This is Memorial Day. It has come to have many meanings for many. It is the remembrance of those lost in battle. It is also regarded as the first day of summer, a season of warmth and relaxation, days of lingering light in the evenings and sunrises that beckon the welcome of another golden promise. This is a day of memories. A long weekend to remember in longing those lost to Life’s battles on the long path we all are treading.
Sorrow is vast. Like the sky at night. Without stars to provoke hope and wonder in the mind, we create our mythologies and faiths out of fear of a starless sky. The impossibility of Nothing is made possible in doubt. And in death.
Her name was Keisha. She was not so much abandoned as marooned at the corner of the street. She was a boy’s dog. In the house down the driveway at the corner. Off to school, she’d hold point on the corner until he returned. And then one day he didn’t return. Or only rarely. His father, a construction worker conned into taking the dog by the job foreman, had found a new woman and had moved, along with the boy, into her house. She owned a small dog. Keisha waited on the corner. Someone would occasionally come to feed her, usually a lesser construction laborer assigned the job. He came with no enthusiasm and then less frequently.
I recognized something in her immediately, from the time I first remember her. She was noble, you can see it here in her picture, but more than that she was soulful. Kind and uncompromising in her will to survive and to be of service as she understood it. One day we could stand her neglect no longer. Our cat, Willow, had implied to us in her subtle manner that we not only should take Keisha into the family, but that we could. She had conferred with the other cat, The Sportsman (or Sporty to his pals), and they had both agreed that Keisha was the kind of dog who could fit into a two-cat household. And so she did.
She became the guardian of the neighborhood. Free to move around and happy to watch from some slight prominence. Announcing with certainty at the need to alert. She went from liked to beloved in a short period of time. She was a dog who not only deeply appreciated a treat but who could convince you that she needed it. She informed the neighborhood and was rewarded for the kindness in her eyes and the good manners she knew instinctively.
She was really Laurie’s dog. I vied for a while but it was Keisha’s preference. I don’t think she’d been well handled or cared for by males, perhaps with the exception of Shaba, a sled dog type like Keisha and the dominant dog in the area. Well mannered, as well, but with an authority that brooked no disrespect. I think Shaba taught her how to be at home in the community and helped her get her courage. With Laurie she found not only benefactor and friend, but sister.
I say I believe she had not been well-cared for by males in her world not only because of her abandonment but earlier in her life, while a puppy, she had a front toe pulled out that never healed sufficiently to allow full weight bearing. It was claimed to have been an accident resulting from running across the deck but something always remained suspicious. Her spirit defied it but somewhere deep within there was a calloused node of memory. It led her to her preference for women and beyond, to her bond with Laurie. Both runners, they joined together in the freedom of the run, fulfilled in movement.
Over the years the run became a walk. The inability to bear weight on the front foot took a toll on the back leg. Still that character was there, not to be lost. Surgery restored movement and the walk became a deepened bond of companionship and contemplation. You are never alone with a dog who loves you. Hike into desolation, brave the darkest night, the longest trail with a dog who loves you. And who you love. We remind ourselves of a line of Kenneth Patchen’s Love is a beautiful and terrible thing. Until you have understood the terrible-ness of love you have loved in a limited way. Our hearts are annealed in the fires of our attachments. To detach and still love completely is the genius of the spirit. It is valued beyond praise. To turn those knots of grief into radiance for all, the mastery coincident with the state of grace arrived, is wisdom. You only survive love by loving. With the understanding of how to love another we begin to learn to love ourselves. For this purpose what better teachers than dogs?
Love’s measure is observed in care. As Keisha aged, Laurie continually evolved new patterns of care for her. A diet rich in cooked vegetables, vitamins and minerals, meals the equivalent of quality restaurant fare. Nothing too good. Always a morning walk, always the nurturing bond. Oh, the joy of the walk. The lead dog. The quiet ecstasy of little leaps when the two of us would take her, her gentle soft tug at the hand in voiceless assent. Let’s move together. Patterns so carefully built rebel in their breaking.
A short while ago, although how long the mind resists measuring as it is becoming timeless, Keisha blew out a cruciate ligament and couldn’t move. It was also discovered that she had liver cancer. Oh. The pause. The certitude of the unknown emerges, smoke-like, out of the unknowable. Please stay, we’ve only begun to love you. Must that love now accelerate in the swelling of its presence until there is no bearing of the weight? Every medicine, every aid, every balm, everything. Buying time on time. Here try this, now this. Oh, this should work. Cat food, baby food, liver and steak. Anything to assuage the fading. Even a pet psychic.
I didn’t understand who this person was until she had gone and Laurie told me the story of how Keisha had conveyed how scared she was of the transition and the leaving of us, but that she had looked across the bridge and seen her dog friends and a golden boy awaiting. And would we please take off the collar that read Don’t feed me, I’m fat that we made her wear to discourage the neighbors from feeding her. She was slimmer now and embarrassed and could she please have something more feminine. She loved the purple flowers in Laurie’s garden, she said. Laurie found her a ladylike collar of purple and yellow flowers. Keisha seemed pleased.
She moved with so much difficulty that Laurie ordered braces to support her when she walked, as the walks had now become sacred honors. Ever the marking of territory but also the thickening of the elastic bonds that begin as seemingly tenuous filaments but grow into a virtually inseverable ligamenture.
And then the struggle took on a new apparency. Time. You could see it in her eyes. You could feel it in her gait, the head a little lower, more struggle now to move. We were selfish with her, clinging, beginning to fully appreciate the impending loss. She willed to stay, lingering, knowing that the fur she still offered, the look from the eyes and even the shortest walk was now beyond value. Life becomes sacred in the realization that it is. Sacred. She stopped eating. She still drank but perhaps to have only enough to mark her territory, receding as it may be. We begin coming downstairs at night to sleep with her. To guard her as she had guarded us. Hemingway always reminds us that going broke is slowly, then all at once, and here is where our hearts became completely broke. Kindness, love, must not be selfish. It is time to say farewell and goodbye. The call has now been made and there is some time for waiting. And for being.
We bring her out to rest on a blanket on the lawn. To smell the scents upon the wind, to hear the birdsong, and perhaps a distant barking. Revery and review for us all. Mary, our neighbor, who loves her so dearly, dearly as her own dogs gone and now waiting across the bridge, visits for some balm for her grief and to comfort ours. The labored breathing, the look beyond to where we cannot see, all is momentum. No, no. Let me hold you yet a while.
The wagon pulls up and Dana, the veterinarian, and her assistant are here. Out of their car, up the steps. Here. Now. Are we ready? Ready now to do a favor for a friend? Put her out of her misery? There will be no putting her out of ours. The shot. No whimper, no releasing of a muscle in a spasm, only the soft leaving of the light from the eyes. Peace, and the rising to at first walk and then run in bounds across that bridge to those awaiting. The leaving of the living to memory and the deepening understanding of Life in the realization that is unknowable.
I picked her up and held her as I walked her to the place in the garden we’d dug earlier in the day. Here among the flowers with a view out to the water we shall grow her shrine together in the fertile soil of memory. To lead us on the path.