Now the gentle plans unfold, harsh as shards of granite beneath the skin, splintering every nerve.
The dog is ready to rest.
Meanwhile, resisting with every cell still storming, I try to organize the arrangements I hoped I would never have to specify — the site and manner of death, dealing with the body and burial, holding her one last time.
The golden retriever, gone far beyond epilepsy now, is already fractionally departed — or so she appears most of the time, slipping further into dream, whimpering as she sleeps in pain she can no longer for my benefit hide, dragging herself outdoors only to fail and fall on the stairs, sitting up only to gaze at me for long moments, communicating what I already know. She is, at the last, as ever, waiting for me to catch up.
She is dying; she is dying, I think with leaden repetition: Saying is believing. But I do not want this going, my life opening on this clearing, this liberation of my leisure hours, this exemption from constant sweeping of dog hair from every corner, every coat. I do not wish this rearrangement of all my internal furniture, my heart an empty room, the absence the antics of a dog.
She has not eaten for five days and the vet has decreed that intervention to give her a little more time cannot be delayed even a week. But I am suspending it forever. I know it is time to leave.
I have done my best to deny the ending that is coming, surely as sunset or a turning tide. I have indulged myself in pointless, perky rituals to reverse the real physical conditions — broiling steaks for her, baking chicken in the 95-degree heat of high summer, boiling hamburger and rice, slipping bologna slices the diameter of DVDs out of a deli jacket and offering them rolled into a hollow cigar shape, uncoiled from edge to center like a yo-yo, flung through the air like little Frisbees — all to coax from her a gesture of interest in life.
These are terrible days, fraught with this finishing, though all around us, friends and a few family, neighbors and veterinarians, are kind, compassionate and patient — the three great virtues in departure. Many intimates have called to extend that odd permission we seem always to require, even when ending suffering, because, we know, once the decision is executed, nothing will ever be quite the same again.
Frankly, I cannot focus on images of how days will go with her big, slow, red presence erased from the frames. She has been the fixture in my heart, in my home, in my understanding, education and experience of life, for a decade. In part because her health was an almost constant challenge since puppyhood, our time together involved chronic attention, a symbiosis that creates a charged and emotional bond, a fight every hour not to hold your happiness and heart in check — but to keep each other in sight.
I have been watching my dog die for years, it seems, the anxious fate of having an epileptic animal as companion and friend. I have sat with her for many hours over the years as she quaked and roiled, lay on her side and paddled with her massive uncontrollable paws. I have told her a hundred times to go if she wanted, praised her with Homeric monotony, stroked her red hair thick as bear fur, sang to her the joy of our time together.
“How I pity someone who has never loved a dog,” I grieved aloud one evening to no one but the night — the woods and earth beyond the walls, the water and air an everlasting emptiness into which she likely will already have been welcomed before these words, swiftly stenciled on newsprint, live for a day and let me whisper a soft goodbye.
Everything is electric during these last moments, the sunlight on the leaves seeming to turn the trees to glass; the air shuddering with heat off the asphalt; the hush of the evening rain; the incoming waves sighing to her, beckoning, while she sheds the weight of her afflictions with the buoyancy of her final swim in Casco Bay; the tiger lilies blooming into a brilliance and vitality that seem almost an offense, now that death has come to call.
I, chasing the tail of my own dread, make checklist after checklist of things to do before the dog settles down for the last time — pick up stuffed toys, pile water bowls in the dishwasher, throw away the hated, seldom-used leash — because I already know that too many remnants left behind will undo me when I come home alone.
That’s it, you know: alone. It is not a state of being that I fear or prefer; nor is it punishment, nor fate. It is a simple fact of passing, the dark figure waiting in the wings.
Now there is just one more thing to do for her, and that will be done soon enough, will arrive without anguish, delivering relief from a fearful disease that neglect had implanted in her before she ever left her litter to become part of our pack. But in desolation as in mercy, there is only what subsides and that which remains — one giving out, another going on.
She knows how I love her, she trusts that I will ease the stiff ache that age and illness have magnified to crippling pain. She sleeps each night, her head on my clogs, clinging to the bed frame, so that I cannot stir or rise without her waking. She is at peace in my protection; she can drop off without worry, drop out at any time.
Not so, perhaps, for me, but here in the dark, and after, there is little else to say, nothing more than her name.
North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: