These past two days have been hard. Our dog has had to be put down. He is old, 17 years to be exact, and we came about him in an odd way. It actually is rather fitting that I should be with him, now, at the end of his life. We have only taken him in for the past three months, but he came into my family by my own hand.
I was young and just back from Europe and not yet done with school. Being young and impetuous, I thought I needed a dog. I had moved out of dorms, so had my own place. An impetuous afternoon lead to a young college student with a full schedule and a strapping young Jack Russell.
He was everything a young dog should be. Rambunctious. Playful, of course always wetting the floor when he shouldn’t. I often carried him around in a shoulder bag. He’d poke his little head out, sniff the air and breathe in life. He was white with red spots. One spot covered his eye and ear, making me recall old Little Rascals episodes on Saturday mornings as a child. I even have a newspaper clipping of me and my little guy when I visited a local antique show. The person asked if they could get a shot of us for the local paper. I didn’t know until it came out, why they wanted it. “Antique enthusiast follows ‘no dogs allowed’ rule at this year’s antiques fair” we laughed about it, hung it on the fridge and went on into the summer.
That fall, returning to university, Gilbert stayed behind. I hadn’t time for him, really. He had become accustomed to my parents and our family dog. He enjoyed the yard to romp in and the constant attention my mother could lavish on him. I kissed his head, waved good bye and somehow the rigors of life speed by.
I graduated. Moved to Boston then the Cape and life just sort of lumbered along. I would hear of the dogs occasionally, but new dogs, a husband and a life had replaced the part in my heart he once filled.
Flash forward to two years ago. My parents, being quite old ( I was born when my mother was in her 40’s) plan to move out to the Cape. I am excited, but it is short lived. I had heard less and less form my mother over the years and really thought little of it. We were always close but we had such full lives, separately, that many times a few years would go by with only occasional calls. Now, I knew why. My mother had Alzheimers and my Father had kept it from me. I was floored to say the least. That, however, is another story.
They moved out here, with Gilbert, the family dog having passed just before. 15 years had gone by, but Gilbert was holding on. We have a house we own that we used to rent out and so my parents moved in. It is a wonderful old Cape built in 1718. Finally, I thought, it will be filled with family and laughter and of course, the patter of dogs feet.
Gilbert. Here he was. So old he was unrecognizable. His playful red spots had faded to all white. His rambuncious prance, replaced by careful steps. His bottom row of teeth, what was left of them, now protruded and he looked oddly comical when he would peer up at you, teeth jutting out, ears alert. He played, as best he could, with my younger dogs when we would visit and have our family get togethers. Finally we were all close to one another.
Alzheimer's is a horrid disease. I have since often thought it is the closest thing to living with a real ghost. You see the image of your loved one walking about, only you cannot communicate with them and they often look right through you; perhaps she smiles at you, or holds your hand, only she cannot tell you what she wants. Words elude her. She wants to communicate with you, like a ghost, but having left earthly things behind, she cannot be made to understand who she is or who you are. You smile best you can and hold her hand. It is a sad place for all.
Being the youngest and born to such old parents has often left me to face things many people do not encounter until they have older children of their own. I have no children but I do have old parents. It is as if I have lived with those sights and knowledge of old age since I was a child. They have been my companion in my youth and were gone for a bit, but with my parents return to me and Gilbert they returned. Perhaps my love of vintage things was due to my being brought up on it. I often lived in the photographs of my parents when they were young, with my other siblings. It was a life that had been real, they spoke of it, I could see the participants, but I was never there. Maybe, in some way, my trip back to 1955 now is, in some part, my trying to go there. A chance to visit that shinning Camelot I viewed as a child, alone on the sofa in books of black and white photographs. Alice trying to get through the looking glass.
Now, a few months ago, for reasons too long to explain my mother, now in a nursing home, and my father have had to move back home, many states away from me. My father, burdened with so much, could not take Gilbert. He was too old, wouldn’t survive the trip. “Perhaps he should be put down”, he said. “No, I will take him. After all, really, he is my dog”.
Though Gilbert was technically my dog, he had become my father’s dog years back. My mother would often be followed by our family dog, but Gilbert was dad’s reluctantly. My father would often play the ‘I don’t care about that old dog’ trick, but we’d see the food slipped quietly under the table for him, or the fresh chicken he would cook for him daily. When Gilbert was still young and my father more mobile, you would often see the pair of them tottering about the yard and if my father went somewhere in the car, Gilbert was the first in the front seat, his place of honor.
Now, those days are gone. My parents, too, are gone. My mother installed in her new nursing home being visited by my siblings. My father, installed with family, free of the ‘burden’ of Gilbert.
Since we have had Gilbert he has loved us, best he could. He, for some reason, took a shine to Gussie. He would follow her around and wait for her to appear from her bedroom. Though I was with Gilbert all day, and he would kiss me and eat the food I gave him, he would sometimes give me a look: as if, some where some how, he recalled me. Days in bags and eating muffins hidden in class rooms. Maybe, just maybe, he never really forgave me for walking away from him years earlier. Now, with circumstances beyond either of our control, we found ourselves back together. Fate, perhaps? Whatever it was, here we were. Dog and Girl, having shared various years and holidays, back together.
Now, Gilbert is an old dog, but we have dubbed him the ‘energizer bunny’ as he just never quits. But, unfortunately that is not the case now.
This past Sunday Gilbert seemed stiffer than usual. His hind leg wouldn’t cooperate. He shuffled along, but still made it out the door and into the yard, to stare disdainfully at the antics of my younger dogs or to wag his tail at the site of Gussie. By Monday he could barely move, so off to the vet we go.
“Lyme disease,” says the vet. “We don’t have to put him down?” we respond? “No, give him these twice a day” responds the vet and off we go.
Here we are today and Gilbert is on his last legs. He cannot move to go to the bathroom. We found him this morning, slumped under the kitchen table near the door, knowing he should not go in his bed, but his body not following his command. We called the vet and today he must go.
I have been racked with emotion today. Is it best and right to let him be put down. Certainly, it must be, as he cannot stand. He is not crying out in pain, but certainly there is no hope of healing. I spent the morning holding him in his favorite blanket, an old one of Gussies, and every so often he would look up at me. I know, through his poor eyesight, he hoped I was my mother or father. I too, in a way, wished he were my mother, one last hug and all. So, I figured, here we are, we odd pair both hoping we were someone else, but only having each other. I hugged him a little tighter and he fell asleep for awhile.
It is sunny and warm. The birds are singing. The rooster just let out that he is around. I figure, Gilbert is entitled to enjoy some of his last day outside in the warm air. I found a soft patch of grass, laid him down with Gussie’s blanket and sat with him for awhile, stroking his head. Once he drifted off to sleep, for I could see the blanket rising and falling, telling of his breath, that he only slept, I grabbed the shovel and headed for my new little orchard.
Perhaps it was destiny that I took a break from the finishing touches on my dining room yesterday to plant up my little orchard. I was so proud all the little apple, plum and pear trees, erect and freshly mulched. Hubby and I had cleared the area the previous Sunday on that unseasonably hot day. I daydreamed the future little path and the fence I’ll put in. Over there, I thought, will go the stone wall and maybe some day a little fountain and some chairs to enjoy it all. Now, here I was, digging a hole under one of my favorite apple trees, knowing it was not destined for another tree. This, I thought, will be will Gilbert will lie.
It seemed odd, almost macabre to be digging his grave as he lay quietly snoozing in the fresh grass. It made me reflect on my own life and my own mortality, which death always does. We always feel the pain of a loss the fact that for us, we shall never see them again in our lifetime. But, there is a selfishness to grief, I think. Perhaps we don’t want to know it, but it is there. You see, how can we not see ourselves a little in death. It is there for all of us, certainly. We grieve for those who are going and reflect on their life. But, what about our life? Are we living it?
Perhaps, this project could not have come at a better time for me. It has taught me to grow up in many ways, and to have responsibility. It has also taught me the joy and importance of living happily in the moment. I used to think I lived in the moment, but really I just wasted my time. Diversion, entertainment, what ever I thought was making me ‘happy’ because we don’t ‘live forever’. But, now my living in the moment has a sort of timelessness about it. I can feel a joy in planting up trees that I hope to see grow and age and provide food for our table. The happiness at the moment I place the roots in the ground, the watering of them in the morning and dreaming of the tomorrows they will bring, all the while knowing how happy I am and can be at that moment. Maybe, just maybe, these past few years of illness and facing death will help me to make a life I will be sad to let go, but will enjoy along the way. Even the silly things I talk about like wasting time on tv and not really trying to take ACTION, they, today, seem to have even more importance to me. They seem a road I am glad to struck out upon.
Today I am sad. I have held my dog, the puppy I once ran with and left behind. He has come back and here we are the pair of us, alone in our grief. But, we have had times, oh we have had times!
Now, as I dig the hole, I think of his little body in there, covered in the earth. The roots will grow over his remains some day. He will enrich the soil. The tree will grow and bear fruit and will become pies and jelly and fill our bellies. He will be gone and will one day be forgot, but now, here in my new little orchard, he will be remembered. I too, one day, will be gone and forgot. But, for awhile, perhaps, I will be someone's happy memory. Maybe there will be someone to walk in my orchard, now overgrown or perhaps well cared for with large gnarled old trees and they will stand where my puppy was once buried and not know he was there. But he was. And I was.
I only hope, for any of you who read this, that you can walk away today and think “I am alive!”. Maybe you will suddenly feel the need to take that trip you have been putting off or maybe you will walk into your home and sit with your cup of tea and think, “I am happy right now. There is the picture I have hung, the clothes I have folded. There is the pie I have baked. Who will care in 100 years, but right now, I care and am happy and alive.”
All of this because today a little dog has died. I suppose it doesn’t really matter if I am in 1955 of 2009, I am glad I have struck off on the road I am now on. There are rewards amongst the loss, and really that is what life really is: Finding the happiness and love amongst the sadness and misfortune. I am glad that this year of taking away things, such as some modern conveniences and ideals, has lead to a new kind of happiness, self-worth, and knowledge. And, how much that is like life. We have to give up things and people we love, but sometimes, from it, comes a new happiness and a new way of living. I am going to live the best way I can, and realize sometimes that best is simply sitting in my orchard with my family and friends resting my foot upon the grave of dear old Gilbert.
R.I.P. Gilbert (1992-1955)