After my beloved dog died, I went straight off the deep end. Everyone close to me knew I wouldn’t take it well: This particular dog was like my left leg — Harvey went everywhere I went. He came to the office with me every day, and would bark at 5 pm to let everyone know it was time to leave. Harvey was a rescued border collie with terrible separation anxiety, and I was a lot calmer and happier when he was around, too. “I’ll have to be institutionalized after he dies,” I often used to joke.
When Harvey did die, he was still young, and it happened pretty suddenly: a mere twelve days after a cancer diagnosis. During the weeks after his death, I worried the institution idea was no longer really a joke. Two months passed, and my sadness over the loss only deepened. Time wasn’t healing all things. We adopted a new puppy, another border collie, because many pet grief self-help books said that loving another animal would help, in most cases. I took the puppy, Willie, to training classes, and bought him dozens of toys, but I felt like I had a hard shell over my heart that kept me from loving him. One night, I sat on the bathroom floor and sobbed so hard my nose bled, and the blood on my hands only made me cry harder.
“We need to get you some help,” my husband said when he found me, and I nodded, stuffing tissues up my nose.
The next morning, we laughed about it, what a scene it had been. But my husband still called a therapist, while I looked online for a dog medium. He couldn’t get an appointment with a therapist until the following week, but the dog medium could talk that Friday.
“Whatever helps,” my husband said, shrugging. My husband is a scientist, only believes in something when there’s solid evidence to back it up, but he was at a loss.
We were on a three-hour drive to to New York City when the medium, Wendy, called. I’d taken the earliest available appointment, forgetting that we’d have to be in the car at that time. We were on the way to see Hamilton on Broadway, a generous end-of-the-year gift from my boss. I was dreading the musical because I worried I might hate it. I felt like I had begun hating everything that would normally be unquestionably good, even sometimes resenting Willie, whose paws smelled like popcorn.
“Are you comfortable?” Wendy asked when the call began.
“Reasonably,” I said, shifting my seatbelt so it wasn’t digging into my neck.
“Do you have tissues nearby?”
I didn’t, there were none in the car, but I lied and said I did. I wondered if she knew I was lying.
For the past few months after Harvey’s death, the tiniest thing to go wrong would send me spiraling into tears.
Wendy asked about the reason for my call. She asked me to tell her a little bit about my relationship with Harvey. I told her that Harvey was a rescued border collie, that I’d had him for five years of his life, that he’d died of cancer at eight years old. I started crying, which she said was good, healthy. The GPS told my husband to keep left to stay on I-95.
Then Wendy said she’d ask for Harvey to join us. She said a prayer, or a spell, into the phone, muttering something about calling on the animal spirits. I imagined that she was sitting at her kitchen table, a book of spells in front of her, lighting a candle shaped like a dog. Wendy said Harvey’s spirit was coming in fast. I pictured Harvey’s spirit as having a purple hue.
Wendy said that Harvey said he missed me so much, and then — speaking as Wendy, now, she said — that there was more beauty in our shared grief than she usually sees.
“He was my soulmate,” I yelped. I felt bad saying that in front of my husband, because that word, soulmate, implies that you only get one. My husband kept his eyes on the road.
“Harvey wants you to know that this transition is harder for people than it is for animals. He misses you, but he’s happy now, too. He’s soaring all over the world.”
“He’s soaring?” I liked the image, his purple spirit flying.
She then said Harvey wanted me to know that he was grateful for me, because before I adopted him, people were always trying to make him into a different sort of dog. I let him be exactly who he was, which is where that extra beauty she saw came from.
I told Wendy that we’d recently adopted a puppy, also from Tennessee, Harvey’s home state. I wanted to know what Harvey would think of Willie.
“Well…” she paused, “he says he feels totally neutral about Willie. He’s not jealous,” she said. “But I’m asking him if he feels happy for you, and he said no, just neutral about it. He says time will tell.”
That’s what made me think that Wendy might be the real deal. Harvey never liked puppies, always gave them a curled upper lip. He would never have been happy about a puppy, but neutral sounded right.
But then Wendy said something that seemed a little too out there, something I wasn’t sure what to make of: She claimed Harvey would be send me eagle imagery that weekend, because eagles are part of his totem. “You’ll see eagles everywhere,” she said. “He wants them to give you strength.”
“Eagles,” I said. “Got it.” I didn’t want to spend any more time on that, so I asked her about the end of Harvey’s life, when we’d had the vet to the house to put him to sleep. We knew he was bleeding internally from the tumors in his abdomen, we knew there was nothing more we could do. I was haunted by his final hour — I had cried so hard when the vet arrived, I thought Harvey must have been distressed by my sorrow. I hadn’t wanted him to be upset at the end, and I wanted to know if I’d made him afraid.
“He wasn’t afraid, just weak,” she said, which was likely true, given his condition. “And Harvey doesn’t blame you for crying. That’s what family is.”
Our forty-five minutes were almost up. “Can you just tell him I love him,” I sniffed.
“Oh honey, you can tell him that yourself. And he knows, he knows, he knows.”
“Are you okay?” my husband asked when I got off the phone. I felt light-headed, like I’d spent too long in a sauna.
As soon as we arrived in New York, we got into a mild car accident. A van sideswiped our tiny Honda Fit. For the past few months after Harvey’s death, the tiniest thing to go wrong would send me spiraling into tears, but this time I was calm. A cop showed up and filed the accident report, he had an Irish accent and he looked like my uncle. I couldn’t see it, but I knew there was an eagle image on his badge, as there are on all NYPD badges. I liked the idea of Harvey reaching out to us through law enforcement; Harvey loved to follow the rules. If my parents’ dog acted naughty, he would herd her around the house for an hour.
Then, as soon as we were free to go, the eagle imagery was indeed everywhere. It was on the UPS truck parked in front of our hotel, on the logo of Guy Fieri’s restaurant, emblazoned on several clothing stores that we passed, carved into stone buildings. Of course, the eagle is an iconic America symbol, and it makes sense that they would be everywhere. There’s no wool over my eyes on that one — an eagle is a safe bet for that kind of exercise: If you look for images of the great American bird, they’ll be there. But for me, it gave me a purpose and a hope that I hadn’t been able to find for the past few months. It made me look up, look around, take in the view.
And later that night, I enjoyed Hamilton, which of course everyone does.
Before the dog medium, I’d had three psychic readings in my life: One psychic told me not to marry my boyfriend because he didn’t really love me (he didn’t), another told me to wrap up my graduate program a year early, because a great opportunity awaited me if I did (and I did get offered a fellowship shortly after graduating), and one woman told me I’d have a creative career, but that I’d have to wear a suit for many years first (well, still haven’t worn a suit, but I have had an office job while pursuing a writing career). Those three prior experiences didn’t really made me a believer in the power of the third eye, and I’m not exactly a believer now either, after the medium.
But I do know this: The medium, and those three psychics, each told me something I needed to hear at that particular time. They presented — or feigned — certainty about something that weighed on me. Their certainty freed me. Because of their advice, I broke up with the boyfriend, I graduated early from my program, and I felt sure a creative path would lead me somewhere, eventually. And even if I’m not a wholehearted believer in the mystical, I now lean on the medium’s certainty that Harvey isn’t gone completely, that our lost loved ones are still with us somehow.
I want to believe, and maybe that’s enough. On the ride home from New York, we saw a bald eagle in the sky, soaring over the Connecticut highway.
Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake , out March 2017 from Tin House Books.
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