“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Part II, Day 71: Travels with Zoe, or North Country Dog on the Red Kashmir Rug

On the last full day of Zoe's life we almost got caught in a thunderstorm.  It was the fourth of July.

Zoe fears thunder and fireworks more than most people fear death.  Given that her own death was imminent, we'd often thought it might be best for her to leave this earth before that night's firework display.  We didn't want her to spend her last night alive crying and quivering in terror.

A storm would cancel the fireworks show, but then we'd have to contend with the storm, which could go on for hours.

But the thunder rumbled from a distant patch of sky.  It didn't roar overhead.  We were half in dream when it slid close.  Neither of us had slept the night before and now she was dozing on the lawn a few feet away from where I rested in the hammock.

We hurried up to my studio.  Kerry joined us just before the heavens opened.  To drown out the thunder, I turned on the fans, including a rattly old cooling box that spews water and sounds like cans caught in the spokes of a bicycle.   After sharing such a peaceful day I hoped we could ride the calm like a magic carpet to the end.  To the end end.

I was tempted to take a picture of her sprawled out on the Indian carpet beside the bed on the studio floor, but I didn't.  The picture I've included here was taken months earlier.  On our last day together, I took no photos.  I didn't want to move.  Kerry was next to me, reading, and I was too.  I hadn't read a thing in days.  I'd just been sitting with Zoe, talking to her, petting her, trying to take everything in.

The book was something I've been wanting to get to for a long time: Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey.  I loved Livesey's portrayal of a child's aching loneliness, her vivid depictions of the Scottish landscape--a part of Scotland where the woods are "fertile and predictable, with foaming hawthorne hedges and woods of beech, chestnut, and birch."  Where the character remembers that even as a child she "judged the landscape inferior to the one" she knew "from stories."  

I could relate to this evocation of a non-exotic landscape.  The North Country where we live has a quiet beauty that some of us have had to train our eyes to see.  It's the anti-sublime.  The anti-romantic.  The anti-exotic.  Or maybe it is sublime with all its open space, those vast fields and skies, with the very occasional big walloping storm.

Reading the novel's opening made me grateful to Zoe for teaching me to love the North Country.  Walking with her in the woods in every season through snow or fields of trillium or fallen red maple leaves has always filled my heart.

And there she was now on the red Indian rug, her eyes boring into mine.  She had her head rested on this rug and her front paws out straight.  

Now, let me tell you about this rug.  I found it in the year 2000, three years before Zoe was born, in a little store run by two brothers from Kashmir who somehow found themselves in Macleod Ganj, in Dharamsala, India, on Temple Road, near where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.

I visited this town with six other women during monsoon season when everything in the shops smelled of rain and damp. Every day the women and I went to Namgyal Monastery, the Tibetan Buddhist temple.  We'd been told we might have a private meeting with the Dalai Lama because one of the people in our group, my close friend Cathy, had hosted some Tibetan monks at our university the year before and they'd created a sand mandala that many in our community witnessed being painted, over a period of weeks, and then dismantled.

I, too, had been part of the group that walked with the monks down to the Grasse River and watched as they lowered the exquisite sand painting into the river and let the current carry it away: an object lesson to all of us on the nature of impermanence, which was something I understood then only as an abstract Buddhist tenet.

So every day in India we went to the temple.  And every day we were told, "Come back tomorrow."  And what did we do when we were turned away?  We walked up Temple Road, striding past monks in scarlet and saffron robes, past monkeys playing in pine trees, past cows sipping from rain water and grazing on garbage, past backpackers from the West, past shops smelling of incense, past market stalls full of prayer beads and bronze Buddhas and necklaces and earrings, and we shopped.  And that's how I discovered this little carpet store.

My tiny but very strong friend, Laura, balanced this rug and the other two I bought on top of her head and hauled them over to the DHL place where we shipped them back to the States.  They arrived many months later smelling of monsoon rain and mold, and I had to air them out for days before I could put them in the studio we had just built above our garage.  I loved bringing the smell of monsoon season in the Himalayas all the way back to my ordinary North Country river valley landscape of pine and hemlock, willow and maple, groundhogs and rabbits and so many family dogs.

So there was my dog, on America's birthday, enjoying her last day on earth.  She was on this red Indian carpet that had traveled by head through monsoon to a shipping office from the other side of the world.  

And there, I realized, in tableau form, were the two pulls in my life: the North Country dog, who means home to me, and a rug emblematic of my love of travel.

Behind the rug I could see the desk Kerry built for me out of cherry wood.  On it was my laptop.  On it also were books I love that I wished I had written.  Behind the desk was the door to the balcony where Zoe spent so many mornings with me, including what would be her last.  And beyond that the back yard and the river Zoe loved so much.  And next to me on the bed, reading, and sometimes looking at the dog, and sometimes looking at me, was my sweet husband.

I often began my meditations this year by randomly opening Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh, and it irked me how often I landed on this teaching:
We all feel insecure.  We don't know what the future holds: accidents happen, a loved one may suddenly be struck by an incurable disease and die, we are not sure if we'll be alive tomorrow.  This is all part of impermanence, and this feeling of insecurity makes us suffer.

How can we face this feeling?  What is our practice?  I think living deeply in the present moment is what we have to learn and practice so we can face this feeling of insecurity.  We have to handle the present moment well.  We live deeply in the present moment so that in the future we will have no regrets.  We are aware that both we and the person in front of us are alive.  We cherish the moment and do whatever we can to make life meaningful and to make him happy in this moment.
Travel is one way to live deeply in the present.  When you're in a new place, there's never a shortage of "wow" moments.  Living deeply in the present moment within the landscape of the familiar is a lot more tricky, at least for me.

In my very first post, "Why 108 Days?" I wrote about my eternal quest for "stop-time moments of radiance," for snapshots that will linger in memory even if I don't take them:
the pink stone street beneath my chair at the outdoor café in Cassis where I covered my sweater with croissant crumbs while I watched motorcycle mamas cheek-kiss before they ordered their daily espressos; the collie tied to a bench who pulled the rope tautly toward the square as she waited for her human companion, who happened to be a fragrant clochard, a street person, who was off buying cheese at the public market; the elephant led on a chain by a man in a dhoti in Kerala who swatted flies with her tail; Tibetan Buddhist monks in wine and saffron-colored robes playing badminton under a pine tree filled with spying monkeys in a walled stucco courtyard, outside of which cows lounged on broken concrete grazing on garbage; a group of women keeping purdah in Rajasthan singing a song of welcome to my students and me from beneath their orange veils.
Could I invest each day of my life in Canton, New York with the same powers of alertness I brought to my days in France and India?
What I was after, I guess, is what we call the sacredness of everyday life—what Scott Russell Sanders calls “the force of spirit.”  In his moving title essay in a collection by this title, Sanders drives with his wife to visit her father, who is dying, and notices everything out the window through their not-sublime but no less beloved Indiana landscape: fields of corn, cloud formations, a brilliant sky.  And he feels his love for his family and for the landscape where they make their lives with a force of nature that is not unlike that magnetic pull that leads geese in formation across the sky or a sudden wind that reveals the underside of leaves.
In this blog, "Winter with Zoe, I hunkered down close to home and tried to live every day I had left with Zoe as fully as possible, with this soulful dog as my guide.

And somewhere in there, maybe on one of those icy winter walks when I really should have been wearing clamp-ons or cramp-ons or whatever they're really called, while I watched my tripod pup nimbly lead me to the less slippery ground, I learned that if I could try to see the world as a dog sees, to bring my full powers of awareness to every walk through the woods, every tour of the back yard, and even the square feet on the studio where I wrote these posts, that this precious time we had left would not be wasted on me. 

My greatest fear next to losing her even sooner than predicted was that I wouldn't be up to the task.  That I wasn't awake enough as a human to benefit from these lessons in seeing.  That I'd totally blow it by falling into my same old habits of sleepwalking. 

I wish I had those months to share with her all over again.  I miss her so much.  I wish I could bring the self I am now back to the starting point when I began counting our days together.

I have a long way to go.  I'm much more peaceful now, day to day, but I'm still the kind of person who, when stressed, is capable of putting her purse on the top of her car and driving off, perhaps after she has just tried to open the garage without first opening the garage door.  But maybe not. 

Maybe not if I picture Zoe, my zen master with a tail, in the back seat looking out at the landscape of my car wherever I drive.  Or striding out to the left of me when I walk.  I only hope I can take what she taught me on travels close to home and far away, and to never, ever forget.

Thank you, Zoe, for waking me up.  And thank you, gentle readers, for sharing this journey with us.

Zoe and I investigate the Christmas present (2011) from our friend, Danielle.  To honor a coming year in which no trips would occur, my friend gave this Francophile delicious French food items, all meaty and dog-a-licious
Zoe and me in the Loire Valley, May, 2010, photo by Kerry Grant
Zoe and me on a bus with our students returning from Trouville in Normandy, France, April, 2010
Zoe's reaction to the concept of all-you-can-eat mussels and fries, Toulon, France, May, 2010
Zoe drinking from the Grasse River, our back yard, Canton, New York, late June, 2012; sometimes I thought of this river as her sacred Ganges
I was experimenting with my new camera this winter of 2012 trying to capture Zoe staring at the river in our yard when it was too bright to see; she reminded me of the monks I met at the Namgyal Monastery
close up of Zoe in our yard in winter of 2012
Zoe in la forêt verte, outside Rouen, Normandy, April, 2010
Zoe grew up with Maya, the golden retriever who was alpha of the pack in the gentlemen's walk, although Zoe, as number two in the heirarchy, liked to herd everyone
Zoe in the car we leased in France, sighing with ennui.  She loved our travels, and we were delighted and grateful that France was so dog-friendly, but we always knew she would be happiest at home.
Kerry and Zoe in the Loire Valley, May, 2010
Walking in the woods with Zoe, Cooper, and Pat made me really appreciate the North Country.  Pat's treats were always coveted; liver biscotti was Zoe's favorite
Blissed out in a snow storm, February, 2012: has she reached Nirvana?

When Zoe got together with her "cousin," Sadie--the dog who lives with my sister, Mira Bartok, and her husband, Doug Plavin--they brought out each other's wolfiness.  I love this picture Doug took in April of this year on a walk we took near their house in Western Massachusetts.
photo by Doug Plavin of Sadie and Zoe, the canine cousins, in spring of 2012

We were dining in Collioure, on the Mediterranean Sea, and she was very quiet under the table like a perfectly behaved French dog.  And then the fish came out, and she emerged from the tablecloth eager to see and be seen

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Part II, Day 70: Camp Zoe

All along I thought two things at once:

My dog is going to die soon.

My dog isn't really going to die soon.

Hope is so persistent.  It's like those sweat bees we thought we'd banished from the yard but that came back in the hot weather to swirl around our heads when Zoe got Reiki.  It's like a retrovirus.  It's the perennial you can't kill even though you've transplanted it twice.  Last week when she bounced back for a few days to enjoy life again, scarf down meals, lick the cat's butt, wet her paws in the river, patrol the yard, and hold court for all her guests, I both made arrangements for the end game and wasted a little time on google with searches like this: "miracle cure, canine osteosarcoma."

This is how a cautious optimist like me moves forward.  We take in the bad news, we adjust, we work with it, we work around it, and then some part of us still hopes it isn't true, that there will be an exception in this one specific case.

I spent $57 buying something called essiac tea from Canada that supposedly shrinks tumors in humans and pets.  A woman said that she cured her dog's bone cancer with it, and I so wanted to believe her.  But I'm pretty sure that particular dog hadn't reached the stage, as Zoe had, when she sometimes had to be carried up the stairs because of the tumors in her lungs.  The package arrived two days after Zoe died.  I'd like to give it to a friend who might put it to good use in her own cancer battle, but it's a little awkward, isn't it?  Here, my dog died, but you can have this.  We never opened the box.

I've been trying to find the words to write about those last 48 hours, but it isn't easy.  It's not that I don't want to relive some of those moments--to be honest, I've thought of little else--but because I don't want to confront my own inadequacies in rendering them in language.  But I'm afraid that if I don't write them down I'll forget.  And I'd rather not forget.

When Zoe woke up early on Tuesday morning, her bladder and bowels insisting that all the rich food she'd eaten those last few days had to go, right now,  I knew we were getting close.  I just wanted to spend the day sitting with her in the grass as she moved here and there to relieve herself or to find shade, and I didn't want to do a single other thing.

Early morning she found the fallen leaves my husband carted over to the river's edge in late autumn and made a nest.  I got out my yoga mat and sat beside her and told her how much I loved her, how she was a great dog, the sweetest and smartest one I know, and she said she'd heard all of this before but thank-you.

My husband joined us.  We set up Camp Zoe.  He spent some time in the hammock, which also involved finding the mosquito net and trying not to trap all the insects inside with him.

A lot of people came by to see her.  It was hard for me to talk.  I wanted to just be alone with my dog but I also loved watching her perk up when people who had known her since she was a puppy came by to say good-bye.  She's the consummate hostess.  She would be lying and resting, but then she'd hear or smell someone she loved and hadn't seen for a while and she'd be wagging her tail, even getting up to greet them.

I called our vet, Amy Thompson, and asked her to come over.  I thought she might be able to tell if Zoe was suffering, if it was tomorrow, or even that night, but she thought Zoe was doing okay, really, although her pulses were "deep," which means, I think, that the dog was drawing into herself.  She had a new acupuncture point to try that the other Dr. Thompson in Vermont had suggested, near her eyes, for helping with all the bumps that had taken over so much of her body in the past month.

That's right.  Right until the end we were still trying to treat her.  

She seemed to feel better afterward.  She was hungry for a snack and we made one last visit to town for a soft serve vanilla in the village green.

With the needles in

The local Reiki master saw Zoe just after 4.  She thought Zoe felt balanced and her lungs were no worse than they'd been yesterday, but she was just really really hot.  I was so furious with mother nature for lobbing us these hot buggy days on the last week of Zoe's life.  I ranted about climate change, the American contribution to it, our unwillingness to lower our carbon spewage, and then I told myself, "Shut the fuck up and go sit with your dog."  I put ice cubes in her water dish and I ate one.

I asked Cathy to come over, and when she pulled up I tried not to cry.  She was with me the day I met Zoe.  We'd been on a walk when we met a woman with a cute terrier mix she'd brought home recently from tthe Potsdam Humane Society.  Cathy and I sometimes talk about doing things in some vague perfect future and we don't always get around to doing them, but we drove right over in early afternoon.  Those eight little Aussie mixes were all so adorable that she wanted to adopt one too, even though she was about to go on a long trip overseas.

Cathy was the kind friend who drove Zoe and me to Cornwall the day we had to amputate the leg with the cancerous bone. 

Later she made a book of photos for me commemorating Zoe's last morning as a four-legged creature.

That night Zoe and I set up camp downstairs in our house.  I made up the bed in the TV room, the place the boys used as their man cave back in the day, and Kerry sat with her for a while.  She rested her head on his foot and gazed up at him, and it was the sweetest thing I had ever seen, bar none.

It was a rough night.  I don't think she ever slept.   For a long time I heard her panting and I turned on the light to just look at her and try to sooth her.  She threw up, she had more than one accident: her body wanted everything out.   We moved Camp Zoe into the living room, closer to the door.  I took her outside again and again.  

But on the Fourth of July, peace prevailed for us for one last time.  It was just us three at Camp Zoe, and we spent the day on the grass under cloud cover resting and just being together in a quiet, reassuring way.  She kept looking up at us with her keen, intelligent, curious eyes, and we knew it wasn't time.  Almost, but not yet.  For a while I took a nap in the hammock while she slept a few feet away.  And when she gazed at me, her eyes were still bright.

That's when I knew what her sign would be. 

We three slept in the studio that night.  Sometime in the middle of the night, or early morning, Zoe asked to be let out to the balcony.

And when we woke up on Thursday morning, we knew.  Zoe had begun her journey.  She had her eyes on the river.  She didn't turn to us when we spoke to her.  She was letting us know that she was already on her way.

We made the call.

The thing about making the call, of having the vet come to the house with that hideous black bag (or is it a metal box?) and that dreaded needle: you think you can't do it.  You never ever want to think about it.  You want to love your dog and love your life together and not imagine that this day will come.

The day comes.

And the thing about that day, about making that call, is that it's the last thing you will ever do to show your dog your deep, abiding love.  When you love a being so much, you won't let her suffer.  The selfish part of you that just wants another day, another day, a romp through the grass together, a leisurely nap under the shade of the willow tree: that part just turns off.  To honor this dog you love so much, who has already begun drifting into the next world, whose eyes are no longer on this one, you make the call.

She had her head in my lap and Kerry supported her head from the other side.  She and I looked into each other's eyes.  My eyes were the last things she saw as she left this world.  The very last things.

Later that morning, I wandered through the yard, revisiting all the places she liked to go.  The spot under the deck where she watched the house.  The iris bed.  The river's edge.  And of course the balcony where she spent every morning of her life, including her last.  I thought I would find her somewhere.  That I'd feel her presence.  But I didn't.  She was really gone.

Our yard is still set up the way it was during Camp Zoe week, with the hammock and the mosquito net, and although we've gotten rid of some things, her water bowl is still on my balcony.  I meditate up there every morning.

The part of me that hoped I would find a miraculous cure at the last minute still hopes I'll find her spirit up on the balcony.  That when I meditate, I'll see her out of the corner of my eye, or I'll feel her presence.  It hasn't happened.  Instead, I honor our time together and practice saying good-bye again, a thousand new ways.  Good-bye, beautiful dog.  Good-bye, sweet friend.  Good-bye, guardian spirit.  Good-bye, roommate.  My love.

Dogs don't fear death.  And they hide much of their pain from us.  What they fear more, I think, is leaving us.  And so we have to love them as much as we can, as much as time allows us to, and just let them go.

It's one thing to know this and believe it.  It's another thing to do it.  You think you can't.  But you have to, and so you do.

But while a little part of me left with her, the light in my eyes that watched her as she took her last breath, a part of her stayed with me.  That animal fierceness.  That intensity.  And, I hope, that capacity for stillness, for finding contentment in just watching the river flow by.

And it's on that river where I'm going to spend this Sunday.  Just my husband and me on a canoe.   Two creatures, on a July day, in a remote part of North America, who have just been through something that people all over the world go through every single day.  It's the oldest story there is.  It's everyone's story--no exceptions.  We have loved another being, and we've watched her leave this world.

The world feels different now, just as our yard is not the same without her presiding over it.  But it's still a place of beauty, of wondrous things, and we're grateful to be part of it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Part II, Day 69: A Photo Montage Intermission

photo by Tara Freeman, Zoe and me in my writing and meditation studio

Zoe in her favorite bunker, under the deck, watching the house

in trillium season, May of 2012, there was also phlox

Zoe and me in trillium season, photo by Kerry Grant

Zoe looking wolfy in May

Zoe at the entrance to the woods, trillium season, 2012

Zoe's meditation post
 I thought at first this photo was by Tara Freeman, but in fact I took it in early March when we were driving to do a walk with Cooper
photo by Tara Freeman of Zoe and me
I kept seeing this version of Zoe again, this exact face, in the last 10 days of her life
photo by Karen Strauss

photo by Karen Strauss
photo by Tara Freeman

photo by Tara Freeman

photo by Tara Freeman

photo by Tara Freeman

photo by Tara Freeman
Zoe and me having a chat, photo by Tara Freeman

Zoe and me in May, 2012, photo by Kelly Prime

Zoe in front of Chenonceau, the Loire Valley, France, May, 2010
Zoe at her meditation post on my balcony

resting on her funky day bed, a ripped up old sleeping bag of our kids', in my studio

We lived for these moments when she would roll on her back and let us pat her belly

Zoe in winter, her favorite season, after first major snowstorm of 2012
February 12, 2012
Zoe in the French Alps, late May, 2010

I have more posts to write, gentle reader, but today I wanted to share the photo montage I keep seeing in my head as I try to come to terms with both my grief for my beloved Zoe and my gratitude for the beautiful days we've shared together, up to the very end.  

The other day in an e-mail a friend quoted me from an early post when I said that sorrow's soft underbelly is made of the memories of the beloved that give us joy.  (I think I said this more succinctly the first time!)  These are a few of them in pictorial form.  I have more coming soon, and more stories.

Thank you so much for reading and for sharing your own stories about love, mortality, dogs, and more.