“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

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Part II, Day 72: Good Grief

It's been five weeks and two days since Zoe died.  I bought a book about pet bereavement, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  In a culture that still doesn't quite know how to talk about death, entering this landscape of grief is another new place for me, another new country, although a lot of friends have given me advice.

And not one person has implied I should get over it, and move on, even though I heard recently that grief is going to be listed as a pathology in the new DSM-5 coming out in 2013, that is, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Apparently grief becomes pathological when it goes on a little too long.  I think you're allowed six months to a year to mourn, and then you get cut off.  After that, you need counseling, or drugs, or both.  I don't know the limit for pet bereavement.  If dogs live a seventh of our lifespans, does that mean we can only give them a seventh of the time we're granted for human family members?  If that's the case, I'm already close to tapped out. 

So here is my question:  How is healthy, non-pathological grief for one's dog supposed to look and feel?  I don't know.  All I can say is that the best advice I got from friends who have lost their beloved pups this year was to cry whenever I felt like it, for however long, and not to stop myself, not to judge myself, but to just let things be what they are.

It was the same advice I got when my mother died five years ago and when my best friend died suddenly when we were both only twenty-four.  The essence is: have your experience, and don't judge it.  Just be present.  Let what is come inside the house; abide with it without fear.  Grief delayed or repressed comes back later to haunt you anyway, so it's better to let it flow.  And so I've had to give up wearing mascara for a while.  It's liberating to live free of restraint, so open and unguarded, but I never know what to expect. 

Which is kind of what this dog has taught me ever since I brought her home, with one major difference.  In the 10 months after her diagnosis, I tried to be present with her always, to seize every day, to embrace the unexpected just as we made our routines feel new, but I also did my best not to cry in front of her or let her know when I was sad.  Now, I just move from laughter to tears to calm conversation to my eyes filling mid-word.  Living so fluidly--literally--is my new normal.  There were entire years in my life before this when I never cried once, not even at sad movies, and I would never cry in front of anyone, not even my loved ones.  It's hard to imagine now what that life was like.  It feels like it happened to someone else.

photo by Suzan McDermott, Bravura Photography
So if you ask me to describe how things are going around here, I can only tell you this: I am terribly sad sometimes, but I'm not despondent, and definitely not depressed.  And I can't really say I'm unhappy.  I sleep and eat, I exercise regularly, I'm back in yoga class, I water the plants, and I come as close to balancing my checkbook as I ever have.  I am still inspired by my work, extremely focused about it, and more in love than ever with my husband, family, friends.  I often feel great inexplicable surges of joy.  I hug my colleagues when I see them shopping at the farmer's market or checking on their book orders at the campus bookstore.  Sometimes my heart feels so full it almost hurts.  I feel gratitude for every sweet thing in my life, including the kindness of the gentle readers who followed this blog.  But I really miss my dog.  I miss my dog more as time goes on, not less, because at first it didn't seem so final, even though I saw her take her last breath. 

At first I thought I could be a Miss Havisham if I totally let myself go.  Instead of being the jilted bride who lives in her torn, stained wedding gown, with mold and cobwebs the only organic matter left in that room where the wedding feast would have occurred, I just thought I'd creep around with a lot of black Zoe hairballs in the corner.  I didn't want to vacuum up her fur, and when I did, I didn't want to throw it out, but I did anyway.  There's still a clump of it in our bedroom on the floor beneath all our sweaters.  Her toys are still in a box by the wood stove.  Our TV in the bedroom is still balanced on her crate, although my husband is making a new wooden stand and when that happens, the crate will get broken down and will live in the room where we keep our suitcases.  I also have a little portable Zoe shrine I bring to the deck sometimes when I meditate.  It has her collar with the purple heart for bravery that was given to her by her oncologist, a sand dollar I found when we were walking on the beach at Topsail Island this past March, and a completely disemboweled red fleece bow she got under the tree one year that she used to balance on her nose and still smells like her.

I sit out on the deck with this odd collection and imagine her looking at me as she did in this photo on an ordinary morning in the last couple weeks of her extraordinary life.

Maybe she would think Mommy was acting a bit strange if she saw me sniffing her eviscerated toy or jangling her collar, trying to recreate the sound of her running up to me.

I did this every day from the day she died until about two weeks ago.

Now I do it about once a week.

I wish I could see her, even just out of the corner of my eye, but my mind refuses to play tricks on me.  This is what frustrates me the most.  Being with Zoe for nine years grounded me, made me more present in the here and now, more planted on this earth, less likely to retreat to my space girl imagination.  But sometimes I wish my imagination would help me out.  I used to be a lot more other-worldly.  If I could believe now in another dimension, that a spirit world was right around us, I would allow myself to think she was still with me here, sitting on my left, as friends of mine who think that way promise me she is. 

But even though I don't believe she's here, I talk to her.  When I get in the car, I tell Zoe she's a good girl and I'll picture her smudging up the window with her nose.  (I have cleaned my car twice since she died, and vacuumed up her fur, but have yet to wash off those doggy nose smears.)

I talk to her a lot in my studio, since she spent so much time here with me and I wrote almost all of my posts here with her looking right at me.  I'll just say that she's a great girl, a beautiful dog, that she's so good, that she's so good, so very good.

And sometimes I just smile and say, Hi, baby dog, and I'm flooded with the memory of her essence, and I feel peace.  I see her grinning at me just like she did in this picture below:

Kelly Prime took this photo of Zoe looking at me, May of 2012.  The poop bag got in the picture too.

My former student took this photo of Zoe and me on an ordinary day, the kind of ordinary day I tried to make memorable when all our days were numbered.  We walked around the track on our campus and Kelly told me how she wanted to be a writer.  Zoe plopped down on the grass to rest when we were halfway through, and Kelly and I took turns with the camera.  I cropped this one so that you won't see my weird brown sweatpants that look like fake suede, or the black leather money belt I used on dog walks for carrying treats and poop bags that my husband teased me about, or the extra five or so pounds I put on from all those amazing Sundays lunches we had this year, post-diagnosis.  There was a time--maybe this was back when I couldn't cry--when my vanity would not have allowed me to keep a photo like that around.  But I love the way Zoe looks here, and I like the way I'm looking at her, in the part of the picture you can't see, and the photo, in its entirety, is one I will always treasure.

I didn't dream about her for the first ten days.  This made me get very mad at my superego, my hyper-vigilant sleeping self.  Couldn't my superego/sleeping self stop being so damn literal and just take a little break from reality?  In all of our nine years together, Zoe would appear in my dreams even if she didn't make an appearance until late in the game.  At some point I would remember: Hey, you, sleeping Natalia person, you have a dog!  Where's your dog?  And then she'd sneak in, as though she'd been there all along.  She was never on a lead, never had on her collar.  We'd just walk together or run wherever I happened to have been in the dream when I remembered she was my companion.  Often we were in city traffic, but she never got in harm's way.  In this way Zoe and I traveled to New York City and London together, through crowds in the middle of Delhi, through mountains and deserts and lots of other complicated futuristic dreamscapes that have no name.
Photo by Suzan McDermott

So I thought she would stay in my dreams forever, that we would be reunited whenever I slept.  But she was gone.  And then, ten days after she died, ten nights of dog-less dreams later, she finally showed up.  She was both a young dog, maybe a year old, looking very collie-like, with more white markings than in real life, and she was a nine-year-old little girl, with long, silky black hair and the nutmeg skin of a Cherokee.  The two were both Zoe, both gorgeous, and both doing what my friends and I playing at recess used to call around-the-worlds on the monkey bars, twirling and twirling nonstop.

Finally I got the puppy version of Zoe to stop moving and I held her head in my hands.  I wanted her to listen.  I said, "Zoe, thank you for letting me be your person.  Being with you made me happier than I've ever been in my life."

And when I woke up I realized that was true.  And this came to me as a shock.  That of all the sources of five-star happiness on my list, the pure joy I felt in the company of my beloved dog was like nothing I'd ever known.

My husband says he doesn't mind.  I love him so much for that.  But here's the thing: that happiness I felt with Zoe leaked out, over everything.  Over everyone.  And it hasn't gone anywhere.

Zoe taught me to inhabit every moment with everything in my arsenal: brain, heart, soft belly, fierce animal hunger, compassion, annoyance, fear, the whole lot.  So how do I sit with my grief, which takes me to the past, and still live thoroughly in the present?

photo by Suzan McDermott
I wake up each day and do the things on the to-do list.  Work on the novel for 3 to 12 hours.  Draft syllabi for the new semester.   Get aerobic exercise.  Do yoga and lift weights.  See friends, read, cook meals, relax with my husband, make plans for coming trips.  I like doing all these things.   I like being productive.  I always have.

But I also look at old photos of her and I'm there, in those memories, and I'm grateful to have them, grateful even for the flood of tears.  I have about five or six old movies consisting mainly of my sister and me provoking her dog and mine to roll around and nip at each other and grunt, our version of pup pile-up, and I think, Thank goodness we were wise enough to know we needed documentary proof of our supreme immaturity, thank dog we knew we needed to record for all time these three minutes of sublime happiness.   Honestly: the first two weeks I think I went through every single photograph of Zoe I had every single day and if you've been in this corner a while, you know that's a lot of pictures.  Ditto, movies.  Ditto, old journals that never became posts.  That was pretty much how I spent my afternoons.

What I haven't done yet, though, gentle reader, is re-read all the posts of this blog.  I will, when I feel like I can.

I miss her when I eat.  I can't break the habit of picking out the bits of egg or meat that I know she'll like when she licks the plates.  Now they just sit there.

under the deck
I miss her when I walk up the steps to the deck of our house, where she kept watch.

I miss her on the balcony when I sit or water the plants.  I think of how amazing it was to behold her there, rapt, staring for hours on end at the river and wildlife and wind, how she taught me stillness and steadiness and wonder.

I miss our morning love.  She would thump her tail, roll on her back and grunt, and it was a new day, a marvelous new day.

I miss nighttime cuddles.  After I brushed my teeth I would find where she had made her nest for the night and I'd talk to her, review the highlights of the day, scratch her back, and tell her again how wonderful she was.

Every part of town probably still has her DNA.  She has peed on every bush.  Every walk we've taken is still happening in some other dimension as I make my way around on foot from village to woods to town green.

One of my friends who lost both her beloved cat and best friend in the same year had their ashes mixed and fired into jewelry.  Another friend who lost her dog this spring went out and got a tattoo of the dog's paw print on her ankle.  Another friend wants to salvage all her dog's fur that she's vacuumed and knit a scarf to wear in winter.  These are people who are very even-tempered, whose grief would not be the first thing you would notice about them if they walked into a room.  I understand the need to wear the beloved companion around one's neck or to scarify oneself with his memory.  You want something against your skin that says, This love has seared me, and that love is here to stay.  You want to say, This creature I mourn was my heart.

What I'm going to do is plant some of Zoe's ashes beneath the willow bush my friend Cathy gave us to honor Zoe's life.  This bush will live and grow in front of the deck where Zoe used to guard the house.  I'll also put some of her ashes in her favorite other places in the yard, and on my balcony.  And I'll let some of her ashes float away in the river that flows past our house and when I do I'll think of the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala I once saw, and I'll remember the wonder I felt as it was being made--which was exactly the same wonder I felt as it was released to the universe.

Her remains came home in a lovely wooden box.  I expected something tacky made of cardboard.  I expected something cheap and flimsy that would make me weep.  Instead I cried because of the kindness and courtesy being shown to us by our vet, who chose to take our beloved girl to a place that returns the ashes of our animal companions back to our family hearths in a treasure box.  It looks like it's made of walnut or stained mahogany and some delicate vines are carved into the top of it.  It's the kind of box I would buy for storing nice stuff.

It's in our dining room now.  I haven't opened it.

Coming home after work or an evening with friends is the hardest, even five weeks on.  Knowing that she won't be rushing to the door to greet us, to put on her own one-dog parade of welcome: that's sad for us.  Our house is quieter now, and Zoe was already a very quiet dog.

photo by Suzan McDermott
I get a little restless at the part of the day when we did our walks, and I've been trying to use that time to do yoga instead of just work. I am also on the lookout for some dogs to borrow, short-term.

In fact, even though I'm really busy now, I try to spend as much time as I can with other people's dogs.  Last weekend I picked up my friend Cathy's dog from her house and brought him to our house while she finished a project at the library, and I can't begin to describe how much it filled my heart to see him in my rear view mirror grinning at me from the back seat, and stepping up on the divider now and then to take a whiff of my savory arm pits (it was 95 degrees) and look out the window at the North Country landscape of maple trees and pines whizzing past, a sight that always made Zoe so content.  I can't tell you how happy it made me to know that for the next few hours while my friend and I made dinner and caught up on each other's news there would be a sweet dog to pat after every other sentence.  It sent me back to memories of the two dogs playing together.

But that didn't stop me from missing Zoe.  It made me miss her more.

And you see, that's the thing.  A kind and helpful part of myself wants to console the grieving part of me and say, Hey, your memories are beautiful and they give you peace.  Aren't you lucky to have them?

I am.  I'm grateful.  But I can't touch those memories.  Not with my hands, anyway.  And that's the paradox.  Loving a dog, loving this dog, made me more physical, more connected to all things palpable and three-dimensional and real.  And there's no replacement for the physicality of that experience.  For the feeling of my hand against her fur, her rough tongue, her bad breath, the thump of her tail.

Milo, the King Charles Spaniel who thinks he's a Greyhound, came by last week with his people.  When he's over these days he looks all through the house for Zoe.  He still smells her everywhere.  I hope if he ever sees her he'll tell me where to look.

So I am getting to know this place called grief.  It's like another room in the house.  I go there and look out the window and see what the sky looks like from this new angle: the maple tree rocking in a sudden wind without a dog to track its motion, the emboldened groundhogs and bunnies and now a baby skunk all playing hacky sack in a dog-free yard like teens in the house when the adults are gone.  And always, always, the river flowing past, never stopping, never changing direction, gleaming white and gray like the ashes we'll send down it soon, when we are ready to let some of them go.

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.