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Judith Acosta

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My Dog: My Teacher in Life and Death

Posted: 02/17/11 12:53 PM ET

After 18 months, we're finally getting another dog.

The new one's name is Lucy. She is a rescue (as they all have been). Even though she is fearful and we know she will have some work to do, we are looking forward to bringing her into the family and giving her a good life.

I'm excited and just a bit wistful. Ironically, she bears an uncanny resemblance to my first dog, Angie, our eldest female, whom we lost 18 months ago, almost to the day. And, like it or not, the memories and the sense of loss have surfaced.

I know some people believe that dogs and other pets should have their "place," both in the home and in our hearts. I've tried, but I can't seem to find that boundary. Once they're in, they're in. They're family.

Angie was a particularly important dog for me. She was my first, our pack's Elder, and the most difficult dog I've ever encountered -- aggressive, dominant, an escape artist and desperately ill (C. diff) from the first day.

It was perhaps precisely because of all those difficulties that she was also the greatest teacher I've ever had. She taught me leadership, perseverance through sometimes painful circumstances, the inevitability of suffering and patience. She taught me love, and, finally, she taught me death.

In light of the comments I received on my post, "Be Happy or Else," and our discussion about suffering, I'd like to share with you what I wrote about Angie in my blog after she passed. I feel the same today as I did then.

On August 17th, 2009, at 5:45, I held my eldest dog, Angie, as she took her last breath. I rubbed her gently behind the ears and kissed her forehead, taking in as much of her as I could before I let the technicians take her away. In the 36 hours since I let them lift her out of my arms, I've been wandering around the house looking for things she might have left around -- clumps of hair, a toy, a half-chewed bone, a hidden towel. There was nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was the first time in my life I lamented my own neatness. She was really gone.

She was 15 and had been sick for a year. Homeopathy had kept her miraculously vital and calm throughout that time, even though she had been diagnosed with both bilateral cardiomyopathy and metastasized carcinoma. I knew it was coming. My intense 85-pound malamute-lab mix was down to a frail, passive 60 pounds.

I thought I was prepared. In the last few weeks, as I had to help lift her up to go outside so she could urinate, I tried to tell myself -- as so many others were telling me -- that when the time came, I would be relieved. I would know it was the right time and it would be okay.

I know they meant well, truly. But I was not relieved. And it did not feel right. It was not okay.

When the doctors gave me the news more than a year before, I made a commitment to myself and to her that I would see her through it all. I would minister to her while she was here and when it was time for her to die, I would be fully present. It was the least I could do. She had been my truly faithful companion for more than 11 years since I'd rescued her. She was my first dog, my mentor and my trusted guardian. So when the time came, I did what I promised I would do: I held her and I watched her die.

In the back of my mind, I held out hope that the people who'd talked to me about the "naturalness" of death were right. I had prayed for comfort in the way they had promised. But I didn't feel it at all. I know that when I let go of her body, limp and without any of the fight she had in life, the Angie I loved and trusted and trained and struggled with for all those years was simply not there anymore.

As I held her and felt her chin go limp against my thigh, the strangest thought popped into my mind: I'd heard people speak of dead weight before, but she seemed terribly light, nearly weightless to me -- as if the greatest part of her, her ballast, had departed with her last heartbeat. She -- Angie -- was not there anymore. Just a brief moment ago, she had been there. But then she wasn't. It was stunning. And I do not understand it. I find that no matter what I do -- or how I appeal to reason and the modern, scientific schema -- I cannot understand that disappearance. Where is she? Where did she go? She was just here. All her molecules were still there. Just she wasn't.

I thought of my mother, as we stood beside my brother's open casket moments before his funeral just a few months prior. She held my hand, stronger than I would have imagined, given how she loves her children, and whispered to me, "He's not in there, is he?"

I just said, "No, ma, he's not." He wasn't. His body was. But he was gone.

That first night I paced the house like a child, as I whined a mantra, "I want my dog back."

It must sound awfully naive for a therapist and homeopath to be so surprised by death. I have seen death before, though luckily not very much. I work with medics and EMT's and police officers and firefighters and vets. I have seen horror through their eyes. But I don't think the exposure has helped me understand or accept it much better than the platitudes about the cycle of life have helped to ease the pain.

When I was a very young psychotherapist, not two weeks out of graduate school, I worked at a hospital in New Rochelle on the med/surg unit. There were 30 some-odd beds, and all of them were filled all the time with very sick people. I was only there for two months, but I watched several people get covered in sheets and rolled away by stretcher. It was a hospital. I was saddened by it, but I expected it.

There was one woman who was different. She never had a visitor -- not a family member or a friend. She was a quiet person with short, brown hair who always asked for books to read. Most people got in and out of the unit within a week or so. But she was in her room a long time, always propped up in bed, never in a chair or walking around. She was not assigned to my caseload, but I spent time with her anyway. She seemed so lonely. She didn't talk much when I visited because she found it difficult to breath, but she seemed to like it when I read to her or talked to her about the news, offering her some connection back to the world outside the window.

Once when I sat by her, she lifted her fingers straight up, though her arm remained flat on the bed. Because she was suffering with terminal lung cancer, I thought she was restless or uncomfortable and offered to move her pillows or adjust her bedding. She shook her head, until I realized she just wanted me to hold her hand.

It only took a few days from the time I first held her hand to the last time. Her spiral downward was quick, as if she could leave now that she had company. Or maybe she needed a witness. I don't know. I never really got to know her. But I came to care about her and never forgot her. I still think about the changes in her breathing as her time approached, how the muscles in her hand would occasionally contract as if to make sure I was still there, how thin she looked but how firmly her jaw was set as she finally let go. I stayed with her till the end, but I can't even remember her name. In my mind now, she was more than any name or any identity that could have ever been assigned to her.

Mostly what I remember now is what I didn't understand and what I still don't.

Peter Kreeft, one of the brightest and best when it comes to writing about the Great Mysteries, said, "We are shocked at the irreversibility of death, although it is utterly familiar, utterly universal, utterly natural. We find the natural unnatural. Why? Let us be shocked at our shock... This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations."

I am shocked. I am stunned by its finality, its emptiness, its contrariness-not only to everything my senses can fathom, but to what my heart holds truest -- that He has "put eternity" in us and no matter how we try to rationalize, empiricize, or explain it away with, "well, that's the cycle of life," it never, ever feels right. And I, like Kreeft and many others, believe that it can't feel right because that is not what our souls -- or our hearts --were created for. There is something in us, or to be more precise, we are made of something which is not temporal, which does not bow its head in acceptance to the last breath, which does not feel at home in the mortal, time-bound world and never will.

It is why, no matter how many times I hear from people, "It's the way of nature", it will never feel natural to me. And if Kreeft is right, then that gives me the most hope of all.

"Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned." -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

 
 
 

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