Monday, February 28, 2011

A Good Mother

My husband and I laid our dog to rest in the little pet cemetery behind our house on February 12th.  Sterling takes his place next to an assortment of rats and mice, three cats––two who were taken by coyotes––and one tiny fish.  Small piles of rocks and crosses made from sticks and wooden stakes mark the other graves.  We placed a poly-resin statue of an angel on Sterling’s grave.  The statue was a gift from a parishioner, out of place in my home with its somber colors.   For years, I thought of her as the angel of death and that she belonged outdoors.  Now she stands underneath leafless oak trees and atop mossy rocks, the angel after death.  Witness and guardian––honoring the life of my dog. 

In his absence, I’ve been stunned at how much my daily routine has been altered.  Sterling was as needy, difficult, enthusiastic and loveable as any child.  With his passing, my nest is truly empty and I have yet to fully understand the implications for my life.  True, I have two cats (aged 9 and 15), but their claim on me is less consuming, if not less insistent than my children’s or my dog’s.

I agonized over Sterling’s decline and suffering in his last days, worrying and wondering if and when I should put him to sleep, overwhelmed by the enormity of the responsibility I had been given over this sweet and fragile soul.  I was faced with the limits of my humanity––there was nothing I could do to save him from death.  The mother in me ached at my powerlessness.  And I was Sterling’s mother.  God knows why this abandoned dog came into my life with all his insecurities and need for constant assurance.  We both needed to know this––I love you and I will not leave you––something essential I missed as a child and he missed as a puppy. 

I was too unsure of myself when my children were young to ever think of myself as a good mother.  I wasn’t sure I could trust my instincts. I was often overwhelmed, and the only guide I had was what not to do––repeat my past. 

As I was sobbing my heart out trying to make “the right decision” for my dog, my husband told me something I hadn’t noticed.  “You’ve hardly left his side since we came home from Christmas vacation.”  Once he spoke, I saw that my days were ordered around this furry being, and that even though I was keeping up with my writing, the scope of my life had become very small.  Could he stand on his own today?  How much was he drinking? Eating?  In what manner could I administer his antacids to keep the pain of the toxins the kidneys no longer processed to a minimum after meals?  I didn’t regret my choices, as unconscious and natural as they had been, for a moment.  These are the ways we live out love and walk with our dying beloved, a willing embrace, a pinpoint focus.

I finally understood that there was no right answer, no way to avoid the outcome.  I gave myself permission to trust myself, and that my agony meant it was time to end his pain.  My dog Sterling taught me that I am a good mother.  I might not know what to do.  I might make mistakes.  But I am all in.  One hundred percent committed.  I will not leave you, nor abandon you.  I will be with you, to hold and stroke you, to offer words of comfort and love, until the end, and longer.

If I, in all my imperfection, can love like this, imagine how well God can love me, can love all of us.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Long Goodbye

A Long Goodbye

This afternoon my dog is sitting next to my computer, his usual place.  His breathing is shallow and too rapid.  I’m awaiting the latest test results from my veterinarian.  Sterling is fifteen and a half, ninety in human years.  His spleen is enlarged.  He’s on steroids for kidney disease and atrophied leg muscles, and is prone to debilitating diarrhea.  He almost died when I was vacationing at Christmas.  So I wait for the phone to ring as if knowing his kidney values and red blood count can prepare my heart for the fact that he is dying.  Not today, not tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe…the truth is I don’t know when.  And the not knowing has me wrapped in worry, running like a hamster in an exercise ball, spinning pointless circles, crashing into walls, completely without direction.  I’d like to find the right direction.  Any direction, for that matter, that can bring me into the present. 
Even though it won’t add a day to my life, and even though Jesus promises that like the lilies of the field, I will have everything I need, I spend a lot of time worrying about the future.  Planning for the future.  I have airline tickets purchased for travel through August and events on the calendar in October.  I like to know what’s going to happen and when.  On the up side, to the world, I appear highly organized.  On the inside, I fear that my incessant planning and future orientation is nothing more than an attempt to buy insurance against repeating a past where chaos felt palpable and imminent.  When I was a child I couldn’t control the big things, like whether or not my parents were going to stay married.  And I couldn’t stop either my stepmother or stepfather from running away without saying goodbye to me.  I exercised the little power I had over the small things.  I finished my homework, folded my laundry, and packed tuna sandwiches for lunch.
So now, I return to the small things.  I boil pork and potatoes for my dog, who after a lifetime of kibble has said, No More.  If one of the few pleasures in his life is eating, I’ll gladly feed him something that doesn’t smell like stale bread and look like dirt clods.  I cook.  I wash urine-soiled towels, the result of his new incontinence. And I vacuum, taking great satisfaction in sucking wads of fluffy white fur into the machine.  Dishes, towels, floors are clean.  There is order and control, and my mind is less easily cast into the future when I’m scrubbing my pressure cooker, than when I’m not occupied with concrete tasks.
Night falls; Sterling’s breathing becomes more labored, his pain and fatigue evident.  The veterinarian gave me bad news this evening.  Kidney failure, worse than we thought.  I ask how long, and she is noncommittal.  She is not God, but gives me advice reminiscent of Jesus’ words; No one knows the hour or the day and a twelve-step bumper sticker, One day at a time.  “When Sterling’s bad days outnumber the good,” she says, not finishing the sentence.  I call my daughters, away at college, ask if they’d like to come home this weekend to say goodbye. 
I can’t sleep these days, anxious about my dog.  I’m afraid to leave him.  He’s always been nervous, and his separation anxiety has been manifesting in physical symptoms (loss of appetite and bloody diarrhea) that at this stage could kill him.  It’s not that I need to be with him every moment, or that I feel obligated to orchestrate the moment of his demise so that I am there.  He could slip away while I’m at the grocery store or the chiropractor and I wouldn’t hold myself responsible.  But weeks of out of state travel loom large beginning the end of this month.  I have made commitments, paid fees.  I’m supposed to follow the plan.  This is why I’m fretful.  I am torn.  The part of me who plans against bad things happening, is afraid I can’t cancel, that to be responsible I need to show up and do what I’ve said, or I’ll disappoint people, perhaps alienate them.  But much more of me has a different need.  I want to be present for this daily long goodbye.  I don’t want to board a plane and let someone else, even someone I trust, shepherd my dog through his last days. Some people might say he’s just a dog.  They’re right.  He is simply a dog.  My dog.  For thirteen years he’s been part of my life, and it hasn’t been an easy road.  His nervous anxiety, stroke, rattlesnake bite, have challenged and shaken me.  His sweet nature, exuberance, genuine affection and smile—really he smiles—have filled our home with love. 
I toss and turn until I allow love to rule.  I will choose being with him over any other commitment.  Finally, I can rest.  I close my eyes, and I focus my thoughts on Sterling lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.  With each breath I wish him love and light. My he be bathed and swaddled in light and love.  I relax and drift to sleep knowing it is my great privilege to take this journey with him.