This morning came gently, one shade lighter at a time. We cozied up with the residual darkness as the coffee water heated up. We’ve been cuddling so much lately, my dog Chico and I, in this fierce kind of way as if I hold him tight enough, he’ll always be imprinted in my arms.
For the last couple of years he’s slowly, then swiftly, been losing his mobility to degenerative myolepathy. He’s been paralyzed completely in his back legs for almost a year and incontinent for several months. Not a great combination for a big, active, proud, and sensitive dog. Recently his condition has been worsening, and everyone’s been having the talk. Have you considered it might be, you know, time?
I sit on the little porch steps with my coffee in hand and watch the soft light illuminate his thick grey honey fur. Mossy redwood branches create a natural frame around him. Early spring brings an optimism, something about the vitality of a green so bright it’s almost yellow, brand new. Little electric shoots of pine needles and blossoms about to burst in all their glory catch my eye. Sprays of small sapphire flowers dance down the hillside, perfectly contrasting the vibrant grass all around.
I hear and then see two tiny yellow birds dancing about the trees, making much of the day ahead.
The last few months have been like this. Noticing and feeling moments in a way I may not have before. Having to stop to hold up a dog while he smells this particular blade of grass or that rock, gives you time to pause and take in the scene around you. I started making a habit of it, like really noticing the intricate pattern of black dots against the seafoam wings of a moth instead of just categorizing ‘moth’ and carrying on.
Cell phones down, faces up, as I like to say.
But sometimes, even in awareness, you can’t see a situation for what it is until you zoom out a bit. A few weeks ago, Tony and I took a short trip to Seattle. We stayed one night in the city, in a hotel that was quite disappointing and had a distinctively unpleasant smell on arrival. My desire for a good night of sleep after so many consecutive restless ones with my pup led me to at least ask for a cancellation. Although it was unusual and not policy, they allowed me to cancel the next two nights, free of charge.
I was relieved as we set out toward Olympic National Park. We were treated to short walks through temperate rainforests, clear water creeks gliding down luscious fern-covered rock beds, and eventually, a stunning swath of the Pacific slowly flowing in a foamy crawl over a long, sandy beach piled with washed up timber and drift wood. We were grateful that the Seattle room didn’t work out after all as we fell asleep to that soothing ocean roar and woke to a bald eagle sighting.
I’m getting better at this. I think it’s equanimity. Where you don’t particularly freak out over the good or the bad. You just observe. Notice. And feel. Among so many of the lessons learned from a slower, taking care way of life.
When I got back from the trip, I knew I had to stop avoiding the imminent need to take stock of my sweet boy’s condition. He wasn’t getting better and when I was honest with myself, things were rapidly getting much worse. I researched every page about DM, talked to the vet, friends, family, animal people, spiritual guides. The consensus was to observe him.
And, the hard part, be honest with what you see.
So I spent a weekend ugly crying and really connecting with my dog and seeing him for what was happening with him in this moment, now. Not when he was a roly poly of a puppy with chewy little chompers or when he was an awkwardly lanky but terribly handsome boy with a giant tongue hanging out of his wide-mouthed grin. Not when he was running so fast and so happily down the stretch of shoreline that every head turned as he passed. Not my windows down, ears flapping in the breeze, radio up, cruising to the music shotgun rider.
When I really looked and listened, I realized just how old he had become. Just how tired. Just how stressed and embarrassed about his condition. How, truly, paralyzed.
I knew. And yet the knowing didn’t make it any easier.
I consulted with the vet and made a date, then cancelled it. Asked for a later one. Almost didn’t give them my address. But you can’t ignore that knowing. No matter how many inner tantrums I threw about it.
In the end, even though you don’t know how you’ll do it, you do the right thing for the ones you love. I never truly understood this until now. Another lesson from my sweet boy.
We spent a special celebratory day together, just the two of us. What a gift. It felt like time truly slowed down. He ate smoked salmon and cornmeal pancakes, his favorite raw food, porkloin (I think), beef ribs, homemade roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli, and coconut birthday cake ice cream. I used our harness strap to walk him along the beach, which was warm for an early spring morning and ours completely. We hobble-walked and sat and watched the big frothy waves. We let the cool salty water wash over our legs and I held his body to mine against the current that might take him out to sea.
I thought about giving him a bath, then thought better of it. Let him be in the saltwater and sand all the way.
We cuddled. A LOT. He’s the best at this. He’ll put his paw right on my shoulder or legs. He’ll maneuver close and then lay his whole body against my whole body, then slowly turn over for the belly rub.
I got to tell him, over and over, how much he meant to me. How I would love him forever and miss him like crazy. How everyone says I gave him such a good life, but really, we both know he gave life to me when I needed it most.
The weather called for rain today, but the clouds held off. I took some deep breaths, asking my heart to stay open, praying for pure intuition to guide me as the doubts arose. I reached out for a little reassurance from friends and family and felt their supportive final push.
I sang to him, which he gracefully endured. We walked through those delightful flowers together and Chico found a clearing on the forest floor. We laid down and I said a prayer of gratitude for his amazing life, our connection, and all the adventures and memories we shared. Crows went wild in the treetops above us. He fell asleep and I got to hear him snore and feel his heartbeat against my body once again.
Finally, I heard the sound of an unfamiliar car. Interestingly, the moments after their arrival were the least profound part of this process. The vet was a bit unceremonious, with a tattered blanket and a trunk full of stuff that needed to be moved to make room. It was odd, but I found peace knowing that we made our transition so perfectly together, just before she came.
Not that it made it easier.
No, it’s hard in a way my greatest imagination could not have conjured up correctly.
The only way I can describe it is that I feel like a shipwreck, my pieces ripped apart and falling to the ocean floor.
Grief is my teeth chattering from a cold I don’t know the origins of, even as I huddle next to my heater wrapped in a blanket. Grief is realizing I’ve been staring vacantly through the window of my front door for an unknown amount of time. Grief is a hunger that does not want to be fed. Clutching a slobbered old stuffed hedgehog as I type this. Those wrecking, heaving, moaning sobs that live down deep and come up but once or twice in a lifetime. Knowing that layers of acceptance come one at a time, a slow process with no fast-forward button.
I can only imagine what the days ahead will bring, and I try not to. I try to be here. Fully immersed in the sorrow and beauty of how I feel crushed and euphoric – so insanely grateful for the experience of his being – all at the same time. Knowing there’s nothing to be said or done. That my sorrow is the sky’s crimson painting as it turns away from the sun each day. Better to fully notice each stroke of color transform the horizon than be thinking constantly of the impending darkness.
Tears flow in rhythm with the intensifying rain that arrived once he left. I close my eyes and imagine his trademark wide-mouthed grin as he runs full force, his body fully restored, and leaps across meadows and swims in the sea and always circles back to me.
I made this video for Chico’s 10th birthday and it seems a fitting tribute today: