There might not be any more annoying start to a conversation than So I had this dream last night, but I had this dream last night.
The brain is a powerful, kind thing sometimes.
In dream-time, it was long, and the plot I remember vividly, but that part is irrelevant. What counts is that Mo, a whippet-shepherd mix I lost three years ago, showed up. Clear as day. Healthy, happy–everything I remember about her. And I was able to spend close time with her again—feel her fur & the particular shape of her head & softness of the tips of her ears, watch her run, & see her gaze up at me. Beautiful. It was nothing short of a gift.
I don’t know exactly what sparked it. Yesterday, though, I’d gone to the funeral service for the mother of one of my closest friends. I didn’t know her very well—we’d only met a few times—but my friend, her son, is someone I adore so completely beyond words. It was a Presbyterian service, lovely, held at the church where my friend’s father is a pastor.
I’ve been to funerals. Too many than I think I should for my age, fewer than plenty of people, certainly. At the service, the presiding pastor read stories of remembrance from friends and family of my friend’s mother, stories that illuminated her humor, her strength, her spirit and her love. I couldn’t help but think about the stories I’d share about my own parents—what could possibly mark the borders of their personality, their impact on me. The mundane things that are suddenly bursting with significance, because someone is no longer there to perform them. The way my dad still pokes me while I’m driving until I poke him back in retaliation, just so he can then fake-yell at me to “keep both hands on the wheel!” The amazing way it feels to be in my mother’s kitchen while she’s cooking, or how she always asks how my dogs are doing when she calls (and seriously wants to know).
It’s true that I’m writing this post as a way of procrastinating another larger essay I’ve been working on for months, about the process of de-cluttering my house by one-half, of reducing the things in my life to a more manageable amount. A process that entails getting rid of items that I’ve given powerful sentimental value to—some of which belonged to my grandparents and my Great-Uncle Harry, who was such a force in my immediate family. When others pray to God, I always say, I pray to Harry. That’s how much goodness he represents to me. I keep these things, I know, because they bring to mind the people I love. And to think about losing the thing, however irrational it is, is to think about losing their memory. Or rather, my memory of them. It means losing transportation to the past, which is necessarily where they live.
Why do we attach ourselves to things so completely? Does it stem from very early childhood, when there would always be the one thing—a blanket, a toy—that soothed us? I remember as a child having a favorite stuffed animal—a rabbit, named, obviously, Bunny Rabbit. I was maybe three years old, going to have some surgery to correct a kidney issue. Prepping for the surgery involved getting an X-ray—of course I was terrified. So the technicians actually performed an X-ray of Bunny Rabbit before they did one of me, so I could see I had nothing to fear. I actually still have that X-ray, which essentially shows a lot of stuffing and two glass eyes in the shape of a rabbit that really was just the shape of a gingerbread man with tall, pointy ears.
But it did help me to become more fearless, to see something I loved survive what I would endure. The stuffed animal is long-gone—does that matter to the feeling?
One of my other dogs, Tonka, who passed away from cancer, had a favorite stuffed toy, too. It was a hedgehog the size of a Nerf football, with a squeaker inside. You’ve probably seen these in stores—they’re everywhere. We called it “Baby”—enough times, I suppose, that if you asked him to “go find Baby,” he’d immediately hunt for it and bring it to you. He loved Baby. Though he also loved to rip Baby to shreds, to remove the plastic parts inside so he could also rip *them* to shreds. The good thing about Baby being his favorite toy is that he couldn’t tell the difference between the first Baby I bought him and the twenty-seventh. So long as it looked like a hedgehog and had a squeaker inside, it was Baby, and good enough for love.
I will always have dogs. I know this. But having lost a few already, as I will likely experience losing the ones I have now, I spend time with them differently. When I sit or lie with them to pet them, I try to memorize things about how they look and feel. I spend a lot of time stroking their ears and face, concentrating very hard on the particular shapes and softness. I focus on the way their heads feel
tucked into the crook of my neck, what their eyes look like when they look up at me.
A few days ago, a good friend—a relatively new friend—sent me an email out of the blue, which said, simply, “Dear Amy Woolard: I am grateful for you.” It was a small, profound thing to say, to hear.
When I thanked her privately for it, she wrote: “I am happy that you feel cherished. We need to do more of that, chief.”
You know who your hedgehogs are, people. Love them.