I woke up around 4:30am today to the sight of an owl swooping into the branches above me and taking away a rat, which protested loudly as it departed from the branches and from this life.
It was a shocking development, especially after my recent reappraisal of the rats in my backyard. But it was also fascinating. The owl, huge and gray, vanished as quickly as it arrived. It cleared the lemon tree and the oleander hedges, and flew into the darkness with the squeaking rodent.
I have spent the last 10 weeks sleeping outdoors with my dog Boomer.
People would ask, ‘You’re not in a tent? You’re just out in the open?’
No tent, just a mattress, pillow, and blanket. And Boomer beside me.
How was it?
In a word, glorious. Once Boomer realized that I was in it for the long haul, that I wasn’t sneaking away after he fell asleep like I used to with my kids, he relaxed and took it as his due that in these final weeks of his life, he would be kept company around the clock. Never mind the mosquitoes, the rats, the police helicopters. It was just the two of us. It was sort of like Huck and Jim on the river, but with the aching, underlying awareness that the special-ness of the nights derived from what lay on the other end.
One of my favorite songs is “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac.
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides,
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well I’ve been afraid of changin’
‘Cause I’ve built by life around you.
The season of my life is changing. I am saying good-bye on Monday to this beautiful, loyal, majestic-looking dog who has been my best friend for 14 years. Lately, more and more, I did build my life around him. I put off visiting my parents back east. I begged off from every social invitation. I cooked for him. I slept outdoors at night. I told my wife she might have to take the kids to college by herself. My daily schedule was shaped by when Boomer woke up, when he ate, when it was cool enough outside for us to walk around the block.
These last 10 weeks were some of the sweetest, most lovely weeks of my life. What a privilege. Not just to spend so much time with him at the very end, but to have him in my life, in my family for 14 years.
A passage from Sharon Lebell’s translation of the ancient philosopher Epictetus:
Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying, “I have lost it,” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” …. The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it.
I’ve tried to do that. I’ve tried to take care with my dog — and with my children — while the world let me have them.
The departure of the kids for college next month will hit me even harder than Boomer dying, I think. I was an all-in, stay-at-home parent. I definitely built my life around that project.
Again, this was a privilege. And it was a privilege granted to me by my wife. She went to work every day for 20 years to pay the bills and buy the house, while I kept an eye on Lulu and Jesse, read books to them, watched Disney movies with them, drove them back and forth to school, to ice hockey.
There wasn’t much moderation in my parenting. I disregarded lots of good advice about letting kids fail, letting kids have their own lives, leaving the kids with others occasionally so that I could take a vacation with just my wife. Fuck that. I wanted to squeeze every last second out of parenting. Same with taking care of Boomer.
In the last few days my wife and I realized that we were keeping Boomer alive partly out of fear and avoidance. We didn’t want to face the chasm of sadness which his passing would open up.
Boomer was my wife’s first dog. This will be her first time saying good-bye.
For my part, I grew up with dogs. That was a gift my parents gave to my siblings and me — the opportunity to live with dogs, learn about them, and yes, one day mourn their passing. I had amazing human friends growing up, but dogs may have been the best friends of all. Just the quiet keeping of each other’s company across the years. I was fully myself with dogs, whatever that means.
Boomer has kept me company in this particular season of my life — the child-raising season. He went wherever I did, even the ice hockey rink. He always sat in the middle-right seat of my minivan. I opened the window for him. We were partners.
The truth is, he is in pain now. This has become obvious. Even just walking a few blocks, we have to stop in the shade of a tree for him to lie down, panting, exhausted. Getting back up isn’t a picnic either. The recent heat wave made matters worse. He has tried to hang on as long as possible. He knows how important he is to me, that I depend on him.
My wife had a dream recently. Boomer was above our house, huge, his four legs bracing the four corners of the house. His gigantic frame was supporting the house, enclosing it, protecting it. In the dream, I was a tiny figure in the backyard looking up at the rat nest (where the owl struck this morning).
Another song lyric, from Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain:”
Friends will arrive,
Friends will disappear
Now we’re at the ‘disappear’ part. I know the philosopher Epictetus was right — take care of it while you have it, but then let it go. Don’t cling to it or wail over its passing. With time and practice, I think I might get the hang of that.
Friends of mine have lost so much more in recent years. Friends have lost spouses, parents, even children to untimely deaths.
I don’t think I could apply the Stoic principle to the death of a child. I think that would break me. Hell, Boomer’s death might break me.
As far as I can tell, Boomer has appreciated these nights outdoors together. The air cools off, I stop looking at my phone, working in the garden. He and I lie down. Sometimes I talk to him, but mostly we just listen to the night around us.
We listen to raccoons and opossums moving along the back fence, police helicopters passing overhead. We still hear fireworks too, even a week after the holiday. We don’t mind. We sleep well knowing that we’re together, which is the main thing.
I don’t know whether I will be able to sleep on Sunday night. I’m kind of expecting to be up all night replaying the last 14 years in my mind. That’s okay. We’re at the finish line now. I’ve tried my best to care for him while the world let me have him.
In the song “Graceland,” Paul Simon sings,
Losing love is like a window in your heart,
Everybody sees you’re blown apart,
Everybody sees the wind blow
If you see me next week, you’ll see the wind blowing. It’s okay. I’ll find my balance again. Maybe it’s a good run-through for saying good-bye to the kids. Anyway now I can finally go visit my parents back in Maryland. They are 87 years old. Dog lovers themselves, they were understanding and supportive about me staying by Boomer’s side to the very end. So was my wife.
In the song “Love Has No Pride,” Bonnie Raitt sings:
And if I could pray, my prayer would never end.
If you want me to beg, I’ll fall down on my knees,
Asking for you to come back,
I’d be pleading for you to come back,
Begging for you to come back
In a day or two, that’s how I’ll be feeling about Boomer, wishing I could have just one more hour, one more minute. Another favorite artist of mine, Dolly Parton, sings with the same anguish in “I Will Always Love You.”
Yeah, these are super sad songs; that’s where I am this evening. But mainly I am grateful. The world let me have Boomer for so long! For 14 years! I did nothing to deserve him. But I did try to take good care while I had him.
UPDATE … Boomer died peacefully on June 12, 2021. He relaxed deeply within seconds of the first painkiller shot. It was an obvious contrast with the labored breathing moments earlier. He really had been suffering.
My wife and I were crying so much during these final moments of his life. I worried we were sending the wrong message to his departing spirit, making him think we still needed him, wanted him to stay. So in my mind, I threw a tennis ball as far into the sky as I could. I looked up and said silently, ‘Get outta here! Go get that ball! Go see your Mom and Dad, and your siblings. Play! Feel what it’s like to be running again, without pain finally.’
I’m going to miss the hell out of Boomer, but it was time. His work here was done.