Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.

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I almost trashed this post. It’s an old one, recalling the pain of a loss that has healed over time. I wasn’t sure it was relevant anymore. But there’s something about the experience of grief — and of healing — that prompted me to go ahead and post it.

This is for my dear friends, Stacy and Jerry, each of whom lost someone they loved in the past week. And for my cousins, Cindy, Tom, and Penny, and their father, Herb, who so recently said goodbye to my Aunt Bert. Your loved ones are with you.

I know. 


Some time ago, I had to drop a “specimen” off at the veterinarian — retesting Bodhi after a bout of giardia — and just inside the door was a sweet, ancient dog, at the very end of her leash, focusing all of her energy on balancing on her stick-thin legs. She had the most beautiful pale blue eyes, so I asked her mom if it was all right if I said hello, bending to stroke the frail head and murmur to the old girl how beautiful she was.

“She loves attention,” the woman said simply, but something in her voice made me look up — just in time to see that lone tear make its way down her cheek.

And I knew:

I knew from what depths of her being she had to dredge those few words.

I knew the effort required to choke them past the constriction in her throat.

I knew the full, bitter taste in her mouth as she struggled to shape it around these everyday words — ones she would never say again about this old, weak dog waiting for that last appointment.

I’d forced similar words through my own teeth about my Sachi, as my friends came to say goodbye the night before I released her soul. I’d choked on them as I’d walked my old Coyote so painfully slowly — at whatever pace she could manage — up and down our street, greeted by neighbors who loved and patted and fussed over her on her way to crossing. I battled tears, as this woman was now doing, and lost.

I gently kissed the old dog between her blue eyes before rising to wrap her mom in my arms. I stood there a few moments while this loving human emptied out her grief onto my shoulders, and I whispered to her that her sweet little girl would always be with her, beside her.

Because I know that, too.


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Denouement: Coyote’s Last Lesson

There are those who believe that the most intimate act in which we can participate is lovemaking. Two people entwined, giving and taking pleasure. Two souls engaged in call and response, drinking one another in, each expanding its own wholeness with the fullness of the other. It is in that moment, we are told, that we are our most vulnerable, exposed selves.

Her faint whine roused me from where I’d sat meditating off and on for most of the morning. As I unfolded my stiff legs and stood from my cushion, the whine deepened and became a ghostly moaning howl, low in volume but not in intensity.

“What do you need, sweetheart?” I asked her. Her eyes rolled toward me but didn’t quite fix on me. Her tail twitched and flicked like a cat’s. “Do you need to go potty?”

The moan softened to a high-pitched, breathy whine. I gathered her up in a towel and carried her to the backyard, where I clumsily struggled to balance her while she tried to relieve herself. We couldn’t manage it; her legs buckled, and although she had wasted away to a wisp, I couldn’t hold her steady enough.

But with wholehearted lovemaking, vulnerability is a choice. One’s loss of dignity in those moments of soulful passion is less a true loss than a mutual surrender, an abandonment.   

I carried her back to the porch and settled her on her bed, arranging her limbs and laying the sheep skin over her to keep her warm against the morning chill. She began crying again — that desperate almost-howl — as I went inside for padding and paper towels. I carefully folded and placed the toweling under her rear end, careful to move her tail out of the way. I went back inside for the moistened wipes I use to spot-clean the dogs’ fur, and by the time I returned she’d soiled the towels.

“I’ll keep you clean,” I promised as I replaced the padding and used the wipes. “I won’t let you leave here anything less than beautiful.” She quieted, and I returned to my meditation cushion.

My last two days with Coyote taught me that there is a kind of surrender more intimate than any lovemaking: The entwining of living memory and love with the needs and frailty of a fading life.In that place, there is no real choice. Surrendering one’s deteriorating body to the ministrations of another is, in fact, a loss of volition. There is no option but to trust. Vulnerability is a condition, not a gift.

Hours passed. I had been sitting with my notebook, distractedly scribbling disconnected fragments of poetry. The day was beautiful: sunny, cool, with a gentle breeze stirring the leaves in the trees. She’d been quiet for some time, so I picked up the water bottle and went to check on her. As I approached, I saw a thick, green puddle near her mouth. She whined — a raw, raspy sound — when she felt my step on the floor boards. Her eyes were partly open but empty. The dappled light moved sweetly across her face and the mess alike.

“Oh, Coyote,” I soothed. “I’m so sorry.” I gently cleaned her face and bedding and added pads under her nose, in case she vomited again. She could no longer lift her head, so I sprayed water into her mouth and waited for her to swallow. When her eyes sought out the bottle, I sprayed again and waited. We repeated this several more times until she stopped searching. That, I’d learned, meant she was done drinking.

Caring for the dying is yet another kind of surrender — one made, ironically, from a place of tender power. Attending to Coyote’s last needs meant entering into a kind of intimate agreement far different from the one made between lovers. Yes, it still made me feel raw, exposed, and vulnerable. But my agreement with Coyote was one of trust between an increasingly dependent being and her proportionately more powerful caregiver.  

As I leaned to kiss her cheek, a rush of anguish made me want to scoop her up in my arms and sob into her soft fur. I restrained myself, knowing she would hate the demonstration, but I couldn’t stop my tears as I gently stroked her still-beautiful coat. In the spaces between every breath, my heart wrestled with both the hope and the fear that she had gone. And, with every inhalation, it wrestled with the relief and despair that she had not.

“Please, baby,” I whispered. “Please go. There’s a breeze blowing. Ride it Home, Coyote. Leave this old, sick body here. Ride the breeze and run and play again. Become the light. Just let go.”

And, yet, it was an agreement we made with as much grace as we could gather from the depths of our friendship. I’d promised her I’d let her choose her death. Those last weeks were a test of my resolve. So many times, I was torn with self-doubt as I searched her eyes and studied her behavior for any signal that she wanted me to take over for her, take the choice away. But there were no such signals. So I let her lead me, one slow step at a time, down the spiral as her life unraveled. 

She swiveled her eyes, and they focused on me — just for a flickering moment. In them I saw the unquestioning trust and courage that kept me faithful to the promise I’d made her. My heart lifted, even as it broke, to be allowed to bear the dear burden she’d given me to carry.

Yes, I followed Coyote’s lead until we came to the place where I could go no farther — that place where she had to walk alone. And, at the threshold, our agreement was fulfilled. She went on. I turned to make the long climb back to where Bodhi waited for me among the living.


“Oh baby, I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I…I just wanted to say…thank you.”

“For what, sweetheart?”

“You kept your word, even when things got so difficult. I didn’t think you’d be able to do it. I thought you’d give up.”

“I wanted to. Many times. But you were so brave. I needed to honor that.”

“It was just like you said, in the end. It was like riding the breeze, out of my body. It was like becoming pure light.”

“I’m happy for you. It was such a hard crossing.”

“It was. I’m going to go rest for a little while, so you might not feel me. But I’m nearby.”

“Coyote? Before you go…thank you, too.”

“For what, Mom?”

“For giving me your trust. Not just at the end, but at the beginning, too. I know it was hard. You’re a proud girl, and you’d endured so much.”

“It was worth it, Mom. Everything that came before was worth finding you.”

“Go and rest, now. I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

<suddenly diving into a play bow> “Only if you say the words…”

<chuckling> “I see you’ve been talking to Sachi… OK, then: Coyote free!”

Run free, my dear friend, my patient teacher. I’ll see you in my dreams, sweet Moon-Dog.

Photo of Coyote by Mary Shaw

Coyote accepting a cuddle from me, just a few days before her death. Photo courtesy of Mary Shaw.

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Coyote: <panting> “Mom?”

Me: “Yes, Coyote?”

Coyote: “This part is hard.”

Me: “I wish I could make it easy for you.”

Coyote: “I don’t. It’s part of becoming something new. It’s just how it works.”

Me: “Is there anything I can do? To help?”

Coyote: “Can you rub my belly? You know, like you used to when I was scared?”

Me: “Of course.” <rubbing her belly> “Are you scared, baby girl?”

Coyote: “A little. But I have you and Bodhi. And Sachi will be waiting for me.” <pause> “Mom?”

Me: “Yes?”

Coyote: “Do you think I’ll sparkle? I mean, when I cross?”

Me: “I’m sure of it, Princess.”

Coyote: <closing her eyes and starting to drift off to sleep> “Good. And, by the way…”

Me: “Yes?”

Coyote: “I know that when you call me ‘Princess’ it isn’t a good thing.” <she sleeps>

Me: <to myself> “It is now.”

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vigilvi-jƏl \ n.  wakefulness; watchfulness; a night of spiritual preparation


Coyote woke us the other night, crying in her sleep. Bodhi stared intently at her, beaming love from his place on the rug. I spoke soothingly, letting her know we were near, watching over her. She started awake at my voice, dazed, and met my gaze. Unable to hold her head up longer than those few seconds, she flopped back over onto her side and slept.

Later, around 4:00 a.m., I woke again to her crying. This time, she’d struggled from her bed, disoriented, and had nosed herself into a corner of the room. She couldn’t turn to free herself, relying on the wall at her side to keep her upright. Her rear claws scrabbled desperately on the wood floor, pushing her farther into the wall ahead of her, and she cried out in her panic. I turned her around and guided her outside, where she immediately squatted to relieve herself. She stood shaking under the stars before moving one, painstaking step at a time toward the gate, where she’s always loved to stand and look at the world.

I crouched near the door, giving her space but letting her know I hadn’t left her alone. The night was cool as I kept my vigil. It’s almost time, I thought. I anchored myself in the moment, burning it into my memory. I was strangely awake for such an early hour.

When she’d drunk her fill of the view and the breeze, Coyote managed a clumsy turn, and we were suspended there, facing each other in the moonlight, our connection humming between us. I breathed in slowly, waiting for her to signal what she needed next. In answer, she tottered toward me: One. Two. Three halting steps at a time, pausing for long seconds between each small progress, panting and holding the lifeline of my eyes with hers. If I tried to rise to help her, she turned her head in clear refusal. So I honored her dignity and stayed in my crouch, my hand silently outstretched to her, recalling our beginnings, when she crawled across the floor toward that same open hand — terrified then, her new life with me uncertain.

Her life is certain now. We know the direction, and there is no turning back. The days — the hours — are numbered, so very finite.

We have only to wait. Watch. Prepare.

Dictionary page with definition for vigil

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(Re)Defining Kindness

It occurs to me that there comes a point at the end of any beloved creature’s life when we no longer know what kindness looks like. It’s not just that we can’t find its edges anymore or can’t quite remember its shape. It’s that we’re hard-pressed even to find a reliable definition for it.

I rise stiffly from where I have been crouching, tenderly stroking Coyote’s head and shoulders, and hobble unsteadily from her bed to my own. Her breathing is loud, a labored inhalation, and the whoosh of her exhalation is more a release than a breath. The stink of a waiting death oozes from her and fills the room. I curl onto my side, resisting the urge to keep curling — to tighten into the fetal position — and stretch my arm out under my pillow. The weight in my chest, I realize, must be my heart, but I’m still dry-eyed even as I feel the waves of grief crest and crash over me, pulling some essential part of me with them as they ebb and gather and crash again. And then I realize that my outstretched hand is resting in the loop of my Sachi’s collar, which still hangs from a cross-bar on the bed frame, and the tears finally come. This particular path is unfamiliar, yes; but I know the destination well.

It’s weeks ago now, since the stranger in the pick-up truck watched Coyote and me shuffle our way slowly down the hill toward home, measuring our walk in driveways passed instead of streets or blocks or miles. “Is she sick?” he asked me, bending to stroke her head, ever so gently, with his big, callused landscaper’s hands.

“She’s dying,” I said simply, gazing down at her.

He asked about her care — what I was doing, what I was not doing — and I began to tense up, expecting judgment but (blessedly) finding none. I was struck by my reaction, attributing it to my own, aching uncertainty. After a few minutes, I closed our conversation by telling him, “I’m following her lead.”

He knelt again to give Coyote one last pat, and we moved slowly away.

I feel the feather-light pressure of Bodhi lifting himself onto the bed and curling against me. I marvel at how such a big dog can be so gentle. I know he’s checked in with Coyote, sniffing her face and touching his nose to hers before joining me, because that’s what he does when she’s in distress. I leave my right hand in Sachi’s collar and reach out with my left to tangle my fingers in his long, red fur. And I wonder: Has he come here to comfort or be comforted?


I turned.

“You’re honoring her, you know. By letting her choose her own death.”

What did it matter, really? We were both — all — in need of comfort. My beautiful boy who tried so hard to love everything into rightness for Coyote and me. My sweet little girl who was struggling up the long hill toward Home. And me. I had walked this path with her, desperately clinging to my heart-felt conviction that this was what she wanted, this death was what she was choosing. But I could never be sure that what I was doing was kind. Or, even, that I knew the meaning of that word anymore. And, yet, when the doubt threatened to push me to take over, to take the decision away from her, to shorten her laborious leaving:

“You honor her,” whispered my friend, Lori, as she watched Coyote lying on the deck, listening to the sounds of night.

“You honor her,” my friend, Mary, messaged me as Coyote turned from her food, leaving me tearfully resigned.

“You honor her,” said my friends Kelli, Faunette, Stacy — all at different stumbling points in this long, painful journey.

“You honor her,”  offered a man I’d never met before, his foot poised on the running board of a pickup truck.

I managed to thank him for his kind words before tears closed my throat, rendering me unable to speak. I turned again, with Coyote, back toward home. He turned the key in the ignition and was gone.

Bodhi checks in with his sister, Coyote

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A Sachi-Shaped Hole

Coyote was my rock, my saving grace after Sachi died. She has always been a gentle soul — with just enough snark to keep me from getting too maudlin. 

Coyote: “Mom, why did Sachi have to leave us so soon?”

Me: “I’m not sure, Coyote, but I suspect it’s because the world just wasn’t big enough to handle all of that love and joy.”

Coyote: “I’m going to miss her.”

Me: “I am, too, baby girl. <We pause and reflect a moment.> “If you were to wish one thing for Sachi, now that she’s moved on, what would it be?”

Coyote: “I’d wish she’d finally catch that fat, stupid squirrel that teased us every morning from the maple tree out front. <We share a chuckle> “Remember that one that fell at her feet out of the tree that time?”

Me: <laughing> “I remember. She almost didn’t know what to do with it.”

Coyote: “Or I’d wish that she was swimming in the river, chasing ducks.”

Me: “She was like sunlight on the water.”

Coyote: “Yeah, she was beautiful, that silly Golden.” <sighs> “Mom, who’s going to make us laugh, now that she’s gone?”

Me: “I guess we’ll have to do that for each other.”

Coyote: <groans> “We’re sunk. You’re not funny.”

Me: <laughing through tears> “Well, it’ll certainly be a lot more humbling for me with just you around.”

Coyote: <putting her paw gently on my thigh> “I was teasing, Mom. You’re plenty funny. For a human.”

Me: “But not for a Golden.”

Coyote: <sighs & leans into me, just slightly> “Nope. Not for a Golden.”

Later, from something like a dream:

Sachi: “Mom! Mom! I don’t hurt anymore, Mom!”

Me: “I know sweetheart, I know.”

Sachi: “And I think I could really run again — and jump over logs and play!”

Me: “Then go do it, my good girl.”

Sachi: <teasing and wagging her tail> “C’mon, Mom…what’s the command?”

Me: <unlatching her collar and whispering close to her ear> “Sachi FREE!”


I love you, Sachi. With all the pieces of my heart.

My Golden, Sachi, swimming

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Sachi’s Last Goodbyes

Sachi, my first Golden and Coyote’s sister, had been ill, off and on, for nearly six months when her last emergency room visit finally produced the diagnosis that had evaded us: cancer. And it was untreatable. My entire world went dark. I went to the veterinary hospital, where she’d been kept for testing, to bring her home to die. So great was my anguish and worry about the possibility that she was suffering that I began frantically calling veterinarians to see if someone could come that night to put her down. Fortunately, no one was able to come, as it gave me the opportunity to invite the people who knew and loved her to the house to say goodbye to her. It was too much for me to process and impossible for me to form the right words for such a pronouncement, so I let my sweet little girl tell my Facebook friends how it was with her.

Sachi: “Mom, why are all the people visiting us sad tonight?”

Me: “Well, Sachi, it’s time for you to go, sweetheart.”

Sachi: “On a walk?”

Me: “Well…”

Sachi: “Or a car ride? I like car rides.”

Me: “It’s kind of a like a car ride. It’s a journey, baby. A new kind of adventure.”

Sachi: “Are you coming, too? I like it when we go places together.”

Me: “Oh, puppy-girl… No, I’m not coming this time.”

Sachi: “You aren’t going to be there? What about Coyote?”

Me: “No, Sachi, you’re going to have to do this one alone. But we’ll be right there to send you off, baby. We won’t leave you until we’re sure you’re safely on your way.”

Sachi: “I’ll be sad. I’ll miss you.”

Me: “We’ll miss you, too, baby girl. Believe me. We’ll miss you every single day.”

Sachi: “Mom?”

Me: “Yes, Sachi?”

Sachi: “Am I a good girl?”

Me: “Yes, sweetness. Yes, my soul. You are a good girl. The sweetest, funniest, most beautiful girl. You are my light.”

Sachi: “You’re a good girl, too, Mom. Even if you don’t have a tail to wag.”

Me: “Thanks, baby. That means a lot.”

Sachi: “I’m tired, Mom. Are you ok?”

Me: “I’ll be fine, Sachi. Just rest here, and I’ll hold onto you for a little while. Tomorrow is a big day.”

Sachi: “Thanks, Mom.”

Me: <whispering> “No, Sachi. Thank you. For everything you are and have been.”

My Sachi as a puppy, 10 mos

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John stops us on our walk to ask after Coyote. We pause, and I fill him in on her slow, drawn-out deterioration.

“They’re a super-breed,” he says, pointing at Coyote with his chin.

Blinking, “I’m sorry…what?”

“Huskies,” he tells me. “I did a little research, and they metabolize food differently, so they can go longer on less.”

And it hits me, full-force in the chest: Huskies are the closest that domestic dogs come to wolves. They’ve retained many of the wolf characteristics throughout their journey from fire pit to fire place. One of those characteristics is a kind of “famine mode” for absorbing nutrients from their food.

I gaze down at my sweet girl, trembling with weakness where she stands, as John continues elaborating on how the husky’s loping run conserves energy; how their fur insulates them from heat and cold… I can only make sense of scattered words because my mind is jangling with one simple, cruel fact:

My god, her genetics are prolonging her death.

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A Late Need for Moorings

My dogs have all loved to run off-leash. Living in the city, the opportunities to do so are few and far between — and are often stolen at odd hours or in what most people would call “bad weather” so as to avoid being caught and fined. The Golden Retrievers in my life loved to stretch their legs and run for the sheer joy of it. My Coyote, though, could simply never believe she was untethered, having spent her previous life chained to a post. Of the three dogs who have graced my adult life, she has always been the most grateful for that small freedom.

As Coyote has grown weaker in her illness, I’ve started walking her up and down the street without a leash, knowing that she is too sick to run away and believing that I was doing her a kindness by allowing her to make her careful way without the tug of the leash on her collar. From time to time, I’ve caught her suddenly jerk to attention, seeking me out, so I’ve stayed relatively close and within her narrowing range of sight, thinking that was enough.

Tonight’s walk gave me a different perspective. As we rounded the corner in front of my house, Coyote stumbled over the crumbling road surface. She hesitantly struggled over the rough spot and continued unsteadily on for a few steps before stopping and gazing up at me, tremors running through her poor old body. She seemed to want to lean on me, and I thought, I wonder if she feels lost.

“Do you want your leash?” I asked her. She dragged a few, insecure steps toward me. “Would it help you if you had your leash, baby girl?” I closed the tiny gap between us, and she stretched her neck out in that familiar gesture that, for more than a decade, has signaled she wanted me to clip her leash to her collar for a walk. Only, now, there was another layer of meaning: I need to feel attached to you. I feel unsafe without my moorings.

We walked on for the short way her paws will still carry her, and I noticed that when she stumbled or when her hind paw clubbed up because her brain can’t command it consistently anymore, she would glance up, leaning into her end of her leash so she could feel me on my end. Sometimes, if the leash hung too loosely, she would cast about with her head, relaxing only when she felt certain I had hold of her.

And at the end of our walk, once we were safely in the yard, I unclipped the leash, as is our habit, and tried to coax her into following me up the hill to the house. She froze in place, waiting for the reassurance of my touch on her back to guide her across the yard and up the path.

To keep her connected to me. To guide her home.

white husky-mix on her leash

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The Long Crawl to Healing

We began again.

For weeks, we had been spending a good part of our evenings in this way. I called her. She crawled, inch by painful inch, toward where I sat on the floor with my hand outstretched, palm up. She was only a few feet away, but the effort — not so much of dragging herself along on her belly as resisting the urge to run and hide — exhausted her. She paused now and again to pant and cry. I kept my face carefully averted, my body relaxed, my voice quietly soothing and encouraging. She would get close enough to allow me the barest of gentle touches before dashing away, trembling and drooling in her terror, before summoning the courage to crawl toward me again.

Sachi, my Golden Retriever, laid nearby, anxiously watching our slow progress. Her faith in me was complete, so she was confused by this fearful dog. Didn’t I make sure they had plenty of fresh water and food? Didn’t I frequently and freely give belly rubs? Didn’t I take them for long, daily walks? Why was this dog so…broken?

I glanced at Sachi from my position on the floor. Her soft, brown eyes were bright, pleading. Fix it, they said. You know how to fix everything. Please, please fix this.

The problem was that I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was fixing.


Coyote had come to Sachi and me as a rescue. For several months her rescuer, Chris, had seen her chained to a porch, with no shelter from the elements and a hard-packed circle of earth indicating that she’d been tied there for some time. As the months went by, that suspicion proved out: Rain, sun, or snow, the little grey-brown dog was there, stoically enduring her exposure to the open sky.

The house she was tied to was dilapidated, emanating an air of stagnant desperation, as though its inhabitants had simply given up. Sometimes small children played in the overgrown yard, as dirty and shabby as their home.

Then one day something felt different about the place. The dog was still chained outside, but something felt…off. Another day went by, and another, before Chris noticed the gaping front door, swinging on its hinges, and the realization hit her: The inhabitants had abandoned the house, along with many of their possessions.

The dog lying on her packed circle of dirt was one of those possessions.

Chris cautiously gathered up the half-starved, dehydrated dog and took her to get help. At the veterinary clinic, they cleaned her up, finding that, beneath the grey-brown filth that matted her soft fur, she was a glowing white, with a faint tan streak running down the length of her back. Her ribs protruded and her pointed, velvety ears were scarred by fly bites. When they spayed her, they found she was pregnant.

She was terrified of men.

And, even after five months of being loved back to health by Chris, she was also terrified of me.

I don’t know her full story — no one really does. All I know about is where our stories co-mingled. I know that, despite her fear — her certainty that, when she finally arrived at the place on the floor where I sat calling her, a terrible, dangerous trickery would occur — she continued to crawl toward me.

I could imagine all kinds of abuse. I could tell myself that her neglect was intentional, that leaving her behind was an act of cruelty and not — as it might have been — in the hope that someone would find her and feed her because the family could no longer afford to. I could believe that the chain that bound her was a mean-spirited choice and not a landlord’s mandate.

Or I could simply celebrate that, all those years ago, this pretty little husky trembled and whimpered and dragged herself — just one more time, sweetie — toward the love she saw me lavish on Sachi, toward the bond Sachi so badly wanted to offer her, toward the new life we both wanted to wrap around her as a sanctuary. Whatever she might have suffered, she was still willing to be vulnerable. It wasn’t easy, but she was trying so very, very courageously.

It was months before Coyote learned to trust me. There were times I wanted to give up on her. But there was something in her eyes — that heartbreaking, beautiful hope — that made me keep trying. And the day  eventually came that she greeted me at the door with her sister, wagging her tail and smiling up at me.

We fixed it, Sachi. You and Coyote and I fixed it.

My dog with her raccoon toy