs of mysterious health problems. A pure bred dog after all, Aaron had tried to reason that inbreeding often caused strange issues. He took him to dozens of specialists and spent thousands of dollars on testing and treatments. Finally, he had to accept it. Henri was dying. Once Aaron decided to have him put to sleep, he made the commitment to be there with him when he passed away. He cried like a baby for days leading up to it and for days after it was done, but he was able to stroke his fur and whisper thanks in his ear, for being such a good dog. As difficult as it was, he was grateful to have been able to tell him good-bye.
Chloë was sympathetic and patient at first. But after several days of Aaron’s prolonged mourning, his moping around the house uselessly, she started to lose patience. He lashed out at her for not seeing Henri’s worth as a show dog (which was ridiculous; Henri would have hated that prissy crap), and Chloë suggested a week in the mountains might help.
She was right, of course. Camping always helped heal the soul. Aaron couldn’t wait to get out there, among the elements. He’d spent too much time indoors the last few years. City life did that to you. He figured he’d stop in and say hello to Dad before he headed south, into the most secluded wilderness along Red Ridge.
–Excerpted from The Tramp.
When I read that now, two years later, I know that what I was doing was witnessing Henri’s life and death. I felt so guilty about his illness, because I didn’t realize for so long how ill he was. I wondered if I had treated him kindly enough when he was probably feeling worse than I understood. Henri never complained.
Any pet owner who has had to make the decision to euthanize a beloved friend knows how hard it is; even when all professional opinion tells you you’re doing the right thing, the “right thing” is excruciating.
But also, I was sharing Henri with the world, making him eternal in literature. That helped the healing process begin. As Aaron Walsh finds peace in the book, so was I in writing about it. The sunrise that he watches, and the peace he feels afterward, was my way to describe what I hoped was in store for myself.
I’m not the camper he is, but I can imagine it…
Right on time, an American Robin broke into her, “Cheer up, cheer up, cheerily,” whistle not a hundred yards away, and Aaron decided to quit his tent for an early start.
He unzipped the door flaps and ducked out into the fresh morning air, then reached back inside for his coat, shocked at the drop in temperature. Feeling the yawn in his abdomen, he considered breakfast, but since the sun wasn’t completely up, it would be a hassle in the dark. Instead, he sat down on the blanket of fallen pine leaves outside his front door, tugged on his boots, and decided to sit out the sunrise with a better vantage point closer to the river. He inspected his jeep as he passed for any signs of ransacking, but seeing nothing amiss, he ambled toward the rim of the bluff.
The stroll was easy through towering pine trees, their high plumes of needles overhead floating over the forest floor like thunderheads. He could barely see the stars, much less the blossoming horizon to the east, but he knew the giant trees would stand aside for maples, dogwoods and holly bushes along the edge of the pinewoods. The heavens would open up for a gorgeous sunrise over the southern canyon. He heard the rapid, stuttering trill and then low, buzzing tones of a warbler in the distance, announcing the dawn. Aaron picked up his pace. Near the edge of the forest, he slowed down to navigate a thicket of mountain laurel and rhododendron. He heard more birdsongs announcing survival of the night and warning enemies of nests still protected, and Aaron worried he might miss the sunrise.
But the canopy above cleared abruptly, and he was kissed by the fresh air of the open ravine, with an earthy smell of fast moving water churning up the riverbed below. He could just discern a delicate lavender wash seeping across the sky into the western blackness, the stars beginning to wink out with the advance of light. Aaron collapsed to the ground, leaned back in relief and dangled his boots over the side of the bluff, his palms damp on the cool, crusty granite. He thought about the healing power of a new day—of every new day—and admitted that he was starting to accept his friend Henry’s death.
“Bye, little buddy.”
The burst of sunfire was spectacular, perfect for Henry’s requiem. Bright pinks and oranges flared and rippled amongst feathers of clouds. Aaron’s face warmed as the sun rose and the pageant faded and the sky gradually fused back together in a cool, peaceful blue. It was morning, fair and full of promise.
–Excerpted from The Tramp
I am happy to report that I’m now able to truly celebrate Henri’s life. When I shed tears for him, they are tears of joy and gratitude. Recently, Amy Martin introduced me to Denise Mange, a certified animal communicator who helped me contact Henri. It was an amazing experience and one that I will share in my next post. Stay tuned! If you’d like to learn more about animal communicators, ask Amy or visit Denise’s site: www.denisenyctraining.com.
–Sarah Wathen, guest author
To learn more, follow Sarah’s blog at www.sarahwathen.com.
Sarah Wathen is an artist, an author, and the founder of the independent publishing house, LayerCake Productions, specializing in the fun part of creative writing—original artwork, video trailers, and musical soundtracks. She was trained in Classical Painting at the University of Central Florida, and received her Master’s in Fine Art from Parsons School of Design in New York City. If Florida was where she discovered her passion, New York was the place she found her voice. “Writing a book was my obvious next step, once I realized I’d been trying to tell stories with pictures for years,” Sarah says about transitioning from visual artist to novelist. “Painting with words is even more fun than painting with oil.”
Sarah lives in Florida with her husband, son, and at least a dozen imaginary friends from her two novels, a paranormal mystery called The Tramp, and a young adult coming of age story, Catchpenny. A painter at heart, her novels incorporate art judicially, both in narrative content and supporting materials. Her characters are derived from the people and places that have influenced her own life—at least one beloved pet makes it into every book—but the stories they live will take you places you have never imagined and won’t want to leave.