“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” ~ Roger Caras
I washed my yoga mat, which I rarely did while my 100-lb Black Lab Phoenix filled my life. Before she died months ago, she determined the rolling out of my mat was meant for her, even if I tried to coax her onto her own yoga mat, gifted due to her nail scratches. She had to be on whichever mat I wanted to use. So, I mostly did yoga around her.
My clean pink yoga mat free of black hair on the kitchen floor invited me into the emptiness, the sucker punch of her goneness.
I sat with my sadness. I miss you so much, baby!
It used to be when I was sad Phoenix and I went for walks around the neighborhood and into the woods.
I still go sometimes—to get my body moving and commune with the trees.
The neighbors with dogs hardly recognize me without her black body by my side.
She served as my guide dog, guiding me to people. She could smell who needed love.
She traipsed across lawns like an eight-year-old girl, interrupted conversations, leaned in for love, and accepted certain treats from favored folks.
Kids asked to pet her. Does she bite? Will she lick me? She likes me!
She taught kids who feared dogs they didn’t need to be afraid. She helped teenage boys push past their cool and allow affection.
She let a neighbor grieving her own dog hug tight through sobs and suddenly dismiss.
The landlord, who doesn’t even melt for spotted baby deer, bragged to the window guy about Phoenix. “She wasn’t just a dog!” She was a presence.
When she stayed with my friends Carol and Pete and I was on my way to pick her up, they said, “We don’t know any Phoenix; Our dog’s name is Princess!”
That’s what one neighbor called her. She’d disappear behind, or maybe in, his house. Sometimes I feared he coveted her in a way that made me understand that commandment. I insisted he stop calling her Princess. “Her name is Phoenix!”
But yes, there was something regal about her. When neighbors engaged with her, as they often did, their invisible walls dropped. She made people feel safe.
When they exclaimed, “She’s so beautiful!” they meant her entire demeanor, as well as her black satin coat. Her soft caramel eyes whispered caresses. Her untainted, soulful authenticity invited comfort. She knew how to walk the path to love.
Now, I walk alone. I feel invisible and vulnerable without my identity born from “This is Phoenix’s mom!” The easy connections and conversations sever without her.
Then, there’s the lovely older couple… The lady flat out told me early on when I invited her to a gathering, “The only people I like in this neighborhood is Phoenix.”
For years, both husband and wife, asked repeatedly, “Has she gained weight? She looks heavy.” I stifled my instinctive, “Have you?”
Now that she’s gone, I’m privy to a new conversation. Recently, they pulled their van close to me, against the nonexistent weekday suburbia traffic.
“Gosh, we hardly recognized you without Phoenix! We don’t see you walking much. How old was she?”
They didn’t seem to have a reference point. They shrugged and looked at each other. “What did she die from?”
“I don’t know. She’d been sick for a while.”
“Was it cancer?”
This conversation served up the opposite of “two heads are better than one,” as I’ve had the exact conversation with each of them individually.
“Well, we don’t see you walking as much without her.” Do you wonder why?
I can’t be too irritated with this couple, though. When Phoenix and I moved into the neighborhood, they told me where to catch the trail into the woods, like slipping me a secret ticket to childlike freedom found in the forest, our playground where Phoenix could go off leash while I walked, ran, skipped, sung, or wrote.
The trees swaying in spring, autumn colors splashing against the river mirror, the fluffy, winter carpet encouraging us to forge a fresh path, and the swept-clean dirt floor dancing with roots repeatedly returned us to our better natures.
I go alone now, seeking my spirit, missing my Lab partner, and feeling vulnerable without her bark, bold body, and announcement to anyone we might meet among the trees: I’m with her.
She’s not with me now. As a woman, I’m suddenly a little less free. I must stay more aware, the way a wise woman walks in the world today.
I’m acutely aware of my 11-year-old loyalist’s absence, along with her lingering love.
My yoga mat is clean. I practice into this new space where I don’t have to navigate a dog for whom I’d gladly lay out a mat, a bed, or a bowl every day of my life.
She was my pleasure, my treasure, and my protector. A gift of the highest order.