Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.


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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


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Let’s Take a Walk!

From a summer out of our past. She really was a snarky little girl in her heyday.

Coyote: “Hey! I know! Let’s take a walk!”

Me: “I’m kinda busy here.”

Coyote: “What could be more important than a walk?”

Me: “Sanding down the spackling on this wall so I can wash it down again and get some primer on it tonight.”

Coyote: “I repeat…”

Me: “Weren’t you the one who was complaining that it was hot earlier when I let you outside?”

Coyote: “It *is* hot! But it’s not as hot when you’re taking a walk. Well-know fact from physics.”

Me: “Right. Because sniffing dog pee somehow cools you down.”

Coyote: “It does!”

Me: “It’s not like we don’t have dog pee in the yard.”

Coyote: “But that’s self-referential pee.”

Me: “Self-refer-…what the heck are you reading NOW?”

Coyote: “It’s a dog thing. You wouldn’t get it.”

Me: “Look, I’m up on a ladder here. Just go take a nap or something.”

Coyote: “Up on a ladder, huh? Easy enough to fix…”

Chipmunk: “What are YOU doing out here?”

Me: “I’m not sure. Might have something to do with the swearing when she shook the ladder.”

Chipmunk: “Doesn’t explain *how* you got out here.”

Me: “I opened the door to boot her outside, and found myself out here with the door closed behind me.”

Chipmunk: “Aren’t you the one with the opposable thumbs? Let yourself back in.”

Me: “She locked the door.”

Chipmunk: “How’d she do that?”

Me: “Look, you little rodential pest, why don’t you go find some poisoned peanuts or something?”

Chipmunk: “Still not over that strawberry thing, huh?”

Me: “Get. Lost. NOW.”

Chipmunk: <diving down hole> “Touchy!”

Coyote looking longingly out the front door.


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Bison Bit Debate

Life without Sachi for that nine months meant Coyote and I spent a lot of “quality time” together. At the dinner table, about 18 months ago, when Coyote was still eating food on a regular basis:

Me: <tossing a coupla bison tidbits onto the deck> “Hey, you want this?”

Coyote: <sniffs, takes in her mouth, spits back out, sniffs> “Did you have these in your mouth?”

Me: “Yeah, but only briefly. Kinda sinewy.”

Coyote: “So, what makes you think *I’m* going to want that?”

Me: “You’re a dog.”

Coyote: “What?”

Me: “You’re a dog. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”

Coyote: “I’m not disputing the fact that I’m a dog. What I’m taking issue with is the insinuation that I would eat your mouthed-up table scraps because I’m a dog. It’s speciesist.”

Me: “Oh good lord! Speciesist? What the heck have you been reading while I’m at work? I’m putting the parental controls back on the computer.”

Coyote: “Puh-LEEZE! As if I don’t know your password…”

Me: “Hey! Are you sniffing through my things again? I told you that’s private!”

Coyote: “Whatever. In any case, I’m not your canine garbage disposal.”

Me: “Fine. I’ll just –”

<SLURP!!!!>

Me: “Dammit! That was almost my hand! I thought you didn’t want the scraps.”

Coyote: “I didn’t say I didn’t want them. I said I resented the assumption that, because I’m a dog, I would want them.”

——

It’s a good thing Bodhi came along when he did. I think we were beginning to get on each other’s nerves.

Coyote licking her nose


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Scratching Lessons

About 18 months ago I suffered one solid week of maddening itching from a scalp-to-sole allergic rash. And this was the help I got:

Coyote: “Try your hind paw.”

Me: “What?!”

Coyote: “Your hind paw. You can get better leverage scratching behind your ear.”

Me: “Not now, you smartass husky.”

Coyote: “Hey! I’m just trying to help!”

Me: “By critiquing my scratching technique?” <I continue scratching>

Coyote: “See. Now I’d bite that. You’re never going to get that part to quit itching just by using claws.”

Me: “Seriously, this is not the time.” <moaning as I get the hard-to-reach part of my back>

Coyote: <giggles>

Me: “What is so damned funny about this?”

Coyote: “It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve heard you make that sound…and there’s usually a man involved.”

——
Chipmunk: “How’s it going?”

Coyote: “Huh? Oh…you…”

Chipmunk: “What did she put you out here for this time?”

Coyote: <grumpily> “For a prey animal, you’re sure lacking in survival instincts.”

Chipmunk: “Don’t need ’em. We’re avid breeders.”

Coyote: <growling> “You’re about to take one for the team.”

Chipmunk: <diving down a hole> “Touchy!”


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A Sachi-Shaped Hole

Coyote was my rock, my saving grace after Sachi died. She has always been a gentle soul — with just enough snark to keep me from getting too maudlin. 

Coyote: “Mom, why did Sachi have to leave us so soon?”

Me: “I’m not sure, Coyote, but I suspect it’s because the world just wasn’t big enough to handle all of that love and joy.”

Coyote: “I’m going to miss her.”

Me: “I am, too, baby girl. <We pause and reflect a moment.> “If you were to wish one thing for Sachi, now that she’s moved on, what would it be?”

Coyote: “I’d wish she’d finally catch that fat, stupid squirrel that teased us every morning from the maple tree out front. <We share a chuckle> “Remember that one that fell at her feet out of the tree that time?”

Me: <laughing> “I remember. She almost didn’t know what to do with it.”

Coyote: “Or I’d wish that she was swimming in the river, chasing ducks.”

Me: “She was like sunlight on the water.”

Coyote: “Yeah, she was beautiful, that silly Golden.” <sighs> “Mom, who’s going to make us laugh, now that she’s gone?”

Me: “I guess we’ll have to do that for each other.”

Coyote: <groans> “We’re sunk. You’re not funny.”

Me: <laughing through tears> “Well, it’ll certainly be a lot more humbling for me with just you around.”

Coyote: <putting her paw gently on my thigh> “I was teasing, Mom. You’re plenty funny. For a human.”

Me: “But not for a Golden.”

Coyote: <sighs & leans into me, just slightly> “Nope. Not for a Golden.”

——
Later, from something like a dream:

Sachi: “Mom! Mom! I don’t hurt anymore, Mom!”

Me: “I know sweetheart, I know.”

Sachi: “And I think I could really run again — and jump over logs and play!”

Me: “Then go do it, my good girl.”

Sachi: <teasing and wagging her tail> “C’mon, Mom…what’s the command?”

Me: <unlatching her collar and whispering close to her ear> “Sachi FREE!”

——

I love you, Sachi. With all the pieces of my heart.

My Golden, Sachi, swimming


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Sachi’s Last Goodbyes

Sachi, my first Golden and Coyote’s sister, had been ill, off and on, for nearly six months when her last emergency room visit finally produced the diagnosis that had evaded us: cancer. And it was untreatable. My entire world went dark. I went to the veterinary hospital, where she’d been kept for testing, to bring her home to die. So great was my anguish and worry about the possibility that she was suffering that I began frantically calling veterinarians to see if someone could come that night to put her down. Fortunately, no one was able to come, as it gave me the opportunity to invite the people who knew and loved her to the house to say goodbye to her. It was too much for me to process and impossible for me to form the right words for such a pronouncement, so I let my sweet little girl tell my Facebook friends how it was with her.

Sachi: “Mom, why are all the people visiting us sad tonight?”

Me: “Well, Sachi, it’s time for you to go, sweetheart.”

Sachi: “On a walk?”

Me: “Well…”

Sachi: “Or a car ride? I like car rides.”

Me: “It’s kind of a like a car ride. It’s a journey, baby. A new kind of adventure.”

Sachi: “Are you coming, too? I like it when we go places together.”

Me: “Oh, puppy-girl… No, I’m not coming this time.”

Sachi: “You aren’t going to be there? What about Coyote?”

Me: “No, Sachi, you’re going to have to do this one alone. But we’ll be right there to send you off, baby. We won’t leave you until we’re sure you’re safely on your way.”

Sachi: “I’ll be sad. I’ll miss you.”

Me: “We’ll miss you, too, baby girl. Believe me. We’ll miss you every single day.”

Sachi: “Mom?”

Me: “Yes, Sachi?”

Sachi: “Am I a good girl?”

Me: “Yes, sweetness. Yes, my soul. You are a good girl. The sweetest, funniest, most beautiful girl. You are my light.”

Sachi: “You’re a good girl, too, Mom. Even if you don’t have a tail to wag.”

Me: “Thanks, baby. That means a lot.”

Sachi: “I’m tired, Mom. Are you ok?”

Me: “I’ll be fine, Sachi. Just rest here, and I’ll hold onto you for a little while. Tomorrow is a big day.”

Sachi: “Thanks, Mom.”

Me: <whispering> “No, Sachi. Thank you. For everything you are and have been.”

My Sachi as a puppy, 10 mos


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John stops us on our walk to ask after Coyote. We pause, and I fill him in on her slow, drawn-out deterioration.

“They’re a super-breed,” he says, pointing at Coyote with his chin.

Blinking, “I’m sorry…what?”

“Huskies,” he tells me. “I did a little research, and they metabolize food differently, so they can go longer on less.”

And it hits me, full-force in the chest: Huskies are the closest that domestic dogs come to wolves. They’ve retained many of the wolf characteristics throughout their journey from fire pit to fire place. One of those characteristics is a kind of “famine mode” for absorbing nutrients from their food.

I gaze down at my sweet girl, trembling with weakness where she stands, as John continues elaborating on how the husky’s loping run conserves energy; how their fur insulates them from heat and cold… I can only make sense of scattered words because my mind is jangling with one simple, cruel fact:

My god, her genetics are prolonging her death.


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Dead Smells

(Overheard in the living room:)

Coyote: “OK, so help me understand. You find that nasty half-a-dead-squirrel in the yard and try to bring it inside, and I have to suffer through getting my teeth brushed.”My dog, Sachi, chewing an antler

Sachi: “Squirrels are yummy!”

Coyote: “It was barely a strip of leather with a tail attached! Why’d you even bother to pick it up?”

Sachi: “Squirrels are especially yummy when they get ripe for a few days!”

Coyote: “You’re hopeless! Next time, swallow it whole before Mom sees you! I don’t like the toothbrush. Makes my fangs feel weird.”

Sachi: <continuing, lost in her own thoughts> “Ripe squirrels smell delicious. When I find them, I just want to roll in them.”

Coyote: “Well it’d be better than eatin-… Wait. ROLL in it?!”

Sachi: <quivering in ecstasy at the thought> “Dead smells all over my body…”

Coyote: “Are you NUTS?! She’ll give us both BATHS!”

Sachi: <sighing happily, oblivious> “Mmmmm. Dead smells…”

Coyote: “You’re just…wrong.”


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A Late Need for Moorings

My dogs have all loved to run off-leash. Living in the city, the opportunities to do so are few and far between — and are often stolen at odd hours or in what most people would call “bad weather” so as to avoid being caught and fined. The Golden Retrievers in my life loved to stretch their legs and run for the sheer joy of it. My Coyote, though, could simply never believe she was untethered, having spent her previous life chained to a post. Of the three dogs who have graced my adult life, she has always been the most grateful for that small freedom.

As Coyote has grown weaker in her illness, I’ve started walking her up and down the street without a leash, knowing that she is too sick to run away and believing that I was doing her a kindness by allowing her to make her careful way without the tug of the leash on her collar. From time to time, I’ve caught her suddenly jerk to attention, seeking me out, so I’ve stayed relatively close and within her narrowing range of sight, thinking that was enough.

Tonight’s walk gave me a different perspective. As we rounded the corner in front of my house, Coyote stumbled over the crumbling road surface. She hesitantly struggled over the rough spot and continued unsteadily on for a few steps before stopping and gazing up at me, tremors running through her poor old body. She seemed to want to lean on me, and I thought, I wonder if she feels lost.

“Do you want your leash?” I asked her. She dragged a few, insecure steps toward me. “Would it help you if you had your leash, baby girl?” I closed the tiny gap between us, and she stretched her neck out in that familiar gesture that, for more than a decade, has signaled she wanted me to clip her leash to her collar for a walk. Only, now, there was another layer of meaning: I need to feel attached to you. I feel unsafe without my moorings.

We walked on for the short way her paws will still carry her, and I noticed that when she stumbled or when her hind paw clubbed up because her brain can’t command it consistently anymore, she would glance up, leaning into her end of her leash so she could feel me on my end. Sometimes, if the leash hung too loosely, she would cast about with her head, relaxing only when she felt certain I had hold of her.

And at the end of our walk, once we were safely in the yard, I unclipped the leash, as is our habit, and tried to coax her into following me up the hill to the house. She froze in place, waiting for the reassurance of my touch on her back to guide her across the yard and up the path.

To keep her connected to me. To guide her home.

white husky-mix on her leash