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Recently, I’ve had the heart-stopping experience of coming face-to-face with my own mortality.
Having lived with fear of an early departure owing to genetics, the past few weeks have left an imprint of unshakeable, visceral fear. Perhaps you’ve had such an experience at one time or another, or perhaps you simply wonder about your reason for being.
Whatever the life predicament facing each of us, existential fear is as valid a human experience as breathing.
Humans don’t have a copyright on this kind of visceral fear. I think of our recently departed dog. I doubt she ever asked, how long will I be on this earth? She was in predicaments where her existence was at issue and felt fear as authentically as I have felt it these past few weeks. Nonetheless, she persisted.
I shared my fears with my sweet scientist husband this morning. His response is ritually optimistic:
We’re going to see Halley’s Comet together in 2061. You’ll be a mere 96 and I’ll be 100. Then, we can go.
I wish I could feel such hope in my fearful heart. It keeps him on the bright side of life, and while I cannot relate as comets, stars, and planets aren’t my thing, I can understand the power of manifestation and having reasons to live a long and healthy life, in the words of Deepak Chopra.
I keep thinking of my dog, Sheba, in all of this. Her heart belonged to my husband and I, but her spirit belonged only to her. Still in all, I consider her mine for purposes of this story. She began with me, our spirits resonated, and of all the dogs I’ve ever had in my life, it was she who kept me alive until I could meet my bright and loving scientist. We all struggle to know our purpose in life, until a point is reached where it becomes so evident that it shines as brightly as the returning comet my husband hopes we will one day view together.
Mine has always been to help animals. Perhaps yours has, too.
She has a really strong heart, our vet spoke softly on Sheba’s last night. Having administered the sedative to help her let go, we all waited by her side. Her heart is still beating, she spoke after a long interval of waiting.
Sheba lay there snoring in peace, her 16 springs, summers, and autumns behind her. She wouldn’t see a sixteenth winter, her second stroke having rendered her too weak. She was ready to leave us, with our broken hearts to mend, in the wake of her passing. The grace of medicine can be a powerful gift in such moments, easing the suffering of those for whom life has become too painful to continue living.
As she lay breathing her final moments, our other two rescue dogs, Willie Grommit and Smudges, lay next to her on the floor. Our third, Charlie, lay on the couch. Candles flickered gently.
Sheba’s departure day was peaceful. Before the doctor arrived, never once did she rise up in protest, complaint, or interest in life. When my sweet friend Elizabeth came trotting up our driveway midday with flowers and supportive words, in the cacophony of barking packmates, she never once lifted her sleeping head.
Her life, exquisite and full of good karma, began on the sands of the Sonoran Desert, but ended amid the granite cliffs of the Rocky Mountains. Cradled with lodgepole pines and shelf trails, she’d found joy and vibrancy in a life embraced at the base of the Continental Divide. As she leapt into tree wells after Abert’s squirrels in January, her joy was unbounded. When in the presence of moose, she wasn’t fool enough to give chase to the largest of her faunal friends, having learned from early encounters of their mighty power and fearsome will in defense of their offspring. Instead, she watched in reverence in the tranquility of a snowfall, her quiet wisdom emanating through crisp mountain air.
Sheba chased life in all its vibrancy, embracing every moment and understanding the numerous chances given, for others had tried and failed to take them all away.
Her will to live rose as prominently as the peaks on which we hiked, bicycled, and skied. As she leapt into the brisk waters of mountain lakes, she swam with a smile on her face. There wasn’t a moment in life for which she didn’t take the opportunity to express her fullest, most wild-child, beautiful Shepherd-mutt self. She’d decided from our first moments together, this valley was hers to command, trotting up and down every square inch of it with fervor and devotion. The creek was hers to bathe in each morning, no matter the temperatures. The paths leading back to the dam were hers to walk with or without us; it was all very much up to her strong will. It was hers to watch over.
She took her job seriously.
A more resilient spirit didn’t exist. No stranger to rejection after having been returned twice in her early life to a Vegas shelter, she lingered for eight months, hope large in her strong heart, for freedom, joy, and acceptance. For understanding and patience, for security and maybe even love. She could bend in no way to suit the will of others, but needed the room and willingness of others to accept her on her own terms. Rejection of a homeless dog manifests in being not only the ultimate insult, but a visceral threat to life.
I think back to a conversation last year, while I was involved with rescue dog advocacy. I’d contacted a rescue coordinator at a shelter in Riverside, California, a place reputed to have one of the highest kill rates for homeless animals in the country. I was trying to save a dog with hours to live.
Let me ask you, she said quietly, do you really feel it’s a good thing to have a dog in a shelter for months on end? What kind of a life is that?
At least the dog is still alive. He or she still has a chance.
Who are we to take away their last sunset? Sheba spent eight months in a shelter, being returned twice, before going on to live another decade-and-a-half with the forever-people who fell in love with her and adopted her.
The coordinator took a deep sigh, inhaling the burden of pragmatic realities and economic policies driving her actions and guiding her decisions. I understood the wall she and others were similarly situated up against.
As I said in the beginning of this story, each of us is here for a purpose. Our dog, Sheba, had decided long ago to show the truth of this in every expression of her life.
To bring joy to the lives of others, in showing how to embrace life without the burdensome need for acceptance. To harbor hope in the face of despair. Each of us knows the painful state of feeling alone and unloved in this too-big, oft too-unfriendly world. To cultivate resilience, to stay the course in persistence, until better and stronger moments come again.
But mostly, to show what self-acceptance looks like, for who among us can judge the ways and being of another? That alone is up to the Divine Force with which Sheba is now reunited.
She came into my life at a time most needed, and kept me alive in my own dark night of the soul until I could see the light of better days. I believe she was sent by my long-departed mother to look after me when I most needed looking after, during a time of intense change, growth, transformation, and turmoil.
She also showed me that once a life has arrived here on this earth, that life has a reason for being. Even if it’s only to teach others how to live and live well, every moment of every day. Maybe even, she showed me strength of heart and how it can persist in the face of visceral threat, for one never knows when God’s going to turn out the light and tell you to say your final farewell. She’s said hers and returned to the force from which she came, but her message was clear and her job, exquisitely performed.