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Photo courtesy author. © 2018 üma kleppinger All rights reserved.

You Carry My Heart In Your Mouth

Üma Kleppinger
Jun 22, 2018 · 6 min read

THE DAY MONK DIED, Mingus finally stood in the light. I hadn’t realized that my 90-pound Boxer/Dane/Malinois mutt had cast such a large shadow. He had the jubilant energy of a puppy even at the ripe old age of thirteen, and when death came for him, it came swiftly.

A good friend offered to be there with me when it was time to say goodbye. She brought wine, whiskey, chocolate. Soul food, she said. After the vet carried away Monk’s lifeless body, she filled the tub with a bubble bath. The scent of vetiver, patchouli, and sweet orange filled the room, grounding and comforting at the same time. She poured me a glass of wine and set it in the bathroom next to the candles and the chocolate.

“I’m just a phone call away if you need me,” she said. We hugged for an uncharacteristically long time, my body shuddered with sobs as I struggled to croak out the words “thank you” in a voice thick with grief. Sarai left, locking the door behind her.

I slipped into the tub — my long-time retreat and place of comfort — and sipped my pinot noir and wept. I half-heartedly nibbled chocolate and wept. I sat there until the water turned cold and bawled my head off. Thirteen years with that dog. Running, skating, camping, road tripping, mountain biking. And now, this…the end. The countless joyful moments felt at once lifetimes away and omnipresent both, as I held his head in my lap and looked into his soft brown eyes for the last time, those eyes so full of trust.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.” I tried unsuccessfully to collect myself and smiled through the tears. I could see he was worried about me, my anguish palpable. “Don’t worry,” I said, lips trembling. “You’re going on a great adventure. I’ll see you again,” I promised.

When the second injection stilled his heart forever, I felt as though all the air went out of the room. His head slumped on my leg, lifeless. I stroked his regal head a few times, closed his eyelids, then laid his head on the blanket. I stood and ran into the hallway, bracing against the door frame for support. I hadn’t breathed in maybe a minute or a lifetime or more. Grief, thick and fibrous lodged in my throat and froze my diaphragm. I stood doubled-over and gasped, gulping in short, noisy bursts of air, but I could not exhale. Finally, a howl of grief erupted. I was alone again.

But I was not alone. I still had Mingus, Monk’s feline BFF for the previous six years. When my husband and I parted ways, we agreed the “kids” had to remain together. Mingus and Monk had become inseparable interspecies friends. When Monk and journeyed out for our morning walks through the neighborhood, Mingus would push through the dog door on the back porch and dash after us to join us for our perambulation.

One time during our walks, another dog approached us — a massive 110-pound American Stafford Terrier. (Imagine a tall pit bull on steroids that trains at Crossfit.) Mingus went on the offense and tore into the pooch, fast and furious. I stood watching, mortified, but unable to stop laughing. It was an odd and comical sight, reminiscent of the old Roadrunner and Tasmanian Devil cartoons. One bite and a quick shake of his head and that would have been the end of Mingus. But in this real-life stand-down, the dog scampered off, confused and frightened. I felt terrible for the dog (who didn’t know what hit him), but was astonished and not a little impressed at the audacity of my cat.

Mingus and Monk made a fantastic duet, but I admit I played favorites. For the most part, my dog was the center of my universe and Mingus, as his kid brother, was a satellite.

When Mingus passed away last month, I’d had more time to say goodbye. For twelve years after Monk died, the satellite had stepped into his big brother’s shoes and become the new center of my world. Monk had been with me in the good years; those halcyon days of comfortable freelance income when publications still printed magazines. But where Monk was my buddy during the best of times, Mingus kept me going during the worst.

Through financial scarcity, countless heartaches, a health crisis, and more than one severe anxiety episode, Mingus was my constant companion. He was my anchor, my sole comfort at times, and occasionally, my nemesis, but I had come to think of him as my guardian angel. Mingus kept me going when I no longer wanted to. He did not have any official service animal credentials, but during my darkest days, he had become that and more.

On a warm spring day in May of 2018, I picked up Mingus’ ashes in a tiny box of handmade paper. I couldn’t believe a 20-pound cat’s ashes could fit into a container the size of a tangerine. I sat in my car and wept openly in public, not caring who saw or heard me. There was no one at home waiting for me this time. Now, I really was alone.

I truly believe animals communicate in ways humans can’t even begin to understand. I believe they speak a language of spirit we have mostly forgotten. On that spring day long ago, when I soaked in the bathtub, mourning the loss of my beloved dog, Mingus pushed open the bathroom door and jumped up onto the tub. I cringed uncomfortably, recalling the ferret-in-the-bathtub scene in The Big Lebowski.

He meowed, then nonchalantly walked toward me along the edge of the tub. He stopped when he got to my shoulder, leaned over and began licking the bubbles off my arm. I completely lost any composure I’d managed to restore by then. Mingus had never done this before. It had been a bath time ritual between Monk and me. I fully believe Mingus was channeling the barely-departed spirit of Monk, trying to comfort me. How else could this behavior be explained?

That day was the beginning of a new dynamic with my cat. No longer dwelling in Monk’s shadow, Mingus had swallowed the shadow and made it a part of himself.

A couple of weeks ago, just a few days after Mingus’ death I was working in the garden one morning and noticed a lone crow lurking about. He followed me from one end of the garden to the other, curiously, no doubt hoping I’d unearth some tasty morsel. Back and forth, he hopped, tracing my steps in a way I’ve never seen a bird do. He had a confident, clownish stance, one leg thrust out in front, and the other awkwardly bent behind him as he hopped up-and-down with his legs frozen in that position. I laughed at him; he reminded me of the Keep-On-Trucking dude from the ’70s or one of those wind-up dinosaur toys that hop across the table, spitting out sparks.

For nearly an hour, he hung out in the yard with me. Every so often, I’d glance over, and he would cock his head, cutting his eye at me the way crows do. His nonchalant curiosity reminded me of Mingus.

“What’s up, Charlie?” I said, naming him, claiming him.

Charlie flew up to sit on the fence above me, tilting his head back-and-forth, eyeing me. As I worked in the garden, I talked to him the way I speak to all the things I love and nurture — the junipers and Japanese maples, the foxgloves and ferns, the fennel and feverfew — and now, this beautiful, sleek bird. Charlie said nothing, which I thought was unusual for a crow. It seems they always have something to say.

It’s been almost a month since Mingus died in my arms and most days when I’m working in the garden Charlie shows up. He’s just opportunistic, I’m sure. He knows I turn up juicy morsels. But a part of me wonders if this isn’t the feathered equivalent of having a furry friend lick the bubbles off your arm in the bathtub when you’re inconsolable.

Yesterday, I went out to check on dahlias, and he was there sunning himself on a boulder.

“Hey Charlie, what’s up?” I asked.

Charlie squatted down, then flapped his powerful, sleek wings, flying toward me in what seemed like slow motion. He passed so close I could feel a gentle brush of air from his wingtips. Sounding more like a purr than a typical crow’s call, he warbled a low “cuuurrghhh” before circling overhead, carrying my heart in his mouth.

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