After a long drive across the country last December, I arrived to face the harsh reality that things, as they always do, had changed. Age, delivering its ancient magic, had shifted my memory of home a few degrees towards resemblance. The most stark of all was our stellar dog, Stella. The purest form of nobility radiated from her golden coat so much so that even non-dog-lovers would make a point of remarking on what a good dog she was.
Although my mom had tried to prepare me, as I greeted Stella for the first time in a year I was brought to tears to see how much she’d lost her pep. It was an effort for her to get up. She could no longer climb the stairs. She looked at you with a tired gaze, as loving as ever but caught in the chokehold of struggle. It was difficult, and in many cases impossible, to include her in daily activities because she was so much less mobile. It crushed us to see her become further and further removed from the life she loved. More than anything she just wanted to be near her family, but the hardwood floors were too slippery for her unsteady legs, leaving her resigned to a mat by the front door or the basement. When she would stray from the mat to lie beside us, only to later have her hips collapse beneath her when she tried to get up again, our hearts too would collapse to witness the helpless expression on her face.
One of the countless loveable things about Stella was this habit she had of coming up from behind and pushing her head between your knees when you were upset. Even if you weren’t overtly expressing it, she could sense it in you. It was as if she was trying to tell you that whatever distress you were bearing, she would bear it with you. Watching her struggle in old age, I’d wished I could do the same. Me crawling on all fours to lie under her wasn’t quite as cute or comforting to her, however. All I could manage was to rub behind her soft ears, scratch the underside of her neck like she loved, and feed her as many treats as she wanted.
This week the struggle had become too great and my stepfather had to make the heart-sickening call to the vet to have Stella put down. After the recent passing of Stuart McLean, I was googling stories about him and came across a quote of his that said something along the lines of, “Death is surprising, even when it isn’t”. Even when you are adequately informed of its expected arrival, you are never prepared when it finally comes. And so was the case with Stella.
On the drive to the vet clinic, for the first time in a long time, Stella’s spirit had been revived. She was so happy to have us all in the car with her. She smiled the entire drive to town. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I struggled to accept the greater good of what was about to take place, overcome by the dual reality of feeling simultaneously touched to see her so happy in her last moments, and torn to pieces to know these were indeed her last.
Her tail wagged all the way into the clinic. The room they provided was softly lit and cozy, like walking into someone’s living room. The vet was absolutely wonderful. It seemed as though she genuinely cared about Stella as she patted her and explained to us the process and what to expect. Stella remained calm as the vet gently took her back paw in her hands and prepared the needle. My mom was stroking Stella’s head and Stella was staring up at her in her profoundly loving manner. I watched as the vet applied a gradual pressure to the syringe. Stella was still smiling as the syringe was compressed ever so slowly. Then suddenly, she let out a small huff and her head began to sink into my mom’s hands, lowering peacefully into her final sleep.
The emptiness was abrupt. Although I knew what was taking place, I was hit with the instant disbelief of her absence. Even with her body lying there still warm, there was an undeniable air in the room that Stella was gone. It was as if in that little huff she’d exhaled, her soul had floated away. I wanted so badly for them to reverse it. I’d wished they could just pull the syringe back, suctioning the anaesthetic out of her veins and drawing with it all the pain and struggle she’d been feeling the last year, returning the warm gaze to her kind, brown eyes. But she was in a better place now, as they say.
Later that day, we went for a snowshoe across the field and around the river. Everywhere I looked I kept expecting Stella to appear from the trees. Instead, I felt a heaviness get heavier inside me knowing she never would again; nor would I feel the familiar bunt of her nose driving between my knees to help me bear this load.
As much as death is surprising, so is life. When I plant a seed, I know a sprout will most likely follow. Yet every time the sprout appears I am filled with this naïveté and joy, like some tiny gift has been sent from a secret admirer. And that same joy is amplified as the plant grows. The first time I pull a carrot from a patch to see its vibrant orange root, I am ecstatic as if I had no idea it would be there. The same can be said for the shock of red in that perfect little sphere of radish that appears so quickly, or the sudden flush of orange on a ripening tomato. What is beautiful about the garden is that this joy perpetuates. Anything not harvested decomposes and passes its energy on to the next round of sprouts. That energy is the garden is not lost, it is transferred.
In the grand circle of life, when someone dies do the seeds of their memory begin to germinate within us? And as we go through the mourning process, do these seeds begin to sprout, releasing with them the many little joys that their presence brought to our lives? When I think that across this property and in minds of everyone who ever knew her, the seeds of Stella’s memory have been planted, a light inside me gets lighter. We didn’t lose Stella. Our relationship with her transformed from one of physical interaction to one of heartfelt appreciation. When people talk about an afterlife, I always pictured heaven, robes, harps, fountains... But I realized, our memories - the way my mom and I crack up recounting the same stories of my grandmother over and over, or the way a dream of someone we lost can feel so vivid and real, like we truly got to see them again - could be a form of afterlife themselves.
Of course, this doesn’t take away the pain of missing someone. No, pain is a catalyst to growth; just as rain must fall to make the seed grow.
Hugs Stella. You were the perfect dog. See you in my dreams.