She pawed at the back gate every day but this time was different. After several minutes of fence rattling, Shirley came out and gave Mia what she wanted, opening the gate dividing our back porch from hers, and letting Mia cross over into her yard. It was Mia’s favorite place. Shirley was our neighbor, but to Mia, she was “Grandmama”.
Shirley loved Mia as much as we did, and we always joked that Mia loved Grandmama Shirley more than us- but it wasn’t really a joke. Mia was a special, loving pup with legitimate, healing energy. She loved us endlessly, but we all knew we played second fiddle to Shirley. Shirley was a “dog whisperer” to Mia.
They understood each other. They had sleepovers when our family went away. When we returned home, excited to see our pup, she would sometimes be reluctant to come back across the porch to us. It wasn’t that she didn’t love us, she just really, really loved Shirley.
Mia often begged at the gate for Shirley to invite her over. Sometimes, the invitation was replaced by a handful of treats flying out Shirley’s back door, over the low wooden porch gate, and into our yard where Mia could suck them all down almost as fast as they appeared.
Mia was a 13 year-old Shitzu-Schnauzer mix with soft, wispy, black fur, a beautiful loving soul, and incredible tongue endurance. I once let her lick my face for 55 minutes straight, just to see how long she would go.
Mia hadn’t been acting quite right for several months. She was old, and we were trying various meds to help her regain some of her youthful energy and ease.
Mia went into Shirley’s house as usual that day, but she didn’t stay that long. I was still out back doing yard work and was surprised to hear Shirley and Mia come outside so soon. It had only been about 20 minutes.
That’s when I really began to see where we were.
“She’s not right.” Shirley said. “Somethings wrong with her- she needs to see a vet.”
I told Shirley we had just been to the vet and that we were tweaking her liver meds, but I agreed that Mia seemed more sluggish than before.
“I’m worried about her.” Shirley went on. “She isn’t acting right.”
We knew. But Shirley’s assessment was still worrying.
Shirley and Mia hugged, Mia gave her an unusually short series of licks, the gate opened, and Mia came back to our yard. That’s when both our hearts broke.
Mia’s because she knew she had seen her beloved Grandmama for the last time. Mine, because it became clear what was happening. She had gone over to say goodbye to her dear friend. And I was about to lose mine.
Looking into her eyes as I hugged her, I saw a deep sadness that shook me. I put her down, and as she walked around the holly tree toward the front door, her body sagged and deflated. She moved so slowly.
Mia stopped and looked back over her shoulder at Shirley. Twice.
I wondered through my suddenly rushing emotions, what it must feel like to say goodbye to someone you truly love, knowing you’re soon to die. Chances are I’ll find out at some point. How do you say goodbye to someone you’ve loved your whole life? Maybe Mia showed us that day.
She went into the house and lay down in her bed like usual. She had stoically held herself together the past several days and now we knew why. She wanted to say a proper goodbye to Shirley. Now that she had, she could let go. And she did.
My family and I realized that all the warmth and affection Mia had been showing us the past few months, had been leading up to this. It was a long, loving goodbye. What we thought was a shoulder problem was really an undetected pancreas problem that Mia had been working hard to conceal for months, even from the vet.
We spent the next 2 days going over every possible course of action to restore Mia’s health, but no legitimate options existed. After the Shirley visit, Mia allowed herself to give in. She didn’t move much, her eyes grew big and worried. We stayed by her every minute trying to keep her as comfortable as possible, although the drugs made her seem only partly there.
We cried a lot. We suspected we were on this path but even when you know for sure, it still seems to come as a surprise.
Two days later the inescapable moment came; time for the final goodbye. Mia was ready. We knew we had to.
I’ll never forget Mia’s insistence to see Shirley, or her reaction as she came home and walked away. As I age, I wonder more and more how and when the next goodbye will come, and how we, as humans, adjust to the loss of those that are important in our lives. I’m reminded of the cliches we hear so often about appreciating our lives and our relationships, about not taking anything or anyone for granted, and that nothing is guaranteed beyond the present moment. It’s all good advice, but none of it will make the inevitable goodbyes any easier.