Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Elegy for Athena Dying

 Part 1—A Teaching

 “The dead don’t leave us, we shut them out.”
I can’t remember where I read that,
but it comes back to me now as you lie dying.
You’re always by me these days.
If I change rooms, you do, too.
Otherwise, you only get up for dinner
or to relieve yourself outside.
You still wag your stump of a tail
whenever we come in the door,
still meet our gaze with soulful eyes.
I believe you’re content,
and I can’t fail to recognize
that your simple acceptance of your situation
is a teaching, a dharma for us all.
You’ve always been our Wise Athena,
the truest companion we’ve ever known.

One night, a bit in my cups
as I watched over your reclining form,
we connected, and you shared with me
as much as I could bear to learn—
speaking mind to mind, of course,
as you animals prefer—
about the canine-human bond
we’ve always had since the dawn of time.

You said we humans are complex beings,
part of the Earth, part of the Sky,
and without a dog to keep us grounded
our roots in the natural world would die.
We’d forget we’re meant to live on the Earth
and carelessly destroy the creation,
too clever by far but not loving enough,
without a dog’s intervention.
But only those who deserve dogs will get them.

And you said you embodied every dog
we’d ever had over all the years,
each teaching the lesson in different ways,
according to breed and our need to heal,
but never judging, always loyal,
faithful to the human pack,
and always, like any responsible dog,
just enough of a nag and a pain 
to make human beings take you outside,
which many of us wouldn’t often do
without a dog as our guide.

And in return for food and shelter,
and even more so with deep love,
you teach in the span of a dozen years
(which to a dog is roughly a lifetime)
that we, too, like you, are helplessly mortal—
one day a puppy, a grown dog the next,
then aging, then old, and finally at rest,
you break our hearts as you dramatize
how to live, how to die in life’s natural flow;
and though your cycle will end with our tears,
all the way through you live without question,
cooperating even with the slow pace of death,
accepting what happens until the last breath,
with a dignity none of us ever forgets.

That’s what dogs live for, you said,
lying by my chair that night
after your first breathing attack.
You told me other things as well,
but I didn’t understand them yet.
I was just glad you lay on the carpet,
snorting and farting and licking in dreams.
And though we dreaded what tomorrow could bring,
you were still there that night
and we still were your kin.

Part 2—A Conversation

After our previous philosophical discussion
you stabilized at a lower level of function
which lasted for a day or two
until you finally stopped eating.
Your mistress and I took turns as your nurses,
silently witnessing what we both knew.
Your compass pointed due West, toward Death,
and our job was to help see you through.

Off and on throughout that last day
I’d watch you struggle to catch your breath,
and I’d kneel by your side, massaging your back,
stroking your stout barrel of a chest,
and burst into spontaneous spasms of weeping
as I tried to ease your soul’s labor of birth—
free from mortality’s tyrannical curse,
cut loose from the tentacles of stubborn flesh.

“What can I do to help you?” I cried,
the words like a wail in my mind.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” you replied.
“I’m okay, it’s just taking some time.”
And lifting your massive old head from the floor,
surveying me with passive, droll eyes,
you licked my face between my nose and my chin,
thanking me over and over again
for taking you in, and now helping you die.

“But you needn’t drop to my side,” you said,
“every time I need your help.
It’s better if you use concentration
to imagine yourself sharing my burden.
What matters most is your intention.”

“You mean you can feel my intention too?
Are you that good at reading my mind?”
“I know your every thought,” you said.
“We all do but don’t pay much attention.
Why ruin a good day? Our lives are too short,
and your thoughts move too fast for reflection.”

You were quiet then for a little while.
I went back to my chair,
and soon followed you into your trance—
breathing as one in a cyclical pattern
of slowly more slowly until all breath would stop,
and a moment or two of silence would pass.
I’d wonder if you’d breathed your last.
But no, you’d start the cycle again,
draw a shallow next breath—
no more than you’d need to forestall your death.

“Why do you stay? Can’t you let go?”
I cried out as your weakness increased.
“She needs a little more time,” you said,
tilting your head toward your Mistress.
“I love you,” I cried, as your stoical eyes
returned my gaze with affection.
“I know. You both do, and I love you too.
But not all humans are as sincere as you.
The human being is the only creature alive
who can say ‘I love you’ and not mean it.”

As my vigil with you seemed nearing a close,
I reflected on what I was learning,
and without a doubt it all came back
to a revelation I once had on acid.
“All people are animals, all animals people!”
That was my clarion cry.
Now forty years later I’m of the same mind,
after my talks with Athena, the Wise.

Part 3—A Silence

The Sunset beamed in through half-drawn curtains
as I watched you from my rocking chair.
You lay on the carpet just a few feet away—
glassy-eyed, your head too heavy to raise,
your labored breath irregular, short,
and I saw you were seriously trying to die,
to finish what we both knew must be,
but you just couldn’t break yourself free.
Your mighty heart wouldn’t stop beating,
though your spirit was nearly gone,
and you had no more patience for your body weight.
You desperately dreamed of running free,
of enjoying a tasty dinner again,
of licking the faces of your best friends.
But none of that could happen now,
It was senseless for you to hang on any more.
We both knew it, we both agreed:
the time had come to make the call.

It was Saturday before Memorial Day,
an inconvenient time for crisis,
but we’d heard of a vet whose specialty
is “end-of-life care,” as he delicately puts it,
and he’ll come to your house whenever he’s needed,
in the middle of the night or a holiday weekend,
to end the anxiety and physical pain.
(There’s not much he can do for the grief.)

He came when I called within an hour and a half
after he’d rearranged his plans with his kids,
and we went through the medical formalities—
the papers to sign, what we could expect,
as he kneeled down to make you his friend.
But you knew who he was and why he had come,
as you placidly looked into his eyes
when he gently lifted your head.

Then it was time to get started.

You showed no sign of fear or regret
as he injected the tranquilizer in back of your neck.
We waited for it to take effect.
Alarmingly, you suddenly rose to your feet,
as if at the last minute you’d changed your mind!
But the doctor dismissed this ambiguous sign.
“An adrenaline rush is the first reaction,”
he said, as you staggered, then wobbled,
and sank back onto the floor again.
Your left paw was too swollen to find a vein
to inject the lethal dose in your blood.
But with the right paw the doctor succeeded,
and in no time at all I heard your last breath—
a short, soft snort with nothing that followed—
and that’s when I knew you were gone.
The doctor was surprised you went so fast,
as he listened closely to your lungs and your heart.
But I could see plainly the body in my arms
no longer contained its spiritual part.
Your solid, comforting warmth I could feel
had already begun to cool.
I didn’t know how I’d sustain the blow,
and I began to bawl like a fool.

After our business arrangements were done,
the vet took your body, packed in a bag,
away to the pet crematorium.
We could pick up your urn of ashes, he said,
once the holiday weekend was over.
I’ll bury them out by the garden, I think,
or maybe beneath the crepe myrtle tree
where you always went when you had to pee.

Now I miss you so much! Our home seems so bare,
and dying seems better than living like this!
The anguish of absence I can’t overcome,
like a knife blade stabbed in my gut,
and especially at home and the places we went
I could never count all the tears I’ve spent.

But then in a message I think came from you
I’m reminded of a story I heard long ago
of a monk who complained that his daily work
kept him too busy to be present with God.
“If you miss me I’m with you,” God said in reply,
and you said now it’s the same between us.
The scorching raw grief that singes my mind
is the love that assures our bond will survive.
You’ve only withdrawn from the world of the senses.
In the silence within you’re still near my side
as the sorrow of your passing disperses.

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