I am a sucker for a good story. I am a sucker for giant dogs.
Maybe I am just a sucker.
This isn’t about me, though. This week I read Lauren Fern Watt’s Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog. Actually, I read the book over the course of four hours. I mistakenly started it before bed and found I couldn’t sleep until I finished it. That’s one way of saying I recommend it.
This is being a memoir about life with a dog, I think you know how it ends. Gizelle dies. You will probably want tissues handy. The book is 239 pages through the epilogue; I started crying on page 185. It is difficult to read with teary vision, although not impossible.
If you have or currently share life with a giant dog, especially a mastiff, this may have triggers for you. If osteosarcoma has been a part of your life as a caregiver, this may have triggers for you. And an unexpected trigger may be drug and alcohol addiction, which surfaces throughout the book in Lauren’s relationship with her mother.
Lauren's account of life with a gigantic dog was so relatable for me. When she wrote about scrubbing slobber off her walls every day, I understood. When she described the complications of getting ready in the morning while being followed by a 160 lb. dog (especially when said dog comes into the bathroom with you), I got it. Her book read more like a conversation with a friend than a story being told for the sake of telling a story. Her writing is warm, approachable, and sincere.
Here's the rough story.
Young adult receives gift of puppy from her mother. Young adult's relationship with mother is strained due to alcoholism. Young adult goes away to college and leaves massive puppy with family, making frequent visits. Young adult decides to move to New York City and miraculously finds a Times Square apartment that will accept a gigantic dog. Young adult works in fashion to pay the bills, meets a young adult on Tinder she finds attractive, and begins a new relationship. Young adult moves to a new apartment in a new neighborhood with a new roommate. Young adult notices gigantic dog's limp and seeks medical attention, and relocates gigantic dog to live with friends outside of the city where she doesn't need to climb stairs. Young adult learns that her gigantic dog's limp is from osteosarcoma . . .
Woven within is the hilarious story about riding in a canoe with two adults, a spider, and a gigantic dog. There are adventures in pooping in Manhattan. Canine costume contests and mistaken identity at the dog park. Stuff that will definitely bring a smile to your face. Oh, and the photographs. Each chapter begins with a photograph of Gizelle so you can fall in love with her a little more.
This book may have triggers in it for people who have experienced alcohol or drug abuse in a close relationship. The osteosarcoma diagnosis may also be a trigger for humans who have been down that road with a beloved animal.
I thought most of this book would be about Gizelle's bucket list adventures. Nope. That began in Part II: The Bucket List, on page 163. Part I: Enchanted covered the highlights of Gizelle and Lauren, including how they became family, how Gizelle got her name, and their early adventures in moving to New York City. I really, really wanted more stories about the end of life, and the title of the book led me to believe that was a reasonable expectation. That said, I also appreciate Lauren's decision to begin at the beginning so we could all come to love Gizelle in ways that might not have been possible with less history.
When I arrived at page 185, any consternation I had about the book dissolved in one paragraph. One of Gizelle's bucket list items was seeing the autumn leaves turn and fall. We can probably guess that this bucket list was more of a list of things that Lauren wanted to do with Gizelle, and that was just fine by Gizelle because I'm sure what she really wanted was as much time and joy with Lauren as she could get. Anyway, Lauren described a moment when she watched the autumn leaves fall in New England with Gizelle by her side, and she thought about "how something could turn so beautiful right before it went brown and left the world forever." She described Gizelle's joy in wriggling in the leaves and declared that she was "as beautiful as I'd ever seen."
The rest of the book was a sob fest for me. Gizelle's story was lovely and I felt connected with her and Lauren. The more powerful thing for me was reflecting on my own experiences in the end of life. Those days of caregiving in the shadow of a terminal diagnosis. The intensity of the emotions and the exhaustion of the additional care. Ah, it's so much. It is so much and it is so worth it. Every time.
That's what I most love about Lauren's book. This was a journey for her. Gizelle was with her during significant transitions in her life, and darn near everyone I've met with animal family members knows what that is like. Lauren wrote about how she always wrote in her journal while it rested on Gizelle's coffee table of a torso. It's those little things that bind our souls together in ways that words can never fully describe.
There are two other things I want to mention about Lauren's wisdom and vulnerability. First, she wrote about how a moment after Gizelle died she no longer wanted to be with her body. Gizelle wasn't there, and she could feel it. She looked back on the hulking body that carried the one she loved and realized it was only a vessel. The second is tied to that - Lauren's epilogue is about how she carries Gizelle with her. She forever has a place in her heart, and death cannot change that.
Gizelle's Bucket List has a film option, so you might see a version of this on the screen.
You can follow Lauren's current adventures with her expanded family (so cute) on her blog, The Girl & Her Dog Blog.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.