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?

Last Modified on December 29, 2015
This entry was posted in Animals
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11 thoughts on “Grace

  1. Thanks for sharing this sweet story. I can relate to the feeling of fear and inadequacy as I contemplate helping my loved ones through the end stages of life.

    My one-year-old puppy taught me a simple lesson only a few minutes ago. After she whined and circled the house for about an hour, kind of driving me crazy, with me just worrying her fussing — “What do you want? What’s wrong? Do you need to go out?” Showing her the door, etc. — I finally said, “Sophie, go lie down and take a nap.” And she did.

    Sometimes, we just need to be told what to do. Short, sweet, and to the point.

  2. Ruthie

    Growing up, I was deprived a pet, of any kind. My brothers and I were focused on practicing piano and hitting the books. When I got married, it took almost 20 yrs. for my family to ‘convince’ me of getting a dog. The very first kennel we visited, they picked Abby, the cutest little Westie. I panicked! I couldn’t say no.

    True to their words, my husband and my two wonderful daughters pitched in immediately and trained Abby. She turned out to be the most lovable, loyal and obedient dog. She was my husband’s dog. The two were inseparable. Abby would wait, everyday, for Jeff to come home. She’d sit at the door and just wait. Never moved, not even for food. they’d lie together and watch TV everynight. Frick and Frack.

    Did I bond with Abby? Yes and No. She sensed my distance from the beginning. But through the years, we had an ‘understanding’. I walked her, fed her and played with her. She liked me, but she was in love with Jeff. Dogs are so smart.

    Abby was with us for almost 15 years. Like your Sasha, her last year was difficult. She was also blind, lost her sense of smell and had many accidents. A little over a year ago, we had to put Abby down as her hind legs totally failed and was told she had a stroke.

    What was surprising was my reaction. I was devastated! Inconsolable. She brought such happiness to all of us. I find myself ‘talking’ to her constantly, to this day. I’d walk in the house and still expect to see her, sitting on the couch. I still expect her to give me a welcome kiss. I so miss her. And I LOVED her!

  3. Goodness, Barbara, you bring tears to my eyes. In so many ways. While animals teach us to be human, so does sharing our stories, like this. Thank you. My heart is with you guys.

  4. Oh sweetie, and sweet Sasha too! Their lives burn brighter and faster than ours, and it’s so hard to let go… may we all be so loved.

  5. Julie, nothing like a puppy! Thanks for making me laugh.

    Ruthie, hugs hugs hugs. The size of the hoel they leave behind is pretty incredible. Glad you got a dog, finally.

    Thanks for that, Loreth. I’m enjoying your coming dog story. Can’t wait to watch him grow!

  6. Lovely post, Barbara. I think the most valuable lesson my dog teaches me daily (and which I haven’t yet learned well) is to live in the present, and to take joy at small things. My dog is wholehearted about anything she does, 100 % there in the moment. Toss her a bone, she’s happy. Toss her a ball, she’s ecstatic. Toss her a smile and she thumps her tail in acknowledgement. Leave her outside and she snoozes, or chases pigeons away, or digs up an old bone and happily gnaws on it. And she greets me ecstatically when we meet again, whether it’s been an hour, or a day. She doesn’t hold a grudge or fret about the future, she just accepts, and lives in the moment.

  7. Sharyn

    When my St. Cassie was diagnosed with fibrosarcoma of the sinuses at 11yo and given 4-6 weeks to live, I was devastated. She was the dog of my heart. I took her to a wonderful homeopathic vet and that woman kept Cass alive for a year, pain-free and with no invasive treatments. We all knew the day would come, though, that we would have to let her go. That last year was one of the most amazing experiences of my life in so many ways. Yes, it was bittersweet, but I couldn’t be sad or negative because Cass would have felt it and I couldn’t add to her illness. She took everything one day at a time and never complained about anything, a very good lesson for me to learn. When the end came (I awoke one morning just knowing it was the day — I swear she beamed it to me) she went quietly and with dignity and love, with me holding her in my lap. (And now I’m crying again…) A side-effect of her experience was that I have never again had a sinus infection or bad sinus headache. It’s like she took that part of me with her when she left.

  8. Their lives do burn so much faster than ours. Thanks for the hugs.

    Sharyn, I know a woman who swears her cat absorbed her cancer, taking it from her as she slept on her chest. I remember Cassie and her last year very well.

    So true about the moment, Anne. Now. Now. Now.

  9. I’ve learned that it’s easier for my pets to train me than for me to train them. After a year of trying to get my dog to stay off the couches, we gave up. When my cat is in the mood for attention, I stop whatever I’m doing (usually writing) and pet her.

    We’ve had two dogs pass, and it’s sad. Big hugs.

  10. Cynthia Stone

    Loyal and brave-hearted beyond all reason, I’ve been honored to own two German Shepherds. Lakota loved her flawed family. When you couldn’t find another friendly face, she’d commiserate with you all day. Even when she had to totter on collapsed hind legs she’d gallently drag herself through the woods to accompany her humans and appear to enjoy it.
    We euthanized Lakota last March. We watched her successor, obtained from the same breeder, be whelped a few weeks later. Blitzkreig is 10 months old now, as handsome and imposing as Rin Tin-Tin. Full of youthful energy and tempted by the dogs and sheep on the small farm behind us, he’ll go for a quick romp but return when we call. Such underserved loyalty!
    Bless you for your tenderhearted care. Dogs are an amazing portion of God’s creation, and show us how to be better than we otherwise are.

  11. I had cats for many years and it was so hard to let go of them when the time came.

    One of my favorites was a very calm cat and nothing ruffled him. Every time I would get upset about something I would think of him and calm down. I’d actually try to be like him!

    Animals can teach us so much! My cats taught me the innocent joy of living. They just loved life and were so happy.

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