Saying goodbye to our dog taught me something about how I want to bid farewell to every loved one in my life.
This time of year in San Francisco is especially beautiful. The pink skies in the evening are filled with all sorts of clouds, while the mornings have a slight damp chill as the marine layer slowly pulls back its cover off of the city. Frequently, I find myself rising before dawn so that I can watch the city wake up. The quietude allows my thoughts to roam, most recently toward thoughts of loved ones and death.
My beloved Shepherd-Husky, Cleo, died a year ago, and it was tough on us to witness her decline in health. She was a big dog, robust and full of personality, until she wasn't. I saw her, again, and again, meet each new physical challenge, and win. She faced allergic reactions to foods, diabetes, seizures, blindness and dementia. It was a huge blow to suddenly realize that she was fading, that the grim reaper had his grip on her and wasn't letting go.
I had to let go, before she did.
A year before Cleo passed away, our vet told us we would know when it was time to say goodbye to her. He was right.
Watching her closely, getting down on the floor to see what life looked like from her eyes, and just spending quiet time together, I saw her decline. Her body was steadily deteriorating no matter how much I loved her.
Cleo loved exploring the sights and smells of the city. She was the mayor of our neighborhood. From shopkeepers to school children, everyone knew her. She was larger than life!
The look of joy on her face after she had pooped was priceless. Her posture erect, she'd proudly kick dirt back over her deposit, daring the next dog to top it. No wonder people thought she was a boy. More than a few times I took a few handfuls of dirt in the face while I bent to scoop her poop. She would look back at me grinning. I'm sure my laughter fueled her zealous display.
It was heartbreaking when Cleo began losing control over when she pooped. I saw her face when it just rolled out of her and onto the sidewalk. She stopped caring about an activity that had been her signature for years. Now her wobbly stance and loss of control, produced a dispirited expression.
I learned so much about myself and what "quality of life" means from this dog. As she came to the end of her life, I appreciated why we should not dwell on the past, or only focus on the future. She showed me how to be present, and to quietly embrace our time with loved ones.
When the time came to say goodbye to Cleo, I felt that I had done everything I could to be ready. I would only find out if this was true later.
A year has passed and I have the chance to lean on those experiences, to see how they stand up with the recent death of my father.
Larger than life
My father was a robust man who loved to travel, and live a large life. He had friends everywhere. He loved going out for walks. When I joined him, wherever we went, he would see someone he knew and always greeted them by name. I would stand next to him impressed by his memory, thrilled to be seen with him.
My father would proudly introduce me to all the people in his world. Because of being with him, I met everyone from dishwashers and groundskeepers, to judges and restaurateurs. His friendships extended around the world. Thanks to my father, my first trip to Europe after college had me staying in the homes of his law enforcement colleagues.
His zest for life was contagious. Our first walks together began when he would come home at lunchtime, and walk me a few blocks to kindergarten. In high school, he could get me up and out the door at the crack of dawn to walk a golf course with him. I was never grouchy when we were together. Life got exciting when we were on a walk.
When his stride faltered, and he lost the ability to go for and enjoy walks, just as I had with my dog, I saw a light dim in his eyes.
The big man was hit by one health blow after another over the last few years. Lymphoma, a stroke, and pneumonia set him back emotionally, and physically. The ten years following his diabetes diagnosis brought a slow curtain down on his quality of life. In this last year he couldn't rebound.
As with our dog, the diabetes accelerated the aging process. I watched as he lost interest in what was going on around him.
I spent every moment with him observing, and quietly preparing my goodbyes. His body was telling me what he could not.
My time with Cleo showed me the importance of remaining present, to boldly face her impending departure. Now I embraced each minute left with my father. I refused to be afraid of loss.
The time I spent with my dog as her body broke down, gave me awareness into how I was reacting to my father's steady decline.
Cleo showed me how to say goodbye.
I'm grateful her death showed me that we humans can survive the loss of those we hold dear.
As my beloved father is laid to rest and I say goodbye, I silently thank my dog. Saying goodbye to her first taught me how to bid farewell to my father.
He only met her once but my pop loved that dog and talked about her endlessly, even buying her special gifts and giving to friends calendars filled with her photos!
If it's possible, I imagine they are together right now going for a walk, and my father is probably introducing her to everyone they meet.