I am interrupting my Japan-moon series (there is one more coming next week: Japan-moon, three) because this letter on May came together before the other.
Thank you for being here.
Though the break to adjust to new-puppy life was needed, it’s good to be back with your readership.
The day I picked up MoMa, my new Havanese puppy, she turned 9 weeks old and I hadn’t slept in over 40 hours.
She was 2.8 lbs and I was not prepared for how small she was (is). I realized just about all of the toys I had gotten for her were way too big. I stroked her reddish, blonde fur and marvelled that anything could be so soft. I held her in my arms and I told her my name. I told her if things had been different, she would have met two people, me and him.
“He’s the better one,” I said. “You would have loved him.”
I was shrouded in an exhaustion so thick it would take almost three weeks to begin to feel like every moment wasn’t sodden with it.
Within an hour, my phone was choked with over 100 photos of her.
On May 15, 2021 it was 9 months since he fell, without attempting to break his fall in any way, onto a pedestrian overpass bridge by the side of a highway only a 1000 metres away from where I was waiting for him to come through the door.
You can grow a baby in nine months.
That was my first thought, waking up and realizing, first in my body, and then in my mind, what day it was.
That’s not entirely true, to be fair.
My first thought was actually: what time is it?
Almost eight weeks ago now, I had to pull his iPad out of storage, where it was carefully nestled with all the rest of his things, and all the rest of our things, all of which I still cannot face. I needed to look something up that I knew would be saved in his iPad notes, and when I finally powered it up and turned it on for the first time since he held it last, I remembered how I fell asleep on August 14, 2020 beneath the glow of him reading something on his iPad in bed. He had kissed me and told me he had a funny story to tell me in the morning. I don’t think a lot about what that story might have been, but sometimes it crosses my mind.
In my hands, his iPad’s screen brightened. The background photograph: me, in Tokyo. I opened Safari and that thing he had been reading the night before he died automatically loaded. It was a Google Search. In the Search bar he had typed: how much does having a child cost in Vancouver?
I set the iPad down in front of me and fell into a valley I hadn’t known was right in front of me. It’s not that I don’t know the valley, I do, it’s that sometimes my entry into it is so unforeseen. And I never know when or if I will leave. I have yet to leave the valley I tumbled into that day with the iPad.
My grief counsellor calls this a cycle of being ‘loss focused.’ As if I could be focused on anything else, I think, while she talks. The thought is more bitter than I intend it because I actually really like my grief therapist who always has very clean hair on our Zoom calls and who recently adopted a cat, despite being a dog person her whole life.
So much of it, though I don’t need to name it, I will, was in that last, hopeful Google Search: the yearning he always had to be a father, a parent, a provider; the impending move that I was so afraid of and yet so excited for, the stance of trying to understand the practicalities of a child — something I had asked and asked for him to consider, the clear-eyed belief that he would get all that he was hoping and preparing for. None of which, of course, he would see.
All he would see was the flash of the light on the river below the bridge, which is a metal grate. All he would hear was the sound of the water.
I’m editorializing, of course, but I hope that for him. That’s the kind of hope that I have to hold now for him, hope that the death was sudden, that he didn’t know, that he heard the water, felt the light on him, that he did, as the coroner has assured me over and over, likely just feel dizzy and then, he was gone — into whatever there is to go to, if anything at all.
It seems like one of the better kept secrets that at first owning a puppy kind of sucks.
The first two and three weeks of having MoMa, whenever someone cooed to me that it must just “be the best,” I responded that while MoMa was adjusting well, I was not.
I knew, intellectually, how hands-on puppies are. That’s why I had elected to get one, if things had gone to plan, for our early months in Vancouver. I would have plenty of time to spend on a dog, perhaps even be grateful for the demands a puppy places on you by merit of being in a new city, with few friends, and him working all the time.
After things did not got to plan, I even worried myself sleepless over, how I—grief-riddled and exhausted—would be able to handle a puppy. Which is to say, I didn’t have a particularly rosy view of the work a puppy requires. I felt pretty aware of what it takes.
This said, I still didn’t fully comprehend how demanding and difficult it can be to bring a puppy home.
At first, every morning when she squeaked at 6AM, I woke up, barely functioning, and put her on her pee pad. Then I took my blood thinner and brushed my teeth. Then, there was training time while dispensing her morning kibble, play time, and handling time. By 7.30 AM, I would be collapsed on the couch, while she squeaked from her pen to be let out. With the new wake-up time, I was not sleeping much more than 3 hours a night. I felt almost dizzy with all of it.
I can’t do this, I thought, leaning back into the couch and looking to my right at his urn. I brushed the smooth, dark wood with my hand, ran my fingertips over the gold lettering of his name.
I can’t do this, I thought again, though this time thinking more globally of living without him, rather than raising a dog without him.
Somewhere in May, the official coroner’s report finally came through. Yes, it has been a long time coming and no, it hasn’t been any time at all.
The coroner read the report to me over the phone and asked me if I had any questions. I had a few, but not many. Largely, it said what I knew it would: his heart stopped but there is absolutely no clear idea as to why.
A psychiatrist recently asked me if it bothered me, not knowing how he died. I told him that I did know — his heart stopped — and no, not knowing why didn’t plague me.
“It’s zero sum,” I said. “He’s still gone.”
That’s what really plagues me — how gone he is. How he never answers my calls, how he never honks the horn to let me know he’s home, how he never comes home.
Last week, my phone lit up with a text message. I looked at it and the screen was upside down. Something about the long, sharp string of letters on the screen looked exactly like his name when he would text me. You don’t realize how used to the shape of someone’s name on your phone screen you get until you no longer see it. I’ve had years upon years of seeing his name on my phone screen, last name and then first name, an old-school tic of mine that made him laugh.
I saw the name, upside down, and I thought: finally, he’s texted me back.
It wasn’t even magical thinking, though I do that too. I honestly thought, for that brief moment, that he was alive, that he’d texted me, that the waiting I had been doing was over.
When I spun the phone around, of course, it wasn’t him. Nine months, you might think, and you’re still writing sentences like ‘of course, it wasn’t him’?
Yes. I am.
Nine months is nothing.
It could be the beginning, when my father came bursting through the front door, and said, “Come on, it’s Kurtis.” It could be that moment when I looked at my father and I knew something was wrong, the moment when I reached for my phone and I called him. Pick up, I thought as the ringer sounded in my ear. Pick up, pick up, pick up.
Of course, he did not pick up. He was already dead by then, his phone ringing uselessly into his running backpack where he had slid it only a few hours before.
When I was talking to my grief therapist, I told her that what I had been warned about had proved to be right. I didn’t want it to be. I kept being told that somewhere in months 6-9, things would get worse, and I kept thinking, how could things get worse?
Then it was three weeks before month 8 and then it was all the weeks after month 8 and things did, indeed, get worse.
“Is there a period of time where things at least level out?” I asked.
“Well,” she said. “Now we start looking down the barrel of a year.”
Which is to say, without saying, no, there isn’t really.
I have paused going for my daily visits to the apartment where he and I used to live because everything has become a colossal effort with the puppy.
The first time I had to go clip her into her car seat, my arms were full of her things: baggies of her food, a bowl for water, chew toys, a blanket, her leash, her harness.
I struggled with the harness snap to safely belt her into the car seat and my mother, who had walked me out, had the misfortune of seeing me yelp in frustration: “I CAN’T DO THIS.”
“Okay,” she said, immediately snapping MoMa into the car seat. “Okay, we got this.”
Other things too became tangled.
I stopped going to fill up my water bottle during the day or use the bathroom because my movement would startle MoMa in her dog bed and cause her to bark pitifully until I returned — a sound that was sharp and wheedling and that I don’t have the emotional reserves to withstand.
Anytime I needed to leave the house and take MoMa with me, I had to pack up all her things, but inevitably would forget my things: my phone, my keys, my wallet.
At night, when it was time for her to go romp outside in the backyard, I would lean against the fence, eyes half-shuttered and let my mother take the leash from my hand. My mother would jog with MoMa along the grass, toss her a ball, praise her when she peed or pooped outside.
“I would have made him do this,” I said, one night, watching her.
“What?” my mother said.
“Kurtis,” I said. “If we’d been in Vancouver. I would have made him go outside and play with her because I would have been with her all day. He would have done this.”
“Yes,” my mother said. “He would have.”
I am so grateful for my mother and father’s help. Without it, I would not have even made it this far.
At night, when MoMa has fallen asleep in her crate, I pull up the Dog Budget Excel Spreadsheet he carefully made. I refuse to enter any of the expenses into the document because then he will not be the last person to edit it.
He did an incredible job thinking of the costs. The only thing he and I failed to think of was the monthly cost of pet insurance and the enthusiasm of a new pet owner who, despite being told not to buy more than few toys, bought over 30.
All the toys I’ve gotten would have made him laugh too.
I cry myself to sleep after closing the Excel sheet. In May, I have lost track of how many times I have cried myself into fitful sleep.
I say fitful because I’ve been having these dreams lately. I go places and he’s not there. Even in the dream, there is an awareness that he’s not just gone — he’s permanently out of reach. Though, this is not the worst part of the dream, or maybe it’s a nightmare? The worst part is that there are other people there with me, and I know that they knew him, but they won't speak to me. I am longing for any of them to reach out to me, to say something to me, but they don’t. I want to ask them if they remember the way he walked a little bow-legged, shuffle-y, his flat butt ambling, but no one will acknowledge that I am there.
Without him, it is as if I don’t exist.
Later in May, it was my birthday.
My dear friend K asked me what I would like to do for it? In my mind, I thought, nothing. He was the one who celebrated me. I don’t want to do anything without him. I want him to come back. Or, I want me to go to him.
Out loud, I said that it might be nice to have a picnic, if it was nice, outside with her and my friend B.
We picked the weekend before my actual birthday, so that it was less pressured for me, and also because B had plans on the weekend of my actual birthday.
When I showed up at the park on the day K and B arranged, it was a rare day for the city in which I live: warm, blazing sun, no trace of wind.
I asked K for help carrying MoMa’s outdoor pen to the picnic site.
That’s something I didn't really understand about puppies when I got one: they can’t just go anywhere when you first acquire them.
You have to wait until the puppy has had her 12 week old shots before she can freely roam on a leash, on the ground. Even then, it takes about 2 weeks for those vaccines to set in, so the vet doesn’t recommend that the puppy roam anywhere that isn’t the backyard until that period has passed.
This means MoMa has to be carried places until mid-June, so she doesn’t contract diseases to which she isn’t protected. Hence the outdoor pen.
Over my shoulder I had a tote bag full of MoMa’s picnic essentials: water bowl, food bowl, chilled water bottle, kibble, chew toys, blanket, pee pad, leash, and more. In my arms, I had MoMa, who sniffed the air jubilantly.
K and I chose a grassy spot with partial shade and I set up MoMa’s tent and dog bed, poured water into her bowl and scattered some kibbles for her to eat. K flapped out a waterproof picnic blanket and I sank onto it. Sun was heavy on my legs and arms.
B arrived and helped K carry all of the picnic foodstuffs that they had gotten. There was a lactose-free, especially-made charcuterie board and artisan donuts, a vegetable platter and bougie crackers. There was sparkling water and sparkling wine. K had even brought small, plastic wine glasses. MoMa was whining a little in her pen because she wanted to be let out to socialize (I have taken to calling MoMa’s FOMO: FOMa) and I just kept handing over my wine glass wordlessly and K kept topping me up.
Both K and B wrote me cards, which I tried to read and couldn’t because I immediately started crying. We talked about our first friends in life and K and B slathered on sunscreen while I laughed. I had put on a coat of ‘screen at home and when I would return, I would already have tan lines.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t moved by the effort that K and B put in to making the day low-key celebratory, I really, really was touched. The issue was that I couldn’t access it.
Over the years of my life, I have seen, in one context or another, some version of this question on mental health check-ins: Do you have less interest or pleasure in things that you used to enjoy doing?
Sitting there, with two of my best friends, their cards and words tucked into my tote bag, drinking sparkling wine and eating cheese that had been carefully ordered for me because I can’t eat dairy, talking about all manner of interesting things — it was that rare moment, the kind of thing that I am always afraid to hope for, but crazy-glad to receive, that time when you can really see, in so many ways, how much you are loved.
I knew the magnitude of my friends’ care; I just couldn’t feel it. I knew how I should feel, had even had the feeling before, but I couldn’t get to it, or maybe, it couldn’t get to me.
I kept looking up at the sky which was a blue bowl and thinking that if I opened up my chest, that’s what I would see too. Empty blue.
I have now had MoMa with me for 4 weeks. She weighs 3.96 lbs and is, by all accounts, a fabulous puppy.
And I, the shell-shocked owner, am starting to find my footing.
MoMa still gets up at 6AM to pee but now I put her back in her crate and she and I sleep on and off until 7.30 AM when we get up — a time that has metabolized far easier in my body; I am still exhausted, but my usual amount, not the leaden thickness of earlier this month.
I still do training and playtime in the morning and MoMa regularly has playtime and brief stints in the backyard every hour (and don’t even get me started on the time poop got stuck halfway in and out of her butt and I had to Google how to get it out.. spoiler: it was with my BARE HANDS), but I can feel a nascent sense of equilibrium starting to emerge.
I do still avoid going to the bathroom and filling up my water bottle, but I’m getting better at weathering her sad squeaks when she wants to be let out of her pen (after only being in her pen for 2 minutes usually) and I am even quite proficient at the carseat clip-in procedure now, if you can believe it. I also am slowly starting to acclimate to the inevitable small talk that finds you when you own a puppy.
Often, as MoMa and I do our small ramble around our neighborhood, people slow their cars down and roll down the windows. They ask how old she is, what breed she is, if she’s a squirrel. Other dog owners stop and coo, ask how teething is going and if puppy classes are still possible with COVID. Everyone sees her — where ever we go, heads turn.
I am uncomfortable with the attention and awkward, partially because I don’t really ever want to make small talk and partially because I can feel how delighted my sweet man would have been. He would have basked in the glory that MoMa garners. He loved to be a part of something that other people loved. It made him feel famous.
Once, I got invited to a Lululemon event that was being held for micro-influencers that ran. I didn’t want to go alone, intimidated by the fact that I wouldn’t know anyone. So, naturally I brought my sweet man, who was beyond overjoyed to attend.
“I feel famous, babe,” he said, as I gave my name and the organizers of the event checked me off a list.
Amid this sadness, this sense of something he would have loved and instead, cannot, and amid the overwhelm too, is something else.
I was talking about this with a friend that I have met through Bookstagram and she told me about getting her puppy last year:
“It’s weird because at first you’re caring for this helpless little creature but haven’t totally bonded yet. That was my experience at least. It took a month or two — like, I loved him [the puppy] immediately but I didn’t know him.”
“YES,” I responded. “That’s exactly IT.”
Sometimes, I find myself looking at MoMa and feeling exactly how cute she is — so fluffy, so small, so bouncy — but I can‘t feel the tenderness and bond that I had expected, that everyone else seems to feel.
It’s hard too, because of my grief, to parse how much of this is a brokenness in me and how much of this is a natural adjustment.
I was relieved when I read my friend’s message, to be honest.
Natural adjustment, I thought. It’s not just me. It’s not just the grief that flattens everything.
And, a few times already, I have felt like that knowing, that tenderness is on its way.
Once, I had my head in my hands, and MoMa was in her pen. I was crying; I had turned on Netflix and seen that Master of None had returned with a new season.
He and I watched both seasons of Master of None together. He loved it. There was one scene in which one of the characters celebrates their partner cleaning up the apartment, specifically the clothes on the floor of the bedroom. The celebratory character spins around the cleaned floor of the bedroom, arms out like airplane wings, marvelling at the space now visible.
“That’s me baber,” he said, “when you pick up your floordrobe.”
He would do it too, after he saw the show, spinning around his arms flung wide, gloating at the bare surface of the carpet, freed of the collapsed shapes of my clothes that were now picked up and hanging on their racks. He often would wonder, idly, if Master of None would return.
“We have to watch it together,” he said. “Don’t you dare watch it without me!”
It was that, the joyful exhortation that I not watch it without him, that brought on the heavy crying jag. The bottom falls out, in those moments. I’ve talked about them before: living, already a short line, becomes a minuscule point, then, pointless.
MoMa watched me sob from her pen, her head turning this way and that. Then, she sat up, paws in the air, and did a pratfall backwards onto her back, her pink belly exposed.
How could you not laugh?
Snot, tears, despair, and all, I laughed.
As always, you can reach me by hitting “reply” on the Sunday email or by leaving a comment.