At the end of November last year our friend made the difficult decision to say goodbye to her cat of 21 years. Justin and I went to her house and helped her celebrate the amazing life of her cat. She used an at-home vet service that came to her home to make her cat’s last moments on earth as painless as possible. The company also provides private cremation and returned the cat’s ashes safely stored in a little box.
A week later I asked our friend how she was feeling. “I miss the little guy every day, but it’s not a sharp thing, just saudade…” I had never encountered the word saudade before. I went online to look up the meaning of saudade.
Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word that has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.
I first met Vincenzo at Hoboken Animal Hospital during an open adoption event. His face poked through a small kennel and I immediately fell in love with his brown eyes. The hospital estimated Vinnie to be roughly 2 years old, a product of a Corgi and a Shiba Inu. Vinnie started his life as a Japanese street dog but somehow the universe thought his life would be put to better use in the States. We became each other’s family on January 19, 2000.
Vinnie and I have had countless adventures together: living in New Jersey, New York City, Long Beach, Denver, Oakland, and finally Seattle. We’ve driven across the country more than once; we’ve shared houses with roommates (and rooms with exes); we’ve experienced life to the fullest and with more love than either one of us imagined for ourselves. For the past 5 years, we expanded our family to include my husband Justin. Vinnie accepted Justin as a member of his pack, and we made a life for ourselves in Seattle.
Last year Vincenzo was diagnosed with cancer in his left kidney. His right kidney was not strong enough to support his renal system on its own, and I was not about to subject him to chemotherapy. The cancer was declared “inoperable” and his prognosis for living was a few weeks to six months. But Vinnie is a tough little guy and cancer wasn’t about to slow him down. To the amazement of the vets Vinnie debunked his prognosis and lived well beyond six months without any additional cancer or cancer-related illness.
Time has no regard for life or death, it simply continues along its path and affects all things. Time began to take its toll on Vinnie: he lost weight, he was no longer able to digest anything other than baby food, he would want to sleep all day, and he would easily get confused by his environment. Time was soon coming for me to say goodbye to my best friend.
We used the same service as our friend for her cat. We made an appointment for the veterinarian to come to our home on Sunday afternoon. Living with a false sense of security that today is not the day one will die allows for routine. Living life to the fullest is knowing that, when death comes, one can truly say this life was a good one.
Justin and I wanted Vinnie to enjoy everything possible before the inevitable. We put Vinnie in the backseat of Justin’s car and drove all over Seattle to parks and areas that Vinnie loved to frequent for its sights and smells. Mostly the smells. We curled around him as we watched movies in the living room. Sunday we let him enjoy his favorite things: a plain croissant for breakfast and dried beef tendons in the afternoon.
The vet called to let us know she was on her way. Suddenly all the time in the world vanished into a countdown of the vet making her way through Seattle traffic to our home. Justin and I took turns petting him, kissing him on the forehead and telling him how much we love him. Justin took Vinnie for one last potty break outside as the vet arrived and pulled into our driveway. Our time was running out.
I held Vinnie in my lap, cradled in my arms as we talked with the vet. Normally Vinnie would struggle to break free of my arms but this time he wasn’t struggling. We were nearing the end of our journey, and my job was to simply stroke his head and ears.
The vet walked us through what was going to happen: a small dose of anesthesia would be administered to Vinnie to relax him. A second dose, an overdose, of anesthesia would be administered. Once the heart stops, she said, he will be in doggie heaven.
I am by no means Christian. This is not to say I am not spiritual; I simply cannot follow the prescription of any one religion. I believe Jesus taught his followers to love one another as they would love him. I believe the unconditional submission to the word of Allah is beautiful. I believe Buddha was right that man is not conscious of his actions or the consequences that result. I believe that the earth is sacred and nature is divine.
I do not believe Vinnie went to “doggie heaven.” Vinnie loved me unconditionally, and he stuck by me for all our years together trusting that I would always be there for him. Such love and devotion is worthy of moksha, a liberation of his soul from samsara. He is with God, he is with the universe. He is one.
Justin and I distracted Vinnie as the veterinarian administered an anesthetic to help Vinnie relax. The website said the anesthesia would take a minute or so to take effect, but Vinnie is a stubborn lil’ guy. The vet placed a rolled blanket alongside Vinnie to check how the anesthesia was taking effect. He bared his teeth and snapped for the vet’s hand. “Okay then, looks like you need just a little more to relax.” Another dose was administered. Vinnie was relaxed, snoring gently in my arms. I asked Justin if Vinnie had his eyes open or closed. “Closed.”
The vet took a moment to caution sliding a blanket under his body. “Once the heart stops, his muscles may twitch. Don’t worry as that is an automatic reaction from the body. He may release whatever is left in his system so, a blanket is a good idea to prevent any unnecessary mess.” I lifted him in my arms as the vet gently slid a blanket under his body. I held my best friend in my arms and I listened to him breathe. The veterinarian inserted the syringe into his hind leg and slowly injected the final dose.
Justin tried his best to cradle me as I shook and cried. The vet left our house so we could have a few minutes alone with Vinnie. I said whatever words came pouring out of my mouth, repeating I am so sorry, I love you so much, forgive me, his body has no weight, why does he no longer weigh anything? Oh my God what have I done? until I couldn’t breathe and the words no longer made sound.
The vet returned and checked Vinnie to make sure he was truly at rest. She pressed his paw into a clay circle so we could have this physical trinket as a reminder of my best friend. “Not the best print but that is due to his pemphigus.” But it was Vinnie’s paw and therefore the print was exactly what it was meant to be.
The vet brought her own blankets for transferring Vinnie in her car. I was barely able to hold it together. I was afraid to hurt his body. I hadn’t yet processed the fact that my dog was no longer alive and that I was moving the vessel that held his soul. I carried Vinnie’s body outside and into the back of the vet’s car. Justin and I held each other in our living room, trying to make sense of our world without Vinnie.
The absence of presence is more deafening than the highest decibel.
I expect Vinnie to be walking through the house, moving from one bed to the next. But there is no sound of his paws clicking against the floors, nor his body shaking as he gets up to change positions or move rooms. I turn off a light in the living room and I think I see him asleep on our bed. I ride in Justin’s car and I want to see Vinnie in the backseat with his nose sticking outside.
I’m at a loss with my time. I walked him religiously for 13+ years at least 3 times a day. I used to walk him for 45 minutes at a time, but toward the end I was lucky to get 5 minutes out of him. I am trying to fill up my time with activities or tasks because I don’t want the reminder of a house that feels so much larger without his adorable self looking at us with those gorgeous brown eyes.
Justin allows me to frame every picture of Vinnie we have. I already have 5 frames in the house and another 10 ordered from a company in Edison, New Jersey. My friend Sean took the photo of Vinnie above, and I had it printed as a silver gelatin fiber photograph for framing. If I can see Vinnie, he is still here. If I can see Vinnie, I can prevent myself from ever forgetting what he looked like.
If you were to ask me today how I am feeling, saudade is the only word I know to accurately describe my present state.
My heart keeps breaking itself.
Yesterday Justin and I drove to Seattle Animal Shelter with Vinnie’s beds, blankets, food, soft cone, harness, rain jacket, and grooming accessories. The shelter will find good homes for these items and other Seattlites will be able to look after their belovedaries with the same love and affection as we did with Vinnie.
We placed the items into the donation bin and returned to Justin’s car. He removed his glasses to wipe away the tears and began to cry. I held him as best I could in the car. These items are not Vinnie, they are just inanimate objects. But as Justin drove out of the shelter parking lot, the weight of our actions hit me like a mack truck.
Goodbye, Vinnie. Goodbye, my best friend. I love you, always, unconditionally.