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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A year ago tonight, right around this time, my little Raven dog fell off the couch and never moved again; she died in my arms a couple of hours later. I still don’t know what killed her. It could have been a heart attack, stroke, or some toxin she ingested. She lived through her mouth and was forever eating things she shouldn’t. Like an entire loaf of poppyseed bread off the counter in two minutes. Like half the book club cake off the table. Like, maybe a handful of small green seed potatoes that may have resulted in solanine poisoning, but I’ll never know. It happened fast, and peacefully.
The next morning I buried her in the garden, deepening a hole she had dug under a sagebrush. Yesterday I pulled a few weeds from around the stones on top, and planted some violas and a columbine. I’m grateful she essentially dug her own grave, so I didn’t have to. I’m grateful that beautiful, smart, mischievous dog came from Dog World to live with me when she was six weeks old, and made me laugh and cry for almost fourteen years. I’m grateful that after all that (fleeting) time, after her many dramatic veterinary events, her life ended in quiet two-hour cuddle instead of some awful, bloody, tragic spectacle and/or a frantic trip to the vet. I’m just grateful for Raven.
Of all the many things I thought I’d write about next, getting high on lilacs, Stellar’s last days, a neighbor’s sudden death, being an introvert on lockdown… Raven dying in my arms last night wasn’t even on the list.
Something must have happened while I was inside making dog food around six. When I called them in to eat, she didn’t come. I called and called, and saw her rise from a strange place by the fence, but she wouldn’t come. I walked up to get her, and coaxed her down and into the house, where she lay on her bed and wouldn’t eat even a cookie. She was moving oddly, all tight and slow. I thought she might have had a stroke.
Over the next few hours, she seemed to relax, then she got up on the sofa and I thought that signaled improvement. An hour later she got off the couch and collapsed on the dog bed next to Stellar, unable to move her back end. I lay beside her for the next few hours breathing deeply and calmly myself, massaging her spine and hips the way she likes, telling her what a good girl she has always been, and how I love her. She struggled to turn a few times, her breath coming more labored. Her gums paled, her paws cooled. Her breaths came farther apart, turned guttural, then thinned to a whistle. I prayed for her to be reborn in the best possible life, and rubbed sand from the monks’ mandala on her forehead, to guarantee her a human reincarnation.
In two weeks we would have celebrated her fourteenth birthday. She’s been a joyful, delightful, challenging, loyal companion since she came to me at six weeks old. She died peacefully in her own bed, in my loving arms, at 11:40 pm, of unknown causes.
Sugar, née Stella, gone with Spice to live with Pauline way out in the country. Way out.
The kittens have all gone to their new homes. It was a whirlwind adventure helping to raise them to three months. Fred and Mary were the best grandparents anyone could have been. It was a privilege and a delight to participate in their unexpected kitten bonanza. Over the course of their short lives they moved up one box, one room, one home at a time from their humble birth in an inverted wine box, to a bigger box, to a refrigerator box, to a storage room in the shop, to free run of the whole garage. Then a couple of weeks ago, Idaho and Spider went to live in first the tack room and now the whole barn at the Bad Dog Ranch; Stella and Blaze were whisked away to live even farther out past Crystal Creek with Pauline, who recently lost her old cat, and renamed these kittens Sugar and Spice; Sammy, née Oreo, now called Benito, stayed at Fred and Mary’s with his mama, once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over. But not before she went into heat not once but twice after the kittens reached six weeks old.
Fred called one morning while Mary was out of town. “Can cats go into heat while they’re still nursing?” he asked. “I think so,” I said, and turned to ask a friend who happened to know. Indeed they can! Patricia said she once fostered a cat who’d gone into heat when her kittens were ten days old! Fred recited the behaviors he was seeing: snappish to him for a couple of days, then frenzied (for what turned out to be a week) whenever she saw him, weaving around his feet yowling, rubbing her neck on his ankles or hands with her butt in the air, desperate to get outside; a big black tomcat was hanging around the yard except for a few times when a big orange tom with a white face like two of the kittens’ was hanging around the yard. With due diligence we kept her inside with her babies the whole time. She is now recovering well from the surgery. We have put an end to a long line of feral cats on Fruitland Mesa. And four families in the neighborhood have new adorable companion animals. The little all-black boy kitten Ojo, and Ajo, the sweetest girl of all, came to live with me. Things unfold in the most remarkable ways sometimes.
After deciding that morning they were born, after burying the little cold dead one, the eighth kitten, a black and white that surely would have been another boy, that I would not succumb to the temptation to take any kittens, I gradually began to reconsider. Gradually, as in, the next day. I weighed pros and cons for weeks, considering all imaginable angles. On my yes days and on my no days, I always maintained that I would not choose my kittens (if I got them) based on their looks, how cute or how stunning they were. I held off deciding until the whole community was impatient with me. After we celebrated their six-week birthday with champagne cupcakes and adult beverages, I concluded that I couldn’t take any. The next day I was very sad. So I reconsidered again. And again. And we finally settled on this plan: If I could successfully introduce them to Brat Farrar, my dear old diabetic cat, that little orange kitten that saved my soul once upon a time, and assimilate them into the household, I would take two kittens; If Brat would not accept them within one week, I’d return them next door and my good neighbors would find them another home.
And then things became acutely more clear: Doc said it was finally time for Brat Farrar to have some troublesome teeth removed. His blood sugar was good, he seemed strong and stable. I got cold feet, but then agreed to the procedure when I was informed that most kidney and heart failure in pet cats derives from bad teeth. On a Friday I dropped him off; the next Thursday he died. Maybe it was inevitable, maybe some better decisions could have been made. He came home from the surgery in shock and never recovered. With a scabbed mouth he ate a little, but by Sunday morning his vital force was leaving him. Monday afternoon a blood panel revealed multiple organ failure. “So, we’re saying goodbye?” I asked Doc. “Yes,” he said, leaning on his forearms on the exam table. “I’m sorry.” “I know you are,” I said, my voice catching, and I touched his solid shoulder. Some more words, and I took my sweet cat home. I kept him comfortable and witnessed his death with dignity. It was both grueling and peaceful. I came to terms with death in a new way.
All through that painful week I kept in mind that there were two little bundles of joy around the corner that would be mine at the end of this sadness, two new little lives to love and nurture. No one ever takes the place of a companion animal who dies; but in this world of ferals and strays, I’ve realized, there will always be another cat, another dog, a kitten or puppy coming my way, as long as I’m alive. The timing this time could not have been more perfect. As sad as I was I’m now happy.
Benito, who stayed at home with Mama (once and again called Shelley now that her Heidi Ho days are over).
Ajo, one of the two that came home with me.
Ojo, the other one who came to live with me.
Mama at the end of a takedown, after Ojo pounced on her, vigorously washing his face.
Mama washing Stella.
Benito (of the perpetual exclamation point!) and Spider romping.
While I am already enjoying and look forward to years ahead of me inhabiting life with the two new kittens, I’m still unpacking the shocking death of Brat Farrar. Reflections on all that the many facets of the little orange kitten, iCat, Ferrari, Brat Favre, Culvert Kitty, Puma, the complicated cat, brought to the past eleven years of life will continue to churn and settle for some time to come.
The good little traveler: Brat Farrar on his way home from Virginia with me in the Mothership, spring 2005, on the River Road from Moab.
A decade later, last April in the house that matched him. Rest in peace, little one, under the apricot tree.