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.