She had her belly split wide open last week, two incisions red against her white fur. I stood beside her as the injections made quick work, causing her worried eyes to glaze over, and her head to droop and then fall onto her paws. It was an absurd sight, her vigilant face suddenly sound asleep on the cold metal table.
When I came back, she was huddled in a cage, disoriented by medication and cocktail of smells. We lifted her carefully into the car, and as always, she stood looking out the window the whole way home. Sheer determination or an avoidance of the pain of lying down kept her upright, but this time there was no smiling, panting face hanging over the back of the seat. We made a bed for her in the laundry room. I had to convince her to lay down. She would close her eyes and then suddenly sit up wide-eyed. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be her. Still disoriented from anesthesia. Terribly thirsty. Two slices on her stomach, hours fresh.
I wondered what it must feel like to experience such suffering with no explanation. No words. No way to ask for an extra pillow, or a spoonful of ice chips. I wanted to brush it off with “she’s just a dog”, and convince myself it surely must mean her suffering was less intense. But her desperate eyes told me otherwise. They would open abruptly and stare long into mine. She is the epitome of long-suffering. I’ve been by her side after a neighbor’s shotgun filled her back end with birdshot. I’ve watched her get an ingrown dewclaw cut out. I’ve seen her gaunt from days with no food. And in the hours and days following her surgery, she was the same as always. Not one whimper. I’ve never heard her yelp. She doesn’t cry or bark or growl or whine. She endures in silence. I laid beside her in the laundry room. She rested with her head on my hand. There was not even the sound of a pant or sigh, her whole body was engaged in the silence of suffering. The only movements were her eyes following me, and the shaking of her abdomen, the bruised and swollen skin flinching if the blanket so much as brushed it. As I lay there watching her, my stomach aching at the thought of what hers must feel like, imagining how frantic I would be if I knew I had a whole night to spend alone in the dark on a tile floor in pain, I realized the one aspect of suffering that dogs are free from: dread. She had no dread of 3 am desperate thirst, or 7 am burning pain when she would have to get up and walk herself outside. She was just enduring the moment. Taking comfort from my presence in the moment. She can cope with suffering because she only has to carry one moment’s worth. No reliving the horrors of the operating table, no dread of tomorrow’s soreness and nausea. Just the pain of right now. Today she’s bouncing around chasing blackbirds out of the freshly harvested corn, standing guard of the house when the semi and tractors pull in, tail wagging everywhere she goes, a white flag of peace and happiness. She has no worry about last week’s surgery results. She entertains zero concerns about how numbered her days are, how many more ailments may await in her near future. In the context of bearing life’s burdens, she is “just a dog”. But really, isn’t that what we love the most about our friendships with these furry, rowdy, behind-sniffing creatures? Their ability to live in the moment that is so incomprehensible to us? Whatever moment they’re in, they are fully committed. If it’s fetching or eating or sleeping or suffering, they are fully present in the moment, no worry for the future, no regret of the past. (Unless the previous moment was full commitment to frolicking in the trash, and now Mom’s home and shouting “Mess!”. At this point there may be regret, but I doubt it. I think it’s simply momentary sorrow because Mom’s mad. But tomorrow sorrow will be forgotten and trash frolicking will sound like a swell activity again.) There is about as much chance of humans being able to fully live in the moment as dogs do, as there is chance of dogs being able to worry about retirement as humans do. Our brains are wired differently, and for good reason. But I think about life differently when I’m with Jazz. I think about how I want to fear pain less, take hard things a moment at a time. I want to run and laugh and enjoy the sunshine or the rain or the blackbirds with freedom. Free from thoughts about what I did wrong yesterday, what might go wrong tomorrow. I guess the moral of the story is, if you don’t have a dog, you should get one. They are brave and funny and more present in the moment than any creature I know. Plus they’re really soft.