“The photograph reflects. Every streetlight a reminder.” — “Nightswimming,” R.E.M.
“These wheels keep turning but they’re running out of steam. Keep me in your heart for a while.” — “Keep Me In Your Heart,” Warren Zevon
These are some of the last photographs I took of Bernie. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if he was saying a long goodbye by doing certain things one last time.
Towards the end, he had six different medications – all of them literal and figurative bitter pills – coursing through his veins, keeping him alive. One of them was particularly strong and made him urinate all the time. So, instead of making him go up and down the stairs multiple times every night, we had moved everything downstairs, sleeping in the guest rooms so we could let him outside multiple times in the evening to use the bathroom.
A few days before he passed, I noticed he had gone upstairs for the first time in months. He climbed into his original bed, lay on his side and started to go to sleep. That bed had long been replaced by a bigger, fancier model, but we had kept it around, giving him a nice secondary bed to use whenever he felt like taking a nap during the day (which was often).
We had also held onto it for sentimental reasons. After all, that was the bed that had been waiting for him when we first brought him home from the shelter. It must have been a welcome change of pace from sleeping on the streets and surviving on nothing but garbage and hope. I like to think that, from that first night, when we wrapped him in a blanket and took turns petting him, kissing his head, and telling him how much we loved him, he knew he had finally found a home where he felt safe and beloved. No more getting yelled at whenever his stomach acted up and he had an accident on the carpet. No more fighting with other strays and night creatures over dumpster scraps. No more rolling the dice and sleeping under cars because they were the only warm and dry places he could find – especially in the dead of winter.
Maybe he wanted one last night upstairs in his old bed. At the time, that thought hadn’t crossed my mind; I was more concerned with getting him downstairs so that we could let him out to use the bathroom during the middle of the night. Looking back on it now, I wonder if we should have just let him experience that one last time. Then again, we probably didn’t want to think that way — even though we knew what was coming.
Indeed, these photos all make me wonder if he did certain things towards the end of life because he wanted to experience them one last time. Like sitting under my desk. In general, he liked resting under things (like beds or tables), and would often lay under the desk while I was working. However, he hadn’t gone under my desk in months, which was what prompted me to take a picture when he finally did.
Or going into the downstairs bathroom and pawing at the area rug. He hadn’t done that in a while (probably because he mainly did it to the area rug in the bathroom upstairs). I never knew whether it was part of his burrowing instincts or if he was just messing with us. Either way, maybe he just wanted to do it one last time but didn’t feel like climbing up those stairs.
Or with his walks. He had always been very efficient with his walks, usually content to just go once around the block to do his business. However, during his last couple of months, he had started taking his time, sniffing nearly every breath of grass and smelling nearly every flower petal as if he knew every time out could be his last. He even tried, repeatedly, to enter the playground near our house even though it had been closed due to COVID-19. I like to think it was because he wanted to make up for all those years of ignoring the park and not because he had turned into an anti-mask Karen. Or Kevin, I guess.
The longer walks inevitably wore him out. Sometimes, he would lie down on the grass and refuse to go any further, forcing me to carry him home (in the above photo, you can really see just how much the heart disease seemed to age him – it was like he aged 10 years overnight). Of course, that didn’t deter him from pushing the envelope and taking an even longer walk the next time out. Maybe it was like how some elderly people don’t like going to sleep because they’re worried they won’t wake up. Maybe he walked each time like it was his last because – well – it very well could have been.
And, of course, there was his actual goodbye. Today marks one year since we lost Bernie, and we’ve mourned him every single day since then. There hasn’t been a day where I didn’t think about that horrible day and replay my last moments with my sweet little boy in my head. In many ways, it feels like it happened yesterday. Or maybe it just feels that way because I wish we had more time. I guess that’s the thing about goodbyes. No matter how long they may seem, they’re still way too short.