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Ready

Dameron Marsh, Virginia

I’ve had a series of dog dreams since Stellar died. Symbolic or otherwise, they have featured greyhounds, a Great Dane, others I’ve forgotten, and dear old Stellar, younger. People ask me now and then if I’m thinking about getting another dog. Of course, I reply. But not until after winter. What kind, they ask. I don’t know. Whatever kind shows up at the right time. Maybe a puppy, maybe an old dog, or maybe two whose people died and they need to be adopted together. Maybe a dog that just shows up in the yard, or on the side of the road, or maybe I’ll go to a shelter–when I’m ready. But for now, I’m enjoying not having to get up at the crack of dawn and go outside in the freezing winter morning; enjoying lots of quiet time while no one is depending on me.

And frankly, I’m still recovering from the intensity of the mutual devotion during Stellar’s last months, even years; in fact, of his whole life. He was like no other dog, no other relationship. We were continuously connected at the heart and the soul from the moment I first held him. I still look up from the kitchen counter sometimes expecting him to be lying there across the living room; I still jolt a bit when I drive home from somewhere and he isn’t here to greet me. So I’m not in a hurry to get another dog. So don’t send me anymore dogs on Facebook that need a new home, or even mention a catahoula pup.

However, there’s been some comfort in the dreams. I had another one this morning. Stellar and Raven and the new dog were romping in a field as I watched. Suddenly Stellar took off like a streak across the field and I called after him but he didn’t stop. Raven looked at me, then took off running after him, and the new dog followed them both. “Hey!” I yelled, “Stellar! Raven! Come back here! Hey–!” I realized I didn’t know what to call the new dog. I didn’t know his name yet! He looked a lot like Stellar, almost a clone, just a lot younger and a tiny bit smaller. “Hey! Come back!” But they all disappeared over the hill.

Fred and Mary pulled up in their blue VW bug, and I got in, and we started tracking the dogs. We drove for endless miles up the east coast, catching sight of them once in a while and then losing them. Hours… We drove by a big-box store parking lot, and saw a few people around a couple of pickup trucks who were trying to round up three dogs and collar them. “We’ve gotta check,” I cried, “those could be my dogs!” But they weren’t. We drove on through the parking lot, and there on the far side, frolicking along a stream, were Raven, Stellar, and the new dog.

Bennett Spring State Park, Missouri

“Stellar, come!” I called, and he did, and I called Raven, and she came, and I tried to call the new dog but remembered that I didn’t know his name yet, but that was okay because he just followed the other dogs right into the back seat of the VW bug, and they all piled on top of each other with me in the middle, and I was so relieved. We were all laughing. I said, “I don’t even know this guy’s name yet.” Fred mentioned a friend who had looked after him a couple of times, and said, “She told me his name.”

“What?” I asked, “What’s his name?”

And Fred said, “Ready. His name is Ready.”

Sweet Dreams

Today I’m grateful for sweet dreams of Stellar. I’ve had a few. They make him feel not quite so gone. This morning’s was the sweetest so far. We lived in suburbs much like where I grew up, houses with backyards connecting, streets that meandered in neighborhoods. Stellar was gimpy but okay and we went for a walk to a little park nearby. Across the street and up the hill a guy came out of his house with a greyhound on a leash. Stellar took off running to see the new dog, and I followed, assuring the guy that it was okay. I was delighted to see him moving so well. He got there and greeted the greyhound and then wagged and pranced around as another dog came out. As the neighbor and I stood talking, Stellar got excited about something and ran over to a tall tree.

For a moment there was both Stellar on the ground and a bald eagle leaping into the tree. The eagle was gimpy too, so he had to hop up the birch tree from branch to branch. Higher up there was a hawk, and the two of them danced around from limb to limb for a few minutes cordially assessing one another. Then Stellar hopped up farther to the hawk’s nest. I worried there might be chicks in the nest and he might eat them, but he poked his white head into the nest and sniffed, then stepped away.

A few minutes later a little hawk chick stuck its grey spiky head out. Then it fledged, and another chick fledged–they were bigger by then–and Stellar approached the larger chick and put his beak on the chick’s neck. I worried he might grab it and shake it, but he simply touched it gently with his bill and looked down at me. He had that same look in his eagle eyes as he does above. We stood below and marveled at the four raptors in the tree.

It was time to head home, so I stood beneath the tree and patted my outstretched arm. “Come on down, baby, time to go home.” Eagle Stellar hopped down branch to branch and landed softly on my arm, and we turned to leave. He was still happy and rambunctious after his adventure in the tree, and of course he couldn’t fly because of his gimpy wing, so I cradled him in my arms as we crossed through back yards on our way home. “Gooood boy,” I crooned, “I’m so proud of you…”

Then the damn alarm went off, jolting me out of the dream. But I woke with a smile, and the sweet sensation that Stellar is out there in his bardo trying on potential new identities, thinking he might like to come back as an eagle in his next life.

Propane

I was going to write about gratitude for propane, a natural gas/petroleum derivative that I hate having to use to live on solar power but have relied on for thirty years to fuel my backup generator during cloudy stretches in winter. I’ve also been using it for my cooking stove, and for about fifteen years for my refrigerator, until I bought a high-efficiency Sunfrost. This winter I have to use the generator almost every night to keep the batteries charged until morning; they are on their last legs, but the new batteries on order have been delayed for months because of ubiquitous supply chain issues. Now they won’t arrive til “after the first of the year.” That could mean May, as far as I know. So I am grateful for propane, which is currently giving the sun a big assist in electrifying my house, enabling the refrigerator, freezer, water pump, lights, TV, radio, etc., to function in the manner to which I have become accustomed. And I’m grateful to have been getting my power mostly from the sun for the past thirty years.

So, I was going to research propane and write about it. But when I opened Photos to search for a relevant image, for some random cosmic reason this one showed up, mama Raven and her baby brother Stellar shortly after he arrived here almost fourteen years ago. And that melted my heart and rendered me useless for the rest of the night. I am so grateful to have had these two remarkable, beautiful, brilliant dogs as my companions for the most recent quarter of my life; I’m grateful that I recognized and celebrated that gratitude almost every day of their presence in it.

Nine Lives

I’m grateful that cats have nine lives. Ojo burned through his pretty fast, but at six-and-a-half, Topaz may have used up only three or four of hers. I’m grateful that she is almost back to normal after her catastrophic tumble a few weeks ago. The past couple of mornings she’s gone for a short walk with me in the woods, and I was thrilled to see her lay back her ears and run to catch up and keep on running past me. That’s when I knew she was… well, out of the woods. She’s still a little bit extra spooky, but more like herself each passing day.

Topaz relaxes at home a couple of days after her miraculous return.

She used up at least one of her lives when she got kidnapped right before the pandemic started. We figure she may have lost one or two more during the month she was missing, living all alone in late winter over in the wilds around Buckskin Pass, surviving on what she could catch and possibly stolen kibble from nearby farms.

Topaz helping me harvest apricots the summer before last; we were grateful for a mountainous crop that year.
Every girl loves a little bling. I’m grateful for this sweet necklace and the dear friend who gave it to me, and so is Topaz. I’m grateful for my one remaining little fur friend.

How Much I Learned

Baby Stellar with Uncle Brick in 2008

At the risk of seeming maudlin I am remembering, reviewing, calling to mind the details of Stellar’s last days. How time lost its linearity. 

I shared my life with him. There is no one now to turn to and smile. I would finish writing a bit at the desk, and turn to him, and smile. Wanna go for a walk? I’d stoke the fire, close the glass stove doors, turn back to the living room and there he is watching me from his bed, and I smile. Sometimes I’d move on to my next step in the day, or the evening, or sometimes I’d drop to all fours, crawl to lie down beside him, stroke his luxurious living coat, and notice, really notice, the feel of his scruff, rolling the folds of his neck flesh in my fingers, his thick silky fur… the pliability of his white chest star… the specific warmth of the breath from his nostrils across my skin, the hairs on my own forearm… I savored every living moment with him. I’m grateful for how much I learned during this extended interaction, this meditation with death.

Stellar and Topaz, equals and skeptical friends, last March, when we were all still walking the driveway. Topaz continues to improve gradually.

I may have made mistakes, made some choices based on less than accurate understandings of reality, but I believe I did the best that I could: stretching, giving, surrendering, loving with less and less condition… What I did next always involved him, whatever choice I made, to go in or outside, a short or long walk, watch TV or read, what I ate sometimes, where I was at every waking instant always involved him. I’m grateful to be able to recall vividly now, because I paid attention at the time, how he slowly settled when I stroked his shoulder, his back, how he relaxed onto his side and lay down his sweet head; how I held those acupressure pulses in his feet til he stretched his back legs with a big sigh. Later, that last month, how it soothed him when I whispered the mantra. And my attention was riveted on him even in my sleep, waking and analyzing the slightest sound from downstairs. Living in dedication to him brought out the best in me. He made it easy to embody my highest values. He was an inspiration, a Buddha dog.

May Stellar enjoy positive conditions,

High rebirth, happiness and peace,

May he meet the perfect teacher,

And quickly attain perfect enlightenment

For the benefit of all living beings without exception.

Sea of Love

Stellar plays a trick on Raven at Hughlett Point. He thinks she can’t see him! She is perplexed! Romp ensues.

Today I am grateful for community, above all. I’m also grateful for flexibility and strength, my own and others’. I didn’t expect to have to euthanize Stellar, and hoped not to; but that was ultimately the right choice. After toodling along at his own pace, with occasional expressions of discomfort and frustration, but plenty of seeming ease and happy interaction, eager to remain engaged with life, there was a sudden change about ten p.m. Thursday night. Thus ensued a night of horrible suffering for him, and utter helplessness for me. There’s a great disparity between what’s available for hospice care for a person v. what’s available for hospice care for a dog. The meds in my arsenal simply couldn’t touch his pain for several hours. My knowledge of what to do was also lacking. By around 4 a.m. I was finally able to get him drugged enough to relax. We drifted in and out of sleep together on the floor.

Stellar begins his last car ride, surrounded by love.

A wee-hour email to a friend resulted in an informal vet consult and kind advice at sunup (thank you, K&D). A text to Dr. Tam at 5 led to a short whispered phone call at six, and by the time offices opened at 8, I was making calls trying to find a vet to come here, without success. Several of Stellar’s and my friends rallied around, and converged here at 9:15. Four of us carried him on his blanket out to the van, and settled him on a soft bed. I crawled in and lay curled around him. He never opened his eyes or raised his head. Garden Buddy and Uncle Bill drove me to Houseweart Vet in magnanimous silence. Deb and Rosie set to deepening and lengthening the grave Stellar had been working on for years, under his favorite tree.

When we crossed the river, Stellar raised his head. He knew exactly where we were. There’s a pullover where we used to park and let him run down along the river any time we drove that way. Even though it’s been a year since we’ve done that, wow, those dogs never forget. From then on, he occasionally raised his head and laid it on the console, as he would for any other car ride, any other journey. It was a beautiful thing to see, his calm, his interest, his acceptance, ok, we’re going for a ride! The rest of the time he laid his sweet head down beside mine, peaceful.

At the vet, it couldn’t have gone better. He lifted his head for one last pet from GB, then turned and pressed his forehead against mine in a profoundly moving gesture of connection. Then he settled back into our spoon where he remained calmly through the procedure. Dr. H said, “He’s going to need a BIG hole!” I said, “There are a couple of girls back home digging one now.” He said, “I mean a backhoe hole!”

I cried all the way home. When I paused from crying over Stellar, I looked into the front seats and wept again at the enormous kindness of my staunch, wise, compassionate friends, who took this time out of their day to help us. And they didn’t say a word all the way home; they simply let me grieve in peace within the comforting support of their noble silence, as if knowing that I couldn’t stand to hear a word of condolence.

Not a backhoe, just the right tools for the job, and the power of love.

I pulled myself together when we got home. My gravediggers suggested I take a look to be sure it was right before we carried him down there. I walked to the favorite tree and was staggered by the size of the hole my two lady friends of a certain age had managed to dig, and the enormous mound of dirt beside it. I burst into tears again. I was not alone in that. Rosie said it best: “He was a very good boy.”

Stellar curled up for the final time under his favorite tree.

There are millions of acts of kindness and compassion every day around the world, which we tend to forget because we never hear about them in the ‘news.’ Yesterday I was overwhelmed with keen awareness of the kindness of others. And the texts, voice messages, emails, and gifts dropped off since yesterday noon have kept my heart buoyed in a sea of love. Stellar loved everyone. He was the epitome of loving-kindness: he brought a sincere intention of friendliness to everyone he met. Many people loved Stellar in their own ways, and his life and death touched them deeply. I’m grateful that I got to be steward of a dog with such a big heart and extensive loving influence.

The Boyz came for lunch today, and to finish filling in the grave. I’m grateful for their comfortable, easy presence in my life, and for the love that they both held for Stellar. And he was devoted to them, could hardly contain his excitement even in his last weeks, when his Boyz came over to be with him.

I’m grateful that a new, unknown friend in Australia shared an excerpt from this poem for me, after I told the story of Stellar’s demise in our monthly zoom meeting; an excerpt in which his mother had switched pronouns and sent him in a card a couple of weeks ago after his own dear dog Oscar had been run over and killed.

Her Grave
by Mary Oliver

She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin
from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile—–
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her
cunning elbows,
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming
perfect arch of her neck.

It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but, anyway, it began to rain
slowly.

Her wolfish, invitational, half-pounce.

Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something.

My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash
of happiness as she barged
through the pitch pines swiping my face with her
wild, slightly mossy tongue.

Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat?
He is wiser than that, I think.

A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky.

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her long slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing.

Does the water snake with his backbone of diamonds think
the black tunnel on the bank of the pond is a palace
of his own making?

She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back, or
wait for me, or be somewhere.

Now she is buried under the pines.

Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and
not to be angry.

Through the trees is the sound of the wind, palavering

The smell of the pine needles, what is it but a taste
of the infallible energies?

How strong was her dark body!

How apt is her grave place.

How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.

Finally,
the slick mountains of love break
over us.

After a twelve hour sleep last night, I am strong and stable in my grief today. There is emptiness everywhere I turn; and also, there is his presence in the space around me, and in the space within. I woke feeling skinless and raw. I’m grateful for the opportunity to grow into a new skin of unknown qualities. I hope to bring Stellar’s boundless heart into the person I become without him.

Flowers from my dear neighbor today on Stellar’s so apt grave place.

Travels with Dogs

Stellar leaps a wall at Seneca Rock in West Virginia.

I’m so grateful for travels with dogs through the years, and tons of digital photographs to remember them with. It’s delightful to take these journeys again with Stellar and Raven as I peruse years worth of images from our many trips back and forth across the country. As Stellar’s journey through this life winds down, I’m grateful for the memories.

Stellar races along a state park lakeshore in Oklahoma.
Stellar and Raven romp at the same beach.
Stellar bites a stream in Tennessee.
They were both such good little travelers.
Stellar runs along a lakeshore in Connecticut
They made the most of being tied to picnic tables at various campgrounds, like this one in South Llano State Park, Texas.
… and these, and many others, in various state parks.
They were good on-leash… pretty sure this was at a Tonto National Forest visitor center. Many of these pictures were taken with my first digital camera, which lacked a GPS feature, and the files have lost their context through several software upgrades. So has my memory for those details.
… and off-leash, most of the time, though Stellar is the only dog I’ve ever had who was reliably well-behaved when loose. Wilson Arch, Utah.
We crossed quite a few bridges together, on foot and in vehicles, and in our lives. Crowley’s Ridge State Park, Arkansas.
One of our favorite places on the planet, Hughlett Point Natural Area Preserve on the Chesapeake Bay. At the time we roamed it freely it was an Audubon preserve.

As Stellar lies dying, I roam through these images, remembering him at the peak of his vitality, and tell him of these adventures: all the beautiful parks and creeks and beaches, the forests and deserts and picnic tables, the friends and family we visited.

Stellar and Raven fit right in whenever we went back to their birthplace, Dog World in Florida, where every morning began with a sunrise walk for the whole family: Their mother and father, one brother, an uncle, a cousin, and little Chigger, who ruled the catahoulas. Plus David, top dog of all.

Each image, each memory, validates my choice to let my best friend live his life to the end as long as I can keep him comfortable, as I would for any other beloved person for whom I had the responsibility. When he was a tiny puppy, I could see the dog he would become; in the prime of his life I could see in him the tiny puppy he once was and the tired old man he would become; now that he is that tired old dog, I see the fullness of his life in each glance, each caress–through it all he has been the epitome, the best dog ever on the whole planet. I don’t begrudge him this time of total focus, after the years of unconditional devotion, protection, and delight that he’s given me.

A Quiet Sunday

I’m grateful for a quiet Sunday, as I often am. Life outside the house went on as usual, with the handsome buck who’s been grazing around for a few days visiting the apricot tree, sandhill cranes narrating overhead their migration south, high clouds providing light cover; magpies flocking through the yarden, and thousands of tiny lives being lived under the ground, in bark, in leaves, in trees, in grasses. Late morning Stellar gathered energy and we walked him out to his favorite tree. He lay around for awhile as I gathered seeds from marigolds, lettuce, calendula, fennel, radishes, and more, to save for late winter and spring planting. We both enjoyed time outside. When he was ready, we came back inside and went about our day, he resting and watching as I worked, wrote, laundered, tidied, cleaned, made food for us, napped beside him, did the crossword, read. I’m grateful for adapting to the flow of circumstance, dwelling deeply in the present. I’m grateful for a quiet Sunday much like any other in our years together, now winding down toward bedtime. Simple pleasures, no expectations, no regrets.

Stellar at noon today, resting under his favorite tree.
Stellar at five with his little friend Badger.

Home Cooking with Stellar

It was a frenzied morning, in a good way, and a relief to finally sit down with coffee and the cinnamon bun that Honey Badger brought me yesterday. I’m grateful for the ongoing support of my community, friends who have known Stellar all of his life, too, and care about him and about me. Their offers to pick up and drop off things in town for me have enabled me to devote my energy to this remarkable process of hospice caring for my best friend.

Garden Buddy brought over muffins and tortellini minestrone this morning; she and her guys were on their way to run errands, including a couple of mine. I let the soup thaw in the fridge for tomorrow. I needed to do something with the last eggplants before they disappeared in the back of the produce drawer and had to end up compost. I’ve been planning this dish for weeks, and trying to get it made for days. I’m grateful I had energy today to make this time-consuming but utterly worth it recipe.

I’m grateful for farm fresh eggs from the Bad Dog Ranch, as well as homemade marinara and eggplants from my own garden.

We missed Amy, but I sure enjoyed a leisurely couple of hours meandering between the joy of cooking with a martini in the kitchen, and paying attention to Stellar in the living room. He watched me the whole time, and persuaded me to turn off the TV and turn on some soft instrumental jazz; then he tried out his howl just to see if I’d come, which I naturally did. I’m grateful for a relaxing evening home cooking with Stellar.

The three-step coating process supposedly guaranteed a crispy fried eggplant…
… and indeed they were perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. I had to try one. The rest I layered in the casserole dish with marinara and fresh mozzarella, then baked for forty minutes.
Stellar agitated for more food the whole time I was cooking, and finally consented to patience when I explained that he’d get his own bowl of dinner when it was finished.
I mixed his with a bit of kibble just to stretch it, and he loved it.
He also loved dessert, even though it was only a spoonful.
I’m grateful for my fingers in the feathers of his neck fur, and the feel of his warm velvety ear.

Everyone’s death is as uniquely their own as their lives are. He’s slowly going. I’m in no rush. The more I surrender to what is, settle into the moments that we have left, the less anxious I am about it. I’m grateful for these sweet evenings we’ve been sharing for months, now winding down; grateful for one more evening with him, knowing they’re running out.

Practice

Stellar and his sister Moonshine at about ten days old, held in the loving arms of my dear friend Chris, their ‘birth’ mother.
Stellar at four, helping in the office.

It was a rough day. Stellar woke crying in the night, and I spent the rest of it in and out of sleep on the floor beside him. He wanted to go out in the morning but couldn’t walk. I spoke with his vet to get clear instructions about palliative dosages for his pills, and the cold reality of the ways mammals die colored the rest of the day. He got himself up late afternoon and went outside, begging for a walk. We tried, but his back legs just dragged in the sling, and he kept heading to the right, going in circles if he didn’t encounter an obstacle like a sagebrush or my leg. I could barely move him along, and found myself crossly impatient.

I’m grateful for the introspective skills I learned in mindfulness training, so I could observe my reaction with gentle curiosity. We were never far from the fenced yarden, yet the prospect of his falling down and not being able to get him back inside made me anxious; that and some other inconveniences, and being so tired… it was a rough day. But now he’s sleeping, and I’m sleepy, and off to bed. I’m grateful for friends who care and understand, and offered help with some errands this week. I’m grateful for perspective, support, the forgiveness of unconditional love, and another day tomorrow to practice.

Stellar and Raven romping in the high country on a hike with Rosie nine autumns ago.