“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” -Khalil Gibran
It is always when we land on the last day that we realize any regular day has the potential to be the one that includes our last goodbye. Dogs are not only the most faithful and loyal of friends to us, but they are also our most gentle teachers about life’s cycle. Our beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback, Coco, has lived with us now for thirteen and a half years- a year and half longer than her life expectancy. Every day is a gift – and I have taken her on walks and kept her near me as much as I could with my ridiculous travel schedule. Each time I leave, teary, I tell her “Not yet, I will be right back.” And so, apparently, she has waited for me for this last goodbye.
Now, when I come home she is usually asleep by my bed instead of standing vigil by the door ready to greet me. But she still follows me from room to room and lays down as close as she can when I am home. Except, as of this weekend she can’t really do that anymore either. It is like this with illness and death, you are fine and then you aren’t. And although it has been increasingly difficult to get her to her feet to go out and pee at night, last night was the first one of the very last. She can hardly stand now, and pulling her long lean body on top of her wobbly legs can no longer happen unassisted. I have to lift her up and half carry her along the familiar hall, down the steps to the door.
She has never been a whiner, except after her dog baths when she knows the treat routine; and even now, as she hunches forward with her tail low between her legs, she is not complaining, although I can see how embarrassed she is when she has an accident on her way to the door. “It’s ok,” I tell her through my tears. She has lived a long and loving life in the center of our family, and her leaving now is one of the very last leavings that has made this lively home, historically full of life and activity, now an empty nest. Seems like it should be passed on to the next family to fill and enjoy, but I still can’t see my way to releasing it and all the memories that it contains within every corner and every room.
Coco is probably the most beautiful and majestic dog we have ever had in our family. She could run fast enough to keep lions at bay- at least that’s what her breed was trained for. Here on our Oregon prairie, she kept the local deer and wild turkeys vigilant. I have been watching her decline, waiting for the moment when the last day would be clear. I thought I had mentally prepared myself with each walk, reminding myself that this could be the last one. Driving sometimes in the car without her and telling myself, “This time is coming soon.” But still, one is never prepared, and even death that seems a long time coming takes one by surprise.
Suddenly, it is upon you and life will never be the same. Aging is not a graceful process for man or beast and still, Coco has managed to rally over and over, sometimes surprising me with how playfully she rubs herself against the couch and my leg. Her breathing is ragged most all the time. But life, longing for itself, persists. She doesn’t want to give it up – and letting go of our grip on these precious hours- this is the most real thing of all.
I can’t yet imagine days without her waking by my side and the tinkle of the tags on her collar, and the hard toenails clicking behind me on the wood floor. Like my last beloved dog, Casey, now gone for almost ten years, I know that Coco will join her in my dreams; and in some far distant pasture, the emptiness of her departure will be a long time present.
This is how we humans get to practice aging gracefully- by watching our dogs. And loving as deeply as we can for all the moments we get in this perpetual departure and then letting go. Doing and giving fills time; and then finally all the time is used up. I had four beautiful kids and now they are grown up –going into their lives; and I had this beautiful Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy who is now on her last legs.
And so it goes.
We sit outside listening to the birds and waiting for the miracle of the last breath, when body separates from soul and we disintegrate from the daily into the open sky for whatever comes next.
Laying Coco to rest in the backyard she roamed so long was like cutting a gash into my side. Wrapped in her favorite blanket, laying a shovel of dirt over her, I fell to my knees, needing to feel her soft velvety ears one more time. And now, I try to sleep in my room with her bed next to me, without her and I can’t stop crying. I asked her to come to me in my dreams, so we can walk together again in the sky.
Missing someone you love is an ache that never really goes away. Like a stone we carry in our pocket and, after a while, it doesn’t feel heavy anymore. It feels grounding. All that we love, if we are truly lucky, holds us to the days we get on earth.
In loving memory of Coco, Oct. 2001- Mar. 2015