Heaven Awaits

As a dog's life comes to an end, the pain of physical loss looms for its owners.

There are many words for "kill." But no matter which euphemism we choose to dim the reality of death, in the end, the pain of loss cuts through whatever veneer of language we contrive.

Friends speak of "letting go" and "quality of life," but life transcends utterances better suited to describe a piece of furniture. And yet ...

A 500-square-foot dwelling, perched on a cliff surrounded by cacti and inhabited by two nominal adults and one child on the cusp of adolescence, is no place for a puppy. With no running water to clean up the inevitable "accidents," any sensible person would not for a moment entertain the mad idea of introducing a dog into the mix. But there he was, a 6-week-old beast smuggled into my life, despite my advice and regardless of my lack of consent.

The attachment was immediate. When a brown fluff ball with a black snout and a smile that cut through any remnant of resistance pranced over to me, I knew the battle was lost. At the time, I was unconcerned about the details: where he came from, his "pedigree" (Akita and American Hound), how he was stealthily placed 10 feet from where I was working. All I wanted was to hold him.

That should have been enough. Had any semblance of sanity remained, I would have said something to the effect of, "Cute dog, hope you enjoy taking care of him." But I was swept away and, like any new mother, the first task is to name the young one.

There is probably an unwritten and unspoken rule of destiny that the person who names a creature ends up being the one who dedicates her life to his care and comfort. Beware of naming. Names carry more magic and power than you can imagine. So we settled on Samadhi, who, as it turned out, exhibited more Buddha nature in his entire life than most people can ever hope to attain.

Samadhi roamed free, unfettered by collars and unknown to the authorities. In the mood, he'd come when called. With company, he was the gracious host, sharing his water bowl (if not his food) and uninterested in games of aggression. Alone, he'd sit in the wild with a serenity reflective of his name.

One day last year, he couldn't get up; he just sat with his pained, arthritic legs unable to perform the simplest motion he'd done thousands of times in his 15 years. Panicked, we called the vet.

From young pup through old age, Samadhi had always seen the same veterinarian. There was never any reason to take him elsewhere: Doctor Mike was a breed apart. Competent and compassionate could describe many vets, but Doc possessed an ineffable quality and connection with the animals in his care that set him several notches above.

When the vet came to the house that night, Samadhi was in the same position he'd been in for hours. Within a few minutes of talking and touching, Sami labored to an unsteady, upright posture. The vet smiled. It was not uncommon, he said, for a dog that everyone thought was days from death to make a startling recovery when he showed up.

After a cursory examination, Doc explained the likely course of events: It would get increasingly difficult for Sami to get around. Eventually, he would lose bowel control. Finally, he wouldn't be able to get up at all. This would be heartbreakingly humiliating for a dog who always sought out a private space, out of sight of home, to "do his business."

Drugs are remarkable things. Within a few days of a prescribed anti-inflammatory, Samadhi was back. OK, maybe his legs weren't as strong or steady as they once were, and maybe he slept longer than he used to, but he could get up on his own and he didn't hesitate to let us know when he needed to be let outdoors.

The deterioration was gradual. And we kept denying it until we could no longer convince even ourselves of our deceptions. "It's only an accident," we'd say. "Look, he's chasing the cat," or "See, he still plays with his toys," were verbal ploys to shield us from the inevitable.

Some people see heaven as a place for human souls, not sullied by what they deem "lower lifeforms," who, they believe, don't possess souls at all. This has always struck me as preposterous, another example of humans' delusional belief that they are a separate, special lifeform.

But if you ask a quantum physicist to define life (a tricky question), you might be surprised to hear a complex answer that, at its most basic, translates to energy. Besides attesting to an underlying cosmic unity that Eastern philosophy has espoused for thousands of years, this answer makes the notion of death moot.

We don't know how much longer Samadhi will be with us. We've started to discuss the best place for a burial site. And we're wrestling with one last question: How will we know when it's time?

He still takes pleasure in his food. Occasionally he chases the cat, and he's always happy when his friend Oso visits. But the pain is almost unrelenting, and he looks bewildered when his bowels betray him.

We may have to "put him down," or let him go, as people say. And while I'm sure his energy will only add to the light, the pain of attachment is real. Samadhi's serenity eludes me.

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