And better rest than my wife Melissa and I often got — because, in the hours before daybreak, the dog would move from spot to spot, and we would feel it. Sometimes it was a couple of turns and a collapse; he’d just fall into us. Other times it was a front paw to the forehead or both back paws pushing into our ribs. Chevy liked to stretch out, and he could take over a California King like a Great Dane, even though he was only a 35-pound Boykin Spaniel. Melissa and I have been married 12 years, and we’ve slept like this, the three of us, for 10 of them.
Many mornings, as the first to rise, I’d ease to the end of the bed and give Chevy a kiss on the head and rub his belly. I did this on a Saturday in early April, around 5:30 a.m., despite staying up late the night before, drinking beer with my best friend Abe and listening to the Drive-By Truckers and eating buttered popcorn and talking about the Labor Day trip we’re planning to Texas to see Robert Earl Keen’s farewell show at John T. Floore’s Country Store. It was a good, long night. But a few hours later I found myself at the foot of the bed with a lump in my throat. Chevy, too, had one in his throat — one that was really there — and I avoided it as I stroked his ear and the side of his face.
I’d been avoiding that swollen lymph node for a while. If I didn’t touch it, it wasn’t real. If I couldn’t feel it, I could believe that it was shrinking. For a few months I’d gotten by with — on — this illusion. Now, though, the bulge rose from the left side of his neck, under his jaw, like a crooked ascot.
Imagining the unimaginable story
I knew Chevy would die one day, and likely sooner rather than later. For years I’d worried how it would happen, and when. As a writer, I wondered what I’d have to say about it — what was worth saying about it, about him. I did not want to be purple or cliche. I did want to write something useful and, hopefully, memorable. I was feeling the pressure and having some strange thoughts. Like on a recent morning, when I awoke to find, surprisingly, Chevy’s butt near my face, and I kind of wanted him to … fart. I thought this would be a funny scene, a kinder, gentler way to illustrate one of the chemotherapy’s effects on his body: near-constant gas. But by spending my energy scripting a phantom vignette, I was making a couple of key errors: failing to be fully present in the moment, trying to manufacture color. Oh, and neglecting to ask myself why I was doing these things.
So … why? Maybe because it’s tempting to dress up death with “the right words” and “the perfect scene.” Maybe it’s easier to imagine instead of feel. But the best writing confronts truth — and that’s what makes the effort worth it, for both writer and reader. So, here’s the truth.
…it’s tempting to dress up death with “the right words” and “the perfect scene.”
For almost two years the chemo had done its job. Chevy lost hair on the ridge of his back and around his eyes and snout, but he still trotted like a show dog. He was missing a bottom fang and part of his jaw — which a surgeon removed, along with the tumor that started it all — and sometimes his tongue peeked from his lip like a shirt cuff from a blazer. Still, he smiled. He lost his coordination, and he’d frequently stumble up the stairs and faceplant. But he always popped back up.
And then one day he didn’t.
It was the last week of March, either Wednesday or Thursday night, when Melissa let Chevy out before bedtime and, as he tried to climb the four steps on our back deck, his balance failed and he just froze. Confused. Helpless. Scared? Melissa had to help him up the stairs and then pick him up and put him on the mattress, like we’d been having to do lately.
Still, he’d been having a good week. We’d taken him off the chemo a few days earlier — our vet rightly assessed that the drugs were, now, hurting more than helping — and his strength returned. He ate better. Took some long walks. Went for a few rides. Even managed to jump up on the couch a time or two unassisted. He was happy. But his neck bulged. Golf ball. Egg. Tennis ball? I’d ask Melissa for updates I didn’t want to hear.
On that Saturday night, as UNC and Duke met for the first time in the NCAA Tournament, Abe and I marveled at the Final Four matchup and its significance, its pivotal moments and how the Tar Heels had managed to advance so far playing just six men — they had to be exhausted, just trying to hang on. And Coach K — wow, what a run. He, too, must be frayed. Melissa, sitting in the recliner, also tried to watch the game — but Chevy sat in the chair beside her, and he couldn’t get comfortable. Couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t rest his head. His eyes were heavy. His neck bulged. They went to bed. I ate popcorn.
I woke up around 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning to the sound of Chevy’s cough. He wasn’t at the foot of the bed. Melissa wasn’t in the bed. They were on the floor. Melissa said she’d been up for a couple of hours with him. The left side of his face had begun to swell. He hadn’t slept. We worried he’d soon struggle to breathe. We called the emergency vet and took him in and made the decision. The vet who sat with us on the floor as Chevy started his journey to The Great Beyond was a younger dude. He wore a fleece pullover and his wavy hair bundled in a ponytail. Did he have a beard? I’m not very religious, but I like to think he looked like Jesus. I’m glad he was there. I wanted to hug him. I can’t imagine a more painful job.
Two hours later I was digging a 3-foot deep hole in my back yard, by the peach tree. Abe awakened to find me in that hole, and Melissa staring a hole through a magazine. She sat on the patio in a chair we’d found in the alley behind a neighbor’s house the afternoon before, on our last walk with Chevy. Along with that chair we’d rescued two others. Now, when you look through our kitchen window, there’s a lot to see that’s new.
Like the lilies that mark the head of Chevy’s grave. My mom cut them from her back yard a street over, and she and my dad brought them to the small funeral we held Sunday afternoon. We buried Chevy in his Clemson collar, with his tiger toy and favorite blanket. A frisbee and a ball, an orange T-shirt for Saturdays in the fall. Treats. And a note from each of us. His sister Gracie was in attendance — she’s my folks’ dog, and we’re so happy she’s nearby. She’ll be 11 soon, and I know one day we’ll have to make the decision again. But not today.
The healing power of stories
When we do, though, I’ll remember an essay Tommy Tomlinson wrote about his dog Fred. “Our Old Dog,” it’s titled. The first two lines: “It’s not fair to write about a dying dog. Just those last two words are enough.”
Over the years, as my friends have lost their dogs, I’ve shared Tommy’s words with them. They paint a picture of Fred. Show his aversion to “monster breath” A/C vents and his affinity for goose poop — how he “snapped up the turds like Tootsie Rolls.” (Aren’t dogs the best? Chevy was a chronic humper, and it was endearing.) And Tommy shows the frustration he grappled with, the patience that sometimes eluded him. “I was mad at him for dying on us,” he wrote.
So, what do good dogs teach us about the best writing?
That the best writing isn’t writing at all — it’s feeling. Beyond mechanics and metaphor and a mishmash of other things, writing is the act of confronting emotion and channeling it authentically, vulnerably. It’s about giving yourself permission not to be perfect, but to be human. That’s what our dogs do: they love us despite ourselves. And they are among a select few who truly see us in full, at our best and worst. The best writing invites more people into that circle.
…the best writing isn’t writing at all — it’s feeling.
It’s me telling you that, in Chevy’s last two days, I wish I would have been a little more attuned to his mood and less into the booze, basketball and buttered popcorn. That I could have been more emotionally present for Melissa, who was feeling the moment, even as I tried with all my might to avoid it. That I had the strength to dig a big hole (“It’s a good hole,” Melissa joked) but not to be there when she opened Chevy’s casket one last time, when she cut a couple of locks of his fur. That I wonder if I should have attended that final viewing, because my last image of Chevy is his limp body, cradled by two vet technicians, passing through a door at the end of a hallway. That I hate how Abe’s weekend getaway to our home ended, but we are so glad he was here. We needed his calm and compassion — it wasn’t long ago that he’d had to say goodbye to a black lab named Manny. That in the past couple of years, too often for my liking, I’ve been short and impatient with my parents — just as I sometimes was with Chevy — because theirs is another end I’m avoiding. That all of this isn’t a guilt-ridden confessional but a clear-eyed truth, one that might do someone else some good someday — like Tommy’s words have done for me and untold others.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about and celebrating Chevy’s life over the past few days, but I’ve also been trying to make sense of his death, what I should take from it. In so many ways he’s preparing me for what’s next — at 40 years old, I’m in that season of life where losses start to mount. This is the hardest I’ve grieved in a long, long time, and Chevy’s lasting gift is the encouragement to embrace it, not bury it — there is goodness in grief when it’s shared rather than shouldered.
So, thank you for sharing mine.
Stories as memory
The past few mornings have been hard. Melissa and I have taken some long walks, and we’ve smiled at the dogs we’ve passed. But there’s a heavy quiet in the house, too much room in the bed. We cry. We still talk to Chevy. I’ve been sitting on the back deck a lot in the rocking chair, glancing at the peach tree.
That’s where I am right now.
Thanks for being here with me, for enjoying the lilies atop the dirt that holds a little brown dog who’s facing north, toward his birthplace of Due West, South Carolina. Thanks for wading through that geographical riddle, and maybe chuckling at the wonderful weirdness of it all.
Thanks for letting me tell you a little bit about my dog.
Wade Livingston is an occasional freelance writer based in Savannah, Georgia. He’s previously worked as a reporter at the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette (Bluffton, South Carolina), the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail and the Columbia Missourian.