I have a photograph of my dog, one I took about a year ago and then mostly forgot about. There are so many pictures of her, scattered throughout my house, saved on my computer, posted on the internet; pictures of her excited face, her bored face, her curious face, her mischievous face, full body shots of her fetching a ball, chasing a bird, waiting for a treat. She’s everywhere, in everything, and so this one photograph never struck me as particularly important. In it, she is running, chasing the wind most likely, smelling a thousand things I could only dream of understanding one day. She is next to a pristine alpine lake, mountains soaring in the background, a blue sky framing the scene; the day is bright and beautiful and full of life, but never as full of life as that bundle of brindle fur exploring every corner of this mysterious new place. I snapped the photograph and a few more to round out the chronicle of the weekend’s adventures, and we set up camp for our final night in the woods before driving home the next day.
This morning I pulled her from the car and tucked her into my backpack, the little red bag that contained her sealed tightly for our final trip up the mountain. Today has been a much different day than the last one I spent here with her, when the sun shone and she pulled incessantly on the leash to my simultaneous annoyance and entertainment. That day shone under the rays of a relentless summer sun; today the clouds roil and churn above us, spitting occasional raindrops and grumbling against our desire to climb. I packed some socks and a T-shirt carefully around her, still unwilling to think of the ashes as anything less than the dog I had loved so well, who had loved me so well, during those years when nothing had really loved me back.
I was grateful for the way the end had unfolded, if it had to unfold at all. She wagged her tail at me, even if it sapped what strength she had left; I was there when she fell asleep for the last time, and she knew that. She knew when I laid those last kisses on her eyes. I had placed her beloved tennis ball in her hospital kennel, and she knew that, too.
What she didn’t know was the lonely drive to the vet the next week, when I returned to pick her up, grateful that I could be the one to do it. There is an emptiness in walking into a vet’s office without a dog, especially such a dog, the beautiful, wildly independent girl who still somehow had such undying affection for me. The receptionist handed me a small cardboard box and I took her in my arms, surprised at her weight, yet not surprised at all because she had been so much heavier when I carried her through those doors just a week before. I opened the box and found her urn inside and placed her in the front seat next to me. She had loved riding there.
I set out this morning with the intent to free her, and to free myself. She spent the last four months on my bedside table, her collar draped over her urn, next to a photograph of us from years ago. She seemed trapped in that picture, in that little box; the absence of the click click click of her toenails on the hallway floor and of the soft harrumph asking to play outside echoed through the house as I would gaze at that image of us. I had known this morning that today was the day, today I could carry her to the top of this mountain as she had carried me so many lonely nights, and let her go. I might miss her for the rest of my days, but at least we would be free.
I thought there was nothing more fitting for such a dog than to blow away across the top of the tallest mountains within my reach, the tallest mountains she had summited during her short, furious life. Our trips to the dog park were opportunities for her to boss her buddies around, to stand tall and show off her brains and brawn. I had to reach the top for her today, because she would have done the same, not for me or anyone else, but because it was there and she could and on the other side lay more worlds to explore and conquer. To release her anywhere else would have been a failure.
We reached the top and the storm bore down on us. Hail stung my cheeks and the wind whistled across a stone-dotted tundra, devoid of all life except the hardiest of grasses as even the alpine rodents took refuge from the pending onslaught. It didn’t seem right, letting her go there, in a rush to escape nature that was so much mightier than we were in that moment. I saw her face, two summers before, deep brown eyes pleading with me for assurance on the third day of heavy rain as we camped deep in an alpine wilderness. Water glistened on her fur and her tail wagged slowly; she was cold, but she trusted me. A few hours later I photographed her stretched out in the sun, drying her coat and content in the safety that I had promised her. She followed me everywhere, and then I had carried her to the top of this mountain, to the middle of this storm. I couldn’t let her go there. I had envisioned her escaping into the unreachable horizon, a place that has an end and yet doesn’t, that brings with it both the desire to shrink away from the abyss and to chase it, because maybe there’s something out there that isn’t right here. I wanted her to find out.
But today there was only cold, and rain, and my heart’s desire to leave the mountain and find calmer, lower ground. The lake lay below us, and as we started down I knew I was covering my final miles with her. There had been so many already. I thought of the days along the beach when she was a puppy, when I unclipped her leash and she just ran for the pure joy of running, ears and tongue flapping in the coastal wind. On our first night outside she donned her pack like an old pro and no matter how far she wandered, she always returned to check on my progress along the trail. She was there for my first high alpine backpacking trip, and then the first time I attempted it alone. But I wasn’t ever truly alone; surrounded by a world of crushing enormity, her warm body snuggled next to me made mine feel a little less small. Her confidence in me gave me my own.
I leaned my backpack against a tree and opened the lid, pulled her out, tucked her close to my chest. I didn’t feel the rain anymore as I approached the lake, but I could see her face, looking back expectantly as she ran ahead, wondering what would come next. I choked on my own breath as one foot fell in front of the other, realizing that was just a year ago, and today I carried what was left of that life. Today has been a much different day than that one was. The rain fell and she didn’t leap along in front of me, overcome by the elation of simply existing in this place. Instead I carried her, and we reached the edge of the lake and I looked alone across the water that rippled with the soft touch of raindrops.
Time froze there, the way it froze when the vet told me she died, the way I wish it had frozen when I woke up next to her in the tent each night we spent in the mountains. But time never freezes when we want it to. We can try to capture it, we can take those photographs and stare at the freedom we remember from those moments, but as soon as they freeze they disappear and we have lost what made us want to hold them so tightly in the first place. I had that photograph in my house and the little red bag in my hands.
“She was perfect for me.” I held her tightly for a final, frozen second, and then opened the bag.
“Goodbye, beautiful girl.”
I sighed and she blew away with the wind, across the deep gray of the water that surged under the storm’s turbulence. I allowed myself one last look, one last picture in my mind of the day I said goodbye to my first true love, and watched as she blended into the lake and the mountains and the sky and was finally free again.
Forever, little girl.