One is moved to conclude that the heart is the most poetic organ of the body and may exceed the moon and stars in use as a metaphor…You can know of heartache, heart yearnings, heart shapes, heart renderings and heart feelings. ~Mike Denney, M.D., Ph.D.
As I wrap up the second year of my doctoral program in Depth Psychology, I just finished a term paper for my Conscious Death and Dying course that has stretched the shape of my heart. Some of the required readings for this course include Mortality (Hitchens, 2012), The Alchemy of Illness (Duff, 1993), Intoxicated by My Illness (Broyard 1992), and Good Dog. Stay. by Anna Quindlen (2007). I had heard of the last title but had never read it until my heart-felt professor stated: “If you only had to read one book, this is the one”.
That night, I opened the book, glanced through the pages then immediately set it down. It is a poignant love story about a woman and her beloved dog, “Beau”. Quindlen describes the immense affection she has for Beau and the lessons she learned just by observing him: how to accept things as they are, to measure herself not through the lens of the past or future but of the present. Her story continues as Beau ages and reaches the hands of death. Quindlen unflinchingly remains in the moment until his last days on earth, “Each morning I used to check to see if the old guy was actually breathing, and each day I tried to take his measure—was he hurting? Was he happy? Was the trade-off between being infirm and being alive worth it?”
Like Quindlen, I have a Beau but his name is “Guru.” And like Beau in the book, Guru is the same age, fifteen years old as of July 10, 2015. Due to severe arthritis in the elbow of his front left leg, Guru gets around by hopping on his three working legs. He sleeps more than he is awake, yet he still loves to go for a daily “joy ride” in the car, resting on my lap as we travel up and down the street. At one-hundred and five human years old, he can still smell the fresh salty, sea air and this daily ritual is the highpoint of his life, as well as mine.
Guru is a black Pomeranian, pure alpha and not sweet as Quindlen describes Beau. No one would consider him to be a “good” dog; he can be affectionate one moment then without warning, snap and bite in the next moment. People think it is because of the pain he is in from being old. Sometimes I let them believe this is true but it isn’t; Guru has been a very difficult dog since he was four months old. After receiving his vaccinations, he began having seizures which we learned to control with Phenobarbital. And though his seizures calmed down, his behavior did not. Guru sought to keep everyone together, like a herding dog; every time my husband or I would leave the room, Guru would spin counter-clockwise, barking, “Get back here, don’t you dare leave, we’re all meant to stay together!” Obedience training didn’t seem to help, nor did all of the Dog Whisperer CD’s that we watched. A caring and concerned friend once pleaded, “Why don’t you just call the Dog Whisperer and invite him to work with Guru?” We never did contact Caesar and after fourteen years of Guru spinning counter-clockwise, his left elbow became so crippled with arthritis that he drags the leg next to his body while he hops around on the remaining three.
Guru is possessive, demanding and has an anxiety disorder. His behavior, at times, has strained my relationship with my husband. I have been over protective of this creature who appears in my night-time dreams, lives in the depths of my heart, and reveals all of his feelings and secrets when he looks at me with his dark brown eyes. I know this dog better than I know myself. Surely, we must have been together before. As strange as this may sound, in a desperate attempt to understand the dynamic between Guru, my husband and I, we once contacted a well-known “pet psychic” who confirmed this idea. She told us the most amazing story: in a past life Guru had been my partner and Thomas (my husband) had been his rival and the issue was never resolved. As hard as it was to believe and as reluctant as we were to admit it, Thomas and I both sensed there might be some truth to the psychic’s vision.
As my death and dying class unfolded, I kept avoiding reading Good Dog. Stay. It was too painful and hit too close to the heart. Guru’s fifteenth birthday was quickly approaching and I noticed that his eyes looked glassy and he was limping more than usual. Was it time to let him go? Was he in pain and if so, did the physical pain outweigh my desire to have him stay? My heart was aching and reluctantly, I re-opened Good Dog. Stay. I read ten pages, not the first ten, but the final ten. Quindlen’s courage and ability to embrace Beau’s death was inspiring. While reading it, Guru laid next to me on my bed. I remember crying as I turned the final page and asking Guru if he wanted to move on. I told him that he was a good dog despite the challenges over the years and that I would let him go if he was ready to leave. He listened then licked my left hand reassuringly. He was definitely trying to communicate something.
That evening, my husband and I decided to take Guru to the vet and have his matted hair—once shiny and glorious—shaved off for the last time. We also decided to have his teeth cleaned and his nails trimmed—all of the grooming that I used to love do for him but now required anesthesia because he would bite. We knew we were taking a risk, that he might not make it through the process. Yet we believed we were giving him one last chance to feel a bit better. Two days later, Thomas drove the car to the vet’s office while I cradled Guru in my arms, swaddled in his favorite red blanket. After we dropped Guru off, I sent him light from my heart and envisioned him feeling strong. My prayers of love and gratitude traveled to him as I hiked along the beach then worked some more on my Conscious Death and Dying term paper. At 3:00 p.m. the vet called to report that Guru was doing well and was ready to go home. Despite feeling groggy from the anesthesia, Guru’s enthusiasm and aliveness was evident and we knew we had made the right decision.
That was three weeks ago. And now, as we reach the end of July, Guru is still doing well but I know we are nearing the end. Each morning when I awake and check in with Guru, I am reminded that one more day of living for me is an entire week of living for him and his aging body. This helps me maintain perspective about the fragility of life and the incredibly short duration of a dog’s life. It also emphasizes how important it is that I remain present with Guru and be fully alive, now, more than ever.
In the meantime, I am profoundly aware of Guru’s impending ending inching ever so closely. It is no longer “years away”; it could be next month, tomorrow morning or even tonight as I lie sleeping. Good Dog. Stay. reminds me that my growth lies in my ability to embrace Guru’s deterioration while remaining most alive during this ending. Sartre was right: You have to live each moment as if you’re prepared to die.
I take comfort from knowing that I have been able to love this dog in ways I never knew possible. The love I feel for Guru has been the closest thing to unconditional love that I might ever know: he can growl and bear his teeth at me, and yet, I still love him; he can bite me, and though I scold him, I still feel love in my heart for him. I feel his fear when he struggles to sit up, I feel his excitement when we go for a joy ride, and I feel his love when his pale tongue weakly licks my hand.
As I finish crafting this blog, Guru is lying on the floor next to me in his old lumpy bed with his favorite tattered red blanket. I feel deep gratitude for being able to process some deep emotions while writing. I held off from writing this blog because I was resisting the feelings that illness and conscious dying might elicit. I look over at Guru as I craft this final paragraph and he opens his eyes. He can still see me so I inquire: “Are you comfortable? Are you happy? Do you want to keep on going?” not expecting a response, and yet, his eyes widen. I am reassured by Quindlen’s last words in the final chapter of Good Dog. Stay.: “And when the time comes to ask myself some of those same questions, at least I will have had the experience calibrating the answer. Sometimes an old dog teaches you new tricks”.
I would love for Guru to stay and stay and stay…but I am acutely aware of his mortality, as well as my own. So I am grateful for all that Guru has taught me: patience, tolerance, perseverance, real love, remaining conscious and connected as a loved one ages, fades then dies. And though Guru, nor I, will live forever, I am reminded that the name “Guru” can be broken down into: “Gee, You Are You”, perhaps the greatest teaching we can learn from a dog who challenges us, a true guru.