“My dear friend and companion, my Elki, will die someday.
When this happens my heart will break. When that day comes—when the principle of impermanence is driven home once again—I hope and trust that the memory of our time together will remain alive and vibrant. I hope I will still feel connected to her in those moments and the lessons I learned while she was alive will remain fresh and true for me for as long as I live. If this happens, she will have taught me—will have given me a gift—as meaningful as those “dharma walks” we took, as valuable as those precious moments we shared.”
~ Walking With Elki, Elephant Journal, November 11, 2012
Elephant Journal published these words two years ago in an article I wrote paying tribute to Elki, my wonderful German Shepherd, my friend and Dharma teacher, and all the walks we took together along the Front Range.
The day I dreaded came abruptly on November fourth, 2014. She passed on quietly at home, eased in her passage with the help of a compassionate friend and caring vet. She was no longer suffering from the spleen cancer that took her with very little warning, far sooner than I ever expected or imagined.
Since that devastating afternoon, with a broken heart and feeling the loss so sharply, I started to ask myself what she had taught me.
Beyond this feeling of intense sorrow, what did I take from the incredible relationship we had?
What did I really learn from those exchanges of glances, those times outdoors in the wind and sun, and the evenings in the living room relaxing after the day’s labors?
How could I keep her memory alive?
In an attempt to further tribute my departed friend, put a finer point on what all animals can give us—and what some animals can teach us in particular—I want to share my “Lessons From Elki.”
Lesson One: Each and every moment is precious. Live it to the fullest.
Every day for eight years I woke up to the gentle but intense gaze of two big brown eyes watching me come down the stairs, wondering what we were going to do that day. Not a moment to waste, with time of the essence, Elki would launch herself with great fervor into the day’s activities. She didn’t really care what she did or what we did, but she relished the moment and poured herself into it—minute after minute day after day, years after year. Her motto could easily have been, “Waste not, want not.” She lived her life to the fullest and never wasted a single minute or opportunity.
Lesson Two: Whatever commitment you make, follow through; without fail.
As I mentioned in “Walking With Elki,” I was reluctant to adopt her at first. I waited two weeks before agreeing to pick her up in the middle of Nebraska. She was nine months old, lean and lanky and all ears. It took the four of us about a week before we felt comfortable around her; it took our other two dogs a bit longer. But after that, it was a 100 percent commitment for all of us. She was fully committed to learning her training skills, fully committed to every morsel in her bowl, fully committed to every ball thrown for her to retrieve, fully committed to every walk. And she was fully committed to our family: always wanting to help, always aiming to please, always available to serve any one of us in some way. She was always there in case you needed her for anything, without fail.
Lesson Three: Give each and every task your best effort. Never hold back.
I remember one winter I was bringing in sticks of firewood from the side yard and stacking them between the cars in the garage so they would be readily accessible and would not get covered by snow. Elki was just to the side and watching me the entire time. After I finished carrying in about 30 pieces of wood, I went back inside and she came with me. Not long after, she went back out through her door and did not come back for a while.
She did this all the time so I didn’t give it much thought. Eventually she came back into the house. Sometime later, I went downstairs and into the garage, and I was in shock to see she had taken every piece of firewood back outside and placed all of them in the side yard! She knew that firewood really “belonged” in the side yard because that’s where all of it usually was. So she had just returned them to their rightful place.
She held nothing back, although I did have to re-stack the logs and cover them with a tarp.
Lesson Four: Pay attention to everything in your environment. Everything.
Wherever Elki was nothing escaped her attention. Her ears were constantly erect, her eyes were always open wide and she took in everything within sight or earshot. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, indoors or outside. When patrolling the perimeter of the property, moving from one side of pickup bed to the other and back again, eating her meals, chasing a squirrel – she really lived in the moment – and she paid attention to everything while she was at it.
She knew the sound of my son’s car when he came home from work. She knew when the mail-carrier had arrived, even with the curtains closed. She could tell it was the trash truck when it arrived on Wednesday mornings. She barked one way for a friend or family member and another for those she didn’t know. She knew when it was time to be fed. She knew when it was time for bed.
When she moved to Iowa with me in 2010, she watched my brother and I pound in every post and attach every length of the 800 foot fence we put up. We had no gate at first but she never went through the opening. Before the fence was up, the man from the electric company used to walk up to the house and read the meter, then climb into his truck and leave. But the first time he came with Elki on patrol inside the fenced area, he drove through the gate opening, parked and asked, “Is it okay to get out of my truck?” I said, “Sure, she won’t bother you.”
But as soon as he opened his door and his foot hit the ground she came up to the truck and started barking furiously at him. We were both surprised. And only when I told her, “It’s okay, Elki,” did she let him do his job. But he never got out of his truck again, or opened the gate and entered the yard when she was “on duty.”
She now had a new fenced environment, and she paid attention to everything that happened within that area, and you had better pay attention as well.
Lesson Five: Work hard. Play Hard. Rest easy.
Many are familiar with the expression, “Leave it all on the field.” This simply means to not hold back and to give every opportunity your very best effort – whether it’s in a game, at work, or a chore around the house. Use every ounce of ability you have and don’t be distracted while you are doing it. The famous and much loved Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once gave a student this advice: “When you do the dishes, do the dishes. When you drink tea, drink tea. When you eat a tangerine, eat a tangerine.” He meant to give whatever task you are doing all of your attention and all of your effort. Don’t be distracted. Do one thing at a time. Give the moment your full attention.
Elki drove this lesson home to us every single day. She did everything I asked her to with 100 percent of her energy. She was a “working dog” and she worked. She worked hard at working; she worked hard at playing. She literally “left it all on the field,” our field, every single day. She patrolled the fence perimeter when she first went outside in the morning; she did it again the last time she went out before bedtime. I
f there was a rabbit trying to sneak into the garden, she chased it out. If you launched a ball for her to chase, she brought it back and dropped it at your feet.
And she would do it to exhaustion if you let her. Then when the day was over and it was time to turn in, she crashed on her cushion and stayed there until morning. She worked hard. She played hard. She rested easy.
Lesson Six: Be faithful and fully committed to those you love.
In all the years Elki graced our lives, I never once doubted her commitment to our family as our guardian and protector or to me as “the pack leader,” or to any of the many others who knew her and loved her. She returned every family member’s love and respect in a variety of ways: laying near our feet, following us around outside, nudging us with her nose when it was treat time, standing patiently by the front door to go out or laying quietly outside the front door to come in, or looking right into our souls with those incredible eyes.
We adopted an eight week old Shepherd mix from a kill shelter in Kansas when Elki was about four. We named him Bodhi. I reasoned that he would be a good companion and “playmate” for Elki on our new property in Iowa.
She was never impressed by him, sorry to say, but she never abandoned her commitment to teach him what to do and when to do it: barking a welcome at the front door when we came home, going to the window to investigate a strange noise, being quiet when people were sleeping, focusing on the meal and not getting distracted while eating, bringing the ball all the way back to the person who threw it. You know, basic stuff. When he slacked off a bit or couldn’t quite do something as smartly as a German Shepherd should, she would chide him in no uncertain terms; a tough love kind of thing. And she remained committed to his “education” up to the end.
Lesson Seven: We are all connected to every other living thing. Without exception.
Someone once said that we will never have peace on earth until we start treating animals with the respect they deserve as other living beings on the planet. As humans, we are connected to our animal friends in physical, spiritual, emotional and substantive ways. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism, wrote a book awhile back titled, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. He discusses the ways in which all of life, the universe, all things great and small—are connected by atoms that comprise everything material and essential ways.
I’m no physicist and I’ll never understand how gravity, velocity, distance, particles, electrons, neutrons, dark matter, entanglement, super-position, energy and other physical elements in our universe are related or unrelated. But if it’s true that all inhabitants of this planet are connected then this connection to everything means we are all related. We are kin. We are brothers and sisters. We are part of the same “earth family.”
So if we accept this as true, then there is no exception for any life form on this planet. Our animal friends, our “pets” if you will, are part of us in more ways than we may have ever imagined. Anyone reading this who has lost a dear friend or a beloved pet probably already knows this. I did too, but I did not realize the extent of the connection until now.
The physical and loving bond that developed between Elki and I is now broken, but the emotional and spiritual bond will never be. She taught me how we are all truly connected, not by the mortal relationship as master and pet or dog and human caretaker, but as two living beings with two separate souls, sharing the same time and space, linked in every way: sub-atomically, spiritually, and essentially. These connections matter because they can bring us closer together. These connections can be a path to peace, mutual enterprise and equal commitment. I learned this from my dear friend and canine companion. What more could I have asked for?
Lesson Eight: Life is full of suffering. But life is also full of joy. Go find it.
The principle of Samsara—the cycle of suffering—is familiar to many of us: stub a toe, cut a finger, sprain an ankle, get into an auto accident, fail an important exam, lose a valuable client, go through a divorce, or lose a loved one. We’ve all suffered. The Dalai Lama said in another one of his books that when we jump over one hurdle, remember there is still another one and another one before the race is over. So don’t get too caught up in celebration of small victories.
Elki loved her life. She loved every treat and every morsel of food we put in front of her. She enjoyed our long walks. She loved running and rolling around in the grass. She enjoyed those brief moments on a leash outdoors when she had to live in an apartment temporarily in between houses. When we moved to our new home in Iowa, she enjoyed flushing a rabbit out of a bush, chasing down a tennis ball, barking at the neighbor’s dogs then lying down in the living room in the evenings, exhausted from her day’s work.
She spent most of her life wringing every drop of joy out of every minute of life she could get.
Yes, she would get annoyed with our other dogs, but she forgave them. She was in pain because of the tumor growing in her abdomen, but she still did her best every day. She was depressed as she grew older and couldn’t do all the things she could when she was younger. She didn’t like the idea of giving up her “top dog” status as she aged.
But Elki knew there was plenty of joy to be had every single day, and all she had to do was go and find it. And believe me, she did.
Lesson Nine: Life is impermanent. Make the most of it while you can.
Students of all schools of Buddhism already know this foundational principle. We are taught that the best way to prepare for death is to actually think about it and not ignore it. Death is part of life. We all die, we just don’t know when. Get used to the idea before that day comes. Death is just a transition after all, and it has happened many times before. Don’t fear it, just accept it.
I knew that my dear friend and faithful companion Elki would die one day. I didn’t know when, why or how. I knew all too well about the principle of impermanence—as a grandchild who saw the grandmother he loved die, as a son who watched his parents die, as a son-in-law who witnessed his wife’s parents pass on, as a Hospice volunteer at the bedside of dying patients, and as a pet owner who had seen many pets die. So death has been part of my life. It is no stranger.
But the questions remain. Can you ever fully prepare for it? Can you ever be sure how you will react when death touches someone you love? Well, we can certainly try. And one way to prepare is to make the most of life while we can. Be there for others. Do what you can for them when you can. Do what you need to do when you need to do it. Leave no “stone unturned.”
Take nothing for granted. Always be grateful. Give easily and forgive even more easily. Get the most out of every minute of every day while you can.
From time to time, my Elki would do something she knew she shouldn’t do. Don’t we all? She would take a morsel off someone’s plate, nip at one of the other dogs that were annoying her, bark profusely when we asked her to stop. And I knew she knew by the way she acted. She was that smart. But she never “left anything on the table,” so to speak—figuratively and literally. She made the most of every single opportunity while she could.
Lesson Ten: Every day is a gift. Accept it with humility, grace and gratitude.
Elki woke up the morning of October 24th and went outside like she always did. After doing her morning patrol, she came back in and settled on her cushion. I prepared her meal along with Bodhi’s, and when I placed her breakfast in front of her, she wouldn’t to get off her cushion and eat. We called her vet and made an appointment for that afternoon.
When we got her up to take her to the car, she was noticeably weak and wobbled when she walked. She couldn’t jump into the back seat. Deb, my wife, hoisted her onto the seat while I headed to the car after opening the gate. Then I heard a scream: my wife said Elki had slumped behind the driver’s seat and was not breathing. I refused to let her leave us like this, so suddenly and so unexpectedly, so I ran to the car and muscled her 90 pounds onto the seat. She revived and started to breathe again, but she was very weak. We rushed her to the vet and learned she had lost a lot of blood and was acutely anemic. She received an emergency blood transfusion, shots of Vitamin K to stop the bleeding and shots of cortisone to stop any swelling that might be occurring.
We stood by her side, waited and prayed.
The diagnosis was that she probably had cancer of the spleen and a piece of it had broken off and started hemorrhaging. The x-rays could not confirm this but the symptoms were consistent. Once she stabilized we brought her back home. I did some hurried research and was able to locate some medicines which, if unable to actually cure her, would make her comfortable for a while. But I believed we could really beat this illness she had.
The next 10 days were incredibly special. Elki’s condition seemed to improve and she went back to her daily routine of work-play-rest, work-play-rest, and we were absolutely elated to see her back to “normal.” Or so we thought. We enjoyed every minute with her outside. She was one again charming awaiting her meals and her treats: So patient, focused, and as smart and attentive as ever. She was her old, adorable self; sighs of relief.
Then the morning of November fourth arrived. She got up, went outside, did her patrol, came in and lay down on her cushion. Then she wouldn’t get up, just as before. She had no energy. She could barely walk. And we knew that day had finally come.
We hoped she could just go to sleep and pass quietly while we sat by her side and stroked her but she became increasingly uncomfortable and couldn’t rest easily like she usually did. So we called the vet and asked if he could come and ease her discomfort. At one point as I leaned over to pat her on the head, she lay back toward me and rested her head on my foot. It absolutely broke my heart to see her so weak and helpless like that.
And then I realized that every minute of every day we have in this life is a precious gift. We should accept each one of them with humility, grace and gratitude, because even though we know life is impermanent, we never know when that principle will be driven deep into our hearts like a sword by the passing of a dear friend or a loved one. We never know when that day will come for us or someone we love.
My dear friend and my faithful companion physically died that day. But I realize that the gifts she gave me and the lessons she taught me are still alive and they are almost as precious as the life she shared with me. My sole responsibility is to practice what she taught me. And in that special way she will live on—in my heart and in my actions.
Thank you, Elki. May you rest in peace.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Robert Kent
Editor: Renée Picard
Photos: courtesy of Robert Kent