I have a dog named Serenity. She’s going to be 12 years old soon, and she’s been my familiar, faithful companion, partner in crime, and grounding force for all of those 12 years; save for the first six weeks of her life, which she spent holed up in a cold garage in a NY winter getting barely enough to eat from her mother’s overworked form (she was born into a litter of 13).
As her age indicates – babe is getting old. Real old. And I am here watching the changes take her over and alter her from the fun-loving, dancing *yes, she danced, her favorite song is the White Stipes’s “Hotel Yorba,* excitable dog to a very slow, sometimes unsteady, and often unsure senior dog that requires a special ritual to coax up the front stairs of our apartment building. Serenity and I have both had serious changes in our lives as of late – for the first time in my 33 years we live alone together, and we also live without a generous backyard for her to roam free. This means many things for us – first, any plans I make must consider arrangement of dog care (something my housemates were always awesome about helping with), the dog care I must arrange requires that she knows the individual and that the individual is not only patient but kind, and (my favorite) – we have many more walks together.
Being that these changes are new to us, moving into a home of our own on July 1, they are still fresh and, despite how simple it all sounds above, they are also quite profound. They have changed me.
It all began shortly after moving in – always having a yard made me inattentive to Serenity’s pace. As I hooked the leash on her and brought her to the street in blazing, humid, July sun I realized she had grown slow. Real, real slow. My mind was on the dissertation I was writing, the boxes that had to be unpacked, the summer course I was teaching, the wedding I was soon to officiate, the job market I needed to enter, and the depressing deflation of my bank account. Serenity’s was on the flowers, the blades of grass that looked scrumptious to her, and the occasional squirrel that would scurry up a tree.
Let me reiterate – even without these distractions – she was walking slow. Real slow. It would take us 25 minutes to get around a block that would take me about 5 on my own. We are walking, I am staring into my phone, the leash is lax. Suddenly Serenity stops and I feel a pull behind me. She was sniffing some flowers in a corner bed of a driveway entrance. I smile, return to my phone. Time. Keeps. Ticking. She is still sniffing. Dissertation, dissertation, wedding ceremony, cover letter. She’s still smelling and it’s been 10 minutes and we haven’t even gone to the end of the first street of the block. Cover letter, dissertation, wedding ceremony, grading. I feel my impatience growing. Serenity starts walking. Thank goddess, I think. She is slow. Real slow. We walk for a couple of minutes, the leash grows taunt again. This time it’s grass that she’s sniffing. I think she might be looking for toads, too. I’ve put away my phone by now and instead I am mapping out how I want to finish my literature review. I look at her and smile. She’s always been happiest outdoors. This pattern continues throughout our morning walk. I realized quickly that the time I allocated for walks would need to be doubled. The hour would turn into two, maybe more. This was distressing.
Let me step back here and explain something. I am an irritating, sometimes overbearing, and almost always highstrung perfectionist. I am an archetypal overachiever who gets a natural high from being stretched far too thin and proving to myself again and again that I can do anything and everything asked of me. I am often applauded for my ability to get shit done. Yet it comes at a cost, symbolized here by my impatience at the beautiful dog by my side who just wanted to smell some flowers and hunt for some toads. This wonderful creature who has, above all things, always just loved me. This familiar who has sat at the side of every writing desk I’ve had while I worked for hours – or waited just inside the door for me to come home. And here I was wondering how much her long walks would set me back from my rather aggressive summer schedule. I realized this and felt an immediate shame. I dislike shame, it accompanies guilt, and I think guilt is the most useless of feelings and the most imprisoning too.
So, as we get halfway through our walk, pup starts panting. She has bad hips now and she needs breaks. We walked into the community garden, she laid down, and I stared at her. I was overwhelmed with so many feelings, but in front of the to-do list was the overwhelming fact that my dog had aged. My dog didn’t have much time left, and these walks were her treasures. This was the only way I could make the time she had even better for her. And I was impatient about her desire to smell some fucking flowers. So I made the resolution that when pup and I walked I, too, would take a peek at everything that caught her interest and to-do list be damned, we would take our time. This wasn’t a choice; it was a demand. Serenity couldn’t walk any other way.
So, we finish our walk and of course I go right home and rearrange my planner to include longer strolls through the community gardens.
Our month turns into August and I’ve come to look forward to our strolls – and (not shocking) everything was still getting done despite the extra time I had spent. I started using my phone as a portable and less powerful boom box, playing music while we took our time. Granted, I am not perfect, and there were moments I still wished we could be faster or my work could be even more portable than it already is (quite a wish considering I can literally do my job from anywhere), but overall these walks became treasures in my day too. I worked hard to check out of everything and just be there with her and enjoy what she was enjoying.
Then the terrifying happened, and it happened far sooner than I anticipated. Serenity and I embarked on our morning walk on a Wednesday in the third week of August. She did her business quickly and we were in route to the community garden. Then she fell. She fell in a puddle of mud. Her eyes started twitching side to side. Her whole body was shaking. She was panting. Her chest was heaving. I unhooked her leash, my own breath quickening and panic setting in, and I lifted her as best as I could out of the mud and into the grass. Serenity weighs 90 pounds, and a full lift is something I can’t do with her. I got her in the grass and phoned the vet. They told me to come in right away. Except Serenity could not walk. She could not even sit up. She would try, and she would fall. I told them I would do the best I could and will call and keep them posted. My car was parked at the other end of the block, we were outside, and I couldn’t leave her there shaking with her eyes lolling.
Luckily a dear friend lives five minutes away, I texted her and she said she would be over right away. I was sitting on the grass petting Serenity, telling her I loved her, and rubbing her belly. She was slightly responsive, but she still couldn’t do much more than move her head. I was convinced she was dying. I thought it was a heart attack or a stroke. I waited on my friend while I fought back tears and told her over and over that I loved her and I wouldn’t leave her. “Mommy’s here” I said over and over. It was all I could do.
She couldn’t move. I couldn’t leave her. I couldn’t lift her. I couldn’t imagine life without her. I thought I was losing her. I can’t explain those moments that I waited there with her, certain I was comforting her as she slowly left this world and hating the thought of a world without her. It was hell. I wanted more walks and more flowers and more tail wags when I came home. I wanted more squirrel hunts and feather collecting. I wanted more lake dips. I wanted more long car rides with her nose hanging out the window (another gradual change as her age prevented her from a full body dip in the wind). I wanted so many of the things I was impatient over, and I wanted them more than anything else. A job would come, the dissertation was going to get finished, and sooner or later (preferably sooner) I would have a comfortable wage again. I knew this with all of me.
What I would never have again, if she left, were those walks or the warm circle dance that would commence once she finally got the strength to stand up after I came home. All of this ran through me. I just kept telling her I loved her. I didn’t know what else to do. I asked her to hold on. I fought back more tears. My friend arrived (by now it had been about 45 minutes since the fall), sat with Serenity, and I rushed to get my car and pull it to where she lay. My friend helped me get pup in the car. She still couldn’t stand. We got her into the backseat because my dear soul sister literally laid down as we rolled my dog’s heavy body over her – I will never forget that. Then I was off to the vet, thinking all the while that they were going to tell me that if it isn’t cardiovascular than it’s some kind of progressive, irreparable brain tumor. I was hopeful we could fix it, but terrified it wouldn’t be possible and that this was pup’s last car ride.
Pup suffered from issues with a cranial nerve as a result of hypothyroidism. Now, nearly two weeks since being placed on her thyroid pills, she’s a different dog. She’s regained a great deal of energy, her eyes have a shine I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and she’s excitable once again.
Yet I am fully aware of her mortality. Her finitude always lurking now, especially given the vet’s news that he believes she has progressive nerve disintegration in her hips that will, in time, make it impossible for her to control her bladder or bowels. And when that happens I will take pup in and hold her while she goes to sleep knowing that I did the best that I could, even when it wasn’t good enough and even when my impatience got the better of me. That is something I have to deal with and watch for over the coming months (and indeed I hope years).
I am trying not to treat this like a waiting game, but instead treat it as a moment where the reality of life in all of its disastrous beauty became very certain to me. As much as I came to like our walks before, they are now my favorite parts of the day. Because Serenity taught me of my own mortality, too. Sure, I knew this – we all do, but we deny this as much as possible because it hurts. It is the deep suffering that renders us truly helpless … we lose what we love or what we love loses us, and it is – for the most part – deeply unpredictable and always, always too soon.
Serenity also taught me of my flaws. She showed me how little of what I should say I have actually said. She showed me how I have a tendency to fill air with things – small talk or theoretical chatter or some such - in an effort to avoid what I do think. She showed me that I have serious trouble being vulnerable, letting people in, and trusting. My impatience often leads me to say something like “I don’t have time for this, next” or “I’ve got too much going on to deal with this.” Ya know, sometimes you need to say that. Sometimes you have to move on. Sometimes, though, you need patience. Sometimes you need to understand that not everyone rushes through the world in conquest of their next great goal and that’s good. Sometimes, as scared as you are to say what you really need to say, the next person over is even more afraid.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’ve lost good people because of my inability to let go of my to-do list. There’s someone out there right now who really deserve to hear how much they mean to me and I have STILL remained mute because I am fighting desperately against my own fragility. Yet, like Serenity showed me with her slow pace, fragility exists and sometimes that slow down – as painful and restrictive as it can be – opens us to entirely new perspectives and new ways of living and of embodiment. I can focus on how much I am not getting done or I can take a look at how much more of the world I see now. How much more I feel because Serenity forced me to slow down.
To be here now, to be who you are now, to say your truth now – is far more terrifying to me than the labor I produce for goals, income, and a personal sense of fulfillment. Yet the now is also fleeting, and just as the flowers that Serenity loves so much are now in full bloom, they too are wilting. They’ll likely be reborn after the snow leaves, but even that is an uncertainty. Life is fragile and fierce and unpredictable. We are taught to conceal love (even that terrible angel that lives at the heart of love – those devils of loss) – when it’s what we should take more chances on.
Note here, please, that I am not talking about ideal, heteronormative love that is dramatically enhanced in Nicholas Sparks films. I am talking about the gnarly, ragged, laborious, terrifying, drastic, uncertain beast with razor teeth. I am talking about love as it pertains to the self, to those we care for, to the world we look at every day, to the production of our labor, hell – even to the coffee we drink. I am talking about love as the thing that fucks us up with inflamed passions and considerations just as it relieves us from fear while simultaneously delivering us to it. I am talking about the love that changes who we are, that gets deep inside and stays there. I am talking about that thing about a person, a place, or a spot that comes out of nowhere makes us want it because it speaks to us, but leaves us altered by its mere existence. It challenges who we are, and hopefully in a way that makes us better.
I feel this love for Serenity, of course. I feel it for many people, too, and for a handful of beautiful places. I feel it for the work that I do. To this point I have expressed gratitude for all of these things, and while that gratitude was and is sincere, I rarely reflect on how fleeting it is, largely because I am always focused on the something else I have to work for. I won’t stop focusing on that future, ever. It’s who I am and as I’ve been forced into more self-reflection I’ve come to really embrace that part of me … the relentless visionary. Yet I am making more concentrated efforts to step back from that, to step into a moment where I can simply be and exist. I am taking more chances, doing things that scare the shit out of me, and laughing more. I am also allowing the darker parts of me to be what they are without excuses or guilt. I rage more and I create more. I have taken more adventures in the last few months than I have in the years that preceded the summer of 2016 combined. I am overbearingly honest with my affections for people at times, noting how much I have said I love you over this summer than the years previous. I tell people when I admire them. I talk to more strangers. I close my eyes and open my arms when there is a warm breeze. I even spend more time alone doing nothing more than reflecting on my day or on my week or trying to figure out exactly why I feel the way I do at that moment.
This change was happening before pup fell, because my own life circumstances demanded it for reasons of survival. But her fall intensified it. Now I am working on being mindful to keep these trends alive and healthy because, really, the finitude is easy to displace. We shouldn’t linger on it, but we should accept it and allow it to alter how we do this thing we call life.
Maybe, if we are lucky, it means we will slow down and spend more time watering something rather than plucking it and watching for petals to turn brown under the force of our decoration.
Things are going to get done, folks. Or they won’t. But today is here. It might be our last car ride, and it might not. But, for the most part, many of us do get to choose if we just roll through the stop sign or really take a moment to pause. Sometimes we need to roll, and other times we don't just have to stop - we have to pull the emergency brake, too. The key is knowing when to do which, and not being so upset should you choose the one that didn't work for you (but vow to remedy it the next time around if possible).
I hope you take the right kind of time today, that vulnerable time. I hope you be kind today…and always listen to the animals.