I said goodbye to Caffeine, our 12 year old Border Collie mix a few days ago. This is my attempt at processing the grief.
It’s 5:57 AM and I have, as usual, awakened a few minutes before the alarm. I’m barely conscious and have only now opened my eyes.
That’s Caffeine’s tail thumping on the bed. She has sensed the change in my respiration. If I move I will be smothered in “kisses.” I’m not ready for this yet.
A minute later I shift from my left side to my back. Because I am ready.
Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido once said:
The Aikido I practice has room for each one of the world’s eight million gods and I cooperate with each one of them. The Great Spirit of Aiki enjoins all that is Divine and enlightened in every land. Unite yourself to the Divine and you will be able to perceive gods wherever you are.
Ueshiba’s notion of “gods” and the “Divine” are rooted in Shinto. Unlike the monotheistic supreme being of Abrahamic religions or even the limited pantheons of Norse, Greek, or Roman mythology, Shinto believes in Kami, the divine life essence in all things. Nature is made up of gods and makes up the God in Shinto, and they represent what we humans should strive to be. (This is, by necessity, an oversimplification. Translating Kami to English requires entire books, not a blog post.)
In my personal creed dogs are Kami. They contain this Divine life essence and represent what we humans can only hope to be. My answer to the famous riddle is a unequivocal “yes.”
Most importantly, dogs are special because of what they are. Not because they are like humans, but despite any similarities.
It’s a cold Thursday evening in February, there’s snow on the ground and the roads are a mess. I left work early so I could visit a rescue in Lyndhurst with Dagmar and Christian.
Despite the terrible condition of the roads we get to the grooming storefront where the rescue is run early and they are closed. I decide to stop over at a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and a snack since we skipped dinner to make the trip. I’m tired and running on empty.
When we get back to the storefront they are unloading the 2 black and white puppies we came to see, a boy and a girl. They don’t have names yet. We follow them inside.
When we get inside they leave us alone with the puppies. The girl is a firecracker, prancing around the room and soliciting play with Chris and I. At one point she attacks and shreds the waxy bag my Dunkin’ bagel came in. I quip that they should name her Caffeine.
A week later Caffeine is part of our family.
The Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 can “see in all four dimensions.” Meaning that rather than perceiving time as the linear and serial progression we do, they can see all of time at once.
Early in the novel Billy Pilgrim describes how the Tralfamadorians relate to time and death:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever…Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”
Is this phrase meant to be glib? Does it represent an acceptance of death or a numbness to it? I’m not sure what it means, but right now it seems to be comforting.
Dagmar and I are in the outdoor agility ring at St. Hubert’s. It’s our third or fourth agility class with a just barely 1 year old Caffeine. I miscue her for the millionth time and she breaks away from the A-frame we’re standing in front of to take the tunnel, the dog walk, the chute…anything but the A-frame.
Then she returns to me, gives me her big goofy smile, and seems to be saying “That was great! Why don’t you come with me this time?”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
No. Everything doesn’t. Things happen and it is up to us to deal with them as they come. It’s easy to blame (or credit) external forces rather than accepting responsibility for where we are. Our lives are the sum total of the decisions we make, minute to minute, day to day, year to year.
We hate uncertainty and ambiguity. Everything must have a cause and an effect. This seems to be related to our inherent desire to find patterns and reason in our chaotic and random world.
But things happen that can’t be explained and can’t be wrapped into a neat package. Some times these things are very good. Some times they are very bad. Most often they are somewhere in the middle.
Some people, including my father if he were still here, would call this existentialist or even nihilistic. But looking past external forces and accepting responsibility isn’t the same as denying meaning.
It’s up to us to find any meaning in events that we can. The moments are still there, it’s up to us to sort them out and pick out the important ones.
I am kneeling on the blanket the vet tech brought into the room. Caffeine’s head is resting on my arm. She is completely relaxed as I stroke her neck. As the doctor pushes the plunger on the second injection she tells me “She can still hear you.” I nod, while thinking that we don’t need words to talk to each other. She knows I love her. The doctor pushes the plunger on the third hypo, and I watch her chest rise and fall for the last time. I weep for the first time in many, many years, and the first time in many for the next few days.
I wish I could view time like a stretch of mountains, and not like beads on a string.
I’ll have to do my best.
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