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“Jen Michalski’s second novel is an intense emotional commitment, but a worthwhile one.” – Ploughshares


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“Jen Michalski excels in subtlety that is made possible by her nuanced understanding of voice.” – The Rumpus


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The Unbearable Absence of Bostons

When a dog doesn't eat, especially one whose raison d'etre was a French fry or a tater tot, you know the end is close. When our dog Shirley stopped eating last Thursday, losing two pounds from her already-svelte 14-pound frame, it seemed to be the missing piece to a puzzle that, even though solved, was still a black canvas. Why was Shirley wasting? Why did we have to force feed her with a syringe? Why did she have to go to the vet every few days for subcutaneous fluids? Why, even when the vomiting was controlled by an anti-emetic, did she still have terrible diarrhea? Why did we do everything—medications, imaging, blood tests—and nothing worked? Why did her differentials not provide the faintest clue of her illness, an illness that, in retrospect, seems to have started long ago, back in January, when she was a squishy 18 pounds and on the verge of beginning a diet?

Antibiotics in January. Antibiotics in May. Antibiotics in July. Liver support medication for six months. When Shirley's bloods went out of whack or she succumbed to an infection, we got her on a medication and, to our relief, she always returned to normal. We were never worried that she wouldn't bounce back, our tank of a Boston terrier. In fact, we always joked that, like the Six-Million-Dollar Man, we could rebuild her, our Shirley, that we would spare no expense for her health. Yet money cannot buy immortality—it can only buy time. Now, an inch-thick file folder filled with various visits to the vet, we have a lot of information about Shirley's vitals. Yet none of it tells why she died, or more importantly, where she is now, as I wait every night to dream of a sign, every morning to hear a jingle of her collar, a confirmation from Shirley that she's indeed okay, close by, and missing us as terribly as we miss her.

This is not the first Boston I've lost. I lost my first, Maggie, perhaps even more painfully. At 14 years of age, she woke up one morning with the right half of her body paralyzed. The vets were optimistic: a several-thousand-dollar MRI revealed no brain tumors, no blood flow disruptions. Perhaps a few months of therapy and acupuncture would right her. I dragged her dutifully from clinic to clinic for therapy, feeding her meds and vitamins, only to watch her suffer miserably for four months until she was put to sleep, no closer to health than she was the day she woke up paralyzed; in fact, much worse.

I swore I would never do that to Shirley. That I knew when the time would come, that I would not let her suffer a minute longer than she needed. And we kept my promise, putting her to sleep a mere week after the vomiting and diarrhea begin explosively, like a surprise thunderstorm.

I didn't feel any better about it. You always want your pet to pass on his or her own terms. And without knowing what was wrong, without an inkling of how to fix it, you can torture yourself with "what ifs." Especially if you don't know your pet's previous history, when means it's probable your time with your pet is short. Both Maggie and Shirley were Boston terriers rescued from shelters; I got Maggie when she was ten, and she lived until thirteen and a half. I got Shirley when she was nine and she died two months shy of her twelfth birthday. They were both in terrible shape when they stepped into their forever homes, with mouths full of rotten teeth and gray-white muzzles and clouds of cataracts forming.

Of course, it's hard to open your heart to a dog you know may only be with you for a few short years. But where some people see money pit and heartache, I see potential. It is my curse: adopting older female Boston dogs. I know I will adopt another, that the next Shirley or Maggie will definitely be older than five, a little gray, a little grateful for any attention. And I will become again the worst kind of helicopter mother ever: vet visits every few months, the finest dog food, the snazziest dog jackets and gourmet treats. The privilege of going with me whether I can get away with it, whether it be the bank or the Home Depot or even the symphony (yes ma'am, this is my sight-dog, this half-blind old Boston). And that she will leave me too soon and I will be devastated again and everyone will remind me of some mythical rainbow place where all our dogs are friends, even if they've never met, when we can't even agree on a heaven or hell and my mother will ask, for the umpteenth time, why don't you get a puppy, and I will wonder if I am a glutton for punishment.

But then I will remember my purpose in life, the one that transcends all petty worries, like, will I be a successful writer or will I lose those fifteen pounds or why do I have iPhone commitment issues, that I am a old Boston girl dog mommy, come one, come all, mommy's arms are long and strong enough to hold all of you at night.

But today is today. Shirley's been gone for two days. I can't imagine much more than getting through today without crying, and I've already failed three times. At the end of writing this, four.

Shirley, I'm adrift without you here, in your palatial pet bed, snoring and barking in your sleep, as I work. If you can hear me, your snack is waiting for you at two o'clock. I don't believe in much, but I believed in you. And I struggle with accepting that you are somewhere after death, if not here, and that you are happy. At any rate, it's all I got.

God works in mysterious ways
And God gives
and then he takes away

From me
—"Born Secular," Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins