I have regrets. Probably more than I care to admit, or face. I’m not one of those people who boldly declare, “I regret nothing.” I don’t necessarily wallow in them like a drunk on the bar stool, but they do exist and suffice to say, are now part of my DNA. I don’t judge but I do acknowledge.
One of my biggest regrets, and the author of my sadness, is that I wasn’t with my mother when she died. I was there a few hours beforehand but not at the moment she left. That was over a decade ago and I pined for a do-over, an opportunity to hold her hand, say one last good-bye and bear witness to her presence and her passing. And until last September I thought this was just the wishful thinking of a heartbroken daughter. But in a peculiar and unexpected way I got my do-over.
Little backstory. On those rare occasions when Ma went to her Dark Place she would refer to herself as a dog. “I feel like a dog,” she’d say. Ma wasn’t one to feel sorry for herself, but we all go there at times and she was no exception. Although I heard her sorrowful dog Mantra and even took it to heart at times, I also dismissed it as crazy-talk, and never really gave it much energy nor validation.
Then I fell in love. At first sight. With Andy. He was a dog. Really. Literally. A long haired Jack Russell. Not since the dog of my childhood, Sugar Miettinen, had I loved a creature so. He was heavenly. Divine. A wonder. And I loved him. We got him the year after Ma died. We responded to an ad in our little neighborhood weekly that said something like “male Jack Russell, 12 weeks old, last one of the litter.” By the time my husband, daughter and I arrived at the farm where he had spent his first weeks of life, we had him named and our hearts were spilling over with dreams. On the way home, I happily joked that it wouldn’t have mattered how much he cost, because I knew the minute I laid eyes on him, he was coming home with me.
Our daughter was nine at the time. Years before, we had promised her that when we bought a house we would get her a puppy. We were diehard renters and had cats because for some reason they were more “landlord-friendly,” which is, among other things, a testimony to the intelligence and cunning of the feline persuasion. When Ma and The Old Man died, I inherited a small amount of money, enough for a down payment on our home. A month after we moved in, so did Andy.
He took over the house and our hearts. He was brilliant that way. I expected him to be around for at least twenty years like Sugar Miettinen and Dee Dee, the country and western cat. Both lived extraordinary wonderful lives. I used to brag that my pets lived long. I had this naive notion that my love was the secret sauce, the reason for their inexplicable longevity. I was wrong.
At the beginning of September, while my husband was on the East Coast, thousands of miles away burying his father, Andy got sick. At first I thought he had “the bloat.” This was something I discovered on the internet after hours of research the night I noticed his stomach was swollen and he was having trouble breathing. It was serious but not necessarily life threatening. It was, however, enough to scare the bejesus out of my daughter and myself. We wrapped a blanket around him and piled into my sister’s car. I called her because I couldn’t think straight, much less drive. My brain was consumed by “the bloat.” By now it was well after ten o’clock so our only recourse was to take him to an emergency Vet clinic across town. The Vet examined him, then took X-rays. And then he delivered the news that Andy did not have “the bloat” but in fact, he had congestive heart failure. His little heart was surrounded by water. Mine was surrounded by pain. The Vet, who was very nice, but due to all the surrounding circumstances, and him being the bearer of bad news, I took an instant dislike for him. Basically he gave us two options: he could euthanize him right then or we could take him home and Andy would continue to have “episodes” and eventually he would have one final heart attack and die. Needless to say, the floodgates opened and neither my daughter nor I could control the tears. Not that we wanted to anyway.
I learned a couple of things about myself and my daughter in those moments after hearing Andy’s death sentence. We don’t take bad news well, perhaps we don’t take it at all. We’re full of hope, even when it’s clearly hopeless. And we’re either incredibly optimistic people or we live in chasm of denial. Regardless, just like that day nine years earlier when I knew I wasn’t leaving the farm without him, I scooped Andy up in my arms and brought him home. I had no game plan. I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew that he had been sick a total of 24 hours and I couldn’t let this be the end.
Andy lasted a week. My daughter and I tried everything we could to save him starting with a second opinion. Two days later we took him to our own Vet and she offered us the hope we so desperately sought. She gave us medication and prescribed a heart healthy dog food. But by this point, Andy wasn’t interested in food and getting the pills down his throat was next to impossible. It was tantamount to wrestling an alligator.
Thursday, September 8 was Ma’s birthday. It was also the day Andy died. All that day, at the back of my mind I thought “this is the day.” Ma died from congestive heart failure. So did Andy. Not all that unusual I suppose, perhaps a little coincidental at best, except for this. One of the reasons I knew I would never leave the farm without Andy was because of his eyes. They were dark and sweet like the finest rich chocolate. When I looked into those dark sweet eyes I saw my mother’s eyes looking back at me. There was an ancient connection. I knew him. I shared this “knowing” with my husband and daughter. I’m not sure they really understood but they never ever, not even once in nine years, denied my conviction that in some cosmic kooky way my mother was with me through Andy. I always called him my “healing dog,” the one who helped ease the pain of relentless grief, and recover from the rawness of loss.
On the night Andy died I got my do-over. I was sitting in my office waiting for my bedtime cup of milk to heat in the microwave. It takes 222 seconds to do so. I heard the sound of a dog’s toes tapping along the wooden floors of the hallway leading to my office. I assumed it was our other dog Coco, who we had rescued a few years earlier from a life not worth living, coming to visit me. Andy hadn’t been able to make the climb up the stairs for a few days so I was surprised to see him walk through the door to where I was sitting in the dark. I greeted him, gave him a gentle pat behind the ear, told him how lovely it was to see him. He laid down on the floor facing me. I thought this was some sign from God that he was having a miraculous recovery and that he was healed. Hallelujah. Before the microwave could beep, Andy got up and headed towards our bedroom. Instinctively I followed him. He got next to the bed and started to heave and gag. I knelt down with him, massaged his throat to help him breathe – we had been doing this all week during his episodes – and told him it would be okay. Everything would be all right little buddy. He let out two deep grunts, stiffened and collapsed.
That was it. I got my do-over. What a privilege to have been with him in his final moments, to have been the last one to touch him. What a gift that he chose me.
I didn’t really have a game plan for how I was going to care for Andy after we left the Vet’s but I did start to think about what I would do should he die at home with just my daughter and I alone to manage on our own. I was terrified. I also knew I wanted him buried in our garden, the place where he chased sticks, laid under the Garry Oak trees, drank from the pond, sat with my husband and watched the fish, the place where he barked incessantly at every passer-by, where he stood on the rocks keeping guard over his family, the place where he pooped. That’s where I wanted him to be. Close. Forever near.
I knew I couldn’t dig a hole, at least not one that Andy would be placed in. But I knew someone who could. While my daughter held vigil, I threw on my jacket and went next door to our neighbor, who is young enough to be my son, strong from years of working as a garden designer, and who on that night, brought truth to the meaning of “good neighbor.”
In the quiet darkness, on September 8th, Christian dug a hole, and while doing so we talked in hushed tones about our mother’s deaths, about our connection to the earth, the trees and plants we both salvaged from their gardens, and most importantly, how connected we were to them. Something beyond words happened that night. Something far greater than the death of my beloved pet. I learned about the unwavering kindness of human beings, and their generosity and willingness to help with things that are often incomprehensibly difficult.
I am forever grateful to Christian. He knows this. The following evening he contacted me to see how I was. He shared something with me, something so profound it took my breath away. As grateful as I was to have had him participate – however unintentional on his part – in this sacred ritual, he too was grateful. It touched him deeply. All that day he told me he “felt so alive.” Is this what true, unselfish acts of kindness do for us? Even in the face of death, in the middle of the night, in the shroud of darkness, if we reach out, feel our connection to each other, we get a glimpse of the Divine. And then, we know for sure that we are alive.