On the Death of a Canine Friend

I don’t know that this is the appropriate place to blog about death, but I figure death involves all of us, and is often the stuff of stories, so why not.

So over the course of the last couple of days, we’ve been in the process of watching our twelve-year-old German Shepherd die. I’ve never watched anything die, not in real time, not from natural causes. It is surreal and horrible and reveals to you your own helplessness in a way you didn’t think possible. You watch your animal being so much nobler and more contained about it than you, you wonder what they’re thinking, you know there is so much more going on in them than you can conceive, that their relationship with death is so very different from ours.

In the case of Hiro, he’s always been a hyper, anxious, rambunctiously energetic dog who’s retained a manic puppy-like energy until about a week ago. For years, he had us frantically consulting trainers and trying every method in the book to get him to calm down, shy of medicating him, which we did consider. Just recently, we were so at our wit’s end that we wondered if finding him another home—say, a huge ranch somewhere—might help him burn off his boundless energy, since clearly our tiny yard and daily walks weren’t cutting it. Several trainers confirmed that he’s the kind of dog who needs constant, moment-to-moment reinforcement of boundaries, a feat of which I know I’m not entirely capable. He is the extrovert of dogs, in need of constant interaction, discipline, direction.

We did the best we could. We did our best to rigorously exercise him, to try to enforce boundaries without devoting 100% of our lives and attention to managing him.

That being said, I spent a great deal of time impatient and frustrated with him. He excelled as a trier-of-patience, this dog.

And then, two months ago, I accidentally stumbled upon the miraculous—that he responds to literal whispering. I realized he might have some kind of unusual hearing issue. If I am using even a regular speaking voice, he remains openly agitated and reluctant to obey. If I almost whisper to him, he responds instantly. No dog I’ve ever encountered has been quite like this. I understand the “calm and assertive” part of dog training, but this is something unusual. It almost works like a sedative, for him, to speak to him in very very low near-whisper tones, and no higher. And suddenly my wild, barely manageable dog was mild-mannered and calm, settling himself down with no complaint, behaving like I’d never seen him behave before. I have no idea what this is, if it’s simply that his hearing is extra sensitive, or something else. Regardless, it works.

And now, of course, I am waylaid with regret, a feeling utterly unhelpful to my dog at the moment. The wave of remorse feels so huge I can only abstractly conceive of it right now, of how big and bad it might be soon. I am trying with every fiber of my being not to think about the fact that it was only two months ago that I realized this. Trying to tell myself that perhaps in dog-time, two months might feel like years, in which case he had years of being spoken to in a way that somehow calmed or soothed him. Years in which he occupied the world in a way that felt right and whole to him. That maybe those two precious months canceled all the time he spent agitated, nervous, and unable to tell me what he needed.

Do I know intellectually that it’s ridiculous to blame myself or expect myself to have known this obscure thing that might help my unusual dog, when no so-called expert had ever suggested literally whispering to him? Yes, I do know. But still, but still. I really do wish I’d had at least another couple of years to give him the life I was always trying to give him but didn’t know how.

Right now I am trying to summon memories that will help me be calm for him, rather than the mess I’d like to be. I am trying to think about the time I cheered him on when he got in the water at Town Lake with me for the first time, desperate to keep me in sight, braving one of his worst fears (the water) to do so. And then the delighted surprise in his eyes as he discovered the fun of paddling around. I’m remembering his love of daily routines and rituals. Remembering watching him dodge manhole covers for reasons known only to him.

And I am trying not to let him see me fall apart, as I watch this beautiful animal’s innate wisdom come to the fore as he quietly, gracefully prepares for his own death. He lies still and calm, preserving his energy, his eyes tracking me. But there’s no fear in them. I feel like I can see all his ancestral wisdom there, reassuring me. I know he forgives me, and that he just wants me to be close right now. I feel like we are both locked in a very still and sacred space, a time capsule, waiting, very clear about things. He has loved me and forgiven me when I didn’t know how to help him, when he was agitated for reasons he couldn’t control. I believe he knew his mommy was trying, that I meant well, that I loved him.

I dearly hope I have the chance to be as present to anyone or anything else in my life that is dying. There is something that happens, I feel and know that now, some grace that is asked of us that expands us in the giving, and makes life deeper and richer and also more horrid, that strips away certainty. In this case, it leaves us only with the quiet grace of an animal who knows it’s time to go, who isn’t sentimental at all. He is teaching me right now. And I’m so grateful. I don’t have a tenth of his wisdom about death. I hope I stay open, let all of it in, and let it change me.

Note: Hiro died hours after I wrote this. He passed in the care of a compassionate and loving vet staff, in our arms, noble and still and very ready.

And now it is time to be a mess, and to remember, and to try my best to allow in whatever it is death can teach us. I know that’s what my boy would want.

Hiro, 2001-2013

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