I remember walking in the bitter cold of late December down a side street in the small town of Vernon in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley back in 1987. I lived there with my first husband and our four children.
I could feel the heat escaping from my head—it was 10° or 20° Celsius below zero—and I was wearing no hat. The heat rose from my head in a tall column, like smoke rises from a chimney. The awareness of the bitter cold also made me strongly aware of my surroundings and, very shortly, I reached a pet store with windows onto the street. In the window was a playpen full of puppies.
Of their own accord, my feet turned and walked me into that store where I could watch those puppies playing in the warmth together. Several days later, on Christmas Eve, I returned to the store and was drawn to the littlest of the American cocker spaniels, the runt of the litter. She was sitting on her own in the corner watching her siblings tumble over each other, head cocked to one side, just watching. She had the sweetest face.
I bought her—a gift for the children—and started for home. I was rather unprepared, though I did buy a collar, a leash, some puppy kibble, and a food bowl from the pet store for this lovely little bundle of golden curls.
Enroute home, I had one more errand to do, so I parked the car and left Ginger—as her name would soon come to be—in the car on her own. When I returned from my errand, I was horrified to see that she had given me my first present—a steaming pile of golden poop on the driver’s seat! I learned later that that was probably the result of her raw emotion of fear, combined with making me a gift. What a gift!
When I reached home, I wondered how to wrap this puppy and knew I couldn’t. I’d just have to present her, sans wrapping! My youngest son Ian named Ginger that evening, spurred on by the fact that we were making a gingerbread house soon after the “gift opening.”
Over the years, I spent many long hours with Gingee, cuddling, stroking, and brushing her; washing her after her numerous encounters with chasing skunks and getting sprayed; and after her trips to the nearby beaches to chase seagulls; and walking her. When she was a puppy, I tried to slow her down. When she became an older dog, I encouraged her to keep walking.
Almost two decades passed until the time of Ginger’s death; it was a journey of thirteen thousand walks and meals of kibble and love.
My husband Christian and I came to the horribly unwelcome realization that—at her advanced age of eighteen—Ginger would never get healthier from her various aches, pains, and incontinences. So we made the dreaded decision to have our vet put down our dear companion. We made an appointment.
The three of us travelled together by car—a sombre party—from our home in Vancouver’s West End to our vet on Davie Street, about ten blocks away. We parked, walked “Gingee” until she’d taken her last pee, and then entered the vet’s office. We chose to be with her as the vet administered the lethal shot.
A few nanoseconds after the injection entered her bloodstream, I could feel her life force leaving her little body. She was irretrievably gone.
At that same moment, I heard a heart-wrenching cry of anguish—something I later understood as keening. I looked around, startled by the earthy sound, and suddenly realized that I was the source of the howl!
The cry came unbidden, a raw emotion from a hidden source that I didn’t know existed.
I remember my husband gently suggesting I keep the sound down, in consideration of the vet’s other clients. But I couldn’t. I just had to let out more of that raw pain before I was ready to face the world.
It wasn’t until much later that I found out that keening is a Celtic form of grieving, as though only Celts would choose to keen those they lose. I am a Celt myself, being Welsh, but I certainly did not choose to relieve myself of the pain of losing Ginger by keening: it happened uninvited.
From experiencing keening, I learned again that our body frequently knows best how to respond to surprise pains, whether they are physical, mental, or emotional. Now, instead of stifling my responses, I let them out, so I can process the pain more quickly. We are emotional beings as well as physical and spiritual ones.
Habits die hard. Love never dies. Again and again, I was ready to walk Ginger in the evenings, to bring her in from her cozy basket on the balcony in the mornings. I could feel her presence out there for weeks and even months after she had died. We missed her.
I believe—as many do who work with animals—that our pets are portals to love. Our pets open our hearts to love, by embodying unconditional love: they love us because of who we are, not because of what we do. Our pets meet us where our need is.
I thought I was buying Ginger for the children. I found out I had bought her for myself.