Lesson From a Dog
By Abigail Thomas
My old dog Cooper died. He had been shaky for weeks, needing help up and down the porch steps, a boost onto the sofa. He had lost any interest in food. He still went out every morning, and I’d watch him wandering in the increasingly green grass of spring, poking around after whatever varmints had had the temerity to cross our night time yard.
He wasn’t howling anymore, he wasn’t even barking, and being a blue tick hound, Cooper’s howls had been the stuff of legend (and perhaps a bit of consternation, but my neighbors never complained). Instead, after a slow careful examination of his domain, he looked around for a quiet place to sleep. I would find him on the softening pachysandra under a viburnum bush, or in a thicket at the end of the yard, and when the forsythia turned itself into a green and yellow tsunami, there he was sleeping peacefully under its shelter.
Cooper wasn’t in pain, his last checkup had warned of nothing dire on the horizon, but he was showing all the signs of an old dog, getting ready to die an old dog’s death. I wanted to respect that. But his last hours were hard, when he could no longer rise, when he lost control of his bowels, this dignified dog was bewildered and in distress. It was terrible to witness. I hate euphemisms for death, but just as my friend Dawn found someone to help him let go, Cooper slipped away on his own, just as quietly as if he had tiptoed out of the room.
I don’t know what Cooper knew, but if I were to describe his behavior in those last weeks, I would say he was composing himself. I want to compose myself, as Cooper did.
I was left wishing I had taken better care of him. How could I have been so certain the natural process would spare him suffering? Why had I not had a plan B?
I keep thinking I see him. Sometimes I hear him walking around. My dog Daphne has taken over his role as our early warning system. Instead of in bed with me and my small dog Sadie, Daphne now sleeps where Cooper always slept, on the living room sofa. A howl at one in the morning used to alert us to the possibility of a bear, or a raccoon, or who knew what prowling too close to the house. Now it’s Daphne barking. I am still haunted by guilt. I should have been able to spare him those final hard hours. But guilt and grief are for the survivors. I keep reminding myself that Cooper was a wonderful dog. He lived a good dog’s life and then he died.
I’d like to make my peace with the inevitable. I don’t know what Cooper knew, but if I were to describe his behavior in those last weeks, I would say he was composing himself. I want to compose myself, as Cooper did, so I’m practicing. Today, a sunny July afternoon, I’m sitting outside Bread Alone with my iced coffee. I’m here to work, my notebook is open, I’m writing with my favorite pen, trying to imagine my reaction should Death show up. What pops into my head is that skinny guy in a hooded cape. It’s hard to keep a straight face about that iconic figure, ever since those Monty Python movies. He must be hot in those clothes, I find myself writing, and that scythe seems a bit redundant. When Death comes close enough to extend one bony hand toward my shoulder, I’m irritated. Good. Wanting to stick around is not the same as fearing death. I’ll concentrate on living, working to get done what I want to get done.
Pushing 78, it’s too late for me to die young, and dying young would no doubt give me a different perspective. Nowadays I’m more bothered by the idea of fearing death than I am afraid of dying. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, but it’s working for me. I don’t believe Cooper was afraid of death. I don’t believe he wasted one second of life in fearful anticipation of dying.
Death is about the ones left behind, and the unwelcome by-products of death, grief, guilt, a sense of loss, that’s the really tough part. Gratitude is the antidote, and acceptance.
I can learn from him.
Luckily, last week I had what was later determined to be “a cardiac event.” In the middle of a conversation with two nice men about how to help my ailing locust and the ratty looking crabapple, I fell flat on my face in the yard. I woke up in an ambulance, in a very good mood, with no idea what I was doing there, trying to remember, without having been asked, which (if any) of my three husbands might still be alive.
It wasn’t until later that I learned details of what had happened. When I dropped, I’m told my dog Sadie lay down next to me. The two men, Freddy and Angelo, didn’t want to move me lest I had broken something. Fred sat down next to me, talking gently and stroking my back. Angelo looked at my phone to see who had last called me, and called that number, getting my sister. Someone called the ambulance. They then rounded up my two dogs, got them in the house, and shut the door. (No easy job, that.) Everything that needed doing was done, and I am profoundly grateful.
But here’s what amazes me. I don’t recall anything. it’s as if I hadn’t even been there. I find it oddly comforting. If death is like this, the absence of self, what’s the big deal? Unable to resist a little irony, I think I can handle that.
Death is about the ones left behind, and the unwelcome by-products of death, grief, guilt, a sense of loss, that’s the really tough part. Gratitude is the antidote, and acceptance, but that’s another story.
About the Writer
Abigail Thomas has four children and twelve grandchildren. She was asked to leave Bryn Mawr in her freshman year because she was pregnant. She never looked back. She has published three works of fiction, Getting Over Tom; An Actual Life; and Herbs Pajamas. Her memoirs include Safekeeping; A Three Dog Life; and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock NY with her two dogs.
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