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