Beautiful Goodbyes

My dog had once been the answer to a prayer asking for proof of heaven. We found her the next day in a shelter, the name "Angel" scrawled across the stained and torn placard on her cage door. She had been my sole solace when my daughter left for college and for oh, so long was the only thing I had left of the life I had once known.

We had come together to my sister's house to seek asylum when I'd lost my home to bankruptcy due to my depression. Her soft, sweet body resting in the curve of my own helped me make it through so many nights when I would lay rigidly awake, listening for the sound of my heartbeat echoing in the mattress beneath me as proof that I was still alive.

Now she was leaving me. My sleek, sturdy, rusty-as-a-red-wolf Doberman/husky dog. She was too weak to walk any longer and a day away from her scheduled euthanasia. My nephew carried her out into the front yard under a late spring ceiling of low stars and dark satin sky. She stood unsteadily, her legs stiff as stilts, her lustrous eyes, always so sincere, seemed to grow large with what looked to me, for all the world, like wonder. She turned her head with its long and elegant snout, first to the smoke tree, quivering on the edge of bloom and beyond it the dogwood with its snowy flowers that appeared to float on the air, to the house that had been her home for the last four years and to the sassy boy cat, black as licorice, slinking across the lawn. And then up to the lopsided sickle moon I saw reflected in her eyes.

"Oh, Angel, where are you going?," I asked her, my voice so hoarse it hurt my throat. "Where are you going?" But she was silent. She had not spoken for days. Her sickness had stifled the lovely irrepressible lilt of her singsong bark. The next evening we were all taking turns digging her grave. I found I could no longer sleep in the bed that we shared.

Somehow I get through the days. Other dogs come into my life. My daughter's greyhound, left behind when she goes to live in Australia. His name is Jasper. Rescued from the track, he is old now and rickety, homely and lazy and mute. He sleeps all day and briefly comes alive at night to go for a brief run in the light of the setting sun, only to sleep again and snore and run some more in his dreams. He is not affectionate, often walking past my outstretched hand that twitches and itches to caress his silly airplane ears. I am just a ghost to him and I know it.

But when it comes his turn to die, I find myself inexplicably bereft, shaken. I cannot find my glasses or my coat or my breath when they go out to heat up the car for his final trip to the vet's. I get down on the rug with him where I have often sat to give him some company he did not want. I reach down and put my arms around him, my heart beating out of rhythm. "Don't go yet, I'm not ready," I tell him and pull away to look into his eyes. They are luminous and full of the same awe I saw in Angel's eyes. He is looking at me in a way he never has before.

"Oh," I find myself saying. "What do you know that I don't know?" Because suddenly I understand. It is as if Jasper has a train to catch. And I am trying to hold him back. His life and his death have their own schedule. He gets up readily, accepts the leash, walks out the door, climbs into the waiting car. My fingers linger over the warmth on the floor he has left behind.

Now I will be able again to sleep in the bed I shared with Angel.

Jana Lee Frazier