At 2:00 a.m. I woke to a silent house. I was having a dream about the Bosnian war. I was tucked under a shelled jeep, laying next to an officer in the Bosnian army. We were talking about the war and how he came to be where he was. I think I may have been a reporter. In front of us, the whole world seemed to be on fire. And there were long lines of people, emaciated, tattered people with chains wrapped around their feet. They were calling out names “Ajla!” “Amir!” “Hamed!” I asked the officer what these people were doing, and he said, “They’re looking for the dead. They have been looking for the dead for years. They can’t find them.”
Each name echoed and echoed as the lines of the hungry marched forward. Whenever someone got to the front of the line to report the name of his dead loved one, a Serb soldier shot the grieving mother, father, son, daughter, widow, widower. The bodies fell over a cliff in waves and crashed into the sea. And I cuddled there next to this man, who I feared and loathed and loved.
I have been having nightmares like this more and more frequently recently. I’m not sure why. Always Bosnia, taking me back to a time in my life I thought I’d forgotten, to a man I thought I’d forgotten.
Tears started to drip down my cheeks, but I couldn’t seem to move. My breathing shallowed, my eyes drooped. I was so tired, but I was too afraid to go back to sleep. I watched the candle in the bedroom flicker on the ceiling and let my mind wander into oblivion. From the mist of incoherent thoughts and horrors that I never lived through but still somehow feel that I know, one coherent thought slammed through my mind like an anvil falling from Heaven, “I really miss Dusty.”
All my life I’ve been searching for a way to avoid the nightmares, which always seem to haunt me in one way or another. The nightmares of my childhood were filled with fantastical monsters, while the ones of my adulthood are plagued with life’s real monsters. I never figured out why I have these dreams, so real, so vivid, but I have always been trying to find a way to escape them.
I always thought I would know the love of my life when I was able to sleep soundly night after night wrapped in his arms. When I met Joe and the nightmares continued, I knew I found the love of my life, but I assumed that the nightmares would simply continue, on and on until the breath in my lungs ceased. And then Dusty came into our lives, and the nightmares stopped.
Maybe it was the rhythm of her gentle breathing next to me, or the exhaustion that she put in my bones caring for her every day that made them stop. Maybe it was her hot breath on my neck or her soft fur in my face that made me feel safe. Maybe it was the fact that I was the protector, and I had to be strong. Whatever it was, I didn’t have a single nightmare in the time that we had Dusty.
Slowly, I crept out of bed, careful not to wake Joe, who spends too many sleepless nights easing my cries of terror. Smokey lifted his head then sighed and laid back down. He is getting used to me sneaking away some nights.
I walked downstairs and went to the basement. I took a shoebox of Dusty’s things off the shelf and curled up with Apollo and Dusty’s wubba and her chewing rings and a little stuffed German shepherd that Joe bought me and cried like it was the day that we put Dusty down. After my tears were shed, I put her things back in the box and up on the shelf, ruing the fact that all that I have left of her is in a shoebox on a shelf in the basement.
I went back upstairs and got back in bed and fell asleep, knowing the nightmares would return.
As I walked Shelby this morning, I tried not to think about all the things I missed about Dusty, because it made me feel guilty, made me feel that I didn’t love Shelby enough. It brought me too close to comparison (as if mixing up their names all the time isn’t bad enough). But I couldn’t help but think how I missed Dusty’s perfect ears, and her big head, her puppy bark and even her bad breath. I missed having her sleep in the bed with us and how she would use her stairs to get up into it. I missed holding her gently by the shoulders while she whined about the hassle that was her Bailey Chair, and I even missed getting up at 3 in the morning to feed her. That time was special for us (after I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and the irritation out of my voice). I miss Dusty with an intensity that will never burn out.
But that’s okay. It just means that I loved her that much, and I always will. My pining and my grief is a sweet memorial to the puppy who didn’t have much time to make an imprint on this world. She had no time and yet she left this giant hole where she used to be in my life. But that’s okay too, because I will love that hole as much as I loved her. And maybe when I embrace that hole and stop trying so desperately to make it disappear, Dusty’s love will make my nightmares go away again. That’s the hope that Dusty left me with, a precious parting gift.