09 July 2008

Death by inches

My beloved dog Cricket is slowly slipping away. I keep thinking each day might be her last, and yet she keeps on surprising me, as she has all along with her longevity (she's 17).

Waiting for death to come is a profound and holy experience. It has its moments of extreme sadness, but it is also a unique opportunity to observe up close what the approach of death looks like, something which I will one day have to go through myself. There is also a peacefulness about it. She is not in pain, just losing her appetite, slowly losing weight, and spending most of her time asleep. When she needs to pee, she is still walking out the door on her own. She still likes to spend time lying out on the front lawn enjoying the summer breeze, taking in the scents, watching people walk by, barking at the occasional dog.

A friend of mine who is a composer likened this phase, the winding down of Cricket's life, to the coda at the end of a piece of music, which often builds up anticipation for the end so that when it comes there is a sense of resolution. My friend understood why I'd decided against euthanasia. As she put it, "Euthanasia takes away the coda, and jumps you straight to the end without preparing you for it."

I've been reading Henri Nouwen's Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring. He writes of how being in solidarity with those who are dying can heal us of our fear of death. "Only when we are willing to let their dying help us to die well will we be able to help them to live well. When we can face death with hope, we can live life with generosity."

As humans approach death, we become more and more dependent on others and have to let go of our own abilities and receive the gift of others' caring. (I'm guessing it's somewhat the same with dogs.) Nouwen writes, "Through our caring presence, we keep announcing that sacred truth: dying is not a sweet, sentimental event; it is a great struggle to surrender our lives completely. This surrender is not an obvious human response. To the contrary: we want to cling to whatever is left." But when we surrender to this most common human experience, instead of fighting against it, we can have a good death. "If we grow in awareness that our mortality, more than anything else, will lead us into solidarity with others, then death can become a celebration of our unity with the human race."

Cricket seems not to be quite ready to let go. She has been trying valiantly to rally, perhaps because she doesn't want to leave me and knows I'll miss her terribly. But as her body gradually shuts down, she seems to be becoming more resigned to the fact that she won't be living forever, at least not in this body. I don't know if she knows what she'll be transitioning to, but I believe our canine friends will be with us in eternity. I can't imagine the God of love not letting that be so for these blessed creatures who give us such unconditional love.


Iambic Admonit said...

I love this photo. It's amazing. Poignant, quietly stated, profound. Thanks.

Marian said...

I came across your stories of Cricket as I was researching water therapy for my 13 1/2 dog who is recovering from ccl surgery. I feel so very sad because I know my Annie is slowing down and will one day no longer be with us. But reading your blog has also reminded me to appreciate her all the more and to treasure the time we have left with her. Thank you for sharing your stories.

Rosie Perera said...

Marian, I'm glad my blog has been helpful to you. I am praying that you will have a very special time with Annie for as much longer as she has to live. Peace be with you.


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