They’re always more than a dog; simple in their ways and forever in the moment. The week before Tanner died, he didn’t eat. His belly slowly filled with fluid, and there was a mass on his spleen. We don’t know what it was, only that he was overcome by it, despite his determination to stay with us. His last days were restful, predictable, and graceful. When he was too weak to go up and down the stairs to the bedroom, I slept downstairs with him. Each morning, I would help him to his chosen spot, in the shade, near a poppy that had bloomed red-orange. He shifted positions when he felt uncomfortable, drank water, and intuitively did what he needed to do. His belly grew larger, and his breathing more labored, but he slept, watched the birds, wagged his tail when we approached, and consistently asked for his chest to be scratched. Early in the week he would try to roll onto his back, paws drawn up as he was prone to. Later in the week he would simply flop over and flick his right paw to make his request.
The last day, he struggled to carry his weight. I went to work, but I was really with him, and so I returned home. He greeted me with a tail thump, tried to lay down for scratching, and lasted less than a minute before he needed to change position for ease of breathing. When he stretched his neck as far as he could, to gain tiny sips of air, it was his first sign of struggle. He wanted his head up though was too weak to hold it for long. Ryan sat beside him and helped him relax, propping his head. I had hoped he would die in his sleep but that is not what happened. When he took his last breath, our other dog, his long time companion, laid on her side on the bricks, looked at him, and let out a deep exhale.
I explained later to my daughter, “there’s an achy on mommy’s heart.” She has learned about death, as much as a near six year old can grasp. She has lost many chickens, a great grandma, and she reminded me today “don’t forget Earl and Pearl!” – her classroom fishes. Our story has always been – that a creature dies when the life that is in it goes out – and the body is left to become part of the earth again. She knows that different people believe different things about what happens to “the life’s energy” when the creature dies. Tonight she told me in a hushed voice that maybe Tanner was now a brand new baby dragonfly.
Tanner died, and I have so much love for him. How his life was woven into mine will stay, and what his presence evoked over the years is profound. Because of him I am more human. In his gaze I have been ashamed, vulnerable, and also beloved, and I have learned compassion on a higher level – for myself. There is so much more to tell, but I trust the memories, pushing from inside like rushing water, will free themselves over time. The pressure will lighten, and the story will still be safely transcribed inside.
When the man came to take him away for cremation, we kissed and kissed him. We had made pawprints, taken snips of his “softy soft” ear fur, and some along his cheek where the snow white of his mask meets with his gray dog body coat. I took the weight of his head in my palms, and focused on his face with every cell of my body. When I could feel the impression deeply, I said “ok,” but I was not ready to let go yet. So, I retraced the moment, making sure it would stay, and again said “ok,” and softly laid down his head. After twelve years of observing myself in the reflections of that face, I would not see it again. When they put his body into the truck, our old girl walked him out. Ryan lifted her so she could see what was happening. She stood on her hind legs and rested her chin and front paws on the tailgate.
Pulling me away from that picture, and impatient to see me relieved, my daughter invited me to follow her, “to a surprise.” Her small hand in mine, she led me – eyes closed – to two bunches of poppies that had burst into bloom. ”Aren’t they beautiful mama?” They were beautiful.
Dinner was a sweet blend of somber, with the lightness driven by children and reminiscing. I noticed a petal had fallen from the poppy he’d rested by, and my daughter gave me a “gift” to cheer me up. In a little yellow purse, she had tucked some dress up necklaces, an outline of her hand, and an orange scarf. The scarf was given to me by a teenage girl named Andrea, who I had taken care of on the pediatric oncology unit many years ago. I’d thrown it into my child’s dress up trunk some time in the last year, not sharing the story behind it, after I’d found it in storage. I smiled to see it in the yellow purse. Andrea’s physiological death was very similar to my dog’s; I remember it vividly.
Today I feel there is magic in the world, dogs make us fallible, and they are a brief, joyful gift not to be taken for granted.