It occurs to me that there comes a point at the end of any beloved creature’s life when we no longer know what kindness looks like. It’s not just that we can’t find its edges anymore or can’t quite remember its shape. It’s that we’re hard-pressed even to find a reliable definition for it.
I rise stiffly from where I have been crouching, tenderly stroking Coyote’s head and shoulders, and hobble unsteadily from her bed to my own. Her breathing is loud, a labored inhalation, and the whoosh of her exhalation is more a release than a breath. The stink of a waiting death oozes from her and fills the room. I curl onto my side, resisting the urge to keep curling — to tighten into the fetal position — and stretch my arm out under my pillow. The weight in my chest, I realize, must be my heart, but I’m still dry-eyed even as I feel the waves of grief crest and crash over me, pulling some essential part of me with them as they ebb and gather and crash again. And then I realize that my outstretched hand is resting in the loop of my Sachi’s collar, which still hangs from a cross-bar on the bed frame, and the tears finally come. This particular path is unfamiliar, yes; but I know the destination well.
It’s weeks ago now, since the stranger in the pick-up truck watched Coyote and me shuffle our way slowly down the hill toward home, measuring our walk in driveways passed instead of streets or blocks or miles. “Is she sick?” he asked me, bending to stroke her head, ever so gently, with his big, callused landscaper’s hands.
“She’s dying,” I said simply, gazing down at her.
He asked about her care — what I was doing, what I was not doing — and I began to tense up, expecting judgment but (blessedly) finding none. I was struck by my reaction, attributing it to my own, aching uncertainty. After a few minutes, I closed our conversation by telling him, “I’m following her lead.”
He knelt again to give Coyote one last pat, and we moved slowly away.
I feel the feather-light pressure of Bodhi lifting himself onto the bed and curling against me. I marvel at how such a big dog can be so gentle. I know he’s checked in with Coyote, sniffing her face and touching his nose to hers before joining me, because that’s what he does when she’s in distress. I leave my right hand in Sachi’s collar and reach out with my left to tangle my fingers in his long, red fur. And I wonder: Has he come here to comfort or be comforted?
“You’re honoring her, you know. By letting her choose her own death.”
What did it matter, really? We were both — all — in need of comfort. My beautiful boy who tried so hard to love everything into rightness for Coyote and me. My sweet little girl who was struggling up the long hill toward Home. And me. I had walked this path with her, desperately clinging to my heart-felt conviction that this was what she wanted, this death was what she was choosing. But I could never be sure that what I was doing was kind. Or, even, that I knew the meaning of that word anymore. And, yet, when the doubt threatened to push me to take over, to take the decision away from her, to shorten her laborious leaving:
“You honor her,” whispered my friend, Lori, as she watched Coyote lying on the deck, listening to the sounds of night.
“You honor her,” my friend, Mary, messaged me as Coyote turned from her food, leaving me tearfully resigned.
“You honor her,” said my friends Kelli, Faunette, Stacy — all at different stumbling points in this long, painful journey.
“You honor her,” offered a man I’d never met before, his foot poised on the running board of a pickup truck.
I managed to thank him for his kind words before tears closed my throat, rendering me unable to speak. I turned again, with Coyote, back toward home. He turned the key in the ignition and was gone.