By Deirdre Good
We put Diamond to sleep yesterday. She was with us for thirteen years. How do you let go a part of your life for that long?
At the vet, we brought our other dog Reuben into the airless room to say goodbye. We lay with her on the floor and we told her all the things we loved about her and would remember for ever: the way her fur smelled like jasmine, her fierce independent spirit and leadership, the way she loved and brought up Reuben. We told her she would be free of pain and spoke of our hope that she would soon be with Angus, our shepherd who had known and welcomed her into our family.
And when she was gone and lay lifeless on the floor, we agonized over whether we had made the right treatment choices: to amputate her leg after the diagnosis of OS six months ago or to put her to sleep right then and there; to gauge almost on a daily basis how much pain she was in, and how much medication to give her; to assess when to live and when to die. Is not the power of life and death even over family pets an awful responsibility?
Death itself is the first rift. Who can say that it is not agony to look at the lifeless body of a loved one and know that they will never rise again in this life? To know that only memories now spin out threads of connection and to feel her absence as a physical ache echoing in the silences of the house to which we returned.
But separation takes many forms. Here’s another chasm over which we try to jump daily. Since mutual communication between dogs and humans is non-verbal, how can we ever tell what she is thinking and feeling? And this is all the more acute when trying to treat a dog in pain. After all, isn’t communication with animals a projection of our own imaginations?
The only thing we can do is pay attention so as to perceive what is going on in the animal’s reality. She did feel better with that course of pain medication. But heavy panting shows that she’s in pain. When I encounter an animal’s reality that is utterly different from my own, maybe, just maybe, I begin to understand. I am not projecting. I am trying to bridge that divide. Temple Grandin describes this in her book, Animals in Translation.
Diamond, like most dogs, lived in the present. She accepted each day for what it was. And each day meant another day in the life of her pack-the one that she was in charge of. Unlike most dogs, however, Diamond could and did weigh up options, for example, in responding to commands. Obedience was something to be considered. It took longer and must be deliberated. We ended up in something more like a negotiation. Probably the British owner who beat her before we adopted her had something to do with this. She had reasons for this behavior, and we attributed many of her more difficult personality traits to the abandonments and abuses she experienced in her first eight months, or to her dominant temperament, invaluable to the wild dog pack but a little out of place in a New York apartment.
We got into the habit of thinking of her as “difficult,” and perhaps because of this we didn’t pay the proper kind of attention to her frequent unwillingness to go for walks. When she finally started to limp heavily and we discovered the bone cancer, as soon as she was on good strong pain medication she was eager to go for long walks. Then we remembered how she chewed on and licked that leg, for no apparent reason, for two years, and then stopped for just as opaque a reason a few months before the limping began. She was telling us something was wrong, both with the reluctance to walk and with the persistent licking – and we saw it and knew it and still didn’t get it. We were biased towards our own beliefs about her behavior to pay attention to the evidence.
Early one morning we took a walk around the block where we live in New York City. As we walked towards 10th Avenue, we could see a squirrel at the end of the street. Its erratic behavior consisted of attempting to climb a lamppost or running up a wall and falling off. This behavior became more frenzied as we drew closer. Diamond was very interested. Rather than running in the opposite direction, the squirrel suddenly, and to our astonishment, flew into Diamond’s mouth. “Drop it!” I yelled futilely. “Are you kidding?” I imagined her reply, although she did eventually. And thereafter, I could sense her optimism that other squirrels on city streets might also practice the same anomalous behavior.
After we left the vet yesterday morning, we drove to Diamond’s favorite state park where we walked in a pine forest at the water’s edge. She only managed a few yards on her last visit, but she seemed content to be there. Now, the resonance of her absence was tangible. That’ll be true of every place we shared from now on.
We decided to plant a rhododendron for her in our garden. At the nursery, the assistant pointed out that deer like rhododendron buds. We indicated our deterrent Reuben in the car. She told us that local deer herds had had a hard winter and many died of starvation. There was simply not enough food. That morning, coyotes had attacked a pregnant female while giving birth.
This year, ten million children will die in low- and middle-income countries. Death is in fact all around us every day. We’d know this if we lived in a war zone or a place of diminishing food supplies. We just filter death out of our minds because we cannot bear too much reality. And reality might lead to care for others, which is the only thing that matters in this life, as Elie Wiesel tells us. Who can bear the thought of so many unlived children’s lives? We distance ourselves by using statistics rather than names and stories. But we don’t just avoid reality: we encourage its avoidance. Much of our culture gives us the illusion that we can reverse ageing and prolong life in various ways. In truth, to be alive every day and to awaken every morning is to receive the gift of precious life. Diamond’s gift to us is just that: the daily presence of her wild and precious life and the caring for each other that might make a difference. And if there’s a heaven without Diamond, count me out.
Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. She blogs at On Not Being a Sausage.