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  • Writer's picturekelly keena

laying with a dying dog.

Thinking about breath. The rise and fall of his distended rib cage draped over by black short fur. My hand there. Knowing this breath is not going to last forever. Or even a week. Yet, his sweet tail wags a bit when I say his name and he still looks at me like I am everything.

Death. It’s a funny slippery concept. I walked with death in a red painted desert when I was dying and it didn’t feel scary. It felt, well…..comforting. But when I wake up listening to his short panting at three in the morning, it doesn’t feel like comfort.

This feels like emptiness.

The diagnosis was easy. Cancer. Spleen and liver completely taken over by the time we knew to take him in. Muscle fell away from his long, lanky bones leaving behind ribs, skull. And the same sweet eyes he’s had for the last twelve years.

Laying with a dying dog is humbling. In the quietest moments of night, when everything else is still. Breath. A keen reminder that each of the breaths that cause the rise and fall of his ribs is a gift. Fleeting. Saturated with the purest form of love. He taught me this.

And as I lay with a dying dog I realize that I am going to have to make the choice on when to end his life. I pray for him to die in his sleep so that I don’t have to schedule an appointment to end his life. Who am I to have that power, that control over my dearest friend. And, yet. Who am I to watch him suffer? Is that appointment blessed with compassion? I never know. But it feels wrong to avoid it. It feels selfish to keep him as he lays panting.

We hold on because we cherish. Until the day we cherish by not holding on. - Karen Maezen Miller

He stopped eating yesterday and I know it’s almost time. My instinct in an overly scheduled life is to check my schedule. It is ridiculous. That drains compassion out of the act. Not what he taught me, but what I have allowed myself to be wired for. And, yet. It’s Friday. The vet is closed over the weekend. Three days without food as long as he has water? When do his organs fail completely? Does it hurt? Can I reschedule a meeting on Monday? It feels cruel to schedule a death. So many contradictions in heart and mind. What is best? Last breaths.

Instead, I am allowed one more lesson in these dying days. That it's not on my time. Death never is.

Six years ago we lay with another friend. A giant fuzzy walking love fest. We lay on a mattress on the floor of a “comfort room” and cried and told him we loved him and sent him on his way. I scheduled that death because he could no longer get up. But his sweet eyes stayed the same as when we found him in the shelter. It was not comforting. It was soul-wrenching and I miss him every day. And the one before him, also taken by cancer.

And, yet. In all the pain of these decisions and this process of death, I know. I know that it is worth the infinite love that is the company of dogs. My dogs. And they teach me that the journey to death does not have to be paved with fright, but moreover embellished by grace. And acceptance. And the ability to make the call.

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