Friday, October 14, 2011

Even Knowing How It Will End, We Choose This Love

The story of my dogs is a long one. It goes back, and back, and back. They are integral to my life, not as chapters but as currents that rush through everything. I have a much longer piece about my dogs –-sort of— that I’ve been working on over the years. Maybe this will become a part of it.

Last night, a little dog that was not my dog, died. Tiger (he was named by a six year old, ok?) belonged to my sister and her family, especially my nieces.

Tiger was old. I am on my third generation of big dogs; he lived with us for about a year when Urban & I had our first dog. If you’re one of the people who knew Kalia, well, you know. If you’re not, I pity you. She was a wise and charismatic animal, regal and kind. Clever. A Doberman Pincher.

Tiger was a MinPin – A Miniature Pincher. He looked just like Kalia but he weighed about six pounds. Like most little dogs, he didn’t know or care that he was a little dog. When he spoke (in my head), it was with the voice of Robert DeNiro. He picked fights with Kalia, but only when she was laying down. He would then retreat under an ottoman and peer out while she barked and raged at him. He wasn’t stupid.

The two of them would curl up and sleep together. Sometimes when Kalia kicked in her sleep, she would send him flying. He would shake himself, look around, and go sleep on her other side.

After Tiger went home to what we called his birth family, we missed him. Of course we still saw him on visits to my sister’s, and our frequent phone calls were interrupted by his alarmed yap-squeaks, and her exasperated “Tiger!” As the years went on, he barked less, but with more focus. We had to put Kalia down, but kept two of her pups: Asha and Dagaz. Tiger mellowed out, but would pee in my nieces’ rooms if he was displeased with them. When the doorbell rang, his bark was high and sharp, carrying. Dagaz died, and, unable to bear Asha’s grief-stricken howling, we got Barnabas, a Shepherd mix. Tiger developed some health issues, and spent more time in his cushy basket. We had to put Asha down, and Shidiri the Great Dane came to live with us. Over at my sister’s, Tiger had a few seizures. He stopped noticing when people came to the door. He napped in the sun, dreaming whatever sweet dogs dream.

Yesterday I was over for a visit. Grey and fragile, Tiger carefully tottered over and pressed against my ankles. He was shivering. He wouldn’t move. I reached down and rested my hand on his back, and I knew. He was asking for help. He was tired. He was ready. “Ok, buddy,” I said softly, “ok.” He stopped shivering.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but resolved to call my sister the next day and, and as gently as possible, raise the subject of putting Tiger to sleep. We talked about other things instead, and I went on my way. Tiger was out on the deck when I left. It was nice and sunny. He didn’t notice me leave.

A few hours later, my sister found Tiger in the woods behind her home. He appeared unharmed but was disoriented and obviously fading. They took him to the vet and kindly made the decision to have him put to sleep. We met them there, and I sat next to my niece while she held the dog she had known her whole life. They gave him an injection. He died, quietly and in comfort.

It is hard knowing, when they come home with us, tiny and fat and full of possibility, that one day we will have to watch them die. The pain of loss seems to compound. I came home and cried for Tiger, for my sister and her family, for myself, for all the dogs I’ve said goodbye to.

I’d like to think that dogs go to Elysium, the afterlife that the Greeks imagined for heroes. The Elysian Fields contain whatever you need for happiness: vast fields, lots of rabbits, humans who really know how to throw a stick. Soft blankets, a gentle hand. Whatever sweet dogs dream.

October 14, 2011
Dark River Farm

front pasture mist
photo by Stomy Persaud

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I lost one of my own dogs a few years ago. Dagaz was Kalia’s son. Tiger would have been his uncle, if dogs thought of things in such a way. Here’s the letter I wrote to my friends and family at the time:

Dagaz was literally born into our hands. Asha followed a few hours later. Kalia (his mom) had a special relationship with him; she used to pick him up and carry him around by his butt. After awhile she would tenderly deposit him in the bathroom trash can. I think this explains why he always loved stuff in trash cans.

When he was growing up, he cost us a small fortune in vet bills; he ALWAYS had stitches for one thing or another. He and Asha and the rest of the Doberman 6-pack had fun up at our friends’ cabin where we all gather for sunshine and bonfires. We got to know each dog by the shape of their head when they came up to be petted in the dark; most of the time when I dropped my hand down it was Day’s oddly square noggin beside me. The dogs would bound through the woods, go for rides in the boat, and play hard with each other. Every morning I would wake up and think, Oh, no, it’s storming, and then be confused by clear skies…six Dobermans running is the sound of thunder. It’s hard to believe that  Asha is the only one left of all those sweet, sleek beauties. I love my Dobermans, but I sure wish they lived  longer.

Every animal is its own being, just like us, and my relationships with them are complex, aggravating and fulfilling. You can’t lie to animals. They teach me more about myself than I want to know sometimes. I have always had a close affinity to my dogs, but Dagaz saw me through the worst emotional and physical pain of my life. He learned to “stand steady” so I could lean on him when I had trouble getting up. When I was well, he followed me as I wandered around getting to know our land, or  sat with me on my late nights with books. No matter where I was, no matter the time of day of night, I could drop my hand down and find him there beside me. His presence was silent and constant. The room feels empty now, at 3 am with only me in it.

I’m glad I played with Asha & Day today, took the time to watch them run down the hill and up the hill and jump on each other and grin at me. They are so much a part of this land. They were thrilled to have me spend a couple of minutes with them on my way out to the barn. I thought it might rain so I opened the door to the porch (our version of a doghouse) for them. Dagaz jumped up on the couch and looked happy. I headed out to the barn. When Urban came home he let the dogs into the house. I opened the front door a few minutes later, and found my dog collapsed at the foot of the stairs. He was gone.

I don’t know if animals understand or care about the concept of names, but my animals are named with care. “Dagaz” is Norse. It means daytime, the fullness of light, midday, midsummer, the high point of the cycle. They say every dog has its day; Day’s day was June 21, Summer Solstice. It’s not his birthday but it’s what his name means, what I think of as his essence. In the Elder Futhark rune system, the divinatory meaning of Dagaz is the spiritual path. The symbol looks like an angular infinity symbol, or, to me, like Shiva’s drum. I name my animals for what I see in them: I saw vigor and sensitivity in Dagaz.  I also name them for what they show me of myself, and what my relationship with them brings me. More than anything, Dagaz helped me both to face my pain and turn my back on it when needed. He taught me patience and emotional honesty. He taught me about the land, where the good shady spots are on the hill, and that possums really do faint when frightened. He brought me constancy and light. It’s hard to imagine this place without him.

But it’s not just me that has lost him. Urban is also grieving and sad. Asha is confused and whining a lot. She keeps running around looking for her brother. We are a little worried about her, but she is eating and drinking just fine. We will probably stick close to home for awhile, as she is unaccustomed to being alone. She will ride in the truck with us tomorrow (oh, well, today) morning when we go to the vet to take Day’s remains to be cremated.

I don’t know what we will do with his ashes, probably scatter them on the hill where he liked to run. I have been thinking of putting down some wildflower seeds, maybe we will scatter those, too.  It would be nice to walk in knee-high flowers next midsummer, and remember him. I will drop my hand down and find him there beside me, his presence silent and constant.

June 11, 2008
Dark River Farm

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