The Mud of Us

In swells of grief I address the dead as you. Over 12 years ago, my dad called from the ICU, with fluid collecting in his lungs. Before we hung up, it was as if he mustered all the wind left in him to say, “See you Saturday.” By the time my flight arrived in Birmingham, his heart had stopped. For forty days, I wrote him a letter everyday. Whenever my words faltered, I scrawled See you Saturday, over and over.

I’ve only seen tears fall from my dad’s eyes twice: when his sister died, and after our yellow lab mix Sandy passed. In my dad’s Egyptian culture, men don’t grieve pets. He called my Alabama grandmother to ask, “Is it ok to cry over a dog?”

Sandy’s ashes sat on the mantle, next to a replica of a Coptic icon: St. George on his horse, their umber eyes tilting toward heaven. Engraved in a silver panel on the mahogany box of ashes is an inscription: Sandy Makar: Short Life. Great Contribution.

My brother and I still laugh about Sandy’s epitaph. It’s part of how we grieve and celebrate our dad. We delight in the ways he inhabited English as a second language: He’d pick up an idiom or pithy phrase and use it in a strange context. Great Contribution was our dad’s understated way of saying all that Sandy meant to him. Ever since illness started shrinking his life, Sandy was always by his side.


Three Novembers ago, sapped from his last chemo treatment, my friend Murenzi touched the sun-and-hay-colored fur, the soft crown, of my rescue Nelson’s head. “When I get better,” he said, “we’ll run and play together.” He moved two fingers down to Nelson’s brow, as if to bless him and take in the light of his eyes.

When a hospice nurse told me Murenzi’s liver could shut down any day, I rushed Nelson over for a visit. When we entered his room, Murenzi’s whole face brightened with a smile. Nelson propped his front paws on the edge of the bed and met Murenzi’s lifting arm with his mouth, licking the palm of his hand. The last words I heard Murenzi say were “Nelson, you are very fantastic.”


Fifty-eight days ago, Nelson’s front legs gave way under him. He lay on the floor, his breathing labored. My partner Josh carried him to the car, and we rushed him to the vet hospital. They called stat and took him back for an EKG, IV fluids, blood-gas labs. The next time we saw Nelson, he was shivering on a gurney. He turned his head, and we were relieved to see a strong flash of recognition, his brown eyes dim, but still brimming with trust.

The vet hospital is next to the oncology clinic where Murenzi used to go for chemo, and where I go for CT scans every six months. When I was diagnosed 11 years ago, my life expectancy was cut short. But immunotherapy worked a medical miracle in me: My scans keep showing no sign of cancer activity in my body. 

These lengthening days, I keep remembering Murenzi sitting on a bench outside the clinic, the sun casting light on his face and arms. I let myself believe he would survive like I did. 

I let myself believe Nelson would have a miracle, too. A rescue from Texas, he’d already survived Hurricane Harvey. I once dreamed a whirlwind picked him up and set him on a rooftop, where he held on with all his might until the floodwaters calmed into a shimmering lake. He climbed down a fire escape and began to swim towards us. 

After the hurricane, Nelson was found shivering in a Houston shelter. Shaggy Dog Rescue rushed him to a vet, who diagnosed him with pneumonia and pancreatitis.  He almost died, but he had a second miracle of survival. 

When he came to us, he was a buoyant almost-grown puppy, with a touch of gravitas. His body hadn’t quite caught up with his head. Or maybe it was all the strands of fur curving with the contours of his face: a thicket of blond commas around his mouth, wavy ears draping his jaw, wind-swept brush-covered ridges above his brown eyes, almost always looking up at you, as if asking, “What’s going to happen next?” At first, Nelson seemed unsure of where to go in the house. He would whimper when we left. He soon grew into a stubborn and snuggly little adventurer. Whenever he wanted to play in the yard, he would grab one of our shoes in his mouth and bound through the doggy door, demanding that we join him. On the trails around Lake Wintergreen, he would scramble up the rocks and roots after deer he could never catch. He would always come back.

Well over a year ago, I took Nelson with me to a service outside a church downtown. 

The priest who had blessed Nelson and sundry other animals on St. Francis Day was gathering people in a circle to burn palms. We were turning the dried leaves into ashes to be drawn in the shape of the cross on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Nelson pulled the leash and me with him away from the circle around the fire, towards a tree where he drank rain water that had pooled between two roots. He tracked a squirrel zip-zagging up the trunk. He charged after, front paw pads on the gray bark, as if he could dart up the tree, too. Gravity could not stop his nostrils and eyes, fixed on the very bristles of the tail flicking from a high branch. He stood, staring up the trunk until the squirrel was out of his sight. Then, he found a grease-spotted McDonald’s sack he wielded like a prize, until another squirrel caught his eye. As we were leaving, the priest’s husband said, “That is a delightfully shaped dog.” And we all laughed, delighting in his terrier barrel chest he was puffing out to lead the pack, his squat dachshund legs moving his stocky body fast, his tail arcing and spiraling over his back.

Nelson seemed invincible, until his legs collapsed. The vet thinks he had lymphoma in the spine, which caused irreversible nerve damage. He lost his ability to walk. He couldn’t breathe with ease. 

We got to bring Nelson home and have a last day together. We carried him from the car on a pallet of blankets to a make-shift stretcher on the deck, so he could see and smell his yard. We had grand plans of taking him to his favorite park. Josh even threw together a contraption with a suspended harness and wheels, so Nelson could feel a sensation akin to walking again. But we soon realized this was more for us than him. Nelson was drifting in and out of sleep, perhaps beginning to inhabit a realm where gravity doesn’t matter. 

The suspended harness, the trip to the park, was a last-ditch wish. Like the red walker with a seat I brought to Murenzi at Connecticut Hospice, where you can roll patients’ beds out by the Long Island Sound. I thought maybe he’d want to walk by the water with me and Nelson one last time. Though I’d accepted he was going to die, I thought we would get slow, golden hours, like a long sunset. But he was sleeping most of the time during his last days. He’d murmur a few words every once in awhile, as if he were in the middle of a conversation, and then trail off. He seemed to be in a place more tenuous and tender than here.

We carried Nelson in from the deck. I cradled his head in my hands, as Josh lowered him down to the spot on the couch where he liked to sprawl out. Josh’s mom and our good friend Lisa came over. I brought photos into the room with us: My dad, standing by an aquamarine sea; Murenzi beaming and reaching toward Nelson’s head, a whir of shaggy fur in action, their motion toward one another so strong it seems the momentum could blur the bed rail into a horizon. 

We fed Nelson his favorite food–- whipped cream, by the spoonful–- until he dozed off. We watched him take his last nap. He seemed to be having an adventure in his dream: It was so good to see his nostrils twitching. And the one paw in which he still had a trace of mobility bending with his wrist, as if he were scrambling up a mountain.

After the vet arrived with her euthanasia kit and sat near Nelson’s back legs, Josh and I laid our faces as close as possible to his. In our last few minutes with him, Nelson opened his eyes: Two lakes casting their light on our eyes. An unbroken gaze that feels like it’s still happening.

Nelson, you are very fantastic.


A few times since Nelson passed, I’ve found myself saying “This is harder than grieving my dad.” At first, I whispered it. But then I realized my dad, of all people, would get it. He’d lost both his parents, but it was Sandy’s death that upended him. 

What is it about losing a pet that undoes us? Perhaps because it’s such an uncomplicated love, a tender interdependence. Or because of how much nonverbal communication depends on gesture and touch, subtle casts of the eyes, rhythms of breath, tones of voice. Because they cannot speak back to us, we have no words to hold onto. Or maybe it’s because these creatures shape the pattern of our days and nights, our waking and our sleeping, our ways of inhabiting the spaces we share with them. When we sit on the couch, Josh says he can still feel the weight of Nelson’s head on his knee. Sometimes I still reach for the leash after putting on my shoes. There’s a Nelson-shaped emptiness at the morning and dusk and night times we would walk him. I used to call Nelson my little shadow-light guy. Sometimes every step without him feels dim.

These days, I keep scribbling letters to Nelson I don’t know how to end. Grief calls for outlandish acts of love: My dad’s absurd sterling epitaph for Sandy. My unfinished letters to Nelson–barrages of words he could not understand, even when his brain was alive and spry. But writing Nelson, like my See-You-Saturday letters to my dad, are a way of trying to touch the seam between here and wherever the dead live.

Dear Nelson,

Your ashes arrived seven days and twenty-something minutes since you went to sleep for the last time. I had to sign for the package from Final Gifts. I sat, with the box in my lap, in the place on the yellow couch where you would nap in slants of sunlight. I still speak of you in the present tense, in unfinished sentences: as if your fawn-soft, straw-bright fur, as if your paws that track in the mud, as if your jaw-long ears that billow in the wind like sails, were not ashes in my lap. I hugged the UPS box, rested my chin on the top, let the boulder of my head go, and cried, as if I could grieve you alive.

The print the vet made by pressing your paw into clay, the keepsake she gave us before putting you to sleep, is dry by now. I wanted the clay to stay wet. I want the mud of us here together.

If I can’t have you back, I’ll take this ache that soothes itself, with wishes running wild and magnificent. I’ll take the balm of praying for impossible things. If I can’t have you back, I’ll take unabashed magical thinking. I’ll take the craze of grief. I’ll imagine myself Ezekiel, staggering in the valley of our departed asking the bones to rise and sinew back together, asking the breath to breathe again, begging the bodies to resurrect.

But I’m no Ezekiel. I can’t bring you back. I don’t have any prophecies. Just love and staggering words.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.