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.