My heart breaks into pieces as I watch my best friend, a 110lb German Shepherd, pull his back legs foraward as he tries to move in a straight path. Instead, his giant frame makes tiny circles, and his expression is tired and frustrated. Jack’s brain has stopped connecting with his rear end in what the vet has called a degenerative neuro issue. In the course of two weeks he has declined quickly.
I stayed awake all night, by his side, hoping his brain would quiet down and he could fall asleep to never awake. While I know it is unlikely for dogs to pass away naturally, this is the first pet I am watching die so I pray for a quick end. People have consoled me saying he will tell me when it is time, and as he rested his black snout on my lap I knew he was getting ready to go. I knew he was getting ready to tell me.
Jack’s precense in my life has been short although grand. He was the livestock guard dog of the cabin I purchased 5 1/2 years ago, and our first meeting was when I toured the property. He was loyal and large, and it didn’t take me long to realize this was his land, and he knew it better than I ever could. My first night in the cabin we sat among moving boxes, just him and I eye to eye. He looked at me with confusion but also with a comfort that let me know he was sharing this place with me. His loyalty to me started that night and never once waivered during our partnership. My Jackie Boy’s fierce bark kept away strangers and scared off tourists using our driveway as a turn-around. His scent kept everything from chipmunks and rabbits to coyote and bear out of our garden and yard. As he aged, the affects took its toll on his awareness, and it was this first sign that told me he would be leaving soon.
Over the years he went from being an outside dog who ate on the porch and slept most nights near the front door to a gentle giant who slept at the foot of the couch and took his meals near the dining table. My bond with him was always one of equals which my husband noted upon moving in with us. We never had the master-dog relationship that people have with goldendoodles or pomeranians. He was the brave, protective being that stood by my side when I was too old to be living in my father’s house and too single and strong willed to wait for a man to step in and take care of me.
This afternoon as I rested my cheek on the soft fur between his ears I realized I was never the courageous single girl living in the woods by myself but rather a young woman on a transitional path that was guided by this handsome German Shepherd. I have cried a lot today over my best friend’s decline, and I wonder how I will sleep at night without my protector keeping watch. Jack, you have been more than a dog. You have led me outside through dark, creepy nights. You have single handidly saved my gardens from the hungry mouths of deer. You have been my pal and partner in life and over this land. And you will be unbelievably missed.
I listen to my german shepherd snore as I lay face up on the bed staring at the ceiling. Cold season (isn’t that every season in rural towns?) has hit me hard leaving my voice to nothing but a whisper. The tv is on but somehow the snore trumps the fast paced, endless conversation at my feet. I switch to watching my little, old poodle’s chest rise and fall with his sleepy breathes. I imagine what it would be like to see him die, the breath stopping as I watch, so I stare even more intently.
It’s a disease; not the sore throat and stuffy head that’s keeping me in bed all day, but the constant infatuation with death and the realization that it could happen at any second. When I hit my thirties and realized that the open book was slowly closing shut I started thinking about the end a little more every single day. This being the third day in a row with a hoarse to non exsistant voice I start to go through the list of all of the people I know (or heard of in this small rural town) that were fine one moment, fell ill the next with a common ailment, and then died.
It’s morbid I know (and I don’t mean the sore throat) but the silver lining is that realizing life is short makes me cherish every moment. I imagine this is what being on the verge of death feels like (and I imagine that moment a lot). Those last fleeting breaths are something I don’t want to feel for a very, very long time to come so focusing on the silver lining keeps me in check. Or maybe it makes me think of death more, but either way I am living life to the fullest. Even as I lay here voiceless, watching my elderly dogs take what could be their very last breaths.
Let’s start this story in the middle. That’s where the cats like it. Where it’s warm and inviting, where the sun casts a glow on the crease between weathered pages and new crisp ones. If this were a children’s story we would be starting somewhere around page three; the part of the story that is climatic for the child, the part of the story where the adult is getting tired of doing the characters’ voices, the part of the story where the adult loses interest and just wants to get it over with. It is that part in your own life where you think, “Six years ago I was going to do this. Six years ago.” You begin to feel old, and you wonder how many climatic experiences you can have before somebody wants to stop reading, before somebody wants to close the book, before the cats jump off of the kitchen table and go hide under the bed.
You still are a little uncomfortable with the sound of your own voice which means you’re not as old and as loopy as you had previously thought. Yet you still like to imagine that someday, after you have passed away, they will find 250 paintings of yours stashed away in a backyard shed. “Two hundred and fifty paintings, that’s all she did,” they will say as they stand gazing at your works of art hung on the large, boring, white wall of a museum. At least that is how you imagine it. This is how you know you are in the middle of the story. Roughly page three. It is somewhere between settled and content and imaginative and fearless. You are too mature to be naive, but to healthy to feel like you need a retirement fund. Your parents would like to see you have babies and buy a fancy washing machine and dryer. Your boss would like to see you striving. But instead, all they really get is a restless look in your eyes. A look that says, “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
In one week two family members died of cancer. One in their late seventies, and one in their mid forties. You are at that age where you hesitate to buy canned peaches to go with your cottage cheese. You hesitate because a recent news story reported that the BPA in the cans may cause cancer. Not only have you stopped smoking, but now nothing seems safe to eat. You haven’t made enough money yet to buy organic fruits and vegetables. But the thought of death is there. This is page three. If this were a children’s story everyone would learn their lesson. The characters would be sharing. The characters would be eating cookies. The characters would be happy; they wouldn’t be thinking about cancer, canned peaches, or what their boss expects of them. But this isn’t a children’s story. This is page three of your life. This is where death and life and money and health and the ups and downs all get a little jumbled. And yet it is all starting to finally make a little more sense. Or so you think, as the cats slowly crawl out from underneath the bed.