A dog, a dad, and death.
On any given day, an animal shelter is either a beacon for the repair of the human canine bond, or it is a monument to its betrayal and failure. The enormity of broken hearts and broken bonds is only matched by the people in there who tirelessly work to repair what they can against that tide. It felt like my soul focused on Gloria before my eyes did. I felt a connection to her before I could even describe what she looked like. As she gently navigated at the feet of the Kansas City Pet Project staff, a nondescript little black dog, her presence and body language gave me an instant sense of what a gentle spirit she was. As I focused, my eyes betrayed the beauty of the moment with the ugliness of her physical condition. She was old, she was sick, and she didn’t have many days left. We decided we weren’t going to let her spend those last few days in the shelter.
Watching my father die was one of the most awful and formative moments of my adult life. It was two years ago this St. Patrick’s Day and I still carry it with me every day and struggle to identify and understand the complexity of the weight it leaves behind. Within that myriad of thoughts and emotions, two things stand out: the profound loneliness of the final moment and how hard it has been for me to push past that moment to all the great moments we had before it. That final moment haunts me and has done it’s best to hold hostage a lifetime of memories with my dad. Struggling with those feelings has changed the way I think about life, death, and the bonds we share in both.
Watching cancer slowly change him was difficult, but he was a fighter. In a way his ability to push back against the inevitable gave me a false sense of stability. He just kept bouncing back and it left me feeling that while cancer may eventually take him when he was older, for now it didn’t stand a chance. He fought to the very end. After living with cancer for over 8 years, his final week was almost a surprise. The fight in his eyes when he took his last breath is part of why it haunts me so much. He just wasn’t ready, and didn’t go willingly. That same fight came out in me as I spent time with Gloria. Even though I took her home to be with her as she died, I couldn’t help but feel like we should fight it. Juxtaposed, I wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to let her go willingly.
Gloria had inoperable tumors in her head, face and nasal cavity that made it almost impossible for her to breathe. We laid together and watched TV, we took walks in the sunshine and shade, and although she didn’t have energy for much, she seemed happy to do what we could. She gave us a tail wag any time we interacted. It was torturous watching her struggle through the night. She had to consciously keep her air way clear so she couldn’t lay down and relax to sleep very easily. She just stood there, falling asleep on her feet and waking herself as she started to drift and lose her balance. I positioned a pillow to hold my arm so I could hold the weight of her body up and she could try to just get a little rest. I bounced between wanting to find a way to fight for her and wondering if we’d already kept her here too long.
The human-canine bond is sacred to me. I couldn’t help but wonder, how did this sweet, old, sick and vulnerable dog end up without a human companion at this time when she needed one most? I was tempted to feel resentment and disgust toward someone who betrayed their bond with this old girl. But considering the time I’ve spent struggling against the power of a real moment with my dad, I didn’t want to invent moments in Gloria’s past for me to waste time and energy struggling against. Instead of dwelling on the circumstances that lead her to me, I just took a deep breath and felt fortunate that her path crossed mine.
She left us the next morning. I felt a heavy loss and deeper connection than I ever imagined I could in such a short time. Gloria was a way for me to start to face the moment of death with my dad; a way for me to face loss within a sacred bond. She became a way for me to start to learn and grow and give death a place in my life. Being with her in her final moments was a way for me to learn who I need to be and what I need to do to share that moment – to rage against it’s loneliness and be strong enough to live and love and share our bond, no matter what my loved one, human or canine, is dealing with on their own.
The weight of the final moment with my dad doesn’t make me think about death every day. It makes me think about life; my wife, my family and friends, and the human-canine bond. In those things I see and feel a purpose for me and I find a transcendence in the love and moments we share. I now feel deeply that in any final moment, I will be present and aware with every breath, that in this moment we are connected, we love, and through all time and the universe, we will always have this bond.
This moment is ours.
In this moment we are connected; in this moment you can trust me; in this moment we can feel the breeze and the sunshine together; in this moment we can move about together; in this moment I will struggle through the night with you; in this moment we are alive together; this moment is our share of a sacred bond that goes back tens of thousands of years. No matter what happened before this moment, things are now exactly as they should be.
You will not go alone into that good night. I will rage, rage against the loneliness of the dying of your light.