I’ve said before that my dog Sasha is at the end. It’s not a dire situation by any means—she’s still hanging out in the kitchen with me when she’s awake, hoping to get a treat, as she has done for the last 17 years. She is still very happy to get canned food mixed with the dry at breakfast time, and can toddle around the park nearby my house once or twice a week if I am very patient. She can’t hear a thing and all that’s left of her sight is the left half of the left eye, and even her sense of smell is pretty much gone, meaning I have to put her food right under her face and show it to her or she doesn’t know it’s there. She spends a lot of her waking hours walking in a circle about the size of an exercise ball.
She doesn’t smell very good. She pants more than breathes. She toddles around in her little green fleece with DGG on the back because she’s grown so thin she can’t stay warm, and last week, I had to start giving her regular doses of morphine, at night. A few days later, I had to add daytime doses.
For months I’ve known we (I) would have to let her go soon. But here I am, trying to be present, day by day, happy for each little extra time I can kiss her. Grateful to carry her old-doggy-smelling self up the stairs one more time, carry her down once more. Kiss her nose and rub her haunches when she wakes up whining in the middle of the night. We are both—Christopher Robin and I—in dire need of more sleep because she wakes up every night at least twice and needs to be carried outside, changed, cleaned up, given her medicine.
What I keep thinking of is the end of my grandmother’s life. She spent most of the last six months or so in a nursing home, which she adamantly, tearfully hated. She was frail and had dementia and the plethora of medications she had to take was like the ABCs of pharmaceuticals. It was, for me, quite terrifying in ways. I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know what to do. It was easy to spend an hour then run away, or take her to lunch once a month (less) and tell myself I was participating in her care.
I hadn’t learned then what I am learning now.
One afternoon when my grandmother had begun to fade, she was in a hospital somewhere. I can’t remember. There were windows with pale light, and she was exhausted and fussy and wanted a bath but a nurse didn’t come and didn’t come.
My sister took over. She drew the curtain and undressed the frail, think body of my grandmother, and gave her a sponge bath right there in her bed, washing her limbs and beneath her old breasts, tenderly, competently doing what needed to be done. I knew at the time that I would find it uncomfortable, that I was about 1/6th the person my sister was. I was younger then, and I had not yet repeatedly washed the diarrhea from the fur and legs and belly of an old dog. I had not stayed awake in the middle of the night then, to gently rub the haunches of a dog in pain, waiting for her meds to kick in. I had not learned to laugh at the circling cheerful dementia, to go ahead and let myself kiss her nose and cry over the absurdity and indignities of it all, then blow my nose and get her cleaned up again. I had not learned how to love the end stages of life then. Sasha is teaching me how to show up, how to be present, how to just be the hands that don’t mind getting bitten now and then, to be the voice murmuring close to her ear, how to appreciate the tender, tragic, comic, vibrant stage that comes at the end of life.
I’m grateful. It is one of the most valuable lessons of my life. And I remember, once again—cliched as it may be to say it—that animals teach us how to be human.
What are some lessons you’ve learned from your animals?