When I first sat down to write this month’s column I was thinking about how I couldn’t wait for Spring to get here. And not just because I love all things gardening. There are five humans and four animals who call this little two bedroom house a home. By the end of the winter, when we’ve been cooped up in here for going on three months, our cozy little space seems to shrink by the minute. We’re anxious for those warm days when our front and back yards become an extension of the living room. Don’t get me wrong. Simple, small-scale living is filled with joys. And one of those joys is welcoming the room to roam that spring brings.
The air was warmer, but there was still a sloshy layer of snow on the ground last weekend when our eldest dog, Patchen, passed away peacefully at the foot of our bed. She’d been diagnosed with cancer and heart disease in December of 2013. The doctor had told us to not expect to her live past Christmas. We prepared for her death, explaining to our then four-year-old-sons how everything that lives must eventually die. We gave her delicacies like cheese and canned dog food daily.
For reasons we will never understand, she defied the vet’s predictions. She stuck around to welcome our new daughter who was born the following May. She helped wave the boys off on their first day of school. She happily accompanied us on trips out of town. The vet told us to keep an eye out for signs that she was getting worse – decreased appetite, evidence of pain, etc. The night before her death she was wagging her tail and delightedly scarfing down the baked potato crumbs falling from our nine-month-old daughter’s high chair. She went peacefully sometime in the middle of the night, sleeping within arm’s reach, while we all slept soundly. There are a lot of ways to leave this world. Her’s was certainly a preferable way to exit.
Spring is here now, and we’re outside more often. The house feels, if not larger, a bit quieter. She’d been with us for 12 of her 17 years. We moved five times since we adopted her from the Fayetteville Shelter so many years ago. Her life with us predates our children and our recent years as folks trying our best to stay put. I miss the sound of her tag jingling as she jumped on the couch. I miss the sound of her feet running into the kitchen in hopes of finding food on the floor. I miss the feel of her scruffy hair in my hands.
The day after she passed the snow melted and the weather was warm enough for short sleeves. It seems she chose the last cold day of the year to make her transition. This morning I sent the boys to school in shorts. We all know what they say about Arkansas weather, right?
Though we miss her greatly, we all seem to have a peace about the situation, including our young sons, whom we’d prepared for this event. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where the people around me were straightforward and honest about death. From a young age I was surrounded with examples of care giving and end of life realities. I was taken to visitations and cemeteries and funerals, and I learned early on that we’re only here temporarily. I didn’t quite welcome the opportunity to talk to my sons about our dog’s death, but I tried to treat it like the normal event that it is.
If you’re a regular reader of this column you know I often ramble on about the importance of gardening and how it provides so much more than just a space to grow food and flowers. It’s a place to observe the endless cycles of life and death and to see how things are always coming and going and recycling themselves, walking that fine line between something ancient and something brand new. One of the things I love about digging my hands in the dirt is the way it encourages me to see human (and animal, too) lives in seasons. It doesn’t take away the pain of loss. Gardening just amplifies our ongoing realizations that nothing is here to stay. Not even the rocks or the trees.
My sons have talked a little bit about our dog, wondering about decomposition and when the rest of us will die. I try to answer their questions honestly and patiently, with clarity and without fear. Even when I can’t answer their questions they go on asking, which is, I am certain, a form of deep intelligence. I tell them about when I can’t figure out the answers to my own questions – which is so often the case – I dig in the soft, muddy, spring dirt. Sometimes such digging is about death and graves; sometimes it’s about planting seeds. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
I wrote a long obituary for our beautiful dog. If you’d like to read about her storied life as a therapy dog, a demo dog for dog training, and her time as a dog ambassador for foster dogs from the local shelter, you can visit www.tendingthebittersweets.wordpress.com.
In closing, I’d like to ask all readers to consider becoming a part of the solution to the overcrowding in shelters both near and far. Adopt a rescue dog; take in a stray, and make sure you spay and neuter your pet. For every lucky dog who is taken in there are literally millions who are euthanized due to overpopulation. You don’t have to go to a breeder to buy a pet. Contact a local rescue organization and save a life instead.