I’m grateful today for the satisfaction of doing what I had to do, for work, for dogs, for the house and yarden. Grateful for curiosity which has allowed me to slow down and observe without attachment. Grateful for the satisfaction delivered by a BLT with leftover chicken. Grateful to go to bed after a long day, without being too hard on myself or anyone else, and with only some minor regrets. Grateful for mindfulness practice.
Tonight, I’m grateful for cold cuts, among other things. Stellar’s vet made a house call this morning, and I’m very grateful for that. He hasn’t seen a vet in person since the spring, when his blood counts were all good and her second opinion was that she couldn’t offer more for his lameness than Dr. TLC had him on already. And so we tottered along through summer, before he really began to decline about six weeks ago.
Dr. TLC’s diagnosis today is that he has internal bleeding, likely from a cancer somewhere in his abdomen. Cancer runs in his family. His litter-sister died of cancer just about a year ago. This came as no surprise to me, and I’m grateful to have more clarity about what’s going on with him, and a lot more options for comfort meds as we enter the palliative care phase with an official prognosis rather than simply my intuition. He seems much more comfortable tonight than he’s been for awhile.
Today was a hectic scramble. I returned from the grocery store after PT and began sorting all the dog meds on my kitchen counter. Stellar’s on to the last few pill-wrapper treats, and Rocky doesn’t like to take his pills either. Who does? So I bought some new varieties of cold cuts to hide them in. So far so good on their end with the ultra-thin sliced honey roasted turkey breast, and I enjoyed snacking on a slice also while loading theirs with pills. I haven’t eaten cold cuts (except in store-bought sandwiches) since I was in college. I don’t remember the last time, or if ever, I kept any in my refrigerator. And when Stellar’s gone, so will be the cold cuts. But for now, they’re very helpful, and tasty too. So I’m grateful for cold cuts.
I’ll admit to a bit of stress this past week since Stellar’s seizure. Actually, watching his decline over the past few months has been stressful, though I’ve been coping well. It’s felt good this weekend to have accomplished some things, and given myself permission to relax. Rocky arrived this morning for a couple of days, and the three of us spent the whole day in the garden. Rocky is recovering from ACL surgery, and Stellar is moving along on his own journey, and I was content to spend the day with them in a shady little corner of the garden reading, writing, and occasionally getting up to do a little work with the plants. I’m grateful for relaxing today.
I’m also grateful for those of you who have expressed concern for Stellar, and for me. Thank you. Please don’t be anxious for us. While he’s now on a path that is ineluctably downhill (from one perspective), he seems to take two steps down and then rebound one. He may be around for a lot longer than I thought last week, and then again, he could go out with another seizure at any moment. This is the searing uncertainty that we all live with when we choose to accompany someone we love through their dying process. The hardest part is when he gets agitated and confused. His vet is coming by tomorrow, and I hope she’ll give me something to help him with that. Meanwhile, rest assured that unless I mention otherwise, he is toodling along at his own pace, and we are both ok with it. I’ll post a special edition of Morning Rounds when he takes his last step and ascends to Doggie Heaven, because that is surely where he will go; or else straight to the realm of enlightened beings, and those two places may just be the same.
Today I’m grateful for this strange little cantaloupe, and also for having another day with Stellar. I lay again with him outside in the garden for several hours this afternoon, thinking This is is, before he got up ready for a walk. My capacity for patience grows. Patience only begins when you run out of it.
We’ve been planning it for weeks. I chose traditional Greek moussaka because I wanted something to do with the Navdanya eggplants I grew. I’m not a huge eggplant fan (we had a falling out many years ago), but I want to like them. This Asian variety is hardy in this climate, and gave more fruits than any previous eggplant I’ve grown. This moussaka recipe calls for potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and eggplant, all of which I was delighted, and grateful, to provide from my own back yard.
Even the tomato paste came from my garden! It is such a gratifying feeling to reach in the freezer and pull out a cube of homemade tomato paste, all that summer distilled into one little frozen block. The lamb in the meat sauce came from a nice rancher I know in the next valley over. It was a busy day, so I fit in making the first sauce with my morning coffee…
…and I whipped up a quick béchamel on my lunch break. With both sauces in the fridge I went to teach my first mindfulness class, filled with gratitude for all the day had brought so far.
Stellar rallied this morning after a long night’s sleep, eager to take a walk, and excited to see Mr. Wilson when he came to cut up slab wood for the stove. Stellar spent most of the morning here by the gate, one of his all-time favorite locations, keeping watch over his domain as always. I’m grateful for another day with him, and I showered him with attention every chance I got.
“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
After class, and another short walk with Stellar, wheezing as he went, it was right back to zoom cooking with Amy. Our first task was to slice the eggplants a centimeter thick, salt them, and set in a colander.
Three of the precious few russet potatoes lent their texture and flavor as the bottom layer in this recipe. As the eggplants baked, the potatoes were sliced, fried first, then layered into a buttered pan…
One layer of eggplant covers the potato layer, which in turn gets covered by the meat sauce…
Another eggplant layer, topped with the béchamel sauce, and shredded parmesan…
And baked til golden brown! Amy has the patience of a saint. She’s two hours ahead, so she didn’t even sit down to eat til after nine p.m.
I’m grateful for a full day with lots of meaningful connection, celebrating joy in the face of sorrow, attending to a full range of emotions and letting them flow through. I’m grateful for Stellar’s resilience, rainclouds, mindfulness practice, teaching, a warm evening fire in the woodstove, and zoom cooking with Amy, moussaka edition. I’m sure I’m grateful for way more than that that I can’t remember, and I’m grateful for the warm soft bed I’m heading to now.
I’m grateful that I made choices along the way that led me to be in this life, right now, right here. I could have done so much worse for myself. I could hardly have done better. I’m grateful for so many things in this life, friends, this community, this place. I’m grateful for all the amenities I’ve mentioned before, for the ancient forest around me, the animals both tame and wild who’ve shared my world. I’m grateful for the teachers, the ancestors, the fruits of their labors and of my practice. I’m grateful for this life in which I can make time to lie in the garden with my old dog for hours as he finds his way out of this life. I’m grateful for this life in which I have come to know patience, acceptance, surrender, and joy in the face of suffering.
It’s been a sweet and peaceful day at Mirador. Stellar seems more comfortable than he’s been in a week, and so am I. Having made the decision yesterday, I’m at ease with whatever happens next. And after that. And next after that…
He slept well, moved well (relatively), ate well, and napped well. He doesn’t breathe so well when he walks, but he remains eager to go for one when I ask, and we took four short walks between sunup and sundown. I worked at the computer, in the kitchen, and in the garden intermittently. It rained overnight, and again this evening. I’m grateful for one more precious day with him.
I’m also grateful for my decision: we are both more relaxed than we’ve been in a long time. Even though I told him repeatedly over the past month, as his condition deteriorated, that it was all ok, that everything was fine, that he was the best dog ever in the whole planet, he could feel that it was inconvenient, that I was annoyed with the flooded pee pads and the poops. He could tell the difference between what I said and my true feelings. What happened last night was total surrender to the way it is, so that it really is no longer an annoyance or an inconvenience. When I reaffirm the perspective that “I don’t mind what happens,” life is so much easier.
I’m grateful for the first batch of fermented hot sauce: yikes! Those Thai Dragons really give it a kick.
I’m grateful for harvesting the bulk of my eggplants today, in preparation for Zoom Cooking with Amy. We’re making Moussaka on Friday night.
I’m grateful for that tomato paste I cooked the other day. Today I scooped the frozen cubes out of the ice tray into a freezer bag for storage.
I’m grateful for the potatoes I grew. This afternoon I dug up the last of them, in anticipation of more rain. The KVNF Worms said it was fine to store them in the garden til freezing unless there was a big fall rain, which might make them sprout. I’m grateful for the little rain last night, and when it poured with lightning and thunder this evening, I was glad I had dug the potatoes this afternoon.
Just one little potato sprouted, so my timing was good to bring in the last of the Yukon Gold, russets, and red potatoes. I have a plan for the littlest of them, which will be revealed later.
I’m grateful for the leeks I grew, and for the gift of a chicken. I’ve been wanting to cook this skillet roasted chicken with caramelized leeks for awhile. So simple, so delicious! Stellar and I will both enjoy it for a few days. I’m grateful for friendship and support, and for one silver lining of Covid (and of contemplating death): reassessing my values and nurturing with more attention the relationships that nurture me.
Tonight, as I reflect on them, I’m grateful for all the dogs who’ve died on my watch. There was Sam, the pregnant stray I picked up in college; Knobby, who picked me up at a campground; Mocha, renowned for her sweetness; serious Mr. Brick, the golden bobtail, my first puppy; mischievous Raven, who died in my arms. Each of them died a different way.
I see growth over the course of this progression in my understandings of life and death. Karmically speaking, I can only hope that by the time dear Stellar dies, I’ve been able to purify the negative karma I incurred when I had Sam put down. The memories still traumatize: She won’t feel a thing, they assured me. She bucked and fought on the table, the whole time glaring at me in wide-eyed terror. It was the most horrible thing I’d experienced thus far in my young life. And the reason I did it? I’m ashamed to admit it, because now, knowing about no-kill shelters like Best Friends, I would never have even considered it. I rationalized it as the most compassionate thing to do, and it was the most compassionate way I knew at the time.
The object of my thoughts for days has been whether or not I could ever euthanize Stellar. During his seizure Sunday night, I was perhaps too willing to let him go, prematurely welcoming relief of my own suffering (and inconvenience, I have to admit). All this morning I perused online Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia. I spoke to his vet around noon, and she thinks he may have a bladder infection that’s exacerbating ‘everything else.’ So I drove to town this afternoon to pick up antibiotics.
I’ve had a couple of dreams in the past six weeks after which I vowed I would not have him put down. It’s never gone really well. The best deaths have been those rare affairs when a beloved dies on their own. A local vet came out after staving off Knobbydog’s time for a week; I ended up sleeping outside on the patio with him his last two nights before she came with the shots. A friend had helped me dig a grave down near the canyon rim: I’d never have had the courage to buy this land without the security of Knobbydog. He had a fast-growing cancer in his mouth, and was half dead by the time we took that last walk. As the vet strode briskly ahead down the trail, chatting, Knobby stopped to sniff the base of a juniper. After what seemed to me sufficient time (for his last long sniff, really?), I hurried him along. To his death.
We stood on the lookout rock together, the three of us, the vet chatting, Knobby sniffing the breeze and looking his last look into the canyon, I so sad. She gave him a sedative. After a few minutes she suggested we should walk to the graveside before he fell asleep. There under the Ancient One, I sat on the ground and held his knobby head in my lap, my arms around him, while she gave the lethal injection, chatting all the while about people I neither knew nor cared about. ‘Just shut UP!’ I kept screaming in my head. I have always regretted that I let myself feel rushed, and rushed him along. Also, I vowed to never have that vet come kill another pet for me.
So I had Doc Vincent come put down Mocha, when she could no longer rise for walk or food due to kidney failure. He was the exact opposite. He strode through the gate while I explained to Brick and Raven, and by the time I got inside he’d already wrapped the rubber around her leg. She, objecting, had crab-walked across the living room to get away from him. I gathered her into my lap on the couch and held her, cooing, while he finished the process. We had a communal funeral for her and Michael’s cat Luna, burying them both in the hole I’d dug to plant a peach tree the following spring. While that death went more smoothly, it still unsettled me. I happened too fast, and she was frightened. She didn’t understand.
Mr. Brick… I tried to let him die on his own. It was in the low twenties night after night, and he wouldn’t come inside. Paradoxically I both feared and hoped he would freeze to death, but he just hung on day after day. After days of pacing, he chose a favorite spot down by the pond and didn’t get up. But he didn’t die. Raven required a midnight run to the ER vet in Grand Junction. Stellar was a puppy and needed a lot of attention. I was exhausted. By then I’d come to believe that if I was going to do it, I should do it myself. So I consulted with another vet, gathered up my mom’s leftover morphine, some sleeping pills a friend kicked in, and my own Lorazepam prescription, and mixed up a brew, which I fed him with a syringe. But still I was impatient. It felt like hours and still he didn’t die. I feared then that he might wake up and keep living like a vegetable. I can’t write what I did next, but again, my intention was pure. Though again, tinged with concerns about convenience. Anyway, it worked, and I felt like he never woke up, though his head thrashed. Ack.
How much negative karmic imprint have I incurred so far? This is why Raven’s death was such a gift.
Some of the things I read this morning suggested that we listen to our pet; some argued that euthanasia is the compassionate option, others that it is the easy way out. Some raised the question of whose suffering are we trying to relieve? Many referred to the Buddhist precept of ‘no killing, not ever,’ and also used karma as a basis for ruling out euthanasia, both the pet’s karma and the person’s. Karma aside, since I’m still not clear in my understanding of nor faith in it, there was one argument that has stuck with me all day: The sense of betrayal and confusion a pet might feel when the loving hands that cuddled become the hands that kill. I thought of Sam, of course.
As I lay beside Stellar tonight, my forehead against his, stroking his soft ears, his thick ruff, his thin legs, it came clear to me. Just thinking about euthanasia had thrown a wall between us, was robbing my attention from whatever life remains to him. I chose to reaffirm my dream-inspired vow not to kill. There was an immediate sense of relief, a letting go, a flood of love released. We both relaxed. I reassured him as I did during the seizure that I will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s comfortable, and be fully present with him until his journey’s natural end. I committed to attend him with boundless patience. I felt deeply the true value of his precious life; understood viscerally for a moment the meaning of sentient being.
Maybe the antibiotics will slow down his inevitable demise, give him a few more walks in the woods, slow down the flow of pee and make him more comfortable; maybe not. He’s in doggie hospice now either way. Between the seizures and his deteriorating hind end it’s clear his neural pathways are failing. My mission is simply to ease his transition. I’m grateful for all the dead dogs that led me to this realization, and for the mindfulness practice that enables me to receive it with equanimity.
Many of Thursday’s tomatoes, above, turned into paste today. These Amish Paste tomatoes ranged from a smallish Roma style to a fat, almost-round fruit weighing half a pound. I grew three of these vines, but one died halfway through the summer. The other two are still ripening fruits, though most of them went into this batch of tomato paste.
I spent most of the day with tomatoes, all the while keeping an eye on Stellar. After our sunrise walk, he slept until after one, napped through the afternoon with a few forays outside, and only since it’s been dark a few hours has he become a bit restless. Meanwhile, the paste tomatoes roasted… then cooled, and then got pureed. Paste is the easiest thing to make–you don’t ever have to peel the tomatoes, just roast, cool, puree, then roast again–but it does take the longest.
The first roast is just halved tomatoes, for about an hour and a half at 350℉. Then the puréed mash roasts another few hours, with stirring every half hour. The mash concentrates over time…
…to a tangy, salty (just a sprinkle of kosher salt on the first roast, but as the tomatoey goodness condenses the ratio changes), sweet tomato essence. The easiest way to preserve and later use it is to freeze it in an ice tray. Once they’re solid, I’ll pop them out and seal them in a freezer bag to use one or two at a time. Each cube is around a heaping tablespoon. I’m grateful today for tomato paste, which kept my mind occupied, my hands busy, and my heart calm. I was present with the process, but it was straightforward enough that I could be equally present with Stellar as he lived through another one of his tenuous last days.
After his scary seizure last night (now his right eyelid droops, too), he slept soundly til morning, and woke eager to walk. His remarkable resilience propelled him to the canyon rim, and he seemed to have the good sense to avoid the very edge. The cottonwoods are half-turned, the ground is dry, and morning air is brisk. Stellar has made it to his thirteenth autumn. I’m grateful to have been present for his puppyness, his magnificent prime, his aging, and with him now as he approaches the far edge of life. He continues to exemplify benevolence, acceptance, loving-kindness, and all the other virtues I aspire to, as he demonstrates the path of presence.
I’m grateful tonight for the towering marigold, a bountiful harvest, meaningful connections, and another day with Stellar.
He didn’t have much in him this afternoon, so our last walk of the day was a turtle hunt. I knew right where Biko was, up under the lavender cotton near the west gate, but we took our usual loop around the yard to look for him, starting out walking the east fenceline, and down to the pond. He looked back often to make sure I was following. We found Turtell and gave Stellar his treats, and came in for the night. Later, he had a seizure. I held him tight as he writhed, and afterward it took several hours for him to settle down. I thought for awhile in there that he was dying. But not this time. He’s fallen asleep now, and I am off to bed myself. I’m grateful for a full and beautiful day, for feeling calm in crisis, and for momentary peace.