On April 25th of this year, I sat with my professors in a small conference room in the English Department at UNC Charlotte to defend my thesis. It’s an important step to graduation, though it sounds scarier than it is. It’s really just going over a year’s worth of work. Reading a bit, talking about why you chose that particular point-of-view, why you chose that subject, how you put all this love and sweat into these 60 pages. I was nervous, sure. But less about the conversation. Less about whether or not I would “pass”. I already knew I did what I was supposed to do to graduate. I already knew that my professors liked my thesis. I already knew this would end well. I was nervous instead that at any moment I would burst into tears and look like a fool. Not because of the very emotional subject matter of my three essays, but because I had just lost my best friend.
It’s almost humorous now, but I remember one of my professors walking in just before the meeting and I was just standing there, my items scattered all over the table. I remember looking up at her smiling face and wanting to burst into tears and tell her all about my Bentley-girl. And she would have listened. And hugged me. And told me that it would all be okay. But I felt so stupid. How do you explain to someone, anyone, how the death of a dog, a very mature, lived-longer-than-she-should-have-lived dog, was the second worst thing that you have ever lived through? How dumb would that sound? So instead, I nervously shuffled papers around, told her I was nervous about reading my work, and pretended to be the same, old hot-mess I always was.
I “passed”, as I knew I would, even with Bentley on my mind. I made it through that day and the next few days. I even made it to an awards ceremony where I was recognized for being a good student. Then, I hopped on a plane, flew to Arizona with my family and celebrated another best friend on her wedding day. All along, I held it together. In fact, I held it together through the next month. I held it together through my graduation, through a house full of guests. I held it together through a stay in the hospital, through a surgery, and a recovery. I held it together until the first time I found myself completely alone in my house, in nearly 14 years.
It was the first week of June. My mother had just flown back to Kansas from having spent three weeks with us while I recovered. Jackson was in school. Jerimiah was at work. I was up and mobile and feeling pretty good, physically. I went to sit down at my computer, I wanted to try to put words to the whirlwind that had been the last six weeks, and instead I sat on the rug next to my desk, and I cried.
It had been a long time since I cried like that. A long time since I had been under the grip of that kind of grief. Seven years, actually. And it hurt a lot more than I remember. I forgot how much you physically hurt from grief. How your body heaves up and down with each breath, until your stomach feels like you’ve done a million sit-ups. How your eyes burn from the rubbing, and the salt, and the strain. How at times you feel like you can’t control any of it. The emotions, the images floating in and out of your mind, the feeling that the walls are closing in on you. That the floor will open you up and suck you under. It’s how I imagine it must feel to be drowning.
I’m not even sure what sparked it. I suspect it was the pure silence of the house. Having a constant being near you at all times becomes comforting. After I lost Lydia I remember always having Bentley to talk to, to complain to when toddler Jackson was being unreasonable. But here I was, in so much emotional pain, and Bentley was not there to lay her head on my lap. Her brown eyes were not looking up at me in concern and love. I had always felt safe and protected with her around. I had always felt loved, even when I was at the very bottom and felt all alone. But here I was. Literally all alone, at the bottom, in another hour of dark grief, and it didn’t feel like there was a way out.
Of course I could have called a friend. I could have logged onto Facebook and shared, I could have had a thousand virtual hugs. I could have checked Jackson out of school. I could have called Jerimiah to come home. But I didn’t do any of that. I knew I needed to do this. I knew I needed to lie there on the floor, feel the feelings, remember her. All the years, the sadness, the happiness, all the moments, each one of them. I needed to do it to make it final. And so I did.
I realized then that I shouldn’t be ashamed. I shouldn’t have to defend this grief to anyone. Especially not to myself. It didn’t matter if it sounded stupid. If my grief was “normal” or even made sense. It’s when I realized that all of this, all this emotion that was flowing out of me, was very real.
In the months that have passed since Bentley’s last day with us, we have cried, we have laughed, we have shared memories, spread her ashes in Missouri, even adopted a new pup. But in all this time, the three of us still occasionally look at each other and smile. We linger at the spot on the floor by the front door, at the flowering bush outside Zada Janes Corner Cafe, at the parking lot of Dairy Queen, and at the bridge at Freedom Park. Remembering her short time with us.
RIP Bentley-Girl. You were always there when it mattered. In the important moments. You were my first baby, my second loss, my very best friend. You were all a girl could ask for, and you are missed every day.