Arch - April 8 / Day 98

One year ago today, we put Reggie to sleep. I’ve been anticipating this one-year anniversary, wondering whether it would feel like a momentous occasion or just another day, and now that the day is here, it somehow feels a bit like both. In many ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago—far more than one year—since I spent so much time carrying a thin, increasingly decrepit old dog up and down the stairs, helping him get settled comfortably when he wanted to lie down, helping him turn over when he grew stiff or sore, helping him to his feet when he wanted to eat or drink, and plying him with treats and tasty bits at all times, trying to coax nourishment into a creature who was gradually fading away to fur and bone.

Under the bridge

The first few months of last year, my entire life revolved around Reggie and the routine rituals of his care: the feeding and cleaning and medicating and relieving. On days when I taught in Keene, J was in charge of Reggie-care, and the first thing I’d do when I got home was climb the stairs to the second floor to check on Reggie: was he resting comfortably or restless? Long gone were the days when Reggie would meet me at the door of my apartment in Keene when I came home from teaching, his entire body wagging with gladness to see me. In his final months, Reggie could no longer stand up on his own, much less jump and prance around. In his final months, Reggie couldn’t even wag his tail, that once-emphatic exclamation-point having grown limp and lifeless from a debilitating combination of spinal arthritis and degenerative myelopathy. Given how much emotion a dog expresses through his tail, this particular indignity of Reggie’s old age seemed particularly cruel.

(New) stairs to Echo Bridge

One of my most vivid memories of Reggie’s final months was an otherwise unremarkable morning when I’d gotten him comfortably settled after our morning walk. I was stroking his fur, rubbing his belly, and feeding him bits from my breakfast granola—our usual morning ritual—when suddenly Reggie rested his head in my lap and wagged his tail, thumping it firmly on the floor as he had when he was younger. Both arthritis and degenerative myelopathy are incremental in their onset: you don’t notice gradual impairments until your pet can no longer do things he always used to do. At that moment when Reggie thumped his tail, I burst into tears, realizing how long it had been since he’d been able to do something so simple. When your pet can no longer energetically express his gratitude, you focus on more subtle cues: a kind of quiet communion. When Reggie’s body permitted him to wag his tail on that otherwise unremarkable morning, I accepted it as a kind of gentle reassurance: inside, he was the same dog with the same gentle spirit, and it was only his body that was faltering.

Echo Bridge

The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep isn’t the simple reality of his absence, as you can (and do) brace yourself for that. The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep is the massive gap that’s left in your schedule, your life no longer centered on the mundane, almost liturgical routine of caretaking. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to have other pets to tend: had Reggie been our only pet, J and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when we suddenly didn’t have an old dog to tend to constantly. These days, the energy we’d devoted to Reggie’s care is divided among our other pets, with our twelve-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, showing the first signs of arthritis, too. As the Buddha knew, old age, sickness, and death are an endless cycle: the wheel of life and death never stops turning. One year after Reggie died, we’re re-using with MAD the oral syringes we’d used to give Reggie his arthritis medication: same malady, same medication, different dog and dosage. For now, MAD can still wag his tail, jump to his feet, and otherwise prance around, but his days jumping on beds and racing up the stairs are over: different dog, similar story. As J remarked when the movie “Marley and Me” premiered: “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.”

Today’s photos come from Hemlock Gorge, which I’d first explored in 2008, when Reggie was showing the first signs of old age.

Su Bong Sunim Memorial Garden

Email is an impersonal way to find out a dear friend has passed, but sometimes there’s no better way to break bad news. In my Zen school, we chant Kwan Seum Bosal–the name of the bodhisatta of compassion–when someone is in need and Ji Jang Bosal–the name of the “Earth Treasure” bodhisattva–when someone dies. Right now, the names of Kwan Seum Bosal and Ji Jang Bosal are echoing around the globe as members of my Zen school learn via email that one of our own–a long-time and dear Zen-friend–has passed, leaving a bereaved wife and many devastated friends.

Leafy Buddha

In the immediate aftermath of shocking news, you have no words to express (much less explain) what has happened: all you have is a sad, stunned feeling, like a punch to the chest. The beauty of chanting, I’ve found, is that you don’t have to say anything. Once you take up your moktok–the hollow wooden instrument used to keep time during chanting–and open your mouth, the familiar melody takes over, like an oft-repeated prayer that prays itself. When Zen Master Seung Sahn died several years ago, Zen practitioners around the world chanted “Ji Jang Bosal” in his memory; when MBTA operator Terrese Edmonds died last spring, folks at the Cambridge Zen Center, having read the news in the paper, intoned the same chant. It doesn’t matter how near or far death strikes; when you receive word of bereavement, either your own or that of another, there’s only one proper response: Ji Jang Bosal.

Weathered

Years ago when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we’d come together every evening to chant Kwan Seum Bosal for those in need or Ji Jang Bosal for those who’d died: as a community, we carried one another’s heartaches. Every time I go to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice, I look at the names written on cards on the altar: one card listing those who are struggling, and one card listing those who have died. It’s a reminder that we’re all in this together: at any moment, any one of us will find ourselves suffering or bereaved, and at any moment, any one of us might die. We chant to give one another solace in times when words can’t express our sympathies, and we chant to remind ourselves that none of us is immune from suffering and death.

Standing Buddha

When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, residents would sometimes use the main meditation room for solo practice during the day, when others were at work or in their rooms. Sitting meditation nicely lends itself to solitary practice, but the sound of chanting seeps through walls and windows. Whenever I’d come home to the Zen Center during the day and would hear the sound of one of my house-mates chanting, I’d pause to listen: Kwan Seum Bosal means someone needs help, and Ji Jang Bosal means someone is grieving. In that brief moment of listening, I’d silently chant along with my unseen house-mate, not knowing the precise story behind her or his intention. From day to day, the names and faces we chant for may change, but the chant itself–and the emotion behind it–stays the same.

I was living at the Zen Center when both of my grandmothers died, and I was living at the Zen Center when my father was diagnosed with (and successfully fought) cancer. In all three cases, chanting by myself and with others brought me great emotional solace: it was something I could do, I found, even when my heart was broken, the fluid ribbon of a familiar melody carrying me even when my voice trembled with sobs. In the aftermath of tonight’s email, I have no words, but I have a clear intention: Ji Jang Bosal Ji Jang Bosal for the one we have lost, and Kwan Seum Bosal Kwan Seum Bosal for those of us left behind.

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