Thursday, December 21, 2017

Death and the Birth of Understanding

Today is the Winter Solstice.  It’s been a dark season and I’m looking forward to the days getting longer. Looking forward to what the sunlight will bring. My dog taught me that.

It’s been nine weeks since my mother died. She died at home, acting of her own free will to stop eating and take to her bed a mere five days before. I’ve been her caretaker for quite some time and the past year had become an almost non-stop stream of meals and errands and medical visits. Through it all Vida was by my side and by my mom’s side, her concern for us demonstrated by both worried pacing and happy distraction. I am proud to have been able to assist my mother toward her end as she wanted it. The only wish of hers that we could not quite fulfill was that she just be able to go to bed and simply go to sleep. 

It’s been nine days since my dog died. Vida made it through my mother’s death and certainly wished she could have helped me further along before succumbing herself, but the cancer returned and there was nothing we could do. 

The tumor grew in her mouth exactly where it was never supposed to come back. Hard to spot at first it initially was a just bother, something to get past with hand fed hunks of raw food and easy-to-pick up dry bits she could toss back and crunch on her own. She continued to enjoy her walks which, though often starting out quite slow, usually ended with a bang, her striding and trotting down the street and galloping up our long dirt drive when I unhooked her leash so she could safely move on her own despite her weakening eyesight. We went to the beach for hourlong stretches, and did her weekly swims at the rehab pool. 

With the help of a vet we tried treatments that had worked in the past, but the tumor continued to grow. Mealtimes became stressful, her breath quickening as we approached the bowl for meals and pills, variety and mixtures changing daily in an attempt to ease the process which took longer and longer as we’d take breaks to take breaths and relax. 

Clean water became an essential start to the day. Spotless and fresh with drops of essences and homeopathics, she’d clean her mouth of food and the taste of her own failing body, lapping and licking, lapping and licking. 

Cheese snack were the treat of choice, the perfect texture and size to stave off hunger while the pain relieving herbs took hold in her system. Some meals went quickly and she’d then have the energy to walk and explore for hours. But more and more meals were never finished, and more and more had to be cleaned from her chin. She slept more.

The tumor continued to grow, and did so more and more quickly, all of this happening in just a few weeks. I’d watch and ponder and put things out of my mind as I asked her to try a little longer and give us a chance to help her get past what I saw as a simple mechanical issue that, according to past experience, should be fixable. This dog who had endured and triumphed for over 17 years could last a little longer if we could just solve this one problem. But then time was up and she told me so. 

One morning she finally made it clear that today was the day to stop. She sniffed her favorite fail-safe cheese treat and kept her mouth close. “No.” 

I offered it again and again, and every time, without turning away, she kept her mouth tightly closed. “No.”

I finally understood. She told me the same message my mother had in the manner she could. No more food. 

The trouble was I wasn’t ready. I cried. I cried uncontrollably as I tried to pull myself to the edge of this timeline with her. And because I cried she paced in distress. But I couldn’t stop myself until she threw up. Seeing that small puddle of frothy bile told me that I had to now be ready. Now. I wiped it up, apologizing to her and telling her I understood. 

As I called the vet to arrange for her euthanasia she went to bed and fell into a deep sleep.

While she slept I bathed and washed my hair and put on clean clothes. I posted on Facebook to my friends that today was the day when I was to finally say goodbye, and that noon was the time that they should send their love our way. Then I gathered blankets and crystals and arranged them under our largest and oldest tree, and cut a branch of white sage so she’d have its scent to help her on her journey. It was so important for me to take the time to prepare for her death. To prepare a place for this ritual and to put my intention for her safe and quiet death into the choice and placement of each item I brought out into the sun.

I woke her up shortly before the vet was due to arrive and walked her outside to the blanket with the crystals arranged for her. Her favorite Tibetan quartz was in my hand as I sat with her and talked quietly. After a few minutes she grew restless and tossed her head, rubbing it against my hand, and insisted on getting up to walk around her yard. She squatted to pee, and I admit I kept her from heading down the hill as she wanted, guiding her instead into the house so we could greet the vet who was due any minute. 

The vet arrived and Vida gave her no notice. Together we walked back out to the blanket. No leash, just my hand gently guiding her. She walked onto the blanket and stopped, seemingly looking out over her yard one last time though I know that her poor eyesight meant that the “looking” was more energetic than physical. She slowly sat and remained still, never turning her head to me, just facing forward as I stroked her fur and told her how beautiful she was. 

I took her collar off, the one with the Om design she chose herself, and as I put it on the grass I said to her “You don’t need this anymore. Now you are Om.” 

She barely acknowledged it as the vet injected the first sedative in the skin over her shoulder. 

She knew exactly what was happening and faced it. Her last act of free will. It was the most astonishing moment to witness, and one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.

She did not need to be held until the sedative began to take effect and my hands could help ease her gently down on her side, her head resting beneath the central array of crystals and sage. 

I continued to stroke her fur. The vet inserted a needle into her leg but she didn’t seem to notice, only stretching her neck out as I stroked the white of her throat. She breathed quietly, almost imperceptibly, until the last of the final drug was in her veins. Her heart finally stopped, without struggle or tension or pain. 

I sat with her for several minutes. I was amazed at how calm I felt. It felt like it was exactly how it was meant to be. Her body was finished. I gazed on it, amazed at how seamless the shift was. 

While I’ve been present at the death of other dogs of mine I’ve never been simply an attendant to a choice like this. Dogs have been near death and suffering, or died on their own. This dog walked up to her own death willingly. It’s not something I can imagine for myself, so to be asked to witness and assist is a profound lesson I’ll never forget. 

Attending to Vida and my mother at their deaths has been a deep, deep lesson I’ll be forever thankful for. 

As soon as Vida was gone I was left with a home that was truly empty for the first time. It was unnerving. I was truly bereft. I was alone to really process the experience and examine my feelings, and felt that she was still teaching me so I’d better listen. 

The very next day I got a call that Vida’s cremated remains were ready to be picked up. I was surprised at the swiftness with which her body became ash, and while I had no trouble with the process of getting them home I waited several days before doing anything further with them. I needed to go at my own pace.

Rose Quartz became the most important stone in my house.  A few days after Vida’s death I bought a half-dozen palm-sized pieces at a gem show where I’d gone looking for “heart stones.” Two days later I asked a friend to get me a dozen more because I felt so strongly that I needed to be surrounded by these stones. I needed to be able to sit on the ground within a circle of rose quartz and just sit with the feeling of open-hearted love. This is a stone I’d always ignored, but could no longer dismiss. I had to use what my dog had taught me to see it with a new perspective.

To have an open heart is everything. To be a warrior with an open heart is what must be if you truly want to live fully. To do what makes you happy means you must be brave enough to love, and that love isn’t just an outward expression, it’s a way of being.

Open-hearted love is a feeling I’m not familiar nor comfortable with. Dogs have certainly been the ones with whom I’ve felt safest expressing this kind of love, in part because their love is given without clichés or rules. 

Even when we’re terrible to them they still love us. 

All they ask is that we listen.

They teach us that we can be resilient without creating a brittle barrier to new experiences. That we can adapt. That we can have faith that there are others out there to share this feeling with. That love isn’t about romance or possession. That loves doesn’t make us weak. That spending time with the feelings within ourselves is the path to healing ourselves. Dogs recognize the good in us, so we must recognize it within ourselves.

The healing energy of the planet is always with us. Dogs are the messengers. 

Don’t make them into your “babies” and surrogates. See them for who they are. See what they are reflecting back to you. They are our teachers.

They forgive us so we can forgive ourselves and start over.  Every day is a new day. 

I miss Vida’s presence but she will always be with me.

I’m excited to see who the next dog will be. 

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