One week ago today, this very moment, Bert hit the ground for the last time. For quite some time I have been steeling myself against this day, this very moment, but it was a futile effort in the face of loss. For the time Bert hit the ground, and then dragged himself over to the kennel where there was water and a place easily defended by a dying dog, I must admit to a paralyzation. I could not move or think or act. I dithered in digging the grave and I picked up the cell phone, opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it, and could not make the call.
At the death of my mother-in-law more than a decade ago the path was clear to me that the woman who had just died ought not the have been brought back into this world. One of her grandsons demanded a nurse, a doctor, anyone, someone, do something. Yet this was a wreck of a human body that could not cling to life much longer unaided and would not without permanent infrastructure in place for breathing. Brain activity had ceased. There was no one there to bring back.
I thought about trying to save Bert. I thought about what it would take to allow him some life without the use of his back legs and I have seen carts and wheeled devices that might allow me to keep him in some form for some time longer. I could have built a ramp into the house and I could fence off the wild part of the yard. But I am gone most of the day and during that time what would happen to Bert if the cart overturned, and he was unable to move. In Summer, the heat alone might kill him. I could keep him housebound during the day, and perhaps he would survive more easily that way, but would Bert still be Bert if he were crippled? Would the indignity of being bound by his infirmary change who he was to me? More than human beings can imagine dogs are defined by their physical bodies. Bert was an Alpha Dog. Bert was the leader of our pack. Bert was strong and dangerous, and the last couple of years weakened his spirit as his body failed him.
When he lay down in front of Lucas and Sam, and allowed them to step on him and over him as they headed for the door one night I saw in his eyes the pain of knowing he was not able to stand with his brothers as an equal, and he had to put up with whatever either of them decided to do to him. I shooed the other two away from Bert when I petted him, and even though in a very large way this honored Bert, it also assured him that he could not compete with his brothers for my attention on his own. The same dog I had to scold for pushing the younger dogs away was now the dog who had to stand back and watch when there was a group petting session and wait until I made the other two be still.
Twice I had carried him into the house in the last few months, twice I had picked him up in the yard, put him on a tarp, and sledding him in. The first time he tried to get off the tarp as it moved, but gave up to the pain. The second time I feared was the last because he could not stand for a couple of hours. The pain meds and what strength he had, Bert fought it off, and fought back. The back steps still gave him a fit but he managed to become mobile again. He fell over into his food bowl one night, and the look he had on his face broke my heart.
On cold nights Bert once slept near my head, coiled up in a tight ball of fur. He could leap up on the bed and turn around three times and drop. Sam drifted in slow and quiet, but Bert was a dropper. Bert always claimed that spot, nearest me, but this winter, which was never that cold anyway, he fought against me lifting him onto the bed. Getting down had become too painful and it was just too much for him to be lifted up and then handled back down again. Bert hated being carried like that. He despised it with a passion. I think more than anything else, his exclusion from the bed made him realize how fragile he was, and it made me realize how weak he was becoming in age.
Bert’s breathing is something I miss, desperately miss, each night. He had a deep rhythm of breath and spoke of an animal with true strength of his lungs. Both Lucas and Sam sleep more fitfully, but Bert sank into slumber like it was hibernation. I wake up at night and there is a silence now that hurt my heart and wounds my spirit all over again. I miss Bert when I cannot hear him.
A week ago today, right this moment, a dog passed from my life, as so many others have. I have not cried this hard since I committed Spike to the earth, and I was still a child then. I told myself that day I would never cry like that again, and for nearly forty years I kept that promise, as defense, as a wall, as a means to keep from ever having my heart broken, my world shattered, my life altered by loss and my soul taken down hard by grief.
I buried my best friend, my protector, my muttibeasti, my companion of a dozen years plus and in that pain, in the gasps for breath, in the dying of part of my life and the ending of era, I reached back into time, and in a very odd way, with Bert’s death, I am more alive than I have been since I was a kid.