Lessons from Donovan: You'll never walk alone by Meagan Fratiello

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This article has been republished for exclusive use by The Grey Muzzle Organization with the permission of original author, Meagan Fratiello​.

The first Monday after Donovan died, I awoke well before dawn with an extraordinary energy pulsing through me.  One I’d never felt before.  It was mystical and weird, but also compassionate somehow. 

I don’t know how else to describe what it felt like, except to say it was as if someone or something was, tough-lovingly, waking me gently, rolling my butt out of bed, and setting me on a course that was not entirely my own. After days of feeling paralyzed (and exhausted) by grief, this powerful energy was unexpected and strange. 

But, I followed it. It was strong and persistent. I know it sounds funny to say this, but I didn’t really feel like it was giving me another choice. I was kind of afraid to tell it ‘no’.

Since he'd died, it felt like all I’d done was cry.  I remembered that the animal communicator had told me when I spoke to her a day or so after he was gone, that already she saw him nipping at my heels.  Telling me to get up and get out there.  To get going again. And I laughed when she said that, as it sounded very much like him. He was always my protector - and it wouldn’t have been the first time he’d pushed me out of my comfort zone.

But I hadn’t been able to actually do it. To get on with it. Without Donovan’s routine holding my day together, I was lost. It felt like instead of going to the ocean for comfort as we'd always loved to do - now I was floating adrift in it, alone in the deepest end, with nothing and no one nearby to cling to. Even though I’d taken refuge beside it many days and nights as Donovan got sicker, I hadn’t gone to the water at all since he’d been gone. I’d barely even looked out to it. 

I realized I was up and dressed.  The sun was just starting to crack open the sky. Before I knew it, I had my coat and my gloves on and I was walking out the door. 

And as I did, in one shattering instant, I figured it out. 

If I could find the courage to return to our park - Donovan would be there to welcome me back home. I could feel him telling me to go. I could feel him promise me he’d be there. That I was strong enough to make it.

Crazy.  I know.  I KNOW it sounds crazy.  And frankly, it FELT crazy too. But at that point, to see my dog again, I’d try anything.

So I did it.  I walked.  For the first time, alone.  No jingling tags.  No bobbing leash.  Just my footsteps and the morning. 

I was going to go see Donovan.

Though I’d never made the comparison while he was still alive, I found myself recently comparing him - out loud and in my mind - to a magical divining rod.  You know those y-shaped sticks that some people say can be used to find water, and gemstones, and spirits and such? That thing. The image came to me - vividly and with incredible clarity - just as he was dying.

And at first it felt perfect!  Yes YES - that’s what he was.  At the end of his leash, with wisdom and magic, leading me towards the waters of the world - the love and the life and the people and the laughter - all that really important stuff we need to survive.   He was that, for me.

But then I googled ‘divining rod’ and started really thinking about it. And realized that, in order for the image to be a perfect fit (and you know how I do like all this stuff to fall in line) - he would have had to have always been wearing two leashes. And I, consequently, would have had to have always walked him with a hand on each leash, arms outstretched in zombie-fashion.  Which, of course, I didn’t do. 

So there it was.  So very odd.  So true in some ways, so ridiculous in others.  But that’s the image that stuck in my head.  Donovan as my divining rod - leading me in his supernatural way through the world towards goodness.  With no better explanation, I chalked it up to Donovan being Donovan.  Leave it to an Irish Water Spaniel to have their own wise and comic spin on even your most meaningful attempt at a metaphor.

Back to the morning.

As I headed down the first set of stairs from our house to the street, I realized I was weeping.  At this time of day, I simply never went down those stairs without him, so doing so felt wrong.  And once I got to the sidewalk, and began heading down the hill towards the ocean, the ugly cry took over.  I’m sure you know that thing - the one where your face is contorted and your nose is running and you find you have to stop for a moment from time to time because you’ve run out of air even though you’ve barely gone a block.  The one where you drop your hands to your knees and let your head fall towards the pavement because the grief is too heavy to carry.  And you know all of that is happening, but you don’t have the energy or the spirit left to care.  That one. 

I was grateful that the sun was still making it’s way up as I’m sure I was a frightful sight. 

But, he was waiting.  He’d promised.  So, on I walked. 

I turned the corner, made my way down the sidewalk that lined the entrance to the park, and then stepped off the pavement and into the grass.  I’d made it. Now, I could see the water.  I could feel it, and hear it, too.  The sun was still climbing, and I kept putting one foot in front of the other. 

Then I my toe clipped a something. I stumbled, and looked to the ground.

And there it was. A divining rod.  A y-stick, right in front of me. It couldn’t have been more perfectly placed were it done so by the hand of God.  Or my dog.  Maybe both, I don’t know.  But there it was.  And he’d almost made me trip to see it.

I looked up, and I laughed.  Through the tears, I laughed and laughed. 

Hello, Donovan.  Hello my dear sweet boy….

By now, I’m certain that I’m likely going bonkers.  I'm certifiable, I think. I am walking alone in the park, at sunrise.  And I am talking, out loud, to my dog, who is only with me in spirit, way up in the clouds and thinking he's communicating with me.  With a stick.  Crazy, for sure.

Maybe, I thought, this is nothing. It's just me wanting to see something from him.  Just crazy ole' me, desperate for a sign. That’s probably what it is, I thought.  I've just seen the one stick.  Unless I keep on seeing them, I figured, it couldn’t really be from him.

But you know how this story is going to go, I think.  Right?  The optimistic, sentimental  dreamer in you, I hope, is with me here.  As I continued on, first along the tree-line by the woods, and then directly against the seawall by the water, there they were.  One after another. 

I know this park.  I walk it all the time.  I can see it from my windows.  It is a home to me.  And never, not ever, have I seen what was waiting for me there that day.  So many y-sticks, one right after the other.  And none were the kind you’d have to bend your mind to see.  All of them were perfect. 

By the time I neared the turquoise trashcan with the painted navy blue anchor (where tourists toss their clam-shack bags), I’d seen at least a dozen, maybe two.  And when I passed that can, I started laughing even harder. Donovan often (and correctly) felt like I couldn’t necessarily be trusted to get his lessons right away.  I always felt he felt the need to speak slowly to me, so as to not overwhelm my little brain.  To teach, and reteach lessons so as to make sure I really understood.  He was always patient with me, infinitely even.  But I knew, in his mind, while I may have been one of the most sensitive students, I was likely not the brightest.  He loved me anyway.  I think he laughed at me, a lot.  And what happened next was classic D.

At the trashcan, under some scrap wood from the beach that had been tossed there, was a giant y-stick - with two more y-sticks at the end of each branch.  It was as if he’d used all the other ones before it to clue me into his gift. And this one (I could almost here him saying TA DA!), the giant y-stick with more y-sticks on the ends, was his button on the lesson. The icing on the cake.  The period to this sentence that began with that weird wakeup and that energy I simply couldn’t ignore.  And ended here, at the trashcan, with me laughing.  Lesson learned, dear dog. Lesson. Learned.

Finally, I was at peace.  Donovan was absolutely here.  He’d been here all along, and would be here for eternity.  He would be everywhere, in fact. All I had to do was think of him. 

I exhaled, and turned for home.

On the way, I decided to change course a bit, and walk alongside the dog park.  I almost never do that.  I don't know why, that morning, I chose to take that path.

But you can guess what happened next...

The park was mostly empty, except for a few small dogs with their owners gathered at the front gate.  I passed them all and kept on walking. While the peace I'd felt was still close by, the sadness had wandered back again too, and I was feeling weak. The tears, again. The loss.

And then, I heard tags.  That jingle I'd been waiting for.  Literally out of nowhere, that sound I knew and loved.  But where was the dog?  I'd passed them all when I walked on and heard only my own steps on the gravel as I walked.  Was I imagining the sound?  Again, with the crazy. Trust me, I was thinking the same thing. 

But when I turned around, there stood an old red coonhound.  It was as if he'd dropped out of the sky - I swore he wasn’t there when I’d passed moments ago.  But there he was.  And he looked worried.  He tipped his head to the left, looking at me with grave concern.  Again, I can not prove to you this happened.  But suddenly, in that red dog’s face, I saw Donovan staring back at me. It was as if D had borrowed a friend still on earth, just to check on me one last time.  I looked at Red, and smiled.  And as soon as I did, the wonderful old man relaxed and a giant doggie grin began to warm his face. 

I took a step towards the fence, then bent down to say hello.  Out loud, I told him, ‘I’m okay, I promise.  I know you're here.  Now go play - it’s a beautiful morning.’

Red brightened.  His tail began to wag.  And slowly, he turned around and started to walk away.  I watched him leave.  He turned back, once.  I smiled and waved.  And then we both walked on.   I like to imagine as Red trotted away, that D's spirit soared back up into the sky where he did, indeed, enjoy the rest of his day romping in the clover (or whatever it is that lines the fields up there).

Since then, I see D’s y-sticks.  Not randomly.  I see them when I find I’m actively thinking of him or missing him.  When I’m feeling sad.  Or when he wants to remind us he's still here. This one was waiting at the top of Half Moon Beach on one of my first walks with Cosette. I thought his choice this time was particularly subtle... :)

I don’t know what to make of it.  Maybe it’s crazy. Maybe it’s fate.  Maybe it’s nothing more than a lot of broken sticks. 

But I’d rather think of it as truth. 

One more gift from a magical dog who promised me I’d never walk alone.

And then proceeded to prove it.

The original article can be found here: https://www.lessonsfromdonovan.com/single-post/2017/03/29/Youll-Never-Walk-Alone

About the Contributor:
Photo credit: 
Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Inc.

Meagan Fratiello loves a good story. As a freelance writer, AEA/SAG-AFTRA actor/voiceover artist, and former television writer/producer, she’s been drawn to sharing tales since she  was a kid. A proud graduate of both Bates College and Emerson College, she loves dogs (especially old ones), horses, and the trapeze.

She shares her life by the ocean in Massachusetts with her husband,  her lovely dog Cosette, and with the spirit of her beloved Donovan, who shows up from time to time to remind her his spirit is still alive. And (still) absolutely magical.