“Are you interested in changing your flight from a 3 hour layover in Dallas to a Westjet direct flight, arriving in San Jose del Cabo four hours earlier?” said the American Airlines check-in clerk.
“Um, yes, please!” I said.
As my long-time travel friend, Heather, and I settled into our Westjet seats, my thoughts drifted over the past year.
In May 2012, Heather and I bought tickets to El Salvador for a two-week biking/camping trip departing January 29, 2013. My rottweiler, Monty, was 10 years old, and it was going to be my final trip in order to share every minute of his senior years together.
On November 27, 2012, Monty was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and I cancelled the trip. I temporarily closed my business while I cared for and hung out 24/7 with Monty until he passed away January 30, 2013. (In Celebration of Monty video)
February was a mourning blur which continued into March. And April. We had to use our American Airlines credit before May 1, and after contemplating a weekend in San Francisco or Portland, Heather called one day, “hey, did you know American Airlines flies to San Jose del Cabo?”
That's the one.
I was jostled back to the present as the lady across the aisle stood up. I noticed her gold thumbnail-sized square pendant with an embossed dog.
“I like your necklace,” I said, “have you got a dog?”
“Yes, he’s waiting for us at home,” she said.
We talked about our dogs – her Labrador, my rottweiler, hers rambunctious, mine recently gone – as she sat on her armrest. After a few minutes, she stood up to walk towards the bathroom line-up.
“Nice chatting with you,” I said. “Oh, and what is your dog’s name?”
My right hand slapped across my mouth as I looked left at Heather.
“Whaaaaaat?” said Heather.
“Oh,” I inhaled as I brought my snack napkin up to my lower eye lids. The woman had already walked away.
“Whoa-whoa-whoa,” said Heather.
Stuff like that happens to me a lot -- it’s new to Heather – but that was a good one, even for me.
Monty's so right here.
We had a soul-restoring week in San Jose. We read. We tanned. We sipped iced sangrias. We power-walked the beach for two hours every morning. We chatted with the couple who still called each other “baby cakes” after twenty years of marriage. And the young woman with a new memorial tattoo – a red maple tree growing across her right upper thigh – where her dog is buried at home.
Mostly, we laughed. Wrinkle-causing belly laughs. With each other. With hotel staff. With Mexican travellers. And with surfer JD and his 70-something dad and travel buddy, Keith.
And welcomed the morning sun on our top-floor, garden-view balcony -- upgraded from a ground-floor back room.
A week later, we were waiting at the airport for our flight home. The Boston Marathon bombing that morning had caused no-fly zones and massive re-routing. Young kids sat on suitcases. Women ducked out for bathroom breaks. Men twisted and double-checked their watches.
“Let’s see, well, I can reroute you but it would be a tight 2-hour transfer in LAX,” said the American Airlines check-in clerk.
“Okay, we’ll take it,” I said.
“Are we going to have time?” asked Heather.
“We'll be good, it only means that we weren’t supposed to be in Dallas and something really cool is going to happen at LAX,” I said.
The 90-minute flight from San Jose del Cabo to Los Angeles was relaxing except for the occasional how-are-we-going-to-claim-our-bags-and-get-from-Terminal-5-to-Terminal-2-in-under-two-hours thoughts that would creep up from each of us.
Once the plane landed, we race-walked around people and up the first ramp.
“Vancouver connections? Vancouver connections?” an elderly Asian man called out.
“Uh, yeah, we’re flying to Vancouver?” I said.
“Are you Heather and Michelle?” he asked.
“Um, yeah?” said Heather.
“Here, take these and make sure you have them displayed at all times, you’ll be guided through,” he said, “it’s 4:25 now, boarding starts at 5:45.”
Hundreds of cartoon question marks popped up around our heads as we stared at our orange fluorescent “Express Connections” passes. "Thank youuuu!"
Up two ramps. Down three flights of stairs. Along a corridor -- Strollers! Cleaning ladies! Dudes with headphones! As we approached the customs area we were waved over by a woman – who ARE these people? – who lifted up the retractable belt from a post and walked us to third in line. We cleared in four minutes. We grabbed our first-off-the-plane bags from carousel #3 just as our elderly Asian guide appeared.
“This way, this way,” he said and bypassed a line longer than a city block, to a line reserved for flight crew.
“Who is that guy and how did he get here so fast,” said Heather, “he was three floors up.”
“Ha, no idea, just say thank you!” I said as our customs cards were collected and we burst out into LA sunshine.
“Which way to Terminal twoooo?” I asked a crowd.
“That way!” said somebody.
Off a curb, up a curb — watch out for taxis! Luggage carts! A drunk woman in stilettos!
In through a mirrored glass door – left or right? left! – up two escalators, emptied pockets, stripped off jackets and runners. Phew! A silent metal detector!
We ran down the last corridor with shoelaces flapping. Toddlers! Passenger transport carts! Groups of teenaged girls!
“There it is! Flight 557 Vancouver! ” I said. “Time?”
“5:20!” said Heather, “Right here, right here, we got time!”
We ducked into a restaurant and -- no time for dinner -- ordered two Samuel Adams lagers as per our long-standing tradition.
“Cheers to winning the Amazing Race,” said Heather.
“Cheers, and to Monty, you rock!” I said.
Soon, seats 30D and 30E shook with laughter as we relayed the events. We could search for rational explanations – overbooked planes got you bumped up, lots of dogs are named Monty, room upgrades happen all the time, the LAX guides perhaps a frequent flyer club benefit of which we were mistakenly given temporary membership.
But believing it's Monty makes me glow with an inner secret so fun that strangers stop and ask me, "and what are you smiling at?"
A flight attendant walked down the aisle and stopped at our row.
“And, you are, Heather and Michelle?” she asked as she looked from per papers to the seat numbers above us.
“Uh, yup,” I said.
“You are both listed here for a complimentary meal and glass of wine,” she said. “So, what would you like?”
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Sevigny. www.michellesevigny.com. Reprint permission granted with full copyright intact.. Photo by Michelle Sevigny
I had meant to come to this place for almost a year. I made excuses about being too busy but in truth, I was scared. I didn’t want to think about ever needing this place.
As I stood outside, my hand on the door handle, I remembered when I had randomly found this place. Co-owner, Kevin Woronchak, was outside and saw my Dogsafe Canine First Aid logo on my Honda as I saw his sign on the building behind.
“Please come for a tour sometime,” he said after we had chatted for ten minutes or so.
“Absolutely, our companies certainly have planning ahead in common, I’ll definitely schedule a tour soon,” I said. In 2001, I had made a regrettable rush decision for a communal cremation for my previous dog, Dallas – I didn’t want the same for my rottweiler, Monty.
The wheels of a nearby train snapped me from the past. I took in long, slow breaths and exhaled as I opened the door to Until We Meet Again Pet Memorial Centre.
Kyle, a young staff member dressed in casual pants and plaid shirt, greeted me in the front entrance with a smile and gentle handshake.
We walked left into a room the size of a standard bedroom. The sun came through big windows and lit up a round wooden table and four chairs. Dark wood shelving lined two walls and showcased pet remembrance items. Urns of cedar, mahogany and ceramic, priced from $30 to $400. Angel ornaments cradling puppies. Engravable garden stones. Spawts paw impressions. Pendants and rings. Books on grief for purchase and their complimentary booklets, Coping with Loss and Guide to Planning Ahead. A viewing table draped in velvet rested against the pillar in the middle of the room.
As I scanned the options to honour pets, Kyle told me the history. The Woronchak family had lost their cat, Patches, Bichon Poodle cross, Libby, and 11-year old German shepherd, Kayla, all in less than a week. Prior to that time, they had not thought about pet cremation and from those heart-wrenching events, their silver lining was the creation of Until We Meet Again. Now in 2013, Kevin Woronchak manages Until We Meet Again, is a Certified Pet Loss Professional, is a member of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance (PLPA) and is on the PLPA Standards and Ethics Committee, all while being a full-time North Vancouver fire fighter. Joanne Woronchak is also a Certified Pet Loss Professional, is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s peer counselling program and also co-wrote the company’s educational booklets.
“We show people as much as they want to see,” said Kyle, “there is a cremation occurring at this time, but, would you like to see the rest?”
“Yes, please, thank you,” I said.
My chest thumped louder as we walked towards a closed door to the right of the main door. I followed Kyle into a high-ceiling warehouse area. Polished cement floor. A warm-coloured painting on the wall. A small table with a logbook and metal tags. Chairs for resting. And two shiny chrome crematories bigger than pick-up trucks.
I stood still and listened to the deep hum of the crematory. My hand sailed to my chest and rode the waves as I breathed deep. I thought of my Monty. As a police officer, I’d seen death, I’d been to a morgue. But this? This was about my dog.
“Um, phew, this all just got really real,” I said to Kyle, “but, I am glad I’m here, I wanted to do this before I needed too, so I’d know what to expect.”
A few seconds later, my hand returned to my side. With a soft voice, Kyle explained the transportation services (done in caskets), identification of the pet (metal tags and logbook), types of cremations (individual, communal, witnessed) and the final ashes (consisting of bone and packaged with a certificate). He answered all my questions with the right balance of scientific detail and compassion.
I thanked Kyle for the tour and five-minutes later I was home hugging Monty. The peace of mind from doing this tour would be felt three years later.
On January 30, 2013, due to neurological complications related to osteosarcoma, I cradled my rottweiler Monty, on the floor of my veterinarian’s back room, as he peacefully slipped away. Because of pre-planning, I knew where Monty was going next. I knew that he’d be carried out in a casket, still wrapped in his handcrafted blanket. I knew the location of Until We Meet Again and what was behind the closed doors. I knew that a private viewing and witness cremation could be scheduled for the following morning. I didn’t have to discuss this with my veterinarian in a rush. I had already decided. I could simply sit with Monty on the floor, for another forty minutes and allow the grief process to begin.
The next morning, I called and spoke with Eve.
“Hi, um, I had a witness viewing booked for Monty and well, um, I’m not sure I need to do that now,” I said.
“Okay, well, it’s only 9:30 so you still have an hour to decide,” she said, “why don’t you sit with it and let me know later if you like.”
I sat for another half hour. Did I want to go see Monty?
Why was I hesitant?
I was scared again. I didn’t know what to expect. My last vision of him at the veterinarian’s office was good, what would he look like this morning?
“But Monty, I want to be beside you, right to the very end,” I said to his spirit.
I called Eve again and said I’d come as scheduled.
I arrived and without hesitation, I walked in and felt comfort in the familiar surroundings. Eve and Kevin greeted me, and after chatting a few minutes, they left to get Monty.
A few minutes later, the door at the end of the hallway opened and I could see Monty lying on the velvet-covered viewing table. A blanket was draped over his lower body, his abdomen slightly swollen due to gases.
He looked, beautiful.
“He’s a big, handsome boy!” said Eve as they wheeled Monty closer.
I stroked his floppy ears. I ran my hands over his mostly-closed eyes. I dug my hands into his soft neck fur. I squeezed his front paws, and twiddled them back and forth. I caressed that soft, underneath part right above his large metacarpal foot pad, the part I used to kiss and nuzzle. I kissed them now. I nuzzled them now. I couldn't stop squeezing his paws!
“Would you like some privacy with Monty?” asked Kevin.
“Actually, I’m okay, I said my good-byes to Monty yesterday, at 5 o’clock in the morning, before I got to the vet's,” I said. “I know his spirit is already gone, but it still feels really, really good to me to be here with him, right to the very end.”
Kevin and Eve listened as I told them Monty’s story, from adopting him from the Vancouver shelter to his role as Dogsafe’s Chief Demonstration Dog. For half an hour, we shared and laughed. Together.
“Eve, thank you so much for earlier, allowing me reflective time, I am so, so grateful that I came,” I said. “And Kevin, thank you to you and Joanne for creating this lovely space where Monty’s final time can be experienced with love and respect.”
I gave each a hug and kissed Monty’s paws. “Run in Peace, my Monty.”
Two days later, I picked up Monty’s ashes which will rest on my shelf until the right time to be let go.
Dedicated in loving memory to my Monty. July 1, 2002 - January 30, 2013. View his In Celebration of Monty video.
Thank you for reading my story. If you're not already connected, click here to receive future stories directly to your inbox or join the conversation on Facebook. Why can't you comment here? Story coming soon to explain why I've turned off the comment option.
Photo of Monty by Kate Morris Photography. Photo of Until We Meet Again by Michelle Sevigny
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Sevigny. Please share, permission granted with copyright intact.
Six minutes into my early morning run I started to cry. I dabbed my tears as I ran along MacKay Park creek where Monty had cooled off for nine summers. Past the fence where the West Highland Terrier barked before we had even appeared. Now silent. I ran across the road where an invisible leash had yanked us back as we watched a beaver galumphed across the industrial street and slipped into a pond. I ran through the linear dog park where Monty had once greeted Labradors, shepherds and seniors. Two-legged and four-legged.
Every stride opened a story and I sprinted to flip the pages faster.
Half hour later, I reached the shared pedestrian/cyclist asphalt pathway beside Bridge Road -- underneath the Lion’s Gate Bridge -- and approached Kwumkwum Street, the entrance to the Squamish Nation Reserve. I darted between the crosswalk barriers and obeyed the painted warning:
As I ran, I looked right – painted Owl eyes that covered a single garage door of the first house on the reserve. Left -- a makeshift shrine on a chest-high green pillar of the bridge.
Ten feet past the shrine, I stopped. I squirted water into my mouth as I walked back to the shrine.
An engraved rock the size of my running shoe -- Nathan Baker, December 23, 1962 – February 18, 2013. A yellowed James A. Michener paperback, The Drifters, sealed in a Ziploc bag. Four empty Brava 5.5% beer cans – the cheapest you can buy. Cigarette butts. A card wrapped in plastic -- “Thank you for all your love and for loving and being a friend to my son. Marlene”. A black neoprene and mesh mountain biker glove. Eight separate Primulas in green flower pots. Dead. A wrinkled page ripped from a spiral-bound notepad and taped to a beer can -- “Rambo, thanks for being my friend, miss ya.”
The thump-thump-thump of cars on the bridge deck high above reminded me of my goal. I stuffed my water bottle away and plodded up the west side of the bridge and dashed down the east.
Twenty minutes later, I was back at the shrine.
A native woman was squeezed into her walker’s bench seat. A 50-something native man was sitting on the low, grey cement ledge adjoining the shrine, beer can in hand. A 20-something native man, dressed in an oversized hockey jersey (local team?) was the final mourner. A Molson Canadian beer can in his left hand and a crushed one in his right.
I stopped, grabbed my water bottle and joined the unexpected twist in this running story.
“Hey, that doesn’t look like beer!” said the older native man.
“Oh, give me a few more hours!” I said.
“Okay then, cheers!” he said, and laughed as we clinked our mismatched beverage containers. The younger man grinned, his middle tooth missing.
“Hey, did you guys know this fellow?” I asked.
“Yeah, Nathan, he lived under the bridge,” the woman said.
“Over there,” said the older man and pointed towards the Capilano River overpass, leading to the Park Royal Shopping Mall.
“His mom, Marlene, was so thankful for all the love, that’s her card, there,” said the woman.
The younger man grinned and held his beer can to his mouth for long sips.
“And the book?” I asked.
“Yeah, Nathan loved to read, he’d share all his books at the shelter,” said the woman.
“Sounds like he was well loved,” I said. “And what's the story of the biker glove?”
“Oh that, I found that on the ground so just stuck it up there,” said the woman.
My giggles caused her to release a rowdy smoker’s laugh. The young man snorted out beer from his nose.
And the older man held out his beer can for a departing *clink*.
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Sevigny. www.michellesevigny.com. Reprint permission granted with full copyright intact. Photo by Michelle Sevigny