sniffing intently at the base of a tree, her eyes closed with pleasure.
I stop with her, waiting, and crane my neck, stretching it
peering up through the thickly-needled branches
then at them.
How have I never noticed this is a hemlock?
Something about hemlocks pulls at my memory.
The connection clicks, and I laugh at the irony.
“Don’t sniff too deeply here,” I tell her old, deaf ears.
“This one has a history of killing philosophers.”
A breeze ripples its fingers through her fur
and mine can’t help but follow.
It’s soft still, beautiful, even though it no longer fits her
hanging loosely from her gaunt, starved frame.
She looks up at me and smiles in that way she has –
ears laid back, eyes narrowed to slits, her mouth slightly open –
and she gently wags her tail: once, twice.
I smile back, and she continues on with painful slowness
determined to walk as far as her unsteady legs will carry her.
She moves to the next tree in her strange, almost comical gait –
her forelegs shuffling in double-time and hind legs take long, swinging strides –
the result of the toxins building up in her frail, sick body
and derailing even her brain’s simplest commands .
I glance down at a rock in time to see an insect drop into a ray of light
– tah-dah! –
all coppery sparkle and translucent golden wings in the setting sun.
A few months ago – an eternity, a moment – I wouldn’t have noticed.
I would have pulled at the leash, scolding her to hurry
impatient and hurried and frazzled and unseeing
but for the lesson of this slow, grace-ful death of hers.
It has been a hard lesson, full of fear and grief
gradually loosening my grip –
one stubborn finger at a time –
on something that was never really mine to hold.
She tugs a little at the leash, and I return my attention to her.
I find her patiently, happily looking up at me,
ready to move on because there is still a little more light
and there is still a little more strength left in her.
And all at once it hits me: She isn’t teaching me how to die.
She’s teaching me how to live –
simply by doing it, fully and joyfully –
until she slows