The Power of Memory
Do you ever wonder how certain memories come back to teach us about ourselves? The lesson for me in this week’s post is that dying is damn hard. Sometimes, in the midst of it, we don’t feel the full impact. Then your dog dies and it all comes rushing in.
The story below was written nine months before Dan passed away. He and our family dog, Ash, seemed to be in a race toward the grave. The piece, An Ode to Ash, provided a safe space for my observations and wonderings as I turned to writing to preserve my sanity.
Today, I invite you to join me as I reach back in time to re-enter 2020 when I had no clue about how hard things could get.
Peace to you and yours ~ Kathie
An Ode to Ash
As I stroke the tip of her ear, I wonder about the soft layer of hair covering the firm but flexible cartilage. The feel of it is feather soft. Lying on the floor, pulled in by heightened senses, I want time to stand still. We are saying goodbye.
For months I have felt as though my husband and my dog are racing daily to see who dies first. I observe how their bodies labor…the effort involved in the gaps and flow of their breathing…the eating and not-eating and eating again…the weight of normal tasks of movement—such as getting up and lying down—are formidable for each of them.
And, what if . . .?
Addressing our dog I complain: “Maybe I will just run to the front of the line and beat you both—what do ‘ya think about that?”
Ash turns toward me, offering sassy tail talk—“Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump.”
Pig—her devoted bestie—is silent.
At the kitchen counter I spy the empty pill containers waiting to be filled—counting two weeks of my husband’s pills, both am and pm. Two weeks forms the rhythm and the heartbeat of this bi-weekly task.
This was never my job.
Until it was.
It will continue to be my job.
Until it isn’t.
The lure of chicken and rice
Our grandson, Izaak, informs me that not long ago Ash faked dying to gain some home-cooked chicken and rice.
“No way,” I say.
“Really, Grandma! She gets all slow, stops eating, lays around like she’s dying, so you’ll cook for her.”
“Maybe.” I say. “But this time feels different.”
If Ash is accused by our grandson of “fake-dying” in order to have a more delicious dinner, I’ve never suspected that tactic from my husband, Dan: heart disease, lung disease, and lymphoma require no acting.
And besides, he doesn’t like chicken and rice.
For months I have felt as though my husband and my dog are racing daily to see who dies first…it seems clear that our pup is heading for the big “win”.
Ash entered our family as my youngest son’s first dog, purchased on his own, and I remember thinking, “Pit bull? Why?” Her breed, even mixed with a touch of Lab, made me cautious. The barrel of her body brought forth an alarming bark. Games of tug-of-war proved her magnificent jaw strength for which Pits are famous; it awed and frightened me.
I tried not to love her.
It didn’t work.
Transitioning and Taking Stock
Ash’s heavy breathing weighs heavy in the air and on my heart. She looks as though she ran a mile, but she only walked from one room to the next.
Landing in our living room, she lies with two paws in heaven (where all dogs go, by the way) and two paws on the wooden floor—still with us. A bit later she moves to the patio.
- 12:56 am – The house is silent as I move to my bedroom. Both bedroom doors shut, room in blackness—a tomb of my own. Feeling the stress, I pull my bed sheets over my head.
- 1:30 am – My body alternately rests and sleeps while my husband sits outside with our sweet girl, as she breathes heavily, but quietly.
- 1:35 am – “It’s not just about the dog,” a voice in my head says as death surrounds us in its most familiar way.
“What does that even mean?” I retort.
“It’s about both of them.”
“Shut up,” I reply.
- 2:35 am – Dan comes to bed when our grandson shows up to relieve him from duty.
- 2:40 am – I step out for a final lie-down with Ash on the patio, knowing that work requires I be at the computer at 9:00 am New York time, 6:00 am for me. I kiss her familiar head with its soft black fur, stroke the feather soft ear, and thank her for being such a loyal friend.
Two hours later we get word.
- 4:09 am – Text from our grandson: “Hey, she just passed.”
- RIP dear pup.
Stories ping back and forth between phones.
How is it that telling stories helps so much? We all have stories. Mine is about Pig. A few years back, when Izaak brought home the giant pink pig from the pet store where he worked, I thought she could never get it in her mouth. She did, and Pig became her favorite.
Other Ash stories arrive by text—the fake dying story—her love of people—how “human” she seemed.
One by one, of those who live nearby, our adult kids and a few of our grandkids show up to dig her grave in the backyard. This is July 2020 and we are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Everyone shows up masked and we feel the restraint that physical distance requires—the warm hugs we normally share are replaced by longing.
As we gently place her into the grave, we toss in dirt and continue telling stories. Thinking of her wrapped in her blanket, deep in the silent earth, gives me a sense that she is safe. I view her grave from the laundry room window and she remains centered in our conversation as she has for all the years she was “ours”.
Dogs are known to carve a place in our hearts that transcends time. The wagging tail, the look from their eyes into ours, the way we talk with them like they know what we are saying. How often they really DO understand. Actress and dog advocate, Doris Day, described this well when she said:
“I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.” – Doris Day
After burying Ash, speaking of a contest between man and dog suddenly feels like a terrible idea. The game was a helpful distraction in dealing with the difficult reality I faced—it helped to keep things light when things were so heavy. But now . . . I don’t want to play any more.
Our beloved dog’s passing awakened a reality check within me. It ushered in the heavy truth I was trying to escape; the finality of death. Breath stops. The heart stops. The living being is no longer “with” us as before. We cannot reach out to hug them. We can no longer look into their eyes and see the light of life shining from within.
I feel both unwilling and unready.
I want to push death away as it comes knocking on our door.
But I know I cannot.
For months I have felt as though my husband and my dog are racing daily to see who dies first.
On Saturday, July 11, 2020 at 4:09 am, our 15-year-old pup won the contest by unknown measurements since I cannot read the future.
Rest in peace, pup.
And for the rest of us, I found this:
Death doesn’t conquer all; love does. Love wins every single time. Love wins by lasting through death. Love wins by loving more, loving again, loving without fear. ―
“I’ll take that promise,” I say to myself.
Love lives on after death.
Love always wins.