Previously published in The Huffington Post:
I shall spend this day sitting, reading, typing, and hugging my dog whose last day will be today. She rests in the sun at the end of the bed, when I’m not hugging her or by her side. I am typing and reading with my foot resting on her front paws. She always likes to have a part of her body touching mine when we go to bed for the night. Her habit grew on me, so much so that often I am the first to initiate this intimate, physical connection with my hand or arm or cheek. Lately, it is her cold, wet nose that she wants touching my fingertip in our bedroom when it is late and dark and time to sleep.
She is sixteen years old in people years, a long life indeed for a dog. She has been quite a little survivor and has exemplified this quality from the day I found her roaming in the park with no collar or identification, to the time a careless cleaning person ignored the Do-Not-Disturb sign on our door at a rural motel and left the door ajar while we were at breakfast. My dog disappeared for a day and a half, only to be found with a just broken leg on the other side of an interstate highway by a local farmer who returned her to us.
She seems at peace today, sleeping calmly most of the day, although she has not eaten in over twenty-four hours. I have been feeding her chicken broth and water through a syringe, and she takes that in well but she lets nothing else pass her lips. She can no longer bark or make any sounds. She can hardly stand for more than a minute.
I asked her veterinarian what to expect on this last day. This is a first for me. As a child, the two dogs I had on separate occasions held only brief moments of my life. I don’t recall the explanations given to me by my parents for their sudden disappearances, or even the two occasions I came home from school and my companions were gone. Perhaps I didn’t believe my parents’ stories, so I never really absorbed their excuses: The dogs got lost? The dogs were sick? My parents quickly moved on and I was expected to do the same as well. End of conversation.
Over the years, my grown daughter has taught me the meaning of loving a dog or cat, along with all creatures of this world. She is often wise and teaches me something new everyday. Over the phone last night, she started a conversation that persuaded me to stay home from work today. Now, as I sit here, I can’t imagine how or why I would have left the house. “You’ve spent sixteen years with this dog. This is a family emergency. Are you going to spend this last day without her?” my daughter said in a kind, quiet voice.
The sun has shifted and so have we. She rests on my chest as I lay on the couch in the family room, the sun warming her shivering body. She calms and sleeps intermittingly. We breathe together with the ins and outs of what is left of her life. Our breathing, in sync, is one. The doctor will arrive today at 3:30PM. My husband will be home from work by that time. I don’t believe in cremation. It reminds me too much of the horrors of the Holocaust - I’m not even Jewish. My husband has dug the hole. I have prepared a heavy-duty plastic box for her with a pink locking lid, the color of her collar. I will try to be calm; she deserves that in her last moments. I cannot imagine this impending event or the experience of it, since this is new and painful for me. But I am prepared. I have braided my hair into two braids, one on each side, a ritual I do when there is a remarkable life experience about to take place. I braided my hair just before I gave birth to my daughter with the Bradley Method, a technique of relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing, one without drugs or pain. I am not sure where I got his braiding idea but it seems to calm me and give me a sense of control. Perhaps it comes from the indigenous friends I had in Tulsa and Santa Fe, where I had lived for a time, who often traditionally wore hair in braids. With all of their struggles and history, there was a calmness about them that seemed to come from the way they viewed life and death and the world. For me, the act of braiding and the braids themselves create a sense of peace of mind.
Last night, on the phone, my daughter assured me that this was the best way for my dog’s life to end. She said, “If we can put our pets out of misery by saving them from starvation and pain, why can’t we do this when the end is so near, for ourselves and the people we love?” Last night, I thought of my mother on her deathbed, not eating for days, weighing half of her normal weight, unable to speak or move, and without a health directive or law allowing us to do for her what I am going to do today for my dog.
This afternoon, my dog will leave this world in my arms without pain, with my lipstick kiss on her mature Maltese mane. Tonight, when it is late and dark and time to sleep, I will feel her presence beside me.