Trigger warning: pet loss, death
Oh, how I hate talking about death.
Usually, I just pretend that it doesn’t exist and everyone and every being will always be around for eternity. Like there’s not enough people already telling me that I won’t be around for much longer unless I quit hitchhiking and do something normal instead. Traveling—what a selfish thing to do when there are people at home worried sick about what silly shit I am doing now. Why am I not caring and taking responsibility for my aging family instead?
Last week my mother told me that my dog Ashley passed away. This prompted me to write this post about this loss on the road, constants, and the trade-offs you make when you choose a life without one location. This is Ashley in 2015 at age 13:
Ashley was one of the few constants. She traces back even to my life before my parents’ divorce. For fourteen years, Ashley, from a dog breed called Kooikerhondje, was our family’s source of joy and unconditional love. She especially bonded with my mom, who was her main caretaker. Entire plans would change based on intel if a place was dog-friendly or not.
When I was 11 years old, my mother and I contacted the breeder. My sister had always wanted a dog and she was away for the summer in the USA with a family member. The dog was a surprise and a gift to my sister, though it was really my mom who wanted a dog. But my sister could pick a name. Ashley didn’t get her name until we drove her home from far far away in the Netherlands. The poor puppy vomited the entire ride home.
After returning home from a rough day at primary/high school, Ashley was always there. She’d come to sit on my lap or lie closeby. She’s always in the background of the few pictures I have of that time, doing dog things such as looking at birds or napping. I’d teach her commands or how to jump. She was very food-motivated.
In 2010, I moved out and away from that home to study in Maastricht in the southern parts of the Netherlands. My mom cared for Ashley after my sister and I had left home to study. Living without pets was very strange, but I got used to it. I never considered getting my own dog because of the demands of student life and the restraints of my housing. Also, the reward of seeing Ashley greet me with her wagging tail again after a long absence felt so good.
When I quit my studies and decided to hitchhike full-time, I saw her and my family a lot less often. In 2015, I hitchhiked to France to meet my mom, stepdad, and Ashley for a few days. That was a lot like the old days.
Whenever I returned to my mom’s after a long hitchhiking trip, she’d aged visibly. Her energy went down drastically. I knew that Kooikerhondjes would be pushing it if they grew older than 14. It was hard to watch. And I knew she’d probably die one day while I’m far away. Each goodbye became harder.
Then on the 28th of September in 2016 while I was across the Atlantic in Uruguay, I received the email that Ashley had died at the vet after a rapid decline in health.
Constants on the Road
Losing a pet isn’t the same as losing a family member, but it felt the same. My mother dubbed Ashley her “hairy daughter” and that made Ashley my “hairy sister”. It felt like losing a sibling. There won’t be a wagging tail when I enter my mom’s door and declare myself home again. I’m not sure if it will feel like home without Ashley.
That fucking sucks. Whenever anyone of my family members would like to have a conversation about ‘responsibilities, living ‘a real life,’ and when will I finally “stop wandering like a hobo”, there was this non-judgmental being who’d just breathe in my face with her dog breath ready to receive a scritches and cuddles. She made me feel less like the useless piece of shit other people tried to make me feel like.
Mourning Ashley made me realize that I can’t ever become a pet parent. Just the thought that I’ll need to watch them die one day is too fucking painful. And the alternative – dying before your pet does – is even more maddening. Though I love animals, I do not want such responsibilities. It’s too much. I can’t fathom the pain my mom and stepdad felt when they had to decide at the vet that Ashley’s suffering had to cease.
I was in Norway when I lost my father’s father and on the border of Poland and Slovakia when I lost my mother’s father. In both instances, I hitchhiked/flew home rather fast to be there for the funeral and say final goodbyes. Now, I’m in Uruguay, but I’m not returning for Ashley’s ashes, unlike the other familial losses.
As travelers, many of us still tend to hold on to a few constants through something: Skype calls with mom, postcards to grandpa, a family picture in a wallet or on a phone. And it fucking hurts when one of those constants falls away. One by one. And when you return, things have forever changed. The smells are different and real beings have turned into memories.
Everyone talks about travel as the best thing they ever did for themselves. But we also need to talk about the trade-offs we’re making towards our loved ones. I’m against any dogmatic thinking about how taking care of elder loved ones is a duty—I want to escape from talking about the shoulds and the oughts. But it’s simply true that we miss moments with them by being away. In that way, constants can at the same time be constraints.
Don’t get me wrong; I still think extensive travel is worth it. I wouldn’t want to change my path for anything. We can’t live our lives according to the constants/constraints we were born with. Neither the ones that were decided for us. At least, I can’t – and I won’t – change my path for it. Because that makes me unhappy.
I’m happy for the time we’ve had together. Thank you for comforting me. You were a good girl.