It’s a yawn, not a scream. For a split second it could have gone either way. Just as I was rolling over to get out of bed this morning, Topaz jumped up, almost on top of Wren’s head. Wren didn’t even flinch. The cat lay down with the dog, and there was nothing I could do but lie back and smile with a gentle hand on each of their tummies, grateful for acceptance, for peace in the kingdom, for a good excuse to stay in bed another twenty minutes.
I am always grateful for Boyz Lunch. Today, the company of my dear lunch boys assuaged the melancholy left by the ghost of lamented potential; and also just the fleeting visit from an old friend. It was fun to plan the meal, use preserved tomatillo salsa from last summer’s harvest, soak and cook dried black beans from Rancho Gordo instead of opening the usual cans, and make enchiladas with corn tortillas from a regional tortilleria. Yellow rice is so much easier than I knew, just add turmeric. The meal took some thought and preparation but was ultimately so simple, so delicious.
I combined three recipes to make the most of what I had on hand, adding cream cheese and cheddar to the shredded chicken, (cooking rice in the leftover chicken water); mixing cream, sour cream, cumin, and more leftover chicken water in the blender with the salsa verde then pouring that over the filled and rolled tortillas in a 9″x13″ baking dish. I’m grateful, as always, to have a well-stocked spice rack, pantry, and refrigerator. I’m grateful for my ‘personal shoppers’ who continue to coddle me through covid. I’m grateful for every little piece of the puzzle that comes together to create, serve, and enjoy lunch weekly with an intimate club of three that’s been dining here for nearly six years. I’m grateful for the acceptance and gratitude we share for each other and for our precious, impermanent time together.
I’m so grateful for all the X-rays, sonograms, mammograms, echocardiograms, CT scans, MRIs, and other diagnostic imaging I’ve had in my life; grateful for the technicians who performed them, the radiologists who interpreted them, the medical schools and personnel who taught these people how to make these images and read them; the doctors and nurse practitioners who’ve shared my results with me. I’m grateful for the various machines, and all their tiny, complicated components, and the decades, centuries, of scientific investigation by thousands of humans whose names I’ll never know, that led to these machines being invented and improved.
And I’m grateful for the nameless lives of various creatures, maybe humans, lost ‘in the interest of science’ as these inventions evolved. This doesn’t mean that I condone testing on animals; simply that I accept that it has been done in the past (and there may be occasions when it’s still necessary, but certainly we’ve come far enough that most of it can be avoided), and I appreciate the sacrifices, willing or unwilling, that test ‘subjects’ have made through centuries. I can feel sorry that some things have happened, and still be grateful for the ramifications of the outcomes.
Anyway, back to the list: I’m grateful for the specific people that work in the Delta Hospital radiology department (and I know I’m not the only one) who consistently show such professionalism, efficiency, and compassion in their work. I’m grateful that my recent brain MRIs show only average signs of ‘aging.’ And I’m grateful that my cervical spine MRIs don’t show anything imminently life-threatening. I could whinge about the catastrophic evidence of: degeneration in the vertebral facets, “reversal of the normal cervical lordosis,” “moderate to severe left foraminal narrowing due to left-sided arthropathy and hypertrophy,” and “central canal stenosis with ventral cord flattening.” It doesn’t sound good, and certainly is enough words to explain this ongoing, worsening neck pain.
Oh well. It is what it is. Accepting this, now I can move forward taking into consideration options, making informed choices on the best ways to minimize physical and mental suffering, adapting my lifestyle with diet, appropriate postural adjustments, exercises, and therapies to improve my health. Yeah, it wasn’t great news, but it was more information than I had before, and reassuring in some respects: I don’t need surgery right now, for example, and there’s no cancer. While my brain may be a little older than the years allotted me so far, my spine might be fifty years older than that. One thing, though: my heart keeps getting lighter and younger every step of the way. Too bad they don’t yet have diagnostic imaging to evaluate consciousness; mine would show I’m getting better every day.
Yesterday was interesting. I was too tired to write about it last night, and probably won’t do it justice tonight, but want to express my gratitude to the imaging technicians at Delta Hospital. Everyone was so kind, from the receptionists on. There were some little glitches, at intake and with the MRIs, that would once have really frustrated me, but my growing capacity for accepting things as they are instead of thinking that they should be different served me well.
I may have never met a more tender, compassionate, and sweet tech than Toni, the woman who did the bone density scan. We were practically in tears of loving-kindness by the time she led me back to the waiting room. The MRI tech was very business-like, though also considerate and kind. I remembered Deb’s encouragement to ask for what I needed, so asked for extra pillows to support my knees to reduce sciatic strain; and when the classical music station wouldn’t play, I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb. Remarkably, the only stations that would play were country, and something called ‘soft rock,’ which was horrible. I experienced extreme aversion during the first MRI as the DJ blithered on and on, and when there was ‘music’ its beat clashed with the machine noises inside my head until, despite a concerted effort to remain focused on my breath, I was completely rattled. I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb again when anxiety rose to unbearable-verging-on-panic, and fortunately that was the end of the first session. I continued in blessed internal silence for the next three tests. It was a lengthy exercise in conscious relaxation, first my face, then abdomen, then shoulders, back to abdomen, back to face–as one area relaxed another tensed up, and I cycled through one after the other, consistently returning attention to the breath. Nothing like a long MRI to strengthen meditation practice.
During the whole second scan, there was a little lump in the pillow, which bored into my head. I breathed through that, but it got worse and worse. It was fascinating to watch my mind deal with all these sensational challenges. She wanted me to keep my head perfectly still when she pulled me out to inject the contrast dye, but I had to insist that she smooth the pillow. It wasn’t really a pillow, just a folded cloth. She was exasperated, and in a hurry. I said calmly, as she prepared my arm to stick a needle into it, “I need to not feel anxious, and I need to feel that you’re not in a hurry.” She softened instantly, apologized, and explained that there were two emergencies waiting and there was only this one machine, and one of her. This put things in a different perspective for me, and we both calmed way down. She thought to put a little lavender patch on my chest, which actually helped a lot. This experience, which was stressful and could have been really horrible, was transformed by my ability to accept things as they were each step of the way, do what I could to change them, and then accept again. And again, there was much tenderness and well-wishing between us as she walked me out.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I left the hospital, for the emotional skill with which I’d navigated the morning, and decided to treat myself to a deli sandwich. But there’s no deli near the hospital, so I stopped at Sonic to see what I could find. At the drive-up menu, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to order factory-farmed chicken or beef, so I left; but circled back and ordered three fried sides. I was glowing with acceptance when the little girl brought my limeade and a small bag, and was only mildly disappointed to find inside the bag just one little wrapped burger. I accepted the error with good cheer, and she said she’d be right back with my order. Way too long later, two more “Welcome to Sonic, may I take your order” queries, and finally my bag of sides, I almost lost it when I opened the bag to find they were small instead of medium, and there was no mayo. Acceptance out the window! Attachment in high gear: I wanted what I wanted and I wanted it NOW! But still, I managed not to be too grumpy. When the manager brought a double handful of condiments and apologized, she said “It’s just the two of us, people didn’t show up…” My perspective adjusted itself instantaneously, all frustration melted, and I assured her it was no problem. We smiled and laughed and wished each other happy holidays.
The food was a big disappointment. But I accepted that easily. Fast food is what it is. I drove home filled with compassion for the people who worked at the hospital, the patients who needed emergency MRIs, the harried staff at Sonic, and deeply grateful for the skill of acceptance.
I’m grateful for cactus blossoms indoors. I’m grateful that Topaz is alive after a complicated tumble, though she may have suffered a concussion. If it’s not one thing, it’s another… so went the joke while I was ‘growing up.’ Now, grown up, it doesn’t seem so funny, yet sometimes you just have to chuckle.
Yesterday evening she took a complicated spill from the sunroom table in her felt nest bed, and she hasn’t been quite right since. First, hiding upstairs. Not coming for treats. Staying way too still. Then, this morning, slow-motion creeping down the stairs one at a time, tiptoeing, as if feeling her way. It occurred to me she couldn’t see. Her eyes didn’t track the vet’s fingers, nor blink as I thought they should, nor her pupils contract with his flashlight. Yet when he put her on the floor and nudged her to walk, she leapt with certainty to the high silver table, landing like a feather. This impressed him and seemed diagnostic: to do that she must be fine. I thought, Maybe she’s not dying, but she could do that blindfolded. Her carrier was up there, the smell of it, the hard edge of the table. She could be less than blind and very compromised, and still make that leap.
Anyway, he let her go with a steroid shot and an oral antibiotic and instructions for me to give her pills for 3 days. That’ll be a trial. Or, at least, that’s my expectation. She could surprise me and be docile. Then the car battery was dead. There was someone there to give me a jump. I was grateful. Then I left the clinic, after waiting in the claustrophobic exam room for 45 minutes, in a pandemic, in the county in the state with the worst infection rate, in a state with the most increasing cases in the nation. The wise thing to do for myself and my cat was walk out unattended.
Then the car battery was dead. There was someone to give me a jump. I was grateful. I hightailed it home, surrendered. Grateful for a live cat, a live battery, getting home, kindling already split, a hot shower, soft pants, a warm fire, a zoom meeting, a single ice-cold martini. Accepting what is. Get me to my bed on time! If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Or so it seemed in that moment, that refractory period where emotions cloud perspective. Remember yesterday, and the cosmos? Chill out.
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.
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.
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.
I’m grateful for the awareness I had to be grateful every day for two happy, healthy dogs for most of their lives. Mr. Brick died of cancer when Stellar was nine months old, at the young age of ten. Over the next decade Stellar and Raven brought so much joy. Their sheer physical magnificence would have been ample, but their inseparable and enthusiastic relationship delighted me constantly.
I’m grateful that Stellar had a pretty easy day, therefore so did I. He never got up from his bed, and the last time he really tried was at two a.m., when he woke me with pitiful crying. I spent an hour getting him settled down, and he slept soundly til well after I and the sun were up. Perhaps he’s accepted his immobility, and he seemed comfortable all day, sleeping a lot but otherwise alert and engaged. He’s still a good watchdog, sounding the alarm when various friends stopped by with treats for me and necessities for him. I’m grateful for the TLC of people looking out for me, and grateful that I can also be helpful to others even during this challenging time. I’m grateful to finally begin to understand what it means to live with a joyful ease.
I’m grateful for the safe reception of an heirloom painting after some confusion about its delivery. When I picked it up from a cottage in town there was a joyful German wire-haired pointer on the deck who hugged and licked me all over. I told her person it would make Stellar’s day to get to smell her on me, and indeed it was the highlight of his otherwise uneventful day. We took a few short walks, he ate and drank a lot, I worked here and there, and spent time outside with him. I’m grateful for an uneventful day.
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.
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.