Honoring Sadness, In Honor of Jazzy

I can’t quite explain how a human comes to know and love a dog so much. I guess a relationship that isn’t based on words is hard to find words for. Maybe it was the sum of so many days and experiences. 151 months. 42% of my life spent with her. Maybe it’s how she could read my gestures even when her hearing was gone, how I could guess where she was or what she was feeling by the weather or the position of her ears or the length of her stride. Maybe it’s the way she’d search my eyes and sniff my face when I was crying, the way she’d press against me when she needed courage.

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Maybe it was the acceptance. No judgement. No disapproval or double takes at bedhead or oversized crocs or off-key whistling. Always thrilled to see me even if I woke her from a dead sleep.

Maybe it was her gentle, sensitive spirit underneath the big bark and bull-headed stubbornness. Crazy how we turned out to be so much alike.

Maybe it was the loyalty, the way she was friendly to everyone but always kept her eyes on me.

Maybe it happened in the making of all the pill potions and pillow beds and checking her through days and nights as she overcame a shotgun hit, a leg gash, a serious surgery, and other traumatic events, enduring them with both strength and fragility. I never heard even a whimper, yet she seemed to need me to will her spirit back to life.

She ran miles upon miles with me over the years, scaring off angry dogs, curious coyotes, and a few suspicious ally lurkers. She’s stood steady against me while I gasped for air through a few panic attacks, while I sobbed through lonely nights, broken trust, dimmed dreams, dark depression, and scorching shame. She’s been the soft furry forehead gently nudging my hand, the thread of comfort across a decade that spanned from childhood to adulthood.

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She woke me up in the night last week. I forgot to close the basement door, so she took her post outside my bedroom window (how she knows my room, I have no idea) where she’s spent many a night, barking her bold warning if even so much as a blade of grass moved towards my side of the house. It’s the most irritating kindness I’ve ever been given.

I’ve known we were on borrowed time; the last two years were bonus years. A Pyrenees’ life expectancy isn’t much past 10, and we made it to 12 years and 9 months.

It’s made me pause and appreciate every morning she’d bound beside me back the path to the woods, every time she flopped down at my feet while I was writing, every perked ear when she was able to hear a little bit of my voice, every midnight bark.

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Last weekend the end came. We saw sickness over take her suddenly. The next morning, I found her laying in the creek, the place she visited every day to cool off and look over the farm. Seeking to ease her aching body, she'd laid down and could not get up. As we carefully lifted her on to a sheet and carried her up to the house, her face pressed against me one last time. Back on her bed, her eyes watched mine while I arranged her bedding and then they closed when I rubbed her head and ears in the same pattern I've done day after day all these years.

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When I came back later, she looked as peacefully asleep as she had every other time I’d caught her in a nap, but this time her rib cage was still.

She was a tangible evidence of God’s gentle care and grace to me in ways too deeply personal to verbalize. Even in her death, he offered us the mercy of allowing her to drift away as gently as she’d lived, and spared me the awful decision I knew the morning would hold.

I miss the great white furry buffalo like crazy. I find myself listening for her footsteps, looking for her out the window, wanting to go say, “good morning Puffywuffy! Let’s get your breakfast!” as I have every morning for years. The fun of exploring the farm is gone without her company.

I’ve felt shame creep in on me, criticizing me for not doing more, insisting I shouldn’t be a mess over a tiny drip of pain while the world aches over an ocean of suffering.

I tend to forget sensitivity is a gift of softness, not a curse to harden against.

I don’t want resistance, avoidance, or hardness, to any kind of pain. As my girls process this loss with me, I hope they see that we can honor sadness, in ourselves and others, with no need to stifle or qualify it. If we’re open to receiving both the wonders and the sorrows of life, big and small, hopefully we’ll grow braver and kinder and more whole-hearted from it.

Perhaps an entire blog post about the loss of an old dog seems excessive. Truthfully, loosing Jazz is one of several sorrows our family is holding in shaking hands this week. Her story is the most clear cut and easiest to share. We can look back through countless photos and sit by her grave. The other losses, disappointments, fears, and dreaded Dr. visits are far less easy to get ahold of, to put words and images and cleansing grief to. Bad news and bad days make me miss her quiet companionship even more. 

From my family to yours, from my sadness to yours, we'll all keep doing our best to show up to this brutal and beautiful life, yes? To hold the feelings and the tears, our own and one another's, honestly and gently, all the while keeping our eyes open for a glimpse of the wonder that is just as sure as the sorrow. 

In honor of Jazzy, the best fur friend a girl could ever have, here’s to softer, braver, kinder hearts.

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Why You Should Get A Dog

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.

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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.