“No matter when or where you go, I will follow.” Dogs never know, when you open that front door and give them the O.K. to accompany you, whether they’re headed only to the mailbox, a walk around the block, an epic car camp, or a trip to the airport for a flight across the continent.
Not that any of those matter one way or the other. The only true and important thing: They only want to be with you.
And so it was that in the last few minutes of her life, my beloved companion Shenzi, somewhere near 17 (stray rescue dog adopted 2008, birthday unknown), beset by kidney disease and long compromised by bouts of nausea, appetite loss, bad teeth and near deafness, trotted out ahead of me as we left the screen porch the other day, tail wagging, trailed by my partner Mary and a kindly veterinarian armed with the tools in hand to proceed with the somber and necessary task of bringing her life to a conclusion.
…Her not-to-be-contested vote is that you ARE God, and no long theological disputations of yours to the contrary are worth even a tiny bag of soggy kibble.
As we crossed the grass headed to the deck of our small home library where the euthanasia would take place, I couldn’t help but notice, through my already clouding vision, that the bounce that always characterized Shenzi’s walk (every happy dog’s, actually…), was evident once again, as it has been only periodically in these last months of her ever-encroaching illness.
She had three people in tow, after all, two of them much beloved, the other new person already having stooped to allow for smells and some light petting.
And now she was going outdoors with them all on a warm spring day, her stomach full and heart happy from the morning’s favorite treats and extended lounging around being loved on by her besties.
What could be better than this moment in time, every moment in time, really, in the life of what my pal Kevin calls the “love machine” that is a dog?
…thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up into
my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.
—From the Mary Oliver poem, “The Sweetness of Dogs”
My daughter and I first espied Shenzi at the county animal shelter, when we walked near her cage in the din of collective barking that is every shelter and noted that she was sitting primly on her haunches and staring up at us with huge brown eyes, the only mute dog, near as we could tell, in the place.
Curiously, her sign carried two words. One, her shelter-given name of Shenzi, after the Whoopi Goldberg character in “The Lion King,” which was a hyena. We guessed some humor-minded person in the shelter had noted a similarity.
The second word on its own sign: Barker.
It struck me at the time as cruel, about the worst marketing ploy ever devised for an entity trying to place an animal in a home. Or maybe they were no longer trying? (Shenzi had been there several weeks, and the facility did not have a no-kill policy in place.)
Adding insult to injury, as Dakota and I were discussing the oddity of that sign and its seeming contrast with Shenzi’s demeanor, a male staff member came up behind us and said, unbidden,“Oh, that dog? Barks all the time.”
I remember feeling a slight twinge of defiance about this, even as I laughed. Then they let Shenzi come out into a little meet-and-greet enclosure with a bench for homo sapiens and some grass and dirt for the canines. Shenzi popped in and was not afraid to approach us and take a sniff, but she didn’t stay long.
A (mostly) chihuahua and dachshund mix, she was a perpetual motion machine, her nose scouring every square inch of the enclosure, hopping effortlessly over the bench, into and out of our laps, back-and-forth, up-and-down, pausing but a nano-second for us to pet her before moving on.
We found out she’d been a mother at least once, had been living on the streets for what appeared to be an extended period, finally being picked up by animal control in poor condition, flea-and-tick-ravaged, skinny, with matted hair.
In other words, a survivor.
We liked the sound of all that, and she didn’t utter a peep in the 10 minutes or so we watched her bustle about. Still, we decided to sleep on it and come back for another visit the following day if we were so moved.
Which we did, noting Shenzi’s comparative quietude once more as we entered—along with those eyes. Since we had a cat at home, this time the shelter let us into an area ruled over by a large black cat who peered imperiously from a perch above the fray.
It added conviction to our deliberations when Shenzi paid it zero mind as she sniffed around the enclosure yet again. A few minutes later, we paid the $140 fee and took her home.
Whereupon Shenzi taught us over subsequent days (and years!) that the shelter had not been wholly inaccurate in labeling her as a barker. Thing was, she barked only as part of her solemn duty to protect her tribe, when people came to the door and for the first minute or two after, until she felt assured they were not ax murderers sent to do us harm.
Then, if they were amenable, she’d curl up on their lap, and it was like this, every single time, till her very last day (when she barked at the vet until she got to know her 30 seconds later).
In truth, if the shelter had had enough time to really know Shenzi in something resembling a normal daily life, they would have hung a sign outside her cage that said: Lover.
Come to think of it, every dog who has ever been given half a chance in this life would have the exact same sign.
A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know
—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”
Much as I’ve critiqued various conceptions of God in this space over the years, I am the first to say I’m the last person who would ever want the job.
What sane entity would ever consent to ethical conundrums by the bushel, relentless appeals for mercy from both the deserving and the less-so, tortuous decisions on the finer technical points of universe construction and the mechanics of beetle reproduction?
None of that matters, though, in the calculations your dog makes regarding the power dynamics of your relationship. Reticent though you might be, her not-to-be-contested vote is that you ARE God, and no long theological disputations of yours to the contrary are worth even a tiny bag of soggy kibble.
Which is why dog owners come to find themselves thrust into ever more challenging circumstances as animal science and technology improve, more options for disease management present themselves, and stickier wickets come into play over how much to put both your dog and your family budget through in trying to get her well or just extend her life for a few precious months.
These deliberations, I will admit, rather exhausted me these past months. Oh, but if beloved pets could only tell us exactly what they want, how they feel, when they have had enough of this intervention or that!
Shenzi lost more than three pounds (nearly 25%) of her body weight last year before we got on top of her diagnosis, made radical changes to her diet, and began a regimen (the vet techs taught us how over several sessions, may God bless them) that had us tying an IV bag from the chin-up bar in the bathroom doorjamb, Mary holding her in a gentle-as-possible hammerlock on one side of a table while I got a needle into the scruff of her neck from the other side and dripped the thrice-weekly dose of life-sustaining hydration into her that basically took over the cleansing function of her failing kidneys.
Shenzi, being a conscious creature, had an intense distaste for the procedure. She usually whimpered through most of it, but submitted easily enough for us to accomplish the task in the five or so minutes it required.
At least for some six months, she did.
Then we began to occasionally encounter deep, guttural and unnerving yelps and an intensified struggle to keep her still enough for the needle to remain in place. We were shaken, but for a while, subsequent sessions returned to their relative submission and calm.
And then came the last several weeks, the yelps and writhing gaining both intensity and consistency, the last of them seeing her needle pop out twice and the yelps and cries so guttural they seemed to come from the very depths of hell.
That’s when I broke down and knew I had to give up the fight, because Shenzi herself had fought so hard for her own right to do so.
So, that deepest sting: sorrow. Still,
is he gone from us entirely, or is he
a part of that other world, everywhere?
—From Mary Oliver, “Bazougey”
Does that mean Shenzi was ready to die?
The idea sounds tragi-romantic, but I have never been one to believe that animals think in self-conscious terms of their own finitude as humans do. (Lucky for them, I’d say!)
In my view, every living entity has but one program: to keep on keeping on, and to try to reproduce themselves in whatever form their genetic programming dictates.
Clearly, Shenzi was telling us: No. More. Of. This.
But the drive to live, to take in another breath, another meal, another day with her beloveds, doesn’t just up and leave one day. She still wanted to eat (when her stomach allowed), to be loved on, even to walk the ‘hood and sniff every bush and tree, provided it was 1-2 blocks rather than the 4-5 miles we had traversed daily in healthier, younger times.
Giving up the hydration, I tried one last regimen using diet and a daily prescription antacid to quiet her stomach and allow adequate nutrition, but after a few days the deep convulsive (though still intermittent) vomiting of her initial illness returned, and it was painfully evident a new decline had begun.
And that it was time for me to accept my most painful and unwanted role.
How strong was her dark body!
How apt is her grave place.
How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.
—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”
The vet had heartily endorsed as many treats as Shenzi would want on that final day. As it happened, Mary had baked a pie, the crust of which Shenzi took great fondness to, so we took little chunks of that and some favorite cheddar cheese bits (all verboten foods during her illness) out with her to the deck.
Shenzi was on my lap and avidly taking in each bit, Mary petting her from my side as the first sedative injection went in, virtually unnoticed. The vet said it would take a few minutes, but it seemed no time at all until Shenzi’s chowing down was interrupted by her head suddenly slumped in my lap, and she was out.
Then the second, heart-stopping injection, not a whimper or movement as we wept over her now lifeless, beautiful, and at-last peaceful body, her final experience only of being fed and loved on by those who had ultimately accepted the responsibility to capitulate on her behalf and see her through to her end.
We buried her along the fence of the garden next to her brother, the cat Rascal, who also had flown east with us when we moved to join Mary in North Carolina nearly three years ago.
Three aging west coast seniors starting anew, swept along together by mysterious, unforeseen destinies, two of them now gone, part of my own past, though near enough outside my backdoor and deep—oh, so deep—inside my heart that I will carry them with me always, with all the other losses one collects in this finite world, made all the more precious, sad and beautiful for the end it brings to us all.
She roved far ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back,
or wait for me, or be somewhere.
Now she is buried under the pines.
—From Mary Oliver, “Her Grave”
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