I turned 35 yesterday.
I spent months musing about what I might write in today’s newsletter. I initially planned to write about how 35 is a milestone birthday for a woman—or a cliff, depending who you’re talking to. It’s the age where women are deemed no longer young, especially by Hollywood’s unrealistic standards.
Then the pandemic happened, and that essay idea seemed vain.
Next, I planned to write about how, really, I am blessed to get another year older. There’s a part of me that will always compare my age to how old Jamie was when he died. I’ve experienced and accomplished a lot with my extra three years on earth, and I wanted to reflect on that fact.
Then my dog Henry died, and that idea didn’t feel quite right either.
So here we are. It’s been 48 days since I’ve sheltered in place, five days since my best furry friend passed away, and one day since I turned 35. I’m feeling all sorts of things, and am greatly reminded of how much can shift in a short span of time.
If coronavirus didn’t change everything, I’d be in Atlanta right now. Billy and I planned to visit for a few days—a trip that coincided with extended relatives being in town—and I was looking forward to celebrating my birthday with family. It would have been the fourth birthday in a row I spent away from home.
In 2017, just shy of three months after Jamie died, I spent my birthday alone at a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Henry and I hid out from the world for a week, finding some solace in nature, and doing a lot of mourning. The following year, I traveled solo overseas, spreading Jamie’s ashes in London and Paris, and doing a lot of thinking. Last year, I went to Atlanta, making plans with friends and family, and doing a lot of writing.
This year, I’m at home. Just like everyone else. And honestly, it’s really nice. It’s slower and sweeter.
I knew that Henry’s final days were near. I didn’t know exactly how or when he would die, but I saw the signs of aging and decline, and worried about the prospect of my sweet boy being in pain.
I also worried about not being there when he died. Billy and I both travel often, and I thought about how horrible it would be if Henry passed away while someone else was watching him. Billy and I talked many times about that prospect, and how distressing it would be—for us, Henry, and the poor friend who had to deal with everything. Despite all my worrying, though, I didn’t know how to avoid that possibility. I didn’t know how to slow down. I figured all of my travel and juggling a too-full calendar were a given, part of the life I chose.
The pandemic changed that. I had no choice but to slow down and stay put.
Being at home meant that Billy and I got to spend the last six weeks with Henry. Instead of being on the road, we were together—day after day after day. I didn’t fully realize it until after he died, but it was a perfect way to spend Henry’s final weeks. We slept in without an alarm, went on more frequent walks, spent more time sitting on the porch or lounging in the backyard, and turned our couch into a comfy bed so we could have extra-cozy movie nights. Henry loved it all.
Henry died on Thursday evening, of natural causes and with me by his side. The following day, the weather was gloomy—dark skies and thunderstorms from morning to night. It fit the mood perfectly. Billy and I spent the day alternating between crying and binging the McMillions documentary series. We had nowhere to go and not much to distract us from the sadness. We’d finish another episode, then one of us would inevitably sigh, look at the spot on the couch where Henry would normally be, and say, “I miss him.” We’d talk about what we missed most, hug each other, and cry some more.
Saturday was less gloomy—weather-wise and mood-wise—but Henry’s absence continued to follow us everywhere. We cried and shared stories, and busied ourselves by working on a puzzle and getting various chores done. Again, there was nowhere to go and not much to distract ourselves from the sadness.
Sunday was a beautiful day, and my mood was brighter. We finished that puzzle, I cleaned the house and boxed up some of Henry’s leftover food and treats, and we had friends over for a lovely and much-needed socially-distant dinner in the backyard. Henry’s absence still lurked, but the sadness had settled. It became a feeling that could coexist with happiness, rather than something I needed to outrun or push away.
And yesterday, the weather was beautiful, just like my birthday. Billy and I went for a walk by the water, I worked on this essay, various friends sent birthday wishes in a variety of creative ways, and I ended the day celebrating and playing games virtually with family. There was nowhere to go and not much to distract me from the thoughts of getting older or missing my pup. It was simple and sweet and slow, and honestly one of my favorite birthdays yet.
Many of us are wondering how things will change once lockdown restrictions are lifted and life starts returning back to some semblance of normal. Many times, those thoughts are sad or scary—Will handshakes return? Will plastic partitions always be a thing at grocery stores? Will I ever feel comfortable again in big crowds? Lately, though, I’m feeling a bit hopeful about some of the changes that might come. I know I can’t control what will shift in society, but I can consider what I personally want to take from this time.
Being able to slow down has been such a gift. It’s allowed me to simultaneously mourn the life of my beloved dog and celebrate my own life in sweet and tender ways. It’s allowed me to appreciate the smaller things, and find gratitude for moments I might normally miss. It’s allowed me to head into a new year with clarity and calm, and a renewed hope of what life might look like in the future.
Having nowhere to go and not much to distract me has been a blessing. I hope I remember that.
p.s. Something I’ve reflected on the past few days is how good Henry was at reminding me to slow down. As he grew older, he became a master of the leisurely neighborhood stroll; the lazy, calm morning; and the luxurious afternoon nap. Our pets are good at that stuff. I’d love to hear about (and see photos of) the furry friends who are accompanying you during self-isolation. Share your photos and tell me what makes them so great, especially now. You can reply to this message, or send me an email. I’ll share your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter.
Last chance for a big discount
April 30 is the last day I’m offering the paid version of My Sweet Dumb Brain at a 50% discount. Next month, subscriptions will go back to the normal price. If you’ve been on the fence about subscribing, this is your chance! In addition to Tuesday essays, paying subscribers receive a bonus newsletter on Thursdays that’s full of feedback and advice from readers, additional resources and thoughts from yours truly, and, sometimes, pet photos!
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who misses Henry Barfight, and has been giving her own pup, Sherlock, extra treats and cuddles this week.