essays tzaddik stories

we dying dogs

Sometimes we just slow down and stop. And that’s it. We’re done.

That’s what happened today at Funston, heading back from the cliffside trail. This woman’s dogs were going just nuts as she tried to protect one between her legs who was just plain done. It was like she was paralyzed there, not paying attention to the growing chaos around her. Six or seven of the younger dogs just didn’t give a shit that their elder was ready to go.

The expression came to mind: to be on your last legs. This old dog had only three. And he wasn’t going to use any of them. His head was lying there in the sand. The phrase felt so literal, and I wondered really what it would feel like to be ready to just plain stop, and have no volition to ever get up again.

Just before he died, the biofather — who is not the tzaddik — told me a story. I had asked him if he remembered anything about me from when I was little. He got this glowing, glorious look on his face.

“One story, yes!” he said. He came back to life with this memory. He was no longer an elderly man in a wheelchair with limbs cut off from the diabetes, and scars from his cardiac bypass. He was young and authoritative and in control again.

“You were very little,” he began. “You were very sick. Your mother called me and begged me for money to pay for the medicine you needed. And formula or something. She needed food for you.”

He had this enormous smile on his face, as he paused. I had always dreamed of him as a knight in shining armor who would one day come rescue me. But I had never heard this story before.

“And I turned her down. I never gave her money,” he said proudly. And this hero’s light came into his eyes. He sat up a little straighter in his wheelchair, so proud of himself.

“After all,” he said dramatically, “you don’t feed a dying dog.”

And he looked me in the eye and grinned his winning grin, having concluded his victorious tale.

And I sat there staring at him. I mean, what can you say to that?

And I thought about his tale as I stared into the eyes of the dying dog on the cliff today. The one who was done, who was really ready to go. And I wondered about that baby in my mother’s arms. Wondered if that child had felt the same or not. Ready to be done. Ready to move on. The light going out of her eyes.

Dunno. But she was a very melancholy child, the grown-ups said.

I do think it possible that some of the light in her eyes winked out that day. And a bit more, I think, winked out upon hearing the old bastard’s tale. But the light was replaced, I think, by something maybe tougher. Resilience, maybe. Autonomy, for sure. An I’ll-take-care-of-myself, thank you. Somewhere along the way, if it was trust that was extinguished, it was self-preservation that ignited instead. And some kind of fortitude (defined here as being a stubborn, obstinate chayah), I think, replaced it.

Lights on, lights off. I look at that dog lying there. He, in slow motion. The pups speeding around him, jumping, chomping at each others’ necks and ears. He doesn’t intervene. He doesn’t play top dog, the way he did a week ago, a month ago. He’s not quite there anymore, hovering between this world and the world to come. They slow down, and they just plain stop.

It’s only humans who drag out the process with advance directives and life-prolonging measures.

I watch the dogs at the Fort or in my arms or at their home. And they tell us so clearly when they’re on their last legs. So clearly, I’m just not getting up again. They close their eyes. They’re often miraculously not in pain. They’re just ready to go.

A kaddish for them, for us — we dying dogs.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

4 replies on “we dying dogs”

I want to ask about the backstory on your mother and biofather, and later the tzaddik, but I hesitate, both reluctant to pry and enjoying the slow unfolding of your life story. I realize I'm assuming but do not know that the biofather and the tzaddik are different men.

What can you say to that? Nothing. You can blink. You can, if you are not me, remember to breathe. You can, if you are not me, resist impulses to become violent.

Your intellectual vigor makes it hard for me to believe any light at all winked out. I acknowledge that I don't know where else your light might be dimmed, but I have seen the light leave eyes I have loved.

My beloved black lab's eyes told me in March that she was done, but it was several days before we were able to take her in and close her lids over that dying light. She was in some pain, and her dignity suffered when we had to help her stumble up and down the many stairs of our house. Her embarrassment at having accidents in the house was evident. Most of all, she looked at us. Her eyes said she was done.

Our puppy, four months old at the time, knew also. In our last days together, the puppy who normally romped around like a goofball and stayed close to me plopped herself down next to hero and didn't budge. The puppy with the ten-minute attention span spent hours at a time lying still next to the dying dog. When we brought home an empty collar, our puppy took it in her mouth, played with it briefly, then lay down on that same pillow and moped. For weeks she carried that collar around with her. She chewed on it, slept with it, kept it in her sight. She still pulls that collar out of her basket of toys sometimes, and it is different somehow from her other toys. She is all about her teeth and can go through a rawhide roll the size of my forearm in about ten minutes, but she has not destroyed that collar, and when she is done with it, she often puts it back in the basket.

Dogs know when they are done, and they exit with dignity. They slow down and stop. Puppies notice this, and even manic lab puppies can calm themselves to attend to death. Our puppy seemed to sit shiva. Perhaps she says kaddish with us.

A kaddish for our dying dogs, for us—we who go on living.

By now it’s probably obvious that the tzaddik is not the biofather. When the tzaddik appeared, I was in a foster home. So that would be post-biofather and pre-tzaddik. Strange, it had not occurred to me to tell foster home stories, until this very moment. But if backstory is what you’re after, the foster home is pivotal.

And yah. I blink. And you’re welcome to remind me to breathe.

There is no violence in me. My mother’s accusation reverberates loudly in my head:

“Too bad you don’t do opera.”

Well. I just don’t do opera. Or as I told L recently: “Opera belongs on the stage.” That’s about all the opera I can do.

All I really know to do is just take note. And take notes, too. What else is there to do?

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