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the routine of nostalgia [narrative]

finding comfort in the little things

It was around early October when I first met him. He was basketball-sized and soft as the classic fuzzy blanket I get on each birthday. His dark button eyes, nestled in golden fur, met mine as he propped himself onto his hind legs, front paws in my hands, looking like a distinguished gentleman giving me a handshake. I sat myself on the ground—my classic move to imply to his owner that I needed more than just one pet. After some small talk with the owner, I asked what his dog’s name was. “Oliver, he’s two months old. I’m trying to tire him out so I can work at home,” he replied. I knew I loved this dog so much for a reason.

Oliver. The best dog name, in my biased opinion. I had an Oliver for 17 years; 17 out of the 19 that I was when he passed away in June of 2020. For clarity, I’ll call my Oliver “Ollie.” 

It was a hot summer day when my siblings and I were awoken early in the morning and dragged outside. Here, we met this black and white bouncy ball made of fur. Ollie was instantly family. He came on car trips, he “signed” birthday cards, he took naps with us, he would even wait for us to eat dinner to begin his own meal. He was part of my home for 17 years, a part of my life I will never be able to recreate.

The only word I can come up with to describe the day we had to put him down is horrible. Every other word feels too complicated. It was simply horrible. As someone who tends to look on the bright side of situations, I often try to look back and find the silver lining in letting go of Ollie. I think I’ve tried hard enough to admit that there isn’t one. Loss doesn’t glisten no matter what angle you look at it. Ollie is a part of my life for which I will always grieve. 

Ever since that day in October, I’ve seen Oliver more often than I did before, each time seeming to have grown about twice his own size since the last. You may have seen him around campus by now—his plentiful pelt is hard to miss as he plops down on the sidewalk, refusing to keep walking. His owner likes to say he’s worried he’ll lose Oliver one day in all of his fur. 

Oliver’s growth is a signal to my internal clock. A reality check for the passage of time. He has become a constant during my time on campus. 

The passing of time is easy to miss when you don’t pay attention. It sweeps by, and sometimes we want it to. We often don’t realize how fast it’s going until it’s behind us. Then, when a timestamp reveals itself, it’s a jarring feeling. It summons nostalgia: the distance between what’s here and now and what once was. I know when I see Oliver around, no matter how lovely it is, he is always a reminder of a gap—the missing dog bed in our kitchen, the lack of barks when I come home, the silence. I am saddened by the loss of my past, and grieving for my future self. Missing what could have been, but won’t be.

With warm months approaching, my nostalgia is more intense than ever. Memories of summer camp and being a kid, basking in the sun. The longing is like a cherry blossom tree swaying its blush pink petals in excitement; the harder the branches wave, the more petals they lose. I want to enjoy the moment I’m in, but I can’t help being sad that these moments are fleeting. 

***

As I sat down to write this, I realized I am wearing the same sweatshirt I was wearing the day we put Ollie down. It’s my most comfortable clothing item—oversized, off-brand Patagonia, patterned with blue and red stripes and lizards. It’s loose from years of my wearing it (only a quarter of how long my dad did before he gave it to me). Now, I sink into it. Curl the cuffs around the tips of my fingers to create a seal. Hug my own waist. Clench my fists. The fabric creases in a familiar way, in familiar places. The matted material is all I’ve known, yet I try to imagine what it felt like when my dad bought it. Where did he wear it? What memories did he make in it? This pullover is a palimpsest of the days my dad and I have both spent comforted by its warmth. Why is this covering so enveloping? So much more soothing than others? 

The thing I miss most about Ollie was the certainty of him being around, coming home from school to the tippity-tappity of his paws running down the stairs to greet me. The jingle of his collar when he was moving swiftly. His nose would meet my ankles to sniff a hello before running to the living room where he would wait for me to sit with him. Tail wagging, panting with excitement. Ollie was a constant I could expect. Once his presence was missing, my comfort was pulled out from under me. My routine was disrupted. His warmth was ripped from me. Now, the closest thing to his charm is a sweatshirt.

Days pass and I have found new routines, but none that seem to fill the hole left from losing Ollie. I’ve been yearning for a way to cherish my time with Ollie beyond just looking at pictures. Seeing Oliver around Brown is always a happy moment for me, stitched with complicated threads of deep sadness. I want to commemorate Ollie in a consistent way, but haven’t found a repetitive motion that can do so, that can satisfy the way his “welcome home jumps” satisfied. 

***

It’s now April. As I walk through the Main Green, I spot Oliver’s golden shag. I hesitantly trot over to his owner and ask to pet Oliver. Not aware that we’ve met before, the owner repeats himself from a few months ago: “Of course!” he says, “I’m trying to tire him out so I can work at home.” 

It was then that I realized I do have a routine. I do interact with my Ollie on a regular basis, even if it may look and feel differently now. The repetition of seeing Oliver and his owner walk through the Main Green feels familiar and comfortable. And the clothing I associate with my last moments with him is a constant reminder of the feeling of being held by Ollie for 17 years. For as long as I can remember. 

As I finish this piece, I slip on my sweatshirt once more. I slide my arm past the hole in the right sleeve, curl the stretched cuffs around my fingers, and hug myself around the waist. I keep my elbows close to me so I feel the fabric rub against my rib cage. My fingers press against the smudged keys of my laptop, evidence of which keys I use the most. I feel comfort. 

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