I have grown fond of mowing my meadow in the late afternoon or early evening. I enjoy being in this one-time apple orchard. The gently rolling hillside and field went back to the wild soon after the local farmers quit working it, but I spent the past year clearing paths and removing dead growth. This grassy expanse is now clean of brush and shows off some clumps of Black-Eyed Susans, a gathering of Russian Olive, and a thicket of wild roses. These islands of color interrupt the view and draw the eye and mind into curiosity about what lies beyond the wood line, on the far side of the locusts and walnut to where the hickory, maple, and great white oaks tower.
The meadow is a place my dogs loved. Herds of deer, the solitary grumpy black bear who still leaves huge swirls of dark black scat, almost always with hair in it, an excitement of turkey hens marching their brood single file snatching tasty grasshoppers on the fly, the occasional black snake—that “narrow fellow in the grass”—and all kinds of other woodland critters coming and going, day and night, to wherever their lodestar guides them. The dogs run on fumes, so many scents to inhale, so many droppings to sniff and roll in as they cross and crisscross and then race around the meadow one more time. A band of merry pranksters.
I smile remembering their fun. The time I spend in the meadow gives me pause to think more about the loss of Abbie, my lovely forever-young Golden Retriever who would have been sixteen in October. I had to put her down on 4 June.
The meadow is comforting and allows me distance from the piercing of the heart when life steals what we love away from us. A vet told me once to space my dogs out better so they wouldn’t all grow old at the same time. But like a lot of families, there was little planning. My gals and guys just came down the path at their own pace.
Although death is with us all the time, especially in the country where the young and the vulnerable have the odds fixed against them, I have never learned how to deal with the end of life in any satisfactory way. I just don’t seem capable, or perhaps willing, to make accommodations. I only do what I know how to do: once again I dug a grave into the hard clay and stone on my side of the mountain.
People and animals lose who they are, no longer find comfort in food or water, and pee down their legs. They lie down not because they are tired but because their legs can no longer hold them up.
I’ve had to put a number of dogs down in my life and still haven’t learned much about timing. As we know, there’s never a good moment to say good-bye. Optimist or coward, one thing for sure is that I am never premature. I always feel the need to stretch the limit, even if it’s only a few minutes. The time comes, though, when you can no longer pretend that all will be well.
I told her how precious she is and reassured her that she is my heart’s delight. I then kissed her goodbye and held her trusting head in my lap. When her labored breathing ceased I knew I was in the presence of mystery. I was stilled in that moment.
Now I find I have little to say about death. Words fail. I stare blankly at my loss, my tongue mute, not knowing what happened. I am reminded that death, like music, shows us that the essence of being is ungraspable, unnameable. I am learning that this mystery of death cannot be articulated.
All I was able to do for Abbie at the end was to make her comfortable and let her go at what I thought was her own given speed. I wanted more time, not days necessarily, just a few more minutes. Time is not always our friend. I wanted to squeeze every available minute out of that defining moment. I looked up at the clock, though, and the second hand nudged me along. Time was growing impatient and wanted us to move on. I was back in high school Latin class translating Ovid’s Tempus edax rerum, “Time, the devourer of all things.”
That night I slept within dreams and counter dreams and wrestled with what really happened. The comfort of all things familiar was gone.
When I awoke I read from a book by Adam Zagajewski, the Polish poet and essayist, who often wrestles with time, too. In one passage I took comfort from his loving memory of his father who knew the importance of stretching out time when the occasion was right.
Zagajewski writes that his father’s “calling, his life’s mission, became comforting my mother, the constant, permanent, daily creation of an optimistic vision of events, a lens designed to neutralize her deep, deepest pessimism, her fear.” When German bombs began to explode on Warsaw where they lived on 1 September 1939, he reassured her, “Don’t worry, Ludka, it’s just exercises, nothing to upset us, calm down, it’s just maneuvers, there won’t be a war.” Thus, Zagajewski’s father gave his wife “an extra fifteen minutes of peace. He prolonged the interwar era by a quarter of an hour especially for her.”
I also searched for reassurance for Abbie as Janet, our vet, found her vein. “It’s just a shot, sweet thing, to make things better.”