It’s been one year since Cole passed on and it’s been a difficult adjustment for me. I was not prepared for any of what was to come after leaving his body at the emergency vet clinic in Madison last year. Having never lost someone who I was connected with as much as Cole, I guess I’m lucky to not have known the depth of that kind of pain until now. I’m surprised how the pain I feel has not dissipated. There are still days that are incredibly difficult and there are times still, to this day, that I am overwhelmed with grief. I struggle to find the words to accurately describe the emptiness and loss that I feel without him. I still sometimes can’t believe that he’s actually gone and when that realization hits me again, it’s like my whole world is crashing in on me yet again. Even though I know others have lost loved ones, partners, friends, pets, and so forth, there is something very lonely about each of our losses and I think that is because the relationship two souls have, whatever bodies those souls inhabit, is only ever really known, felt, and understood between those two souls. I can sit here and explain what it feels like to live without Cole but there is no way that anyone will ever really be able to feel exactly what I feel. They can imagine or think of a similar loss but in the end, no one has ever been me and no one ever had Cole. Not being able to truly share this experience with anyone may be the most isolating feeling I have ever felt.
I always imagined that after Cole was gone, I would quickly put together a photo slideshow to celebrate his life but it took me several months before I was even able to write at length about his life for my blog. This week, knowing that his first death anniversary would arrive, I started working on the painstaking process of going through over 20,000 photos I had taken of him over the 12 ½ years we had together. To say that process was difficult is an understatement. Each day I look back at memories of him from Facebook but those are in small doses and only take a couple minutes. This process took hours upon hours over days on top of sleep deprivation. Traumatic is probably the best word to describe it. When I got through the last of the photos last night, I broke down as if he had just died all over again. My body did not seem to know the difference. What a special kind of pain that was to go through, again. While looking through the entirety of his life in photos, I was reminded of so many painful things. Like the fact that he’s never going to accidentally photobomb one of my landscape photos again or appear as a little black dot off in the distance unbeknownst to me that I only discover once I get home and look at the photos on my computer.
The photos reminded me once again of all the hard things that Cole was there for me through like job changes, unexpected election results, cancer, breakups, misadventures, sicknesses, and even a global pandemic. It also reminded me of all the fun adventures we had in nature, places we traveled to, and all the people we crossed paths and shared time with. The photos also showed clearly how deep our connection was, it was easy to see how well we worked together hiking, while at the beach, camping, visiting new places, etc. He would never wander too far from me and we always kept an eye on each other. Even when he was making friends with random people we came across, he was always circling back to me to make sure things were alright. So many photos of him at home were of him sitting on me or next to me pretty much all of the time.
This past year of pet sitting has shown me just how extra special Cole was. He was perfect in every sense of the word, to me. Some issues that other dogs, as good as they are, may have, weren’t ever an issue with Cole. I can’t even take any credit for that either as he just came to me as the perfect little being that he was. His worst trait was that he liked to bark at people and dogs he saw walking outside the window and also at fireworks. Cole thought those things were coming to get us all and would go into high alert running around the house barking trying desperately to protect us. He had so much courage tucked into such a small little body. Some of the things I loved so much about him was how patient he was, whether it was while I photographed some random thing for the millionth time, worked on some sort of computer project, or just stared at my phone mindlessly for hours. He would just wait by my side until I would look over and give him some pets and love or signal it was time to keep walking down the trail. Another thing that I cherished about him was just how adaptable he was. It didn’t seem to matter where we were or what we were doing, everything was good so long as we were together.
Some of the things I unexpectedly miss now that he is gone are all the pretty skies, sunsets, and little things I’d see while out on our daily walks together. I also miss meeting random people who would stop to gush over him because he was the cutest and friendliest little pug ever. Recently, I was struck with an overwhelming feeling that maybe my best years are behind me. These photos reminded me of a better time when Cole was alive, there was no pandemic, and I was living in my favorite part of the country having adventures and exploring all sorts of new places and making new friends. Cole came into my life post divorce, was super social with me and all my friends in Madison, then moved with me across the country twice and explored all over Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Then we did our biggest road trip throughout the western United States followed by several cross country drives. We endured lockdown together when the pandemic started and he was by my side when I started my own business all while growing into my photography skill set. He brought a much needed stability and focus to my life, not to mention constant companionship. Through all the changes, I could always count on him to be there. People and jobs may have come and gone but the thought of him going away someday always seemed so far off into the future still. When I think about how things are now, like how COVID just seems to linger on with no real end in sight, the random health situations that keep popping up for me, the war in Ukraine and what seems like an imminent world war on the horizon, the impending doom of climate change, and the state of our politics in this country threatening our democracy, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future, especially with no Cole by my side.
I heard a song while looking through my photos this week, it was called “Victim of Upgraded Love”. Unlike how the song intends, I took the meaning to relate more to how really good things can set the bar higher for our expectations in life. It’s kind of like working a job I was passionate about once. I tried to do work after that that paid better but my soul just couldn’t handle it, the bar had been set higher. I knew what it felt like to wake up with a passion for my work. I can’t fathom doing any job now that is anything less than what I know makes me fulfilled. Another example of this for me is how once upon a time I found myself in a relationship with someone who treated me better than anyone else had ever treated me before. I never knew that that is what I should be expecting from my relationships. Now that I know, I can’t go back to dating anyone who treats me less than that. The downside to this is when we lose those things, the people, the jobs, etc., the emptiness we feel is far, far greater because we know how unique and special they were. I know I was really lucky to have had Cole in my life and now that he’s gone, I’m left with a hole that I don’t know what to do with. It certainly does feel like being a victim of upgraded love. Cole had awoken a love in my life that was higher than anything else I had felt before. Unconditional love, constant companionship, support, humor, and nonjudgement. He accepted me unconditionally and stood by my side through every hardship. He slept by my side every night, and stayed extra close through every sickness, especially during my cancer recovery. He seemed to understand how to be in my life in the most perfect way, even navigating my unusual quirks and idiosyncrasies with ease. I would have done anything to protect him and my life centered around his well being and ensuring that he was safe, healthy, and happy. I always worried about all the terrible things that this world could do to him and just the thought of losing him someday would be enough to keep me up all night long in tears. It really does feel like the first time I’ve ever felt unconditional love both for and from someone.
I did learn some really important things from this process this week and if I can impart any sort of wisdom to you, dear reader, it is this: take the damn photos! Of your pets, friends, family, partner, anyone and everything that you love. Not just the big things but the everyday small things too. It’s true when they say that the small things are the big things in the end. Those photos will help you remember so much more than your memory ever could on its own and in the end, our memories are all we have left, and sometimes not even those. In time, you’ll want to look at those photos again to help you remember how special it all was. Sometimes, the photos are the only proof that we have left of an existence.
I am not a person of faith, agnostic is the best I could ever come up with to explain my religious beliefs. My overwhelming desire to feel that Cole is not gone and that someone as special and kind as him could not be extinguished by something as dumb as a body giving out has opened me up to the idea that maybe there is something more out there for us after our bodies die. I want to believe so badly that Cole’s soul is somewhere out there still in existence and that someday we’ll be reunited. That really is the only thought that ever gives me any comfort when the pain of his loss overwhelms me. There is a line in the movie City of Angels that came to mind today. The scene where the dying Meg Ryan says to Nicholas Cage, “When they ask me what I liked best, I’ll tell them it was you.” Cole is hands down the one thing in this world that I have liked best about this life of mine.