Mourning is love with nowhere to go (…but everywhere).
It has been less than twenty-four hours since we buried our dog. It is Easter Sunday. I am sitting in our bedroom with the windows and doors open, listening to a channel of chamber music I found on iTunes. I find myself in the chancel of a European cathedral where the echo of a heavenly choir coils around buttresses on its way up to the filtered, multi-colored light. I am grateful for the time to reflect. On death. And rebirth.
Lulu, our dog, was really only part dog. The rest of her was gazelle, I think, and perhaps another part was bird. For seventeen years she was integral to our life here in Boonville, the location of our retreat center in Northern California where my husband and I and our two sons are sheltering in place during the Caronavirus. Lulu, nicknamed “nana-lu” by our twin boys, has been with us throughout my marriage to Jon and my marriage to this land. When we walked the trails on hikes, up here, she’d cover a good four times our distance as she sailed, as if on the wind, down the hill away from the trail, disappearing for a good stretch of time then bounding up again, crossing before us, only to briefly touch down before leaping up in the opposite direction in pursuit of a real or imagined rustle of wildlife in the tall grasses.
Back at the cabin, she would settle down to focus on a patch of lawn where her snout was nuzzled in the grass tracking lizards or launching into gopher holes in diligent pursuit. In all those years, I don’t think she ever caught a lizard or gopher, but I also don’t think she was in it for the killing. It was the play of the hunt she appeared to love, scanning for gopher whiskers, waiting all afternoon until ‘pop!, one came up a hair too far and she’d launch down towards the terrifying — yet, in its honesty, somehow holy — inter-species confrontation. Slipping away as the gophers always did, Lulu would rise up again to sniff at the air, then, shaking her head, snorting the soil from her nose, she’d return to focus, anew, in pursuit.
When she wasn’t leaping through the hills or hunting gophers, there were also the times when she simply sat facing the view in front of our cabin, looking out at we-never-knew-what. As the wind flicked her ears back, she scanned pointlessly yet somehow, also, purposefully, watching for all the kinds of things we humans forget, or have lost the ability, to see in a landscape. Watching her, on these occasions, she was teaching us how to see again.
Lulu didn’t ever worry if she was good enough at being the dog she was. She never got concerned that people would resent her for being so agile, graceful, and talented as she leapt with instinctual abandon through the hills. She didn’t second guess if she jumped well enough, if she was being too lazy looking out towards the view, and never worried she would be teased or thought stupid for her fruitless efforts hunting gophers. She did the best job possible, at one thing, alone: Being herself.
Being herself also meant being the perfect mutt: a gorgeously generic caramel colored dog. I wonder if it was freedom in her DNA from all the breeding that accounted for her old age, because seventeen is a hearty number of years to live for a dog. Since we’d left our home in Berkeley and arrived in Boonville, though, it was clear that her decline was immanent and in these last few weeks, while she still had an appetite and enough alertness to let us know when she needed to get outside, her legs had started going out, one by one. As of Thursday, only one front left leg had any reliability holding her up, the back two collapsing with uncertain regularity.
I had once heard that pelicans die of blindness. The impact of their rapid, bullet like descent into the ocean throughout their lives in order to feed themselves, causes a build up of damage that compromises their ability in old age to see the fish they need to catch for survival. For Lulu it was the legs that had given her flight that brought her down. In all bodies, the clock of life ticks in only one direction, and as I wrestled with my denial around losing her, I found myself slowly accepting that Lulu’s clock was winding down in a direction I had to face.
In spite of exploring alternatives, we realized when it came to having a plan that we would have to drive Lulu to the vet in Ukiah to put her down. Lulu had always hated driving in cars. We’d even begun leaving her at home in Berkeley when we came the retreat center on weekends to avoid having her in the car. It wrangled her nerves, terribly. I’d hoped we’d never have her in a car again, that she might die on her own in the cabin. On more than one occasion, I looked over at her, sleeping in her bed, to see if her rib cage was still rising, half hoping she might have just quietly left us. But when we got the signs we were waiting for and saw her sense of helplessness as her legs collapsed beneath her, we ‘knew’, in that always unwelcome, terrible way humans know, that it’s time to use that power we have to end our pets lives.
With the boys in the back seat, Jon and I loaded up all the dog beds and settled Lulu in to the back of the car for what we wished might somehow be the most comfortable drive of her life. Giving her an extra dose of pain killers to calm her down, I curled up against her lying down in the back of the minivan for the ride. It seemed to work for the most part. Lulu was settled enough, for the first part of the ride, able to give me a couple of licks along the way, but, as we turned off the valley road into town where more cars sped by us and our own speed picked up, she began shaking and panting. “How much longer,” I said to Jon. “Five minutes,” he answered. “That’s good,” I said, though daunted by our purpose on arrival.
We turned the corner into the Mendocino Veteranarian Hospital parking lot and Jon pulled around to a spot in the shade. The assistant came out for the ‘pandemic, parking lot check in’ and while Jon talked to her, I took Lulu for her last walk. She was disoriented, but she settled down from the drive long enough to sniff around a bit, unsteady on her legs. I picked her back up after a while and settled her into her donut dog bed in the back of the car and after a few moments, Jon and I nodded in agreement and he called the front desk to say we were ready for the doctor to come out.
Given that our regular life was spent in Berkeley, Dr. Burns was the vet recommended to us by our ranch manager in Boonville. We had never met Dr. Burns before, but she was about to play an intimate role in our family’s history. Wearing a mask with a colorful dog pattern, she approached us, respectfully, her kind face and contactful eyes framed by soft, white hair. Walking across the parking lot with her, were the years, likely decades, of her experience of pastoral care for pets and their humans.
We went over the details of the process as we stroked Lulu’s ears and nuzzled her face with kisses. When it was time and Dr. Burns gave Lulu the first injection, it settled her muscles down very quickly, and within seconds her body had relaxed to a deep sleep. I knew it was coming, but it shocked and saddened me, nonetheless, how quickly, while still alive, she slipped into an un-responsive state. She could not register our presence any more, there was no hope she might hear our goodbyes or feel our kisses. Staying by her side, I stroked her head while Dr. Burns administered the second shot, midwifing her soul to its next frontier. Lulu expired so gently after that, it was as if she left as quietly, delicately and effortlessly as she had lived.
The moment Dr. Burns confirmed she had passed, Jon and I broke into tears. The boys who had not wanted to leave their seats, but who were turned around and kneeling looking back at us, watched as their parents sobbed. Wanting to give over the wholeness of my grief to the moment, to Lulu, to myself, without censor, I just let myself cry. It was natural enough for the boys to see this. As natural for me as Lulu’s instinct to launch into gopher holes, to fear fast driving cars, or to bound across the Boonville hills in delight. This was my heart’s instinct. To grieve.
I felt the gentle, reassuring touch of Dr. Burns hand on my shoulder. As my tears fell, I welcomed the warmth of her touch, the years of experience it carried, how it communicated all that was needed. Without turning back to thank her, I received the kindness, somehow trusting she would understand. The calm loving contact of a stranger’s touch spoke to her years of service to animals and the humans who love them. Later, when I turned around, she was gone.
Lulu’s legs now, finally resting, fell limp and supple in her bed, her body laid there, cast in the afternoon sunlight that was now reaching past the shade into the open trunk of the minivan. With my knees lowered down on the concrete parking lot, elbows resting on the dusty bumper, I prayed. No words, simply letting my clasped hands carry my love.
When we had arrived, Jon had spoken to the vet tech about a cremation, including picking out the engraving for the box and handing over our credit card to the tech who took it into the clinic, returning with the receipt to sign. But as I knelt down by Lulu’s body, sensing in for any guidance on when to have them take her away, I found myself trusting that I didn’t want her body to leave us, to leave the car and be transported by van to a freezer to an incinerary somewhere -who knows where- cold, mechanical, efficient. Between Jon and I, we had always cremated our animals in the past, never thinking of burying their bodies, but kneeling there with my hand now resting on Lulu’s still, warm body, nothing about cremation felt right.
Within minutes the next steps became clear to both of us. As we walked through the options, we saw the obviousness of it. Why had we not thought about it before? Arturo, our landscaper, had been working with his tractor at the cabin before we left that morning. We could ask him to dig a grave for Lulu. It would take him no time at all. I told Jon I’d like to drive this time, and as I pulled away from the parking lot, with the boys settled back in their seats and Lulu’s body in tow, Jon called to cancel the cremation service.
Leaving the main streets of Ukiah and making our way towards the twists and turns of Highway 253, the boys, Jon and I were quiet in the car. As the road took us deeper into the heart of the valley, I noticed I wasn’t worrying about Lulu’s car-anxiety, but in the absence of concern a certain presence took its place. I felt a strange and welcome calm settling in my body, warm, in my chest, as I slowly took each turn. It was as if the car and I were both gliding, gracefully across the hills, the way Lulu would, as if effortlessly riding the wind.
“Remember this,” I said to myself. “Remember this feeling of peace and rightness, so soft in your body, so unmistakable, so precise to the experiences you’ve had of death.” I was struck by the still, velvety black quality of it, like a sad emptiness that felt equally full with tenderness and love. I knew ‘peace’ as the word to describe this feeling, but somehow even that right word fell short of capturing it. Mourning is love with nowhere to go a friend of mine once told me. Maybe that was it. A love that was everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“Remember this,” I said again to myself, “this was the same way you felt when you visited your father in the funeral home after he died. How you were surprised then, as now, by how settled and full of love you were being with his body. How it wasn’t what you expected, being with death. How you felt not a lick fear when you sat with him. It’s also how you felt when grandma died. The loss and grief and the utter finality of life all somehow coalesced in a way that seemed to still time, itself, into precious oblivion. Remember this, Karin. Remember it next time death is near, and for your boys, too. It is the assurance you may be able to give to them, if given the chance, in your touch maybe, if not in words, in the days or hours before your last breath.”
As the drive continued, Jon and I remained silent, knowing, somehow, that the silence together was its own communication. As we approached the last stretch before the cabin, Jon called the gardener, Eden, who, as part of the boys’ shelter in place curruciulum had been helping them (at a healthy 6ft distance) plant a vegetable garden. She was coming over to check on the irrigation and we wanted to let her know we might be burying Lulu when she arrived. Knowing these sorts of things, as a rural gardeners often do, she suggested a 4 feet depth would be good for the grave and offered to pick up a burlap sack from the local coffee roastery on her way to the cabin.
Within an hour, we found the place we wanted the grave, a small hill away from the cabin, perfectly situated by the view of the valley Lulu had gazed upon for so many hours, herself. Arturo had taken the backhoe there, successfully digging a four foot grave. We had the burlap sack in hand, strangely soft, warm and weighty, like a comforter for Lulu’s final bed. Jon and I walked to the min-van, each of us grabbed hold with both hands of the sides of the donut bed, wrestling to hold up Lulu’s raggedy limp body steady as we walked up towards the hill where the boys were waiting. Once at the graveside, we lowered her body to the grass, slowly maneuvering it into the sack, first her rump, then, up to her shoulders. The boys stood by, watching quietly. I lowered myself into the ditch and Jon passed her body into my arms.
As I received the weight of her, still warm, just holding her body in my arms felt sublime. I stood there, leaning up against the side of the grave, loving every last moment of contact with her finally relaxed body. The precious weight, the goodness, her shape, its distinctness. I didn’t want to let go… Slowly transitioning, however, I lowered her down to the bottom of the grave, revealing her face for the last time for all of us to see. I reached my hands down into the sack to run them over her body one last time, down to her warm tummy, the soft space under her arm pits, the velvety fur under her chin. My hands found her paws, which, in the year before her death, always nervously twitched when touched, my fingers massaged the bones. Lulu was gone, but the love in my hands poured over what remained of her.
I looked for the moment when I’d be ready to leave her down there; I was open to any sign of readiness, but it didn’t come. Are the Tibetans right to wait for days? Would it be better if we left for a while and came back in hour or two before transferring the mound of soil Arturo dug up back over her body? Perhaps there never is a perfect moment of readiness to leave the body of someone you love. Perhaps it’s absurd to think there would ever be a moment of feeling ‘ready’ for such a thing.
I covered the sack over her head and leveraged myself out of the grave, reaching for Jon’s reassuring hand to lift me up. The boys who had remained quiet and attentive throughout, were restless to return to play, this, their first full day of ‘spring break’. “Would you like to take a handful of the soil to begin the burial before you leave?” I asked. They each nodded, grabbing a fist full and sprinkling down on the lower part of the sack. Then, as they left us, Jon and I, begrudgingly at first, picked up two large shovels.
It took us the better part of two hours to move the large mound of soil first over her body then filling the grave. Half way through we thought of asking Arturo to finish the job; it would be easy enough to do so in minutes. But we couldn’t. Both of us kept at it with our 50+ year old bodies, not in the best of shape, huffing and puffing as we lowered one pile to fill the other. This, then, was our tribute, our funeral, our sermon in the dirt, our alternative to the refrigerator and the incinerator. Basking grave-side, our faces and bodies flush with the effort and the sun, we took in the view, down by our feet, in the earth, and up across the valley sky.
After Jon left to check in on the boys, I took the larger stones Arturo had excavated in the digging and arranged them around the perimeter of the mound. I walked back to the cabin and carried back an extra bag of the soil we used for our new garden and after sprinkling it over the mound and mixing it in with rougher soil, I added some wildflower seeds I’d been looking for an opportunity to plant. Returning one last time with our newly purchased tin watering can, I watered the grave.
Jesus Christ Superstar
That night, the night before Easter, we sat down together on the couch and watched Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar on Jon’s computer. I was 10 years old the first time I saw it in England. It was perhaps the year it came out, the year before we immigrated to America. Now, Charlie and Ben, that same age, were seeing it for the first time during a rare, free broadcast in these sheltering days over Easter.
It was an intense watching it that night, especially. It was a particularly raucous production, our boys learning this powerful chapter at the end of Jesus’ life in a pretty hard rock, gory kind of way. They were witnessing this staged and bloody crucifiction the same day we had euthanized and buried our beloved dog. It didn’t seem to trouble them, though we checked in with them about it; they were quite spellbound by the performance as I had been at their age.
I couldn’t help but feel that something about watching it made the day feel even more holy. Among other things, it’s a story that chronicles our human relationship to death, to the loss of a loved one, how we seek to bargain against it, how we wish, when we hear the bad news, that we could do it all over, how we fight it, and long for contact with the the body of the one we lose, wrestling with the ways we do and don’t make sense of the loss once they are gone.
As the boys brushed their teeth before bed, I stood in the doorway and shared how it strange it felt to me, though also good, to know Lulu was still somehow with us, just a short distance away under the large oak tree that looked out over the valley. “I bet her body’s cold out there, now,” I added. “Probably,” said Ben, “but I also think it’s kind of a cozy bed she’s in, dark in there with all that brown soil around her, tucking her in.”
How does he know this in his 10 year old body? How does he trust this? I marvel at his comfort, faith and tenderness. How he, too, was not troubled by the ‘deadness’ of her body, as I hadn’t been either. “That’s a lovely thought,” I said to him, stroking my hand over his hair one last time before pulling the door closed, and motioning a kiss good-night.
Easter: A New Day
Easter Sunday. I wake and open the windows and doors to a warm breeze and a beautiful, California spring sun in the sky. When I walk outside to check on the boys, Ben greets me and pulls me over to the garden he and his brother have planted with Eden. “Look at the flowers we put in at the ends of the beds,” he says, delightedly, “they’re attracting bees!” He knows it is a good sign we have pollinators.
I return to the cabin, sit down with my coffee and scan my facebook feed. I emerge too long later, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, absorbed for that time in one beautiful piece of music after another. People across the world are coming together in song, virtually, lifting up spirits in hope, with such talent and beauty! This is humanity at its best, I think to myself, tears welling up in my eyes as each recording draws me in to the next. I find the channel in iTunes for the chamber music and settle down in my bedroom with my computer on my lap top. Lulu is here and I begin to write…
Somehow it is feeling as if this is an Easter like no other across America. At least it’s feeling that way to me this morning. Lulu died one day after Good Friday, one day after we gathered with Jon’s family on zoom for a Passover seder, that was somehow also more precious because it would not have happened without COVID. On lockdown something is happening within and between pockets of sheltering across the country, something greater than the sum of its parts. Amidst the fear, I can feel around me among friends and family, a deepening awareness of the gifts of life, the gifts in our loved ones, in the fresh air we breathe at an open window, or on a walk around the block.
For most of my life, I have not been a practicing Christian, but I am becoming one on this beautiful day after our family’s loss, when I am reminded how very much there is to worship in life.
Amidst all the glory of the morning, though, Jon and I register Lulu’s absence. For the past few weeks, she’s been here when we’ve woken up, leggy and collapsed on her bed, eyes tracking us as we walk between rooms. It was quiet, hollow, and strange without her. She is the last of the four dogs we’ve had together; it’s our first morning since we met without a canine companion in tow.
If God gave us Jesus as a son to serve as a human bridge to connect with the divine, (s)he gave us dogs as a bridge to the natural world that far too many of us have lost touch with. The dogs we love give us the eyes and ears and bodies to help us remember. Our dogs have taught me, by example, how to simply be myself, how to love what I love and cherish things as they are.
This Sunday morning of Easter, Lulu’s body lies four feet under the ground a short distance from our cabin. It is surely no longer limber and warm now, having chilled, overnight, in the dark soil. The insects are likely exploring her skin and fur, ants and rollypollies navigating the new arrival. She will return, this way, to the land she loved, to the soil she buried her nose in hunting for gophers, her body slowly decaying over the seasons we encounter here. And I find myself wondering why I ever would have chosen to cremate a dog before. Because doing it this way, I don’t need to say goodbye to Lulu’s body, I only need to reimagine it.
In short order, with a little luck, spring wildflowers will sprout on her grave. The nitrogen of her body will feed the soil and the grasses will grow back where we dug them up around her grave. Bees will make there way over, perhaps navigating their way from our vegetable garden. Lizards will scuttle between the rocks around her grave. Slowly with the seasons we will visit her grave and remember Lulu here.
And I will seek, in those seasons to bring to my own life some of the unbridaled joy, and delight Lulu brought to her years here jaunting, part gazelle, part bird, across the hillsides. I will aim to bring some of the attention, relaxed yet alert, that she brought to looking out at the view across the hills. And as the earth circles the sun each year, we will return to her grave on Easter morning with gratitude and prayer.
On March 13th, after our children’s school announced a ‘two-week’ closure, my family of four (plus one dog) packed two cars full to ‘shelter in place’ at our retreat center on 600 acres in Anderson Valley. Privileged, isolated, my husband and I will learn how to become the ‘village’ that once helped raise our children. Along with the rest of the world, we don’t know how long we will be here. Facing that uncertainty, as time permits, I will write this pandemic diary.