Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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Knowing

I almost trashed this post. It’s an old one, recalling the pain of a loss that has healed over time. I wasn’t sure it was relevant anymore. But there’s something about the experience of grief — and of healing — that prompted me to go ahead and post it.

This is for my dear friends, Stacy and Jerry, each of whom lost someone they loved in the past week. And for my cousins, Cindy, Tom, and Penny, and their father, Herb, who so recently said goodbye to my Aunt Bert. Your loved ones are with you.

I know. 

——

Some time ago, I had to drop a “specimen” off at the veterinarian — retesting Bodhi after a bout of giardia — and just inside the door was a sweet, ancient dog, at the very end of her leash, focusing all of her energy on balancing on her stick-thin legs. She had the most beautiful pale blue eyes, so I asked her mom if it was all right if I said hello, bending to stroke the frail head and murmur to the old girl how beautiful she was.

“She loves attention,” the woman said simply, but something in her voice made me look up — just in time to see that lone tear make its way down her cheek.

And I knew:

I knew from what depths of her being she had to dredge those few words.

I knew the effort required to choke them past the constriction in her throat.

I knew the full, bitter taste in her mouth as she struggled to shape it around these everyday words — ones she would never say again about this old, weak dog waiting for that last appointment.

I’d forced similar words through my own teeth about my Sachi, as my friends came to say goodbye the night before I released her soul. I’d choked on them as I’d walked my old Coyote so painfully slowly — at whatever pace she could manage — up and down our street, greeted by neighbors who loved and patted and fussed over her on her way to crossing. I battled tears, as this woman was now doing, and lost.

I gently kissed the old dog between her blue eyes before rising to wrap her mom in my arms. I stood there a few moments while this loving human emptied out her grief onto my shoulders, and I whispered to her that her sweet little girl would always be with her, beside her.

Because I know that, too.

 


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Denouement: Coyote’s Last Lesson

There are those who believe that the most intimate act in which we can participate is lovemaking. Two people entwined, giving and taking pleasure. Two souls engaged in call and response, drinking one another in, each expanding its own wholeness with the fullness of the other. It is in that moment, we are told, that we are our most vulnerable, exposed selves.

Her faint whine roused me from where I’d sat meditating off and on for most of the morning. As I unfolded my stiff legs and stood from my cushion, the whine deepened and became a ghostly moaning howl, low in volume but not in intensity.

“What do you need, sweetheart?” I asked her. Her eyes rolled toward me but didn’t quite fix on me. Her tail twitched and flicked like a cat’s. “Do you need to go potty?”

The moan softened to a high-pitched, breathy whine. I gathered her up in a towel and carried her to the backyard, where I clumsily struggled to balance her while she tried to relieve herself. We couldn’t manage it; her legs buckled, and although she had wasted away to a wisp, I couldn’t hold her steady enough.

But with wholehearted lovemaking, vulnerability is a choice. One’s loss of dignity in those moments of soulful passion is less a true loss than a mutual surrender, an abandonment.   

I carried her back to the porch and settled her on her bed, arranging her limbs and laying the sheep skin over her to keep her warm against the morning chill. She began crying again — that desperate almost-howl — as I went inside for padding and paper towels. I carefully folded and placed the toweling under her rear end, careful to move her tail out of the way. I went back inside for the moistened wipes I use to spot-clean the dogs’ fur, and by the time I returned she’d soiled the towels.

“I’ll keep you clean,” I promised as I replaced the padding and used the wipes. “I won’t let you leave here anything less than beautiful.” She quieted, and I returned to my meditation cushion.

My last two days with Coyote taught me that there is a kind of surrender more intimate than any lovemaking: The entwining of living memory and love with the needs and frailty of a fading life.In that place, there is no real choice. Surrendering one’s deteriorating body to the ministrations of another is, in fact, a loss of volition. There is no option but to trust. Vulnerability is a condition, not a gift.

Hours passed. I had been sitting with my notebook, distractedly scribbling disconnected fragments of poetry. The day was beautiful: sunny, cool, with a gentle breeze stirring the leaves in the trees. She’d been quiet for some time, so I picked up the water bottle and went to check on her. As I approached, I saw a thick, green puddle near her mouth. She whined — a raw, raspy sound — when she felt my step on the floor boards. Her eyes were partly open but empty. The dappled light moved sweetly across her face and the mess alike.

“Oh, Coyote,” I soothed. “I’m so sorry.” I gently cleaned her face and bedding and added pads under her nose, in case she vomited again. She could no longer lift her head, so I sprayed water into her mouth and waited for her to swallow. When her eyes sought out the bottle, I sprayed again and waited. We repeated this several more times until she stopped searching. That, I’d learned, meant she was done drinking.

Caring for the dying is yet another kind of surrender — one made, ironically, from a place of tender power. Attending to Coyote’s last needs meant entering into a kind of intimate agreement far different from the one made between lovers. Yes, it still made me feel raw, exposed, and vulnerable. But my agreement with Coyote was one of trust between an increasingly dependent being and her proportionately more powerful caregiver.  

As I leaned to kiss her cheek, a rush of anguish made me want to scoop her up in my arms and sob into her soft fur. I restrained myself, knowing she would hate the demonstration, but I couldn’t stop my tears as I gently stroked her still-beautiful coat. In the spaces between every breath, my heart wrestled with both the hope and the fear that she had gone. And, with every inhalation, it wrestled with the relief and despair that she had not.

“Please, baby,” I whispered. “Please go. There’s a breeze blowing. Ride it Home, Coyote. Leave this old, sick body here. Ride the breeze and run and play again. Become the light. Just let go.”

And, yet, it was an agreement we made with as much grace as we could gather from the depths of our friendship. I’d promised her I’d let her choose her death. Those last weeks were a test of my resolve. So many times, I was torn with self-doubt as I searched her eyes and studied her behavior for any signal that she wanted me to take over for her, take the choice away. But there were no such signals. So I let her lead me, one slow step at a time, down the spiral as her life unraveled. 

She swiveled her eyes, and they focused on me — just for a flickering moment. In them I saw the unquestioning trust and courage that kept me faithful to the promise I’d made her. My heart lifted, even as it broke, to be allowed to bear the dear burden she’d given me to carry.

Yes, I followed Coyote’s lead until we came to the place where I could go no farther — that place where she had to walk alone. And, at the threshold, our agreement was fulfilled. She went on. I turned to make the long climb back to where Bodhi waited for me among the living.


“Mom?”

“Oh baby, I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

“I…I just wanted to say…thank you.”

“For what, sweetheart?”

“You kept your word, even when things got so difficult. I didn’t think you’d be able to do it. I thought you’d give up.”

“I wanted to. Many times. But you were so brave. I needed to honor that.”

“It was just like you said, in the end. It was like riding the breeze, out of my body. It was like becoming pure light.”

“I’m happy for you. It was such a hard crossing.”

“It was. I’m going to go rest for a little while, so you might not feel me. But I’m nearby.”

“Coyote? Before you go…thank you, too.”

“For what, Mom?”

“For giving me your trust. Not just at the end, but at the beginning, too. I know it was hard. You’re a proud girl, and you’d endured so much.”

“It was worth it, Mom. Everything that came before was worth finding you.”

“Go and rest, now. I’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

<suddenly diving into a play bow> “Only if you say the words…”

<chuckling> “I see you’ve been talking to Sachi… OK, then: Coyote free!”

Run free, my dear friend, my patient teacher. I’ll see you in my dreams, sweet Moon-Dog.

Photo of Coyote by Mary Shaw

Coyote accepting a cuddle from me, just a few days before her death. Photo courtesy of Mary Shaw.


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Coyote: <panting> “Mom?”

Me: “Yes, Coyote?”

Coyote: “This part is hard.”

Me: “I wish I could make it easy for you.”

Coyote: “I don’t. It’s part of becoming something new. It’s just how it works.”

Me: “Is there anything I can do? To help?”

Coyote: “Can you rub my belly? You know, like you used to when I was scared?”

Me: “Of course.” <rubbing her belly> “Are you scared, baby girl?”

Coyote: “A little. But I have you and Bodhi. And Sachi will be waiting for me.” <pause> “Mom?”

Me: “Yes?”

Coyote: “Do you think I’ll sparkle? I mean, when I cross?”

Me: “I’m sure of it, Princess.”

Coyote: <closing her eyes and starting to drift off to sleep> “Good. And, by the way…”

Me: “Yes?”

Coyote: “I know that when you call me ‘Princess’ it isn’t a good thing.” <she sleeps>

Me: <to myself> “It is now.”


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Vigil

vigilvi-jƏl \ n.  wakefulness; watchfulness; a night of spiritual preparation

——

Coyote woke us the other night, crying in her sleep. Bodhi stared intently at her, beaming love from his place on the rug. I spoke soothingly, letting her know we were near, watching over her. She started awake at my voice, dazed, and met my gaze. Unable to hold her head up longer than those few seconds, she flopped back over onto her side and slept.

Later, around 4:00 a.m., I woke again to her crying. This time, she’d struggled from her bed, disoriented, and had nosed herself into a corner of the room. She couldn’t turn to free herself, relying on the wall at her side to keep her upright. Her rear claws scrabbled desperately on the wood floor, pushing her farther into the wall ahead of her, and she cried out in her panic. I turned her around and guided her outside, where she immediately squatted to relieve herself. She stood shaking under the stars before moving one, painstaking step at a time toward the gate, where she’s always loved to stand and look at the world.

I crouched near the door, giving her space but letting her know I hadn’t left her alone. The night was cool as I kept my vigil. It’s almost time, I thought. I anchored myself in the moment, burning it into my memory. I was strangely awake for such an early hour.

When she’d drunk her fill of the view and the breeze, Coyote managed a clumsy turn, and we were suspended there, facing each other in the moonlight, our connection humming between us. I breathed in slowly, waiting for her to signal what she needed next. In answer, she tottered toward me: One. Two. Three halting steps at a time, pausing for long seconds between each small progress, panting and holding the lifeline of my eyes with hers. If I tried to rise to help her, she turned her head in clear refusal. So I honored her dignity and stayed in my crouch, my hand silently outstretched to her, recalling our beginnings, when she crawled across the floor toward that same open hand — terrified then, her new life with me uncertain.

Her life is certain now. We know the direction, and there is no turning back. The days — the hours — are numbered, so very finite.

We have only to wait. Watch. Prepare.

Dictionary page with definition for vigil


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A Walk in the Fading Sun

On a walk in July…

Me: “I used to bring you and Sachi here to run sometimes.”

Coyote: <sniffing deeply at something in the grass> “Mmmhmm.”

Me: <continuing> “Well, I did, once I could trust you off-leash.” <pause, reminiscing> “It always amazed me how consistent you were, coming when I called, especially since in the beginning you spent so much time and energy trying to escape.”

Coyote: <pausing in her sniffing to glance up and ponder> “Well, I knew it was a bargain, and I had to keep my end of it. You’d let me off the leash, but only if I came back when you called. You made that pretty clear.”

Me: “Yeah, but Sachi wasn’t always that consistent.”

Coyote: “Sachi didn’t come from where I came from. She had a very different history. I was awed and touched by your generosity and trust.”

<I break down.>

Coyote: <looking up sharply from her sniffing> “What are you doing?” <I can’t answer.> “Oh no-no-no! No you don’t! Stop it. No crying. Not on a day like this. Look at how beautiful the sky is! Listen to the birds! Use that weak, generally useless nose of yours to sniff the breeze! NO. CRYING.”

Me: <finding my voice> “The weather is turning.”

Coyote: “It is.”

Me: “And you said you didn’t want to stay for the heat and humidity.”

Coyote: <exasperated now> “I don’t. But I’m not gone yet! And today is too beautiful to waste a single tear on it. Celebrate today, Mom. Just stay here with me, now.”

Me: <kneeling down to her level> “I just hate that you’re leaving us. I don’t know what we’ll do without you. You keep us grounded.”

Coyote: <her tone softening> “I told you: I’m not going anywhere. I’m just shedding this sick, old body. I’ll be right there with you and Bodhi until it’s time for the two of you to cross over. Then I’ll be there to guide you. Now, c’mon.”

Me: <trying to pull myself together> “I’ll miss how soft and thick your fur is. I’ll miss your velvety ears. I’ll miss the freckles on your pointy little nose.” <kissing her nose>

<Coyote leans in to kiss the tip of my nose, as she sometimes does, then suddenly stops and turns her head.>

Me: “What? No kiss?”

Coyote: “I’m SO not kissing that! It’s all drippy.”

Me: <tearing up again> “Dammit.”

Coyote: <huffing> “What now?”

Me: “I’m even going to miss the snark.”

Coyote: <returning to her sniffing> “Good. If you had any idea how long it took to perfect that… You might be a blubbering fool, but at least you appreciate art.”

Coyote walks in the field.


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Advice from One Who Has Crossed

Bodhi: “When will Old Auntie cross over?”

Sachi: “When she’s ready. You know her; she has to do everything her own way. But I don’t think it’ll be long now.”

Bodhi: “Why do they call it ‘crossing over?’ What will she cross?”

Sachi: “It depends on who you ask. Some people think it’s a rainbow bridge. For some, it’s a high ridge, beyond where the pine trees grow. For others, it’s just stepping over a kind of doorway into another world.”

Bodhi: “Well *you’ve* done it! Which is it?”

Sachi: “You’ll find out when your time comes. If I tell you, it would spoil the surprise.” <teasing him> “No fair telling!”

Bodhi: <whining a little> “What’s not fair is that Old Auntie is leaving us.”

Sachi: “Oh, Little Brother. You’re so wrong. Death is the only thing that *is* fair. Everybody has to do it — even trees and grass and…stupid chipmunks. No exceptions.”

Bodhi: <crying> “But I’ll miss her! She’s helping Mom raise me up right. I won’t know the right things to do!”

Sachi: “I know you’ll miss her. But it’ll get better after a while. And you’ve learned enough from her that you’ll figure things out.”

Bodhi: “She misses *you,* you know. Will you be waiting for her?” <suddenly panicky> “What if she gets lost when she’s crossing?”

Sachi: “Don’t worry about Coyote. She knows the way. You just focus on taking care of Mom.”

Bodhi: “Mom is going to miss her a LOT. She says Coyote grounds us.”

Sachi: <gently> “Yes, Mom will miss her. So taking care of Mom is a really important job.” <pauses> “And I know you’ll be great at it. Coyote and I chose you because you’re a sweet, smart boy. You are and always have been exactly what she needs.”

——
Me: <relieved> “He’s stopped crying.”

Coyote: “Thank goodness! How am I supposed to get any sleep with all that racket?”

Me: “Oh, now…he’s definitely not keeping you awake. You’ve been snoring all morning.”

Coyote: <grumpy> “Hmph!”

Me: “Oh look! He’s wagging. I love it when you guys wag in your sleep. It’s so sweet.”

Coyote: <grumbles something and turns a clumsy circle on her bed, trying to find a comfortable spot before plopping down with a grunt>

Me: “I’m worried about him, Coyote. He’s going to take it hard when you leave.”

Coyote: <opening one eye, then the other, to gaze fondly at Bodhi; in a soft voice, she says> “He’ll be all right, Mom. He’s getting some very good advice from an old friend.”

Bodhi, my Golden, sleeps


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(Re)Defining Kindness

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?


“Ma’am?”

I turned.

“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.

Bodhi checks in with his sister, Coyote