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.