Reggie


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.

Resting

One morning last month while I was standing at the kitchen sink doing dishes, I saw a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovering around our backyard bird-feeder, confused, wondering why a red feeder should hold birdseed rather than sugar water. Hummingbirds are lightning-fast and iridescent, so it always feels like an unexpected gift to see one: a sudden spark of motion and color that zips into view, pauses, then darts away, an elusive apparition that already seems like a memory even before it’s gone.

Ruddy duck

It still seems strange to watch our backyard bird-bath and feeder while doing the morning dishes rather than spending that time watching for Reggie. It’s been over five months since Reggie died, and my morning ritual of watching Reggie in our backyard dog-pen while I did dishes before our morning walk—my glances to make sure he wasn’t pacing and whining at the gate, or to check that he hadn’t fallen into a tangled heap somewhere, unable to get up—was such a staple of Reggie’s last year, it seems strange to no longer do it.

Resting buffalo

I think of Reggie most often in the mornings when I do dishes, as there are many reminders of him then: not just the dog-pen in easy sight from the kitchen window, but also the digital photo frames that show a random history of J’s and my life together, including many photos of Reggie in various stages of his prime, middle age, and decline: images appearing occasionally and at random, as if reminding me of experiences I can never forget.

Colobus monkey

There are also all the memories I have of standing at the sink in Reggie’s final months and weeping as I watched for him—mornings when I knew his end was near and that someday I’d look back on those hours as precious, simply because back then, Reggie was alive. “Anticipatory grief” is the official term for this process of beginning to grieve before you’ve actually lost something, as if grief were a task you could get a head start on: a full, heaping serving you could eat bite by bite, over time, rather than swallowing in one choking gulp. Regardless of when you start grieving, whether your experience of loss is gradual and anticipated or sudden and surprising, you can’t digest it beforehand: when the actual moment of “goodbye” arrives, there’s little your anticipation can do to prepare you for what is to come.

Red wolves

These predictably bittersweet morning moments at the kitchen sink aren’t the only ones when I remember Reggie, however, as his memory comes to me, unbidden, at random, unforeseen times. Sometimes it’s the sight of a dog who looks a bit like Reggie—one of the dogs who barks behind a chain link fence beside my parents’ house in Columbus, Ohio, for instance, or a Reggie-colored dog walking with its owner on a wooded path. In each case, there is something about This Dog that reminds me of That One, and the spark of recognition is undeniable, my heart hearkening with a start: “Oh!” It’s often a recognition only I see: the other dog doesn’t really look like Reggie, but an awareness of resemblance appears because such a large part of my heart still looks for Reggie, expecting him naturally to be in any of the places where I am.

Walking moose

A month or so ago, for example, a friend and I walked around the lake at Wellesley College on a beautiful Sunday afternoon when countless families and dog-walkers were enjoying the sunshine, including one woman who sat reading in a beach chair beside an elderly keeshond who reminded me so much of Reggie, I could barely speak. This dog was sprawled comfortably on the grass while the woman read, resting and showing no desire to go wading into a lake where every other passing dog had hurled himself with great, splashing enthusiasm. This dog was midsized, gray, and irrepressibly fluffy, lolling with such an expression of quiet happiness, you’d think there was no greater joy in the world than simply lying in the grass next to a lake on a sunny, late-summer Sunday afternoon.

Swan

As the woman packed her things to leave, the dog still lay there quietly, happily indifferent, refusing to heed her calls to come, get up, and follow, ultimately tugging back on the leash when the woman tugged to stir him. It was exactly something Reggie would have done—a mischievous stripe of stubbornness tempered by the mellowness of age. There was no anger or aggression between the woman and dog, just a quiet refusal on the dog’s part, as he refused to be tamed even in old age. When the dog eventually stood up, his motions were slow and obviously achy, a second stab of recognition. Creaky and arthritic, the fluffy gray dog got up and slowly hobbled away, shadowing the woman’s steps in a manner that was so eerily reminiscent of Reggie’s arthritic gait, it might as well have been him, reincarnate.

Mottled

“Enjoy him while you have him,” I wanted to shout, but I didn’t because the woman didn’t need my exhortations: she already knew. I could tell this in the way she’d knelt to the ground to kiss the dog on his snout, ruffling his furry mane, before urging him to his feet. This too was something I did, something that owners of old dogs do universally, the world over, I think. It’s a universal language that needs no translation.

Social grooming

You’ve surely seen the famous photo that made the rounds this summer of a man with a ponytail wading up to his neck in Lake Superior, his elderly shepherd mix floating beside him, the dog’s face resting with a blissful expression on the man’s chest. That dog, too, reminded me of Reggie in terms of his size and general shape; the blissful expression is one I recognized, as one of an old, arthritic dog finding a moment of peace.

Lounging kangaroo

When I first read about the man and his 18-year-old, arthritic dog, it brought grief over Reggie’s passing back as if no time had passed at all. Grief is a fruit that remains perpetually fresh, preserved in some hidden cellar of the soul. Seeing the photo, I wept as if Reggie had died only yesterday—wept because I remember how desperately I looked for ways to make him comfortable in his final months, and wept because I recognized that expression of trusting comfort that marked those elusive moments when I had succeeded. That blissful look, I think, is what Reggie had on his face when he died with his head in my lap, at peace at last: a look I would have done anything in my power to elicit.

Walking

There is another form of recognition that is even stranger—even more tenuous, and even more powerful—than these encounters with dogs who remind me of Reggie. For at random, unpredictable times, I’ll see things that are entirely unlike Reggie that nevertheless remind me of him—a bright eyed, inquisitive toddler exploring the world just beyond his mother’s reach, or an elderly man doddering on slow, achy legs down a grocery store aisle, or a friend’s hushed story of how his mother died while he sat watch over her, alone. These people are not like Reggie—it’s silly and even obscene to compare them—but there is this same sudden spark of recognition: “Oh, yes. This life too is precious, beloved, and destined to pass.”

Black swan

These lives, too, are like sudden hummingbirds which zoom into the receptive spaces of our soul, brightening everything with the quickening glint of their unanticipated coming, pausing, then flitting away: beautiful, enlivening, and ultimately ephemeral.

Click here for more photos from the Columbus Zoo, from last month’s trip to visit family in Ohio. Enjoy!

Cauliflorous redbud

It continues to be cool and wet here in New England, with the landscape luxuriating in its own lushness. Last Thursday, I went on a Friends of Mount Auburn walk with Clare Walker Leslie, whose Keeping a Nature Journal is one of the books I use in my “Art of Natural History” first-year writing class. It was too damp for (comfortable) field sketching, so we walked with closed notebooks and open eyes, simply to see what we could see.

Cauliflorous redbud

Mount Auburn is one of those places where you always see something new, no matter how many times you’ve been there before. I’ve seen plenty of blooming redbuds at Mount Auburn and elsewhere, but Thursday was the first time I’d ever seen a large redbud with massive clusters of flowers blooming like pompoms on its trunk. A bit of Googling revealed that “cauliflory” is the term for trees that bloom from their trunks, and a quick peek at Wikipedia reveals that redbuds are renowned for being cauliflorous: a fact I’d somehow never realized. How is it I’ve been to Mount Auburn so many times without seeing this particular tree, and how is it I’ve seen countless redbuds blooming over the years without ever noticing that they sometimes bloom directly from their trunks as well as their branches?

Jesus with Bible

In a place like Mount Auburn, you can never have your eyes too wide open. One of the themes of Thursday’s walk was how Mount Auburn is a “layered” landscape that operates on many different levels. You can visit the cemetery to go birdwatching, or to look at tombstones, or to admire horticultural plantings, or to search for the graves of imminent historical figures, or to visit the graves of your own loved ones. Both of Clare Walker Leslie’s parents are buried at Mount Auburn, so her experience of the place is necessarily different from mine, a frequent visitor who nevertheless doesn’t “know” any of the inhabitants.

The Perkins dog

Although I don’t have any loved ones buried at Mount Auburn, there is one monument I’m now officially “adopting” as my own. Despite all the times I’ve walked past the monument for Thomas H. Perkins, founder of the Perkins School for the Blind, I’d never before noticed how the grave’s weathered marble Newfoundland–the so-called “Perkins dog“–looks a bit like Reggie. Reggie himself doesn’t have a grave: J and I chose to have him cremated, and we didn’t opt to keep his cremains, recognizing that an urn of ashes simply couldn’t contain the memories we have. There’s no one place where I go to honor Reggie’s memory because his memory is always with me; still, I cherish the thought that every time I go walking at Mount Auburn, there’s a special stone there that reminds me of someone I could never forget.

Layered

It’s been just over a week since we put Reggie to sleep, and I’ve noticed that the tears now come unbidden and unexpectedly, inevitably when I least expect them.

Mysterious

I can do the dishes most mornings now without looking out on the dog pen and weeping, after having spent so many mornings checking for Reggie outside before our morning walks, wondering over the previous night’s dishes how long we’d make it at his slow, unsteady pace before turning back for home. I can, most mornings, do yoga in Reggie’s favorite resting spot–a sun-soaked segment of hardwood floor that still feels like it’s “his”–without tears streaming down my face like the first few mornings. And I can meditate now in the spot where Reggie’s food and water bowls used to be–a spot that feels empty and open now, somehow perfect for meditation–without tears, just gratitude for another sunny morning with open windows and birdsong, and the memory of the countless times I’d meditated in my apartment in Keene with Reggie lying a few feet away, waiting for me to be done with sitting so we could get down to the business of walking.

Shady

The times I might expect to weep for Reggie, in other words, aren’t necessarily when the tears come. When I get home from campus on Tuesday and Thursday nights, for instance, I now know not to look for Reggie lying in the bedroom as I ascend the stairs to the second floor: I know to brace myself for his empty spot. But it’s those random moments when I’m not expecting to be broadsided by grief that catch me unprotected, like this morning when I was folding laundry and casually caught a reflected glimpse in the mirror of the Empty Spot where Reggie used to lie, or those moments in the middle of the night when I get up, half asleep, to go to the bathroom, taking care not to step on a dog who is no longer there.

Reflective

This morning I found myself suddenly weeping over a passage in Diane Ackerman’s A Slender Thread, which I’m still reading (slowly) after having first mentioned it here last December. Ackerman describes a visit to Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Long Island, which leads her to recount the familiar story of how Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War, providing companionship and comfort to injured and dying soldiers. It was Ackerman’s description of Whitman embracing one soldier while telling him that death is nothing to fear that drove me to tears, the image of one soul helping another go gentle into that good night ringing too close to home. How great a gift it is to provide companionship to the dying, and how great a mystery is dying itself?

Still the King

I’ve learned–I’m learning–to be gentle with myself during this tender and tenuous time, recognizing that just as Reggie’s final days were precious because I made a conscious effort to be mindful of every moment, so too do these days of grief deserve their own attention. I’m learning not to fight anything: not the tears, not the memories, not the moments of sadness, relief, or gratitude. Whatever arises, I try not to fight it; I try not to judge it; I try just to watch it, open-eyed and attentive. I tell myself not to miss even a moment of this experience, because this too has worth and value: an emotional legacy that cannot and should not be denied.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself…and having learned to be a little gentle, I continually learn how to be even more gentle, letting go, gradually, of how I think grief should be or how it ought to progress. If you cast aside even the notion of “process,” all you’re left with is this present moment, this present emotion, this present teardrop, none of which has an exact comparable, ever.

Resting

J and I no longer live with an old dog: on Tuesday afternoon, we put Reggie to sleep. Both J and I knew it was time: the previous night, Reggie been restless and uncomfortable, waking us early with whines and occasional whimpers, and when I’d taken him out for his mid-morning bathroom break, he’d collapsed on the porch and immediately peed on himself, as if he were too tired to even try to get up. We made a last-minute appointment with our vet, I cancelled my classes and student conferences, and J and I made one last trip to the Angell Animal Medical Center to make Reggie comfortable for good. He was fifteen years old, and I’d had him for over thirteen years.

Proof that cats and dogs can get along

It was a peaceful–even beautiful–passing. After having been so restless and uncomfortable the night before, Reggie was tranquil on the drive to Angell, lounging in the backseat with his head up and alert, relishing the stream of fresh spring air from open windows. At Angell, I carried him into the waiting area and got him comfortably settled while J checked us in, and Reggie was both quiet and calm. I took one last picture of him while we waited, and in that photo he looks content and comfortable: ready.

Bloom where you're planted...

Reggie didn’t whine or whimper once in the family meditation room, a private lounge where we arranged him on a soft rug while Dr. Kaye and Alex, his assistant, readied Reggie for the injection. Dr. Kaye gave Reggie one last snack–some sort of healthy dog biscuits for sensitive stomachs, the treats some other family had apparently left after their final goodbyes–and then we gathered around. Reggie was lying with his head up, alert but relaxed, while sunlight from a partly cloudy, impossibly blue sky streamed through a high window. I stroked Reggie’s head and neck fur–his signature chow-mane, which never diminished even in age–while Dr. Kaye delivered the injection. One second, Reggie was calmly looking around; the next, he flopped his head onto my leg as he always did when he was tired; and the next, he was gone.

Basking

J and I cried in the meditation room, and on the drive home, and upon arriving at our too-empty-seeming house, Reggie’s now-useless leash in hand. The first thing I did was to gather up Reggie’s things, putting away his leash and bowls, his medications, and his food platform and the sturdy, rubber-backed mat we’d bought so he wouldn’t slip when he ate or drank. There are reminders enough of Reggie everywhere, mainly his conspicuous absence under foot and the now-empty spots where he loved to lounge. Why would we want empty bowls and now-useless medicines around to mock that absence?

Lounging

The first morning without Reggie, instead of walking I did yoga in the spot where he often slept, then I meditated in the now-empty space where his food and water bowls once sat. It seemed fittingly appropriate, the spots where Reggie found temporary rest and respite now permanently quieted. That first morning without Reggie was an impossibly beautiful spring day, with cloud-embellished blue sky just like the one I’d looked out upon at Angell, Reggie’s fur under my fingers. That first morning without Reggie, the tulips by the dog pen bloomed, an annual occurrence I’ll forever associate now with Reggie’s passing.

Still standing

Reggie was a good dog to the very end, a faithful companion who was with me during some of my darkest days, and my only “family” in New Hampshire in the immediate aftermath of my divorce. Reggie was a rescue dog whose “second life” with me was filled with everything a dog could hope for. He’d taken countless car-rides to and from Ohio and not one but two cross-country road trips. He’d served as official mascot and temple guardian for a Zen group. He’d climbed mountains, and he’d slept in an RV in Arizona, a tent in Virginia, and under the stars in northern New England. Reggie snacked on elk jerky while watching elk from a motel window in California, sniffed and peed at Old Faithful and Gettysburg, and nearly jumped out the backseat window at the sight of bison and moose. He had face-to-face encounters with groundhogs and snapping turtles, waded belly-deep in rivers and ponds, and chased countless turkeys, deer, and one memorable black bear: the only time in his life he’d actually come when called. Reggie had his portrait painted, and he inspired a whole category of blog-posts and a slew of photos. He was a fluffy-faced sweetheart whose resilient spirit humbled me in the end: a dog who needed help in dying because he just wouldn’t give up on his own.

Reggie reclines

My biggest fear in Reggie’s final days was that I wouldn’t be there when he died, either because he’d slip away quietly when J and I were out, or because a medical emergency would force J to make a final vet visit while I was teaching in Keene. Although my heart aches every time I see the empty spot where Reggie loved to lie, I’m grateful J and I were able to be with him in the end. These past few years as Reggie declined, I increasingly did anything I could to make him comfortable, carrying him up and down the stairs, easing him into a reclining position when he struggled to settle himself, and flipping him over when he’d squirmed himself into an uncomfortable position and didn’t have the strength to roll over. In the end, putting Reggie to sleep was the last thing we could do to make him comfortable, his body giving out before his heart. We was a loving, loyal friend I can’t possibly forget: a good boy until the end.

Reggie closeup

It’s after dark and drizzly, and Reggie has come in from his final bathroom break of the night: a quick pee in the front yard a few hours after our last walk. This is how it is when you live with an old dog: you measure your days and nights by the size of his bladder. When Reggie was younger, he would pace and whine when he needed to go out; nowadays, the moment he totters to his feet, awkward on arthritic legs, I hustle him toward the door. Sometimes Reggie makes it all the way outside before relieving himself; sometimes not. This is how it is when you live with an old dog.

Let sleeping dogs lie

When you live with an old dog, you gradually accept things that would have troubled you before, your patience blossoming like an unfolding flower. Another accident? No problem: you keep paper towels and a mop handy. Another bathroom break mere hours after the last one? No problem: you tell yourself it’s healthy to take a break now, not later. Another stint of patiently coaxing a dog who has never liked stairs to make his tentative way downstairs, one shaky step at a time? No problem: you learn how to meditate on each step, lavishly praising each one as if it were your dog’s first. When you live with an old dog, you gradually become accustomed to living your life moment-by-moment, the limitations of your pet’s declining body revealing the breadth and depth of your patience and priorities.

Sleepy dog

When you live with an old dog, you learn how to loosen your grip on to-do lists and time lines. Do I care about the papers left unread and the emails still unanswered? Yes, I do…but I care more about taking Reggie out when he needs it, cleaning up his accidents, and making sure he’s watered, fed, and comfortable. Do I have time to coax a dog down stairs three to four times a day when I have papers to read, classes to prep, and other work to be done? Technically, no…but practically, yes. Practically, yes, because your priorities shift when you live with an old dog, and you learn how to make time you technically don’t have. Mindful of the length of even the healthiest dog’s life, you learn to take the long view in all you do. “After he’s gone,” you silently ask yourself, “will I care whether I finished those papers, answered those emails, or checked off those other to-dos?” When you live with an old dog, you remind yourself time and again that sentient beings are always more important than tasks. After Reggie’s gone, I won’t care whether I accomplished everything on my to-do list, but I will care that I was fully present for his final days, however many they might be.

Reggie enjoys a car ride!

When you live with an old dog, you sometimes find yourself getting teary-eyed on an otherwise serene dog-walk because you know these days are precious: one day, you know, you’ll miss the trouble of cleaning up accidents and the glacial pace of coaxing an elderly animal down stairs, one step at a time. “How old is your dog,” strangers will sometimes ask me on our puttering neighborhood dog-walks. “Fourteen,” I’ll answer, to varying responses. Some folks marvel at how good Reggie looks for his age: slow-moving and methodical, but without noticeable graying. Other folks–the ones who have lived with old dogs of their own, I suspect–nod with a resigned expression. Fourteen, both they and I know, is ancient: a handful of friends have lost their dogs this past year, and all of those dogs were thirteen. When you live with a fourteen-year-old dog, you have no delusions: you know nothing is guaranteed, just this walk, this step. It’s the most valuable lesson any old dog–any sentient being–can offer.

Reggie after snowy dog-walk

The secret of walking down semi-plowed streets in a snowstorm? The dog walks one tire-track, and I walk the other.

This is my Day Twenty-One submission to a river of stones, a month-long challenge to notice (and record) one thing every day. I’ll be posting my “stones” both here and on Twitter, where submissions are tagged as #aros. Enjoy!

Next Page »