A few weeks ago I had two thriving dogs—a black lab and a golden retriever. Both around seven years old. Both run free in my Montana land. Both have wagging tails and healthy appetites. Then I went away for a week to lead a few writing retreats. When I returned, my black lab was emaciated. She must have gotten into a gut pile, I figured. The hunters leave the guts behind in the fall and they melt this time of year, back in the woods near where I live and where my dogs play. Maybe she’d swallowed something rotten that had messed with her system. But she had zero appetite and that’s odd for her. “Maybe it’s pancreatitis,” my friend the vet tech suggested. She’s never sick. Has the constitution of an ox. Both of them do. Well I’m sorry to say that you can tell where this is going. Cancer. “Ziggy has final stage cancer,” the vet told me with tears in his eyes. He also doubles as my son’s baseball coach and is the father of one of his best friends. “She’s not in a lot of pain now. But she’s so tired. I think the right thing to do is put her down.”
When I announced this to my kids, they both got mad before they got sad. “How can we play with a life?” “Who are we to decide when a creature dies?” I couldn’t argue with them. I agreed. I called my vet, bawling. He said that we could wait it out. But with that waiting, comes quite often loss of dignity. Urination and defecation in places she would normally be too polite to consider. Seizures. Organ failure. He promised that it’s painless. Calm. The right thing to do.
So after a few days of enthroning her in the kitchen on her dog bed, the kids lying next to her while she slept and they pretended to do their homework, crying most of the time, I kissed her, and said, “Want to go in the car?” She came slowly, but surely, wagging her tail, skin and bones and a bloated stomach where the tumor throbbed and ruled…I put her into the car (she couldn’t jump in, though she tried), and drove her to town. She looked out the window the whole way. I was glad for that.
Inside, we sat in a waiting room where she tried to get into it with another lab, but collapsed supine on her dog bed. Then we went to the examination room, the same place I’d gotten wellness checks, and discussed ear infections, worms, gotten the cancer diagnosis. My vet friend described the protocol. I held her head in my hands. She lay there, not moving, as if she was already half gone. He inserted the needle in her leg. I said, over and over, “May you journey well, may you journey well, may you journey well…” and suddenly I felt this sharp, nerve twinge in my left hand where it met with her head. So intense that for a moment, I thought I’d been given the injection– not Ziggy.
It took two seconds. “She’s gone,” the vet said. That quick. She was that ready to leave her body.
My yogi friend says that the soul leaves the body from two places—the feet or the head. You want the latter. I told him the blast of energy I felt. He said, “It was her soul. Good. It left through her head.”
I took a road trip after that. Drove to a small mission church about a hundred miles from where I live in Montana, in a town called St. Ignatius. I cried most of the way down, along the 30 mile long Flathead Lake in the sun, the water sparkling, thinking about souls. Dog souls. People souls. Souls. And I got to the church. No one was there. I went up the steps and opened the tall doors. No one. Murals all around. Light casting across the pews. Holy week this week, I realized. Palms on the altar.
I put in a quarter and lit a candle and knelt and cried. Didn’t know what to say other than thanks. To this beautiful vessel of love and light that lay by my feet for at least two written books and many moments of emotional life-wrestling. Then I sat in a pew, opened the hymnal, found a few hymns that I knew, and sang. Quiet at first, but I was alone. So I sang louder. Loudly. Very very loudly. Angels and John the Baptist and Jesus and Mary looking down at me. Dogs barking in the background.
Then I went to a bird sanctuary. It’s spring. Holy week even in the world of migration, and maybe especially there. I sat on a rock in a boggy field at Ninepipes and watched blue herons fly and land. Fly and land. Fly and land. Long legs. Long beak. Such trajectory and grace. Then I drove home along the other side of Flathead Lake. “How was it?” my children asked me. They meant the death.
“Peaceful,” I said. “Death does not have to be scary.” I paused and braved the next sentence because when you’ve held an animal while it passes, you feel unafraid. ”And souls live on. I’m sure of it.”
Pilgrimage. Sanctuary. Souls. The question is: can we feel them? Can we believe in what we can’t see? Can we receive holy mystery? I did that day. And I’d like to keep receiving it. Ziggy’s gift.