Today, Stellar would have been fourteen years old. He almost made it! It’s been a contemplative day and I’ve missed him a bit more than in recent weeks. But I’m okay, and celebrating what a wonderful life he had, we all had together. In mindfulness, we talk about the importance of choosing where to place our attention. From the moment Stellar arrived in my life, he was always a joyful and restorative focus for my attention. Hours at a time passed when I was occupied with other things, work or people or other obligations, but even then he was always present in the background like a bass rhythm, my anchor, my rock.
When he had been with us about eight months, serious Mr. Brick was diagnosed with cancer and declined quickly. In the last week of his life, I’d sit inside with him doing Reiki. The energy flow between us was palpable to me, and also to little Stellar outside; at a certain point in my session with Mr. Brick, when the energy hit a particular frequency, each time at the same level, Stellar would come tap at the window. That’s how strong our connection was. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as separate from me.
Thoughts arise almost every day about getting another dog, and I know I will eventually. But each time those thoughts come up, after I follow the fantasy (which varies widely) for awhile, I settle into the memory of my big beautiful boy, the best dog ever on the whole planet, and realize that I’m still not ready, yet. There is too much of him still with me, the body memory of his giant presence, the clarity of his gaze into my eyes, the total belonging of us together. I miss all my past dogs, memories of each of them colored to a large or small degree with some regrets; but I miss Stellar with a pure, clear love untainted by doubt or rue, one connection unsullied by human errors, misperceptions, judgements. He was one true thing I did right in life. I’ll be grateful forever for the solace and joy of this little bhodisattva who graced almost fourteen years of my time on this planet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 again today for many things, including rain, and people who care about the planet and democracy and integrity, and I’m grateful for these scarlet runner beans, finally all dried and hulled and ready for storage. I’m grateful too for another day with Stellar, who slept for most of it. I’m grateful for my own bed to which I shall retire shortly.
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.
Oh Topaz. I know right where she is, or where she was just after dark: east of the fence, lying in wait beside a scrap wood pile for some unsuspecting or terrified rodent. If she’s not in by bedtime, it’s another layer of surrender for me. It’s been one layer of surrender after another for the past few weeks, and less dramatically for months.
The last cat who was allowed to go where and when she pleased day or night was Dia, the Psycho Calico. Her name is short for Aradia, Daughter of the Queen of the Witches, but not many people ever knew that. It was my Wiccan phase. She made life so unbearable if she didn’t get what she wanted, including outside at night, that the house motto became Dia gets what Dia wants. I’m afraid it will end up thus for Topaz, especially if she survives lions, coyotes, owls, etc., tonight and lives to be an only pet.
Meanwhile, Stellar had a very exciting day, and I learned how to surrender another layer: of thinking there’s some fateful timeline, of clinging to some shred of a sense of control. I’m grateful today for resilience, Stellar’s too but especially mine. He keeps on surprising. It would be easier if his downward trajectory were more direct, however slow. This repeated rebounding, this resilience, aggravates my second-guessing habit, which is not a habit I wish to cultivate; I’d prefer it to atrophy.
Today was an online meditation retreat with my teachers’ teacher, B. Alan Wallace, “Shamatha in the Dzogchen Tradition.” Shamatha is the meditation style also referred to as Calm Abiding. The first session looked promising. Stellar slept through the night, I was reasonably well-rested, and I’d given him water, pills, and food. He went back to sleep. I listened raptly to the first talk, and settled in for the first 20-minute meditation. Stellar had woken and was alert, panting a little. I realized a few minutes into the meditation that he probably wanted more water. I figured he could wait another 18 minutes. Nope.
My eyes were closed. He stood up and stepped over me, walked a few feet before collapsing on the floor. Ok, I surrender. I slipped the sling under him and hefted his back end as he made his way out the front door, and around the south end of the house to his water bucket, where he drank copiously. What I got for not interrupting the meditation three minutes in for a minute was no meditation at all. Oh well. Nonattachment to outcome. He settled down for the next hour.
At the midday break, Rosie came by with more pain meds from the pharmacy for him–Dr. TLC didn’t anticipate him lasting this long, I think, and had to call in a special request refill. At her arrival he went bonkers barking from his bed, and she came in to visit him. He struggled to get up again, so we took him outside for an assisted wobble. Then again, right after the next session began, he got up on his own and wobbled to the door. By that time already drained for the day, I let him out unattended. He managed about ten minutes in the yarden before collapsing comfortably (appropriately) under the Contemplation Tree, where he rested another ten until I saw him trying to get up. I slung him in, and he’s been in bed since, though wide awake until just recently.
Topaz finally came in, and Stellar is asleep, so I am relaxing at last, after a long, full day. With Alan’s guidance, I sustained a meditative state throughout, and deepened my capacity for letting go, for surrender to the changing conditions of each moment. I’m grateful for calm abiding.
I’m grateful today for Topaz. She hasn’t gotten her fair share of attention in recent weeks. Today I took her alone for a short walk around the Breakfast Loop. Neither of us has gotten enough exercise without Stellar to lead us on walks, and we both needed a silent stroll in the fresh air. There were a couple of brief interludes today when he slept soundly; otherwise he has been agitated all day. Partly discomfort, I think, but during the day there was certainly frustration at not being able to get up and go outside. I hate to limit him, but I just can’t haul him around anymore since he can’t help at all with his back legs. It’s the equivalent of carrying a fifty pound feed sack with one hand and steering a canoe with the other.
I’m grateful for my job teaching mindfulness, grateful for community support, grateful for a beautiful fall day. I’m grateful for the sweet moments of connection with Topaz, and the hours of respite with Stellar calm or asleep. I’m grateful even in difficulty for another day with him in which to cultivate patience, compassion, and unconditional love, developing my understanding and capacity. I’m hopeful for an easier day tomorrow.
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.