By Alex Washoe
I’m standing on the deck of my house watching the birds one morning, and behind me, reflected in the window, my enormous puppy Zeke is perched on the back of the couch, watching. His face is a hodge-podge of colors—black, grey, brown, white—and he’s beginning to develop the jowls and wattles characteristic of a St. Bernard, which his unknown father may well have been. He’s looking at me with his mouth open and his long tongue hanging out to one side, as if he’s forgotten it.
Seeing his goofy face in the window makes me laugh. But Zeke is also a reminder of recent losses. Sometimes I slip and call Zeke “Roscoe.”
In early March of last year my service dog, Roscoe, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his jaw. Throughout spring and summer I watched my dear friend—an amazing athlete with the fitness of an Olympic champion—slowly succumb to his illness. And then last August, just two weeks after the sudden death of my mother, an embittered woman whose spirit had been dying by increments, Roscoe passed.
Roscoe was an inspiring dog. Abandoned at least twice before I adopted him, neurotic and socially challenged, he discovered an abiding passion: Roscoe lived to play ball. Other dogs fetch, but I never saw a dog play ball the way Roscoe played. He played ball the way Cal Ripken, Jr. played ball—played past injury and sickness and exhaustion. And he did everything he cared to do with that same drive. On a hike up the side of a mountain Roscoe would literally run circles around the fittest humans, charging up and down the slope with excitement and wonder.
Roscoe’s life was brief. This is the tragedy of loving dogs, the quickness of their passing, and Roscoe was gone far sooner than anyone expected.
Dogs don’t know that their lives are brief. It’s tempting to feel superior because of that, to think we understand the condition of life a little better. But almost all of us forget from moment to moment that we are mortal. Watching Roscoe approach his own death, seeing the way dogs deferred to him in the park and the obvious concern of our other dog, Lulubelle, I’m not convinced that dogs are much further from understanding the mystery than we are.
Roscoe surrendered, one by one, the things he loved most in the world. When he could no longer play ball, he learned to chase a stick. When he couldn’t pick up the stick, he learned to run to it and touch it with his nose. When he could no longer run any distance, we still walked in the park and at the very end, when he could walk only short distances, I would sit with him and watch the other dogs play. He seemed content just to be there. As Roscoe’s body failed, his presence seemed to expand and grow more spacious. He surrendered the things he loved and embraced what life still offered.
In the face of a very difficult year, face-to-face with death and change and impermanence, I am beginning to understand that surrender. I see the things that can expand my life and the things that contract it. The act of releasing, letting go. And the act of holding on. Holding on to old things out of fear, or bitterness, or blame. Holding on to bad habits and inertia and addictions. That ever-tighter grip that can constrict the vision and the heart until there is no world left. That was my mother’s path; Roscoe’s was the opposite.
Every day, as I took Roscoe for walks and cleaned up his bleeding and gave him his meds, I would ask myself—and him—Is it time? Am I holding on too long? And every day his answer seemed to be, It’s hard, but life is good. Get me some chicken. Let’s go for a walk.
The old Zen story tells us that a Master, pouring tea for a smug disciple, continued pouring until the cup overflowed all over the table. The lesson being that when something is already full you can’t add any more, but when it is empty, there is all possibility.
If I fill my life up with all the little bulwarks against time and change, I know how that path ends. But if I can manage to just stand in the uncertainty and the spaciousness, what might be possible?
I take a deep breath. A chickadee lands on the feeder, pauses for a second and turns his head around, one little eye cocked in my direction.
In the window, Zeke is laughing.Tags: death, die, dog