The Worst Election Night Ever

Our dog died and nothing else has seemed to matter as much ever since — aka where I’ve been for three months

A black dog reclining in the author’s lap in a hammock above bright green grass
Jessie. Photos: Summer Anne Burton

I haven’t been getting anything done since election day. Like, nothing. I’m an extrovert, someone who derives a lot of my energy, creativity, and joy from socializing with others, and the pandemic had already squished my characteristic joie de vivre into a pebble before last November’s election night, triggering anxiety and depression that I was already treating with new medications and mostly-failed attempts to change my less healthy habits. Sleep-deprived from anxious insomnia and completely consumed with reading news and polling analysis in the weeks leading up to the election, I was, like so many others, unconsciously bathing in traumatic memories of election night 2016, when we found out Donald Trump would become President of the United States.

I had spent that entire day, over four years ago, with a sick feeling in my stomach, too. My friends mostly planned to gather at pre-supposed celebration parties in their Brooklyn apartments, or some were just going to hang out at our office in Manhattan, where my colleagues would be livestreaming results and where there would be an open bar and all of my current and former bosses. I opted out, choosing instead to go home and be alone, telling anyone who asked that I was too nervous to be around other people. Universally, I was reassured.

And they were wrong! I didn’t feel any kind of I told you so smugness hours later, though, just a kind of cold numbness that I’d only ever previously associated with deep grief, a coping mechanism to keep your mind from exploding into a million sharp pieces. I talked to my long distance boyfriend on the phone, at which point I must have cried, but I can barely remember. Later that night, I ventured out of my apartment to meet my New York BFF, Jen, who was walking her roommate’s comfortingly chill dog. Saying hello to that dog was definitely the best part of that fucking night.

The following years were more terrible for the country than I could have imagined, but they were mostly kind to me. I moved back home to Texas, married that long-distance boyfriend, Peter, and we bought a lovely house together. A few weeks after buying the house, we adopted a dog to complete the family.

Jessie.

When we “went to look at” dogs at the city shelter, just a couple months after moving into our new home and its spacious backyard, I had a feeling we’d end up bringing someone home. At least that’s how it usually worked, based on my lifetime of experience talking people into adopting pets with me.

After walking around the entire facility, we’d met three dogs we were interested in and sat down with an adoption specialist who proceeded to tell us strongly potentially-disqualifying details about each one, from sordid bite histories to a tendency to want to kill cats like the two we had at home. We were ready to leave and my eyes darted around like a kid who hasn’t found anything at the toy store before their time is up. The shelter keeps a couple dogs in a corner kennel of the lobby on a rotating basis, and I saw a black furry mop on the floor that struck me as having great potential, and dragged Peter over to take her out for a quick stroll.

A black dog with a speckled pink tongue looks up at the camera with a smile while being scratched behind the ear
Jessie the first day we met her.

Jessie was a 10-year-old chow mix, all black, with big brown eyes that looked up at mine and said “it’s over.” We hadn’t discussed adopting a senior dog, but the decision felt easy once we met her. We spent 20 minutes outside with her before putting her into our car and taking her home for whatever was to come next.

What came next: over three years of blessed time with a true earth angel, someone who undeniably made every single day she was in my life better because she was in it. Jessie didn’t do this with the kind of try-hard energy that most dogs we know (and love for it!) exhibit, but instead she had a cool, gentle reserve that filled our home with warm, quiet love. She wasn’t obsessed with cuddling, which made the moments she went belly-up for a scratch even more special. We never could get her to love sitting on the couch or bed despite months of trying, so the nights when she stayed between us for even 30 minutes felt like magic.

Jessie loved meandering walks and rambles around the park, particularly if she was allowed to look for cat poop, a favorite treat. She loved food more than anyone I’ve ever known, especially carrots, frozen green peas, peanut butter, and any snack in the hands of a person she loved. She loved me, a lot, but the way she loved my husband and helped him stay grounded made my heart swell so big my chest hurt. She was also obsessed with my mom — although she rarely played with toys, she’d bring one out to waggedly show Melissa every time she was at the door.

I think the best day of Jessie’s life was our wedding. She wore a flower wreath and was showered with love in the morning and throughout the ceremony. Afterwards, she wandered leash-free at the small farm / baseball field where we got hitched, saying hello to her hundred best friends and getting as many snacks as she could intercept and cajole out of the giant vegan grazing table.

Jessie wears a lei made of yellow flowers and smiles while laying on a porch
Jessie at our wedding.

When we adopted an 8-week-old puppy two years ago, Jessie handled it like a champ. Even though she wasn’t exactly into chasing Maude around the yard or the other games that Maude was determined to force on her, she never got too mean or impatient, and mostly she just showed off a good example of how to be a really good dog. Maude remained as obsessed with her as all of us were, clearly treasuring her own rare cuddling moments and beaming with pride the first day she was allowed to run on a playground off-leash like her big-sister-by-another-mister.

The weekend before Election Day, we left our house for our first overnight visit since the beginning of the year, before Covid hit — a camping trip at a nearby hill country property. We left Jessie with my mom for the weekend and she spent her days her favorite ways with one of her favorite people — sleeping, eating, getting occasional pats, and ambling around the neighborhood and lake when she wanted, at her own pace. We got home on Sunday and spent a long trip to the park with both dogs on Monday.

Jessie the black dog smiles in the foreground, while a blue merle cattle dog is sitting in the background with a goofy look
The dogs at the park on November 1.

Tuesday, election night, Jessie started coughing and she wouldn’t stop.

You can see where this is going next. I’ve edited dozens of stories about pets and grief but it never gets easier to read about the final moments. For me, they were hurried and surreal. We took Jessie to the emergency vet, where the protocol involved calling from the parking lot before dropping our wheezing pup off with these strangers. When we went into the lobby, they told us that only one of us was allowed to stay, and I excused myself without allowing myself to consider that it might be the last time I would see her. I truly wish I had taken more time.

There are a lot of good things about someone you love dying unexpectedly, as opposed to getting a terminal diagnosis or a long-term illness beforehand. I’m glad Jessie’s end of life experience with being at the veterinarian was short — no one wants to spend their final days in surgery, right? And I feel relieved that she didn’t have to bear the embarrassing spectacle of our grief for her loss before she was even gone — she would have really hated stuff like long hugs and getting tears wiped on her fur after a day or so. Mostly, I’m glad that she wasn’t apparently in a lot of pain before she left us. She was just here, being mostly herself, and then a few hours later she quit breathing.

On the other hand, the shock of losing Jessie — when I hadn’t even been keeping that in my anxiety rotation! — hit our entire household like a blast of cold air. Whatever joy and peace we’d managed to cobble together in the midst of all the horror, fear, and sorrow of living in Trump’s United States felt like it had been smashed into a million pieces. And all of the catharsis I expected to feel when Trump was defeated and Biden elected was dampened, not only by Jessie’s loss but by the narrowness of the margins and the angry shouts of the defeated minority. I had a sense that worse things were to come, and the capitol insurrection horrified me without surprising me at all.

The fact that we hadn’t been able to be with Jessie and that I hadn’t been able to say goodbye to her properly stung a little extra, too — although I would never compare our situation to those unable to visit loved ones with Covid, it’s a, uh, testament to just how many lives were not only ended but impacted and hurt in myriad ways by the GOP’s response to the Coronavirus crisis.

We adopted a senior dog knowing that we would likely lose her within the next few years, but I couldn’t have prepared us for how bad it would hurt, and how hard it would be to recover. Grief doesn’t do a lot of favors to those of us who come prepared — it always seems to have surprises up its mean sleeves.

For one thing, grief is already lonely without the contagious deadly virus that keeps you from hugging almost everyone you love. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to just get into a king size bed with my girlfriends and watch bad movies. Nope — all of our shared tears were over Zoom.

Everyone grieves differently, and Peter and I had a hard time finding comfort in one another even though we were both missing the same person. We retreated into alone time, songs that reminded us of Jessie, time with Maude, and, in my case, a lot of sleep.

Like… a lot. Of. Sleep. Way too much sleep. Sleeping Beauty type sleep.

There have been other reasons these last few weeks have been the worse of the pandemic and among the hardest of my life, but I suppose the biggest one is that I miss my dog. And although I am a passionate vegan who believes that human lives are no more inherently valuable than other lives, I still find myself feeling ashamed and embarrassed to admit the extent of this grief’s impact on my well-being. The semblance of a normal work schedule and week I was maintaining during the first months of the pandemic has crumbled into a blurry string of snooze buttons and procrastination.

Resolving to treat myself with the care I give to others, I’ve had to notice my own reaction as a string of close human friends have lost their own beloved canine companions in recent weeks as well. Seeing their loss, I understand the profound emptiness and sadness they feel, and I see how the comfort and stability of home and family that feels so important right now is dismantled by their loss. I can feel such intense empathy for the pain I recognize, and that’s allowed me to forgive myself for letting this loss creep into my bloodstream. They’ve also inspired me to keep going, and to look ahead, because I can see them doing the same — and I know that Jessie would want me to do that, too.

I’m here, now, on inauguration day, writing and working and checking thing off my to-do list again — one hour at a time. I’m starting to turn the pages of my grief, anger, loneliness, and despair more rapidly towards the next chapter. I’m not sure what’s in it, and I know I’m going to wish Jessie was there, but at least Trump won’t be president anymore.

Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Tenderly. Former BuzzFeed exec. Moomin. Texan. Vegan for the animals. 💕

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