Grieving My Familiar

(Originally published on ashtreeharmony.com.) 

A few weeks ago I said goodbye to my thirteen-year-old greyhound Page, my familiar. I knew he was my familiar—I could feel it under my skin—but if you asked me what a familiar was I’m not sure I could have given you a definition.

After he passed I thought that I should do some research to better understand the relationship we had, the gifts and lessons that he had to offer, and what to look for in my next familiar. In discussing this with a wise-woman friend, she suggested that instead of researching familiars that I use what I knew of my relationship with Page to teach me what I needed to know, and then to call on his spirit to tell me anything else that I needed.

In his passing, the first thing I came to understand was that he was here to teach me about movement.

The veterinarian who was with him when he died said, “Greyhounds are meant for movement,” and it was so clear that he would never move the same way again. But as I looked at him on his last day, inert and sleeping, memories of moving with him appeared in my mind’s eye. We walked together almost every day. He often lay next to (or on me) while I practiced yoga. He wagged and swiveled around me when I danced.

Over time, as I watched his body deteriorate, it became more difficult for me to feel connected to movement. The morning after his passing I danced and there was ease to my movements, as if in his release my body was releasing, too.

My familiar had excellent boundaries.

Page loved to be scratched. Page really did like being hugged. Page rubbed his face on my legs when he wanted something, but also when he just wanted to feel close to me—to confirm that I was paying attention to him. But Page often removed himself from situations. If he was over-stimulated or tired, he’d find a bed that was far away from the activity, where he could watch but not participate.

Page also put every dog in his or her place that tried to mess with him with a quick nip or a low growl, both of which worked instantly. He didn’t take any shit from anyone. Yet, he could also tell the difference between nonsense and innocence. Once, a small child carrying a tree branch poked Page in the face. I held my breath, feeling the pain of the needles in his skin on my own skin, but he didn’t bite, didn’t growl, didn’t even pull away. Somehow he understood that this small child didn’t know better and wasn’t a threat, and so he let her be.

I hope that I come to understand a fraction of this wisdom that Page demonstrated every day.

Page understood the necessity of routine.

Many greyhounds follow a specific routine because it’s what they learned during their racing days. Page followed a routine—it seemed sometimes—for my benefit. When I was in graduate school and I was working long and late hours, Page would lose himself in playful fits 30 minutes before it was time for his dinner. Yes, I think he was probably just hungry, but it also felt like he was helping me not to take myself too seriously, because this was also the time of night when I did most of my studying.

He did this for walks as well—the fits of barking, wagging and jumping. It was like he knew that the breath of fresh air would be good for the both of us.

His habit of lying with me while I practiced yoga felt like more than just wanting to be in the same room, or interest because I was on the floor down at his level. He was reinforcing this habit the same way he reinforced all other habits with his presence.

Page was never very good at being alone.

Within weeks of our adopting Page, he figured out how to break out of his crate. When we came home we found the usual evidence of a dog with the full run of the house and little obedience training—garbage strewn about the kitchen and other “messes” to clean up. But we also found there were long bite marks on the front door knob. The marks didn’t seem to indicate chewing, but rather the marks looked like he dragged his teeth around the knob, as if he had tried to turn the knob with his mouth. He had figured out where the humans went, and he was going to follow.

Page’s separation anxiety troubled him and us his whole life. There were times when it was better, and we learned that familiarity and routine were the most helpful in keeping him calm. Even in his last few months, we found him breaking out of seemingly unbreakable baby gates. Page liked being with us, and he didn’t like to be alone.

And in this behavior, I realize that this is the final lesson he had to teach me. Now that he’s gone, at least for a while, I will have to learn how to be alone, too. I admit that I’ve already been looking for a new pet, not to replace him, but to fill our home with life. I even sent an inquiry to a shelter about a dog, but the dog had already been adopted.

Someone told me to appreciate my independence, that I might miss it when I’m caring for some new familiar who needs my attention. Sadly, I knew they were right.

My sister-in-law made a beautiful painting of Page (pictured above) that I couldn’t bring myself to hang in our home while he was still alive. The day that he died I went to the basement and brought that painting into my office to hang with me.

I understand that it was his time to go. I understand that this is an opportunity to transform and evolve, and I’m grateful for all the ways in which Page is still with me.

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