Intimations of mortality


Toivo waiting

On Friday night, we put Toivo to sleep. After months of mobility issues and inexplicable infections, her final decline was swift and sure. Early Friday morning, Toivo was panting heavily in her kennel, so J took her outside, and she became uncharacteristically aggressive. By the time we arrived at the Angell Animal Medical Center, Toivo was listless, unable to walk, and had to be rolled into the critical care unit on a stretcher.

Bedroom eyes

While at Angell, Toivo did not improve. Instead, the ER vet said Toivo’s neurological responses were “inappropriate” and indicative of meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain tumor. By evening, it was clear Toivo’s condition was dire. When we arrived for one last visit before putting her down, Toivo was awake but unresponsive, staring with glassy eyes and not reacting when the vet moved a hand quickly toward her face.

Toivo guards the yard

Before she died, Toivo struggled to raise her head as I got settled on the mat beside her, as I had so many times during her week-long hospitalization in April. I’d like to think that in some corner of her brain, Toivo could still recognize the familiar touch of my hand on her head, my scent, and my voice telling her she was a good girl and everything would be okay.

Djaro and Toivo

We had Toivo for a shockingly short period of time–roughly a year and a half–but she had become deeply embedded in our lives, and closely bonded with me in particular. When we first brought her home in February, 2018, she acclimated almost immediately, as if she’d been born and raised with us rather than arriving as an adult dog. From day one, Toivo loved playing with our other dog, Djaro, leading me to suggest the best way to tire a Belgian Malinois is to bring home a second one.

Crazy legs

Initially, I hadn’t wanted a second Malinois. The breed is energetic and intense, and whereas J prefers tough and intelligent dogs–so-called “mean breeds”–I’ve always preferred floofy doofuses. What sold me on Toivo was her spunk. Too small to be a protection dog, Toivo was also too much of a goofball. Whereas the word that best describes Djaro is “intense,” the word that best described Toivo was “happy.” When her whole body wasn’t arthritic and painful, Toivo was a joyful, hyper little dog: a dynamo in a seal-slick coat who spun like a top when excited.

Toivo with toy

Although we’d chosen Toivo to be my walking buddy, what cemented our bond wasn’t the walks we took when she was able-bodied as much as the four months she was a Medical Mystery. Toivo was a fearlessly hardy dog for the first year we had her, eager to walk in any weather, but this past March, she was suddenly creaky and reluctant to move. It was as if she had gone overnight from being a dog of four to a dog of fourteen.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

After many diagnostic deadends and weeks of physical rehab, we finally learned that Toivo had immune mediated polyarthritis (IMPA), a disorder that caused her immune system to attack her joints. When we started her on steroids and an immunosuppressant, she responded almost immediately. Within days she went from being hunched over and limping to being her old self: active, energetic, and hyperalert, like a lion caged in a dog’s body.

One word we kept hearing throughout Toivo’s veterinary odyssey was “idiopathic,” which refers to a condition with no clear cause. We never learned why Toivo developed a huge abscess on her left hind leg in April, why she developed laryngeal paralysis after her release from the hospital, or why her face swelled up for no apparent reason in May. On Saturday morning, after we’d already put Toivo down Friday night, we learned a chest X-ray had shown three masses in her lungs: the closest we came to a smoking gun. If Toivo had a brain tumor that metastasized to her lungs, no amount of physical rehab or immunosuppressants could have saved her.

Toivo with cavaletti

But even a smoking gun can’t answer the question of why. Why did fate or chance choose this one dog–my dog–to struggle with so many medical challenges? Why did fate or chance choose to cripple then kill her so young? I’ll admit to feeling as much anger as grief these past few months. J and I would have done anything to keep Toivo safe and healthy, so why are there abusive and neglectful people whose dogs are still alive while my dog was taken in her prime?

Toivo stares

There are no answers to these questions; ultimately, mortality itself is idiopathic. If you allow yourself to love a dog, you know how the story will end: they will die first, unless you do. Looking through the photos and videos we took while Toivo was with us, I feel cheated to have lost her so soon, but even luckier to have had her at all. Even the longest-lived dog leaves too soon. I don’t know why we continue to open ourselves to the heartbreak of loving creatures who are destined to die, other than we have no other choice.

Stump and toppled trunk

Today was a bright, breezy, spring-like day, so after lunch J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery. Most of the snow has melted, leaving the grass bare and blanched: mud season, the awkward pause before spring.

Fallen

Throughout the Cemetery, there were fresh stumps and piles of massive trunks and branches: cleanup from trees that had either fallen in winter storms or had been preemptively culled. It was sad to see massive tree-corpses lying among the gravestones: if these fallen giants could talk, what stories could they tell?

Stump

The lesson of any Cemetery, of course, is that impermanence surrounds us. Seeds sprout, trees tower, and winds wreak havoc: even evergreens can’t stay green forever. A neatly landscaped grave creates the illusion of immortality: as long as a headstone stands, one’s name and memory live on. But aren’t tombstones ultimately like so many tree stumps: dead reminders of a once-living thing?

Toppled

In a few weeks, the earth will erupt in green, landscape crews will have cleared away the last of these toppled trees, and both the mallards and Canada geese that swim the Cemetery ponds will have nestlings in tow. The annual death that is winter, in other words, will miraculously transform into the resurrection that is spring. In the meantime, I like to think the massive tree stumps J and I saw today aren’t dead, but sleeping: their cellulose selves dreaming of sunny skies and chlorophyll-fed days.

Creepy

If I had to pick a favorite month, November would be my choice. Fall is my favorite season, and late fall is my favorite time. After the bright and blustery days of October, November descends as a kind of muted gloom. Many trees have lost their leaves, and in places the ground below is more colorful than the branches above. Early autumn draws the eye upward toward changing foliage, and in late fall we look down toward earth again.

Skeleton with pet cat

November is dying time. Leaning deep toward winter, trees suck their juices into their roots, leaving their leaves to wither and branches to dry. November is when nature closes up shop, putting a sudden stop to the fervent fecundity of summer. When Herman Melville wanted to describe the morbid urge that sent Ishmael to sea, he described the damp, drizzly November of his soul. All rivers wend toward an ocean end, and Christians remind themselves of this with a pair of November holidays that commemorate the dead: All Saints Day yesterday, and All Souls Day today.

Mr. October

During the month of October, our religiously diverse neighborhood goes all out decorating for Halloween: Christmas lights are rare here, but in October there are plenty of ghouls and skeletons hanging around. The inevitability of death, it turns out, is something that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and certainly Buddhists can agree upon. Whatever the shade of your skin or the posture of your prayer, in the end our bones will all molder the same.

Just a skeleton on a porch with his dog

Earlier this week while listening to news coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I heard how community members have spent shifts at the coroner’s office, praying with the deceased rather than leaving them there alone. I’m not Jewish, but I my immediate response to this story was recognition: yes, of course we need to keep company with the dead, praying however we are accustomed. And with that thought, I began to weep, not only for the named ones who died in Pittsburgh but for any and all who have died alone, too soon, or with unfinished business: the only kind of soul, legend tells us, in danger of becoming a ghost.

Three pumpkins

Buddhists have no illusions about the afterlife: I’m comforted by the bright blankets of November because I recognize that as the leaves and seasons pass, so too are we each destined to die. In November, all souls sit with the dying landscape, keeping her company as she passes from one season to the next. At this time of year and during this week of senseless slaughter, I’m reminded of a line from the Dhammapada: All beings tremble before their death. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

Rocco in window

On Friday night, J and I put Rocco the cat to sleep after a two-year battle with small cell lymphoma. We’d lost our cat Groucho to the same disease in November, 2015, so we were familiar with the typical progression: weight loss leading to diagnosis, sudden improvement and weight gain with chemotherapy, then a gradual and irreversible decline when the drugs stop working. In our experience, feline chemotherapy works very well until it suddenly doesn’t.

Rocco resting

Although Rocco had been gradually losing weight for the past few months, until Friday he hadn’t acted sick. All through the summer, he was still eating, interacting with our other cats, and pestering for attention. But on Friday, Rocco was lethargic and aloof, and when he finally defecated on himself and didn’t even try to clean himself, we knew his spirit had given up before his body had.

Rocco reads

This is the third pet we’ve euthanized this year: we put Cassie the dog to sleep on New Year’s Day, before the start of spring semester, and we euthanized Gumbo the cat at the end of April, as the semester was ending. I don’t know why so many of our pets die at the beginning or end of my academic semesters or why their final throes so often happen on nights and weekends, when only emergency vets are on duty. As another fresh-faced vet–we never seem to see the same one twice–prepped Rocco for the procedure, she asked if we’d ever been present for a euthanasia. I had to stop myself from saying, “We’ve probably been present for more pet deaths than you have.”

Rocco on window sill

The passing of a pet is an emotional and even spiritual experience: a journey to the border between the Here and the Hereafter. Watching a pet slip away at the quiet push of a plunger makes you realize how tenuous and ephemeral this mortal life is, and the quiet absence you face when you get home reminds you of how outsize even the smallest creature’s soul can be.

This is no longer a litter box. #catsofinstagram #roccothecat

Rocco was the last remaining pet that J had when I first met him in 2007: the end of an era. When I met J and did not (due to allergies) think myself a cat person, it was Rocco who helped win me over.

Anyone who thinks cats don’t have personalities should have met Rocco, who was positively dog-like in his gregarious, goofy, and (yes) dogged demeanor. Rocco was not a shy or retiring creature; like a dog, Rocco would come right up to anyone who entered the house, walking on bowed legs that made him look like a hockey goalie in leg pads. When Rocco reached you, he’d collapse in a furry heap right under your feet, forcing you to either pet or push him away. One of the final signs that Rocco was not long for this world, in fact, was his complete indifference when I dried the dishes on Friday afternoon. Healthy Rocco would have pestered me by rubbing my legs, flopping at my feet, or trying to climb into the dishwasher, curious.

Rocco helps unload the dishwasher

People who have never euthanized a pet sometimes wonder how you will know it’s time, but in my experience it it always abundantly clear when an animal is ready to die. If you know how your pet usually acts–if you know their most basic and obvious joys–you will notice when they no longer are interested in those things. If you listen deeply to your pet, you can’t fail to notice when their spirit leaves and it is time for you to help their body follow. Throughout his life, Rocco pushed and pestered for affection, and on Friday night we gave him the last dose of love he needed to cross to the other shore.

Cassie with chew bone

On Monday morning–New Year’s Day–we put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep. She’d been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressively metastatic cancer, the week before Christmas, after our vet found a large mass on her spleen. When we brought Cassie home after having her spleen removed, we knew our task was to make the rest of her life as comfortable as possible, no matter how long or short.

Cassie at home

J and I have ushered too many pets from this world to the next: countless cats and now four dogs. Our commitment to stay with a pet until their final breath–to be present during their passing rather than handing over the leash and walking away–is one we both take very seriously. We’ve grown all-too-familiar with the the euphemistically named “Meditation Room” at the Angell Animal Medical Center, where families can gather on couches or on the floor while their pet slips quietly away. We know the Meditation Room and the routine that goes with it because it’s a scene we’ve repeated with pet after pet after pet. After spending so much time, energy, and worry tending to an ailing or elderly pet’s final days, suddenly they are gone.

Someone won't let me make the bed. #dogsofinstagram #cassiethedog #whitegermanshepherd

When Cassie was in surgery two weeks ago and her surgeon saw her cancer had spread, our vet called and gave us the option of euthanizing Cassie right there on the operating table. Without batting an eye, I said no. There is no need to prolong the inevitable–neither J nor I believe in extraordinary measures–but there also isn’t any reason to hasten it. After her surgery, Cassie had a good, comfortable week at home surrounded by the familiar rituals of her daily routine. Without a bleeding mass on her spleen, she felt more energetic than she had before surgery–almost as good as new–and we plied her with cold cuts for Christmas and spent a lot of time petting, brushing, and fussing over her.

Cassie at Angell

Instead of dying on an antiseptic operating table, Cassie left us at the fullness of time, after we’d spent a week consciously, intentionally loving her to death. Past midnight on New Year’s Eve, she was her usual alert and affectionate self; on New Year’s morning, she was listless and droopy, with white gums indicating an internal hemorrhage. Having discussed this inevitability with our vet–ultimately, we knew, hemangiosarcoma always wins–a difficult decision wasn’t difficult at all. Although Cassie didn’t know much less understand her diagnosis, her body told us it was time.

Tinged

I’m currently reading The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs’ account of her cancer diagnosis and death. The book is divided into four stages, just as terminal cancer is, and in the passage I read this morning, Riggs enters stage three of her journey right as her own mother dies of the disease.

Fade to pink

Riggs is a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so her approach to living and dying is inherently–one might say in-hereditarily–Transcendentalist. Riggs reads and writes her way through her diagnosis, treatment, and stages of grief, drawing parallels between her life and the essays of Michel de Montaigne, which themselves were models for the ones written by both Emerson and Thoreau.

Essayists believe writing is itself illuminative: we write in an attempt (in an essay) to understand. The title of Riggs’ memoir, The Bright Hour, comes from a line from Emerson referring to morning as a time when sunlight infills and inspires, allowing “this sickly body…to become as large as the World.”

Duck lips

The sun rises every day, and every day people die. There is nothing inherently special about Riggs or her cancer, treatment, and death; Riggs experiences mortality as countless others have both before and after her. But what makes a writer’s passing particular is the very art of essaying: even in extremis, there is a conscious commitment to watch and record, one’s own impending death becoming its own kind of data.

This kind of noticing does not come naturally; it is human nature to turn away from scenes of sickness and decline, reminiscent as they are of one’s own mortality. But writers train themselves to turn toward trauma just as war photographers run toward scenes of slaughter. I suppose there are a few exceptional souls who live oblivious lives and then turn into compulsive chroniclers of their own demise, but in my experience, awareness is a tool you hone over time.

Fading to pink

Although Riggs’ memoir had its genesis in a blog she began soon after her diagnosis, I don’t know if she was a lifelong journal-keeper like her famous forebear was: it was Emerson, after all, who urged Henry David Thoreau to keep a journal, and American literature is all the richer for it. But Riggs was trained as a poet, and poets like essayists are compulsive collectors, using language as a tool to snatch up and save the otherwise ordinary detritus of days.

I’m roughly halfway through The Bright Hour, but I know how it ends–I know, in fact, how every memoir ends. We all were born with a terminal diagnosis, but some of us are in denial about the details. Riggs died at the age of 38, leaving a husband and two young sons; Emerson died at the ripe age of 78 after having lost much of his memory and mental faculties. How do we measure the richness of a single life: is it by length of days or the number of enduring publications? Riggs lived the last years of her life in an entirely Emersonian fashion, reading, writing, and trying assiduously to understand this brief, bright hour that dawns, hastens across the horizon, and inevitably fades.

Takeoff

Today’s weather is the same as it was sixteen years ago today: brisk and beautiful, with turquoise-blue skies. I’m not sure if there is a meteorological reason why September skies are often so deeply, vividly blue, but that’s how the sky was on September 11, 2001.

Logan Airport flyby

Sixteen years ago, I was living in Hillsborough, NH with my then-husband, and September 11 was a Tuesday. I’d just started teaching at Keene State College, but I didn’t teach on Tuesdays that semester. Instead, I was working a part-time temporary job at a publishing company in Portsmouth, NH, about an hour and a half away from home.

Jet Blue on blue

That morning’s drive to Portsmouth was largely uneventful, but there had been a car crash on the stretch of highway between Concord and Portsmouth, and police had blocked the road and detoured traffic. I remember driving on small, rural roads through communities I’d never visited before. These were the days before ubiquitous GPS devices, and I was genuinely worried I’d get lost trying to find my way to work, but the day was so lovely, I almost didn’t mind.

Overhead

When I got to work, I learned someone had died in that crash: the first of the day’s many tragedies. But since I didn’t know the person who had died, I quietly settled into the cubicle of one of the of two women on maternity leave I’d been filling in for that summer. While I was working, someone sent out an inter-office email saying the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit by a plane, and I quickly skimmed and deleted the email. Since I was juggling this temp job with the new school year at Keene State, I had a lot of work to do that day, so I continued working without checking CNN or turning on the radio.

Wild blue yonder

The same thing happened when another email came around saying the second World Trade Tower had been hit: I read the email and kept working. I hadn’t seen any photos or videos of the attack, so I imagined a scary but somehow explicable accident wherein two planes had gone off track, clipping a wing against one and then a second skyscraper. Because I was busy, I was able to compartmentalize the news: something bad was happening in New York, but I was in Portsmouth, and I had a tall pile of work to do. I was probably the last worker in my office–the last person in America–to realize the gravity of what had happened.

Fly-by

I wasn’t until lunchtime that I fully realized what was happening. I was supposed to attend a staff meeting, but everyone was so upset by the news from New York, several coworkers and I went for a quick walk instead. It was an attempt to dissipate some nervous energy on a clear autumn day that was too beautiful to spend inside. When we got back to the office, I finally saw my first glimpse of the attack.

Overhead

A throng of co-workers was crammed into a single cubicle, huddling around a computer to watch CNN, and that was when I saw for the first time the incessant replay of planes crashing and buildings falling. Like countless others before me, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene out of a movie, not something actually happening under an impossibly blue umbrella of September skies.

Overhead

Not long after my co-workers and I stood slack-jawed and silent around a single computer, our boss sent us home for the day: my co-workers to nearby homes and loved ones, and me to a lonely hour-and-a-half drive. The roads between Portsmouth and Hillborough were nearly empty, and I listened to the news on NPR while scouring the skies for planes. It’s been sixteen years since I took that long, lonely drive, and I still hold my breath whenever I see a distant plane fly anywhere near a city skyline, waiting to make sure it flies behind each silhouetted skyscraper rather than directly through.

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