Here’s how the script went. Loving doggie mama sees her boy through his final years with compassion and patience and lovingkindness. (She is a Buddhist, after all). She soothes his fears (she knows him so well), gently cares for him as he drifts into that dark night and makes the right decision when the time comes. Then, with the loving support of her Sangha and the strength of her practice she helps him pass over swiftly and without confusion. After he is gone she grieves but carries on knowing he is free from suffering. Fade to black.
My dog Wally never got a copy of the script.
Buddhists are fond of saying that difficult people or situations in our lives are our best teachers. And it is a given that my dog would always be my teacher.
As with my other teachers, however, the lesson I thought I was getting–expected to get, was sure I needed most–wasn’t what I actually ended up with.
As my old dog trudges into his later years he becomes demanding, restless, withdrawn, hyper, needy and completely unpredictable. He will not be left alone. He ignores me at home yet sits at the window for hours, peering blindly out, waiting for my return when I’m away. When I walk up the path to my front door he stares past me anxiously, tearing my heart into pieces that do not easily reassemble.
I live in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood on a hill where most of the houses are set back high off the street. One afternoon we set out with high hopes (at least on my part) of an invigorating walk, but we haven’t moved more than 100 yards in 15 minutes.
“We’re not getting any exercise!” I complain.
Ah, but we have circled the same tree three times and we did sit and stare at a placid orange tabby on a wall until even the cat got spooked and slithered away. Another time, I set aside time to drive to the Arroyo Seco for a glorious, albeit leisurely, walk only to get out onto the trail and have him park his butt stubbornly and refuse to take one… more… step.
So I let him off the leash, but he just gives me the stinkeye and turns his back on me as he ambles back to the parking lot.
“But I did this for you!” I shout at his retreating tail.
He wants to walk when he wants to walk. When he can walk. Somehow I don’t see this.
I’m exasperated, sad, bored, lonely, exhausted. And, by the way—um—turns out I’m not that patient.
Just like a toddler who’ll eat the same food five days in a row then spit it out on the sixth day, Wally’s unpredictable. He wants what he wants until he stops wanting it. I don’t see this either.
I do “people things” like get the right meds to keep his kidneys functioning, schedule regular check-ups, personally cook the right low-protein mix for his diet. These are things that I can do. To a certain extent I can control them. He doesn’t know about these things I do for him. He doesn’t see them. He just knows that his food changes.
He used to be terrified of thunder, fireworks and the dark. Now he is fearless. Earthquakes don’t wake him; thunder may raise an eyelid. I’m braced for his reactions but he somehow can’t remember what it was that used to terrify him so much or maybe it’s just not important to him. He’s moved on. I find myself wistful for his fears. He doesn’t need my protection anymore. Can’t I be happy that he’s not afraid?
His one-a-day stick of chicken jerky has become three a day or none a day. When he eats three, I fret about overfeeding him and wish he would stop bothering me for more. When he won’t eat any I long for the days when he’s demanding. I’m hard to satisfy.
I put my purse on the ground and he brazenly shoves his whole face into it, snuffling around for treats. When he was young I could have left a pound of brisket on the coffee table and walked away and he wouldn’t have touched it. Now everything that was mine is his. Nothing is off limits.
His days are calm and dreamy but the nights are wild. Hell, I’m a morning person. This doesn’t work for me. His toenails click-clack along wood floors restlessly hour after hour all night long. He is panting, standing around and looking intently at nothing I can see, nudging me over and over for something, something, something. Tell me! Is it bigger than a breadbox? His discomfort rattles me. All I need to know is what to do and I’ll do it. And I say this to him, more than once. Tell me what you need and if it is within my power to give it to you, I will. But I don’t speak dog and he doesn’t speak people.
I hit the Internet and find that the nighttime pacing and panting has a name. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome. And yes, there’s a pill for it. In Zen practice we call this old age, sickness and death and there is no pill. If there was, you better believe I’d take it.
Once, in exasperation at his unexpected behavior, I ask him “Who ARE you?”
I answered for him. “I’m me. And I’m dying.”
Early in my practice I took a weeklong retreat with Thich Naht Hanh. He was a wonderful teacher with a gentle presence, and as I sat day after day through his two-hour Dharma talks I heard his simple message many times. Present moment. Wonderful moment. I took it on faith.
Many of my moments that year—and for a couple of years after—were not too wonderful. In fact a good chunk of them were downright miserable, depressing or stressful.
Now, as a Zen student with a decade of practice under my belt, I have my personal experience to fall back on but I still lean on faith.
My teacher has admonished me that I tend to want to game the system. I’m looking for a short cut, something to get me out of the heavy lifting, the tedious sitting month in, month out. I’m looking for an angle.
Sitting alone with my boy at night, loving him so much, wanting to do the best for him but at a loss as to how to comfort him or ease his path, I come up against a brick wall. There is no angle. Not even a remote possibility of a shortcut or a way around or under the inevitable. There is only me being with him this moment and the next and, I hope, the moment after that.
What I have been taught all the years of my Zen practice is made real to me. It’s not about the doing; it’s about the being. The true, in fact the only, commitment I can make to him and expect to be able to keep, is to be with him and be present to him. To listen to him and, ultimately, to get out of his way and let him die the way he wants to die.
And as it turns out, standing in the middle of the road at night with only the light of a waning moon and the neighbors cozy porch lights, a hoot owl in the distance and a cool breeze carrying a hint of rain is a fine thing. Much better than TV or Facebook.
It also transpires that the freedom for me to put my purse down on the ground without the threat of marauding canines is a very small freedom that I am not willing to fight for. I’m more inclined to tip it upside down and share the wealth.
Wally’s pacing and whimpering and panting wake me up to myself as well as to him, and we see many dawns together and lose ourselves in the mutual wonder of the lightening sky and the busy birdsong.
Present moment. Wonderful moment. Him: In the night staring unseeing and sniffing the air for long, long minutes; rising up unsteadily on his back legs for comfort; the unexpected playfulness and the long deep sleeps. Me: counting not only my breaths but his breaths; making the food and cleaning the bowls; watching and sitting and holding. Present moment. Wonderful moment. Until there are no more moments left.
Editor’s note: This article was completed by sangha member Mary Jotai Rosendale just as she learned that her canine companion, Wally Barker, had liver cancer. Wally subsequently died while he was in surgery.