“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

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.


  1. Natalia, your story brought back the tears I shed last week after spending time with my neice and nephew sitting vigil, much as you did, with their mother, my half-sister. Except we were not allowed to give her a shot, but had to sit and watch her struggle to keep breathing. In the end, she died while we were all out of the room, giving her privacy for what would be her final bath. I wish she had had the option of that shot; I feel certain she would have wanted that dignity.

  2. Dear Liz-I-B: I feel pretty certain my mother would have wanted it too. We were lucky to be in the room with her. It was a miracle that we were reunited at all, and then to serve as midwives to her death just as she'd brought us into the world: that was a gift. But I wish she hadn't had to suffer so much first. I am so profoundly sorry about your half-sister, Liz. So very sorry. Wishing you and your niece and your nephew peace. xx Natalia

  3. well said, Nat. The Gentle Author, gently moving along.

  4. Might be the single most incredibly beautiful words you've ever written. It's all here. The love, loss and respect ooze from these words. It's an achievement, indeed, to write about a common experience in an uncommon way. I'm sorry for your pain and your terrible loss. And I do understand the complexity essiac tea adds to your kindness and good intentions. Grieve as you will and just live through it. That's all you can do--live and write. May peace be with you and Kerry. As to Zoe, she's fine.

  5. Dear Mrs. B's Sweetie: Thank you so much for these encouraging words. Wow. I'm so grateful.

  6. Natalia, as I was reading this, I started crying, and Abbe looked up from her spot under the table. I thought she might want to comfort me, but she decided to go drink some water instead. There's solace in that, too, the way my little dog carries on with life as it is. When she had to have neck surgery last summer, a psychic told me Abbe would die. Thankfully, another friend said "that psychic is full of shit." Still, I spent that week in agony, and only started crying when the vet called me to say that Abbe had sailed through surgery just fine. The holding on, the letting go--our dogs give us ample opportunity for practice. Thank you for sharing it all with us. Blessings,