Sit. Stay. Love.

My husband is dead, and I am not.

If breathing qualifies as a vital sign, I am alive. I endure the ordeal of his cancer and death but didn’t anticipate the ordeal of survival.  After the caravan of condolences and casseroles, I still await the strength said to come to those who experience a tragedy that doesn’t kill them.

My husband is dead, and I am not.

Our bed is uncomfortably large, so I sleep on his side, then the middle, finally back on my side.  If there is no one on the other side, can there be a “my” side?  Isn’t the whole mattress now my side?

My husband is dead, and I am not.

I don’t know how to go to the damn grocery by myself, to shop for one, to cook for one, to sort laundry for one, to do everything for one.  I was good at being married; I don’t have the skill set for this un-married arrangement.

My husband is dead, and I am not.

I cry sitting among the clothes in his closet, taking in the smell of him.  I cry at the dry cleaners when I pick up his pressed shirts that will soon be worn by someone from Goodwill.  I cry at the mailbox when I see junk mail addressed to him.  I ‘m certain strangers see my red eyes and runny nose and assume I am on crack.

My husband is dead, and I am not.

I intimately know the stages of grief like I know the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and I want to press the fast forward button so that I might vault over the hugely unpleasant ones until I land like Mary Lou Retton on Acceptance.

My husband is dead, and I am not.

Dammit.  My heart still beats for him, pumping out love like a phone on automatic redial to a number no longer in service.

How can you hide, wrote Heraclitus, from what never goes away?


Stasis is wearing.

I clamber up a wrung on the Grief Ladder to Desperately Filling The Unfillable Void.

I sift through exotic travel brochures, paint the living room walls the warm golden brown my husband hated, haunt antique stores, cut four inches off my hair, sign up for a Spanish class.  I sigh.  A lot.

I join a grief support group for young widows and widowers.  Two intense hours each week re-living the trauma of death through the stories of others isn’t helpful.  It’s keeping me stuck.  I quit.

I go back to work.  I cry at my desk now.  My secretary tacks a sign on my door – “Enter At Your Own Risk.”  Apparently, along with my husband, my marriage, my world, I’ve lost the knack of “nice.”

One Saturday, my girlfriend, MB, talks me into walking dogs with her at the local no-kill shelter.  I tell her it is a one shot deal.  I’ve had dogs almost all my life; I love dogs.  I need to feel useful to someone.  They need volunteers.  This is a perilous combination for someone who has no intention of adding a dog to her life.  Did I mention I also have no willpower when it comes to puppy breath?

Then there’s this anxiety that shelter dogs will trigger more crying and sadness.  Who will be more depressed – me or the dogs behind bars?  An “aha” moment:  most of the dogs and puppies light up when they see me.  I know it isn’t me, per se; it happens when any human meanders into the kennel, especially those bearing food.

But there is at work that wonder of shelter dogs.  Somehow they retain the capacity to offer us another opportunity to discover the innate goodness they believe we possess.  Perhaps this is so because, to them, there is no God, no Universe, no Great Oz with whom to bargain and thus lose faith.  Despite every lousy thing they endure at our hands, they believe in us.  There is a Buddha at the other end of every leash.

I go back.  And keep going back.  In the morning before work.  In the evening after work.  Because something in me lights up when I enter the kennel.

I leash up different dogs each time.  That is my stipulation – I will not become emotionally attached to any one dog.  It will eliminate that sense of yet another personal loss when they, one by one, leave the shelter for their “forever” homes.

My mantra is:  “idon’tneedadog, idon’tneedadog, I.Don’t.Need.A.Dog.”

I don’t want to become one of those “dog people” I see in the park, who discuss the shape and consistency of poop, weigh the merits of various organic diets, speak of Cesar What’s-His-Name as if he is the Dog God.  I refuse to be that lame.

Naturally, I take Gus home.


He is a golden butterball of loose skin and gigantic paws, strange green eyes of delight and boundless energy for all things off-limits.  He eats his leather leash as it dangles from the hook by the door (I find only the clip end and a ragged bit of leather when I prepare to take him outside to potty 30 minutes later).  Pieces of it exit over the next few days via vomit and poop, and I’m not the least bit disgusted.

Rather, it’s intriguing, like watching a friendly space alien discover Earth.  Everything is fresh and cause for excitement.  Bugs, birds, curbs, grass, balls, bones, dust bunnies under the bed.  Me.  He eats the bed in his large crate.  I buy him another one with an unexpected élan.  I catch myself smiling and laughing.  He zooms everywhere then plops down on his bed in the living room in a coma until he awakens 15 minutes later for another adventure.

A puppy is not a substitute for a dead husband.  I know this.  He is a repository for a lot of unused love, and the act of loving is bringing much needed aliveness to my life. There’s empathy between us.  We’d both been discarded.  And, as the song goes, when something is lost, something else is found.  Sometimes it has a squeaker.

Gus goes to doggy daycare while I go to work.  His social life is richer than mine.  Although he is mingling with other puppies, he is not becoming trained, and he’s at the age at which he either is given free rein or boundaries within which his behavior must adapt.  I will not sacrifice another pair of Manolos as chew toys.

We sign up for puppy school.

The first lesson is walking on a leash.  I smugly think we’ve got this knocked; he’s been on leash since I brought him home.  The difference is that he hasn’t had to be attentive to me in a room with 10 other puppies, all as eager to play and wrestle.  Massive tangling of leashes, puppies and people ensues.  Unaccustomed to being told what to do, he demonstrates his disappointment by lying on the floor like a sandbag, content to make me drag him around the training circle.  He falls asleep.  I carry him to the car, and he gnaws on the seatbelt on the passenger side during the ride home.

Lesson Two begins with a short recap of Lesson One, and this time, Gus sighs, then trots gamely along my left side several times around the circle, making eye contact with me each time I say “Walk On.”  The bribe of desiccated liver in my hand doesn’t hurt.

I give the command for “Sit,” hold the leash up while pushing his growing butt down, and shove a tidbit in his mouth.  After a few repetitions, his green eyes watch for the cues, and the long, disgusting drool hanging from his lower lip waits for the liver.  It is a Pavlovian moment.  By the end of the night, he is walking on lead and coming to a halt/sit like the Best In Show at Westminster.

As the weeks progress, he adds about 20 pounds and a proportionate amount of inches to his frame along with “Look,” “Down,” “Up Sit,” and “Stay.”  Training is not just about discipline but bonding.  Teaching him “Stay” is surprisingly emotional for me.  He downs at one spot as I back away from him in incremental distances, motioning with my hand and repeating the “Stay” command.  I watch him quiver from a mix of separation anxiety and the anticipation of my returning to retrieve him, and I feel a similar anxiety and anticipation of reunion.  I also feel pride in him.  He is very, very good.

We sign up for the Advanced Class.  His proficiency and mine grow more refined.  If there were a ribbon for mutual trust and adoration, ours would be a blue one.

Gus graduates from his crate to sleeping on my husband’s side of the bed.  It’s good to feel the weight of his 75-pound body there.  We go out for ice cream cones together during our evening walks and talk about our day.  He’s making friends at the park.  So am I.  We discuss poop and diets, exchange training trips and telephone numbers.  God help me but I sometimes wear my “Dog Mom” t-shirt.  I have become one of “those” people.

My husband is dead, but I am not.


(c) 2011 Lisa Sennett Thomas


  1. Lisa Sennett Thomas · August 4, 2013

    Thank you so kindly, Jamie. I have been out of the writing part of my life for about a year, and I hadn’t checked in here. I’m slowly getting back to wanting to work on pieces again. Again, thank you. Namaste.

  2. Explorations in Sacred Space · March 4, 2012

    Lisa, this is so said. My heart goes out to you. I see that read but are not posting. I hope there has been some healing since you posted this a year ago and that you will start writing again. You write well; but, I know it’s hard to write with a broken heart. It’s hard to eat meals alone and live alone.

    In metta,
    Jamie Dedes

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