I am a banshee this morning.
Banshees keened to announce a death. Their stories come from old Ireland. They were the first ones to know that a death happened or was about to happen. The wailing, the keening, might have been the first knowledge that a family had of a beloved’s death.
My keening comes from an old place inside of me; the ancient part of me. I’m not announcing a death. It already happened. It happened almost three months ago. My friends would laugh and say that it is typical of my lateness in all things. But, today, finally, his death is being acknowledge in the most raw way. I’m not trembling, I’m not sobbing. I am keening. Loud, long, and ancient.
Driskill died in my arms. He was so sweet and suffering so much. His kidneys were failing. He was so thirsty and would drink and drink, but the nourishment wasn’t getting to right places. I was at Midway airport on a layover on my way home from a two week training when I received the news that he was rapidly fading. I am still surprised that I held it together enough to not knock people out of way in order to get home even a half-second earlier to be able to hold him that much longer.
He was in the car when I was picked up from the airport, in the back seat. I had been away for two weeks, but there was no tail wag when he saw me. Just a head lift, and drop. I dragged his body on top of mine and let his weight sink into me. I kissed his head over and over. I whispered “I love you” and “it’s ok” over and over again, my tears soaking into his hair. If he died, I wanted to die with him. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t had a soul-to-soul relationship with an animal. If you have, then you know.
He didn’t die on that car ride. We got to the vet’s office and got him on an IV drip right away. The vet took one look at him and knew he was severely dehydrated. He said “blood work” to find out what’s going and I left to go get my daughter from school. I hadn’t seen her in two weeks, and today I can’t remember going to pick her up, seeing her face again, or what I said to her. It’s wiped away from my memory.
I do remember going straight from her school back to the vet’s office. The grim face of the vet. Wondering, in a remote part of my awareness, if I should be shielding my seven-year-old from the somber news. He went to science and numbers, like all good doctors do. He showed me charts and levels. Many things related to kidney function in a danger zone. 90% of his kidney functioning gone. I set the paper down and looked him in the eye, hoping he could remove the science mask and simply be a human with me, “Is my dog dying?”
And then he went back to offering options. He said, later on, that is what vets are trained to do. Offer options and let the client choose. It’s a good plan, and he was a kind man. Except making decisions is the last thing I want to do when faced with trauma and calamity. I chose to leave him there overnight on an IV drip with some antibiotics. I remember now that that night offered some relief. Somehow, his assured death morphed into let’s see how it goes. Our brains, in effort at survival, will minimize even the most oblique situations.
We went to see him in the morning when they reopened. He was still sad, but perked up a bit when he saw us. The vet said a minimum of 48 hours on the IV was needed. We left, did the things that needed to be done the day after one returns from a long trip away, and came back again in the afternoon. Thankfully, someone had offered to take my daughter on a play date, so it could just be me with my companion of nearly 13 years. The office was going to close again soon, and it was a Saturday. Letting him stay there meant he would be alone in a steel crate until Monday morning. The awful pop radio station would be on along with the fluorescent lights, and a vet student would be checking on him. Keeping him on the drip only meant that he would die later rather than sooner. He might have a week rather than a day or two. And, if on a very outside chance it was some infection, the antibiotics would keep him alive long enough to do more testing. I took him with me.
We left the vet’s office and went straight to the park. We’d been going there for 10 years. The weather was unusually warm and wonderful. He could hardly stand, but managed to take a few steps, even lift his leg to pee. I laughed and cried at how strong and determined he was. He sniffed the air, the ground. I think he smiled. I took video, wondering if I’d regret looking at him through lens right than with my naked eye or be glad I had images of this last park visit.
I set him on our front porch when we got home. He’d been guarding that front porch for 10 years. It was warm, the sun was on his fur. I kept a big bowl of water near him, but had to turn away when he would drink. I knew his thirst wasn’t going to be quenched. Lots of people came by to tell him good-bye. I knew they loved him, and despite my hollowness inside, I felt grateful he had graced so many lives.
One of my very best friends in life doesn’t like dogs. Certainly there are many others like her. I wonder how it can be to go through life like that. Loving D was like breathing to me.
I prayed and prayed that he would die in the night. Just go to sleep and finish with his tremendous life. Late at night, around 10 o’clock, he wanted to go for a walk. Ok, boy, let’s go. I roused my daughter and we walked about a half-block. It felt wild and feverish on an unusually balmy February night. He stopped and I could tell he was exhausted. I carried him back home. I kept him tucked against me all night. Daughter on one side, dog on the other. The mommy sandwich. I was so happy to be home.
He surprised me in the morning; not only got up, jumped down/fell out of bed, but went to his food bowl like normal. He had refused food for a full day and two nights. He sniffed the bowl and then went to lay down on his bed next to my desk. All day he was just with us. More people came over. We hung around the house and did simple home things. We cried some. We laughed. I talked to my daughter about what was happening. We’ve had a great deal of loss in the last few years and D’s dying was a good way into conversations about all of it. It was strangely peaceful and almost as if we were having his wake before he had to go. At some point that weekend, I started to sing to him.
I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river
I’ve got peace like a river in my soul
One of the wonderful things about dogs is that they love to hear you sing, no matter what you sound like. “I love to hear you sing. More, please,” they say.
Again, that night I prayed that he would just die in his sleep. He hadn’t had any food and I knew his efforts to get hydrated weren’t working. The vet had warned me that kidney failure was an awful way to go. They really suffer. That night, Driskill was the sandwich filling. My daughter and I on either side of him.
I woke in the middle of the night to his panting. Panting! I panicked, knowing that him getting hot under our covers and panting when he was already suffering dehydration was just about the worst thing that could happen. Guilt flooded in, and desperation. I finally decided that he was best on his own dog bed. Then woke again soon after and brought him back to my side in bed. I would accept a cold night’s sleep if it meant he would die next to me.
In the morning, he was still alive and I was a wreck. I had to drive my daughter to school twenty minutes each way away. I couldn’t bear to leave him and I couldn’t take him with me. I called the vet’s office as soon as they opened and spoke with our vet. I had decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t euthanize him; I wanted him to go naturally. I wanted the vet to make decisions for me and to tell why he was still here. There aren’t answers to that sort of thing. In the end, a dear soul took my daughter to school for me, and I took D in to the vet. I had made an appointment months earlier for that very morning at 9 a.m. to get an x-ray for Virginia to see how many puppies she was going to have. The cruelty of the irony.
I had him wrapped in a blanket and was able to set myself against a line of chairs so he could lie fully on top of me. I was the very first person to hold him when he was born. I wanted him to feel me holding the whole of him just like that again. At this visit, it was our vet who’d taken care of him for years. He was patient and quiet. He used a vein in his back leg so it would be the least disruptive to our intimacy. Driskill’s sister, Erin, had to be euthanized less than a year earlier (her, too, in my lap), so I knew what to expect and that it would be very quick. They just slip away. One moment here and the next moment…elsewhere. I sang him to sleep.
I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean
I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul
In a few moments, I heard the vet’s voice outside our room talking about five puppies, possibly six. In the course of the morning, I had not only not walked Virginia, but had also fed her. She was rather full of food and poop, making the x-ray a little difficult to decipher. It didn’t occur to me until later that the first moment I laid Driskill’s body down was when I turned to look at the x-ray images of the new lives. The irony had turned sweet.
The puppies were born ten days later, and the following ten weeks have been what I have come to call the “puppy tsunami.” Our little home in the city was not intended to be a kennel. The last pup left for her true home five days ago. It has been blissfully quiet and I’ve been wondering when the weight of his absence, the manner of his death, were going to overtake me. I received some frustrating business news yesterday, and finally the damn broke, the keening flooded forth.
Grief doesn’t need to be fixed. It simply needs to be acknowledged. Driskill died. And it was terrible. And I miss him. I miss him.
Then life surges ahead again. I hear Virginia whining at the door. She wants to come in, be fed her lunch and be with me. She needs me to be her owner. I inherited Virginia when my mother died and it’s been a somewhat rough road for us. She is a continual reminder that my mom is gone. And she is very much not Driskill. She is also a continual reminder that a singular death, unless it’s your own, doesn’t end life. She needs me to see that she is alive, ready to go for walks, to learn how to love a human and be loved by a human. Sometimes love isn’t just an ocean, it’s a cascade of need. A tsunami of puppy! A new day of work to accomplish. A moving forward, changed and scarred, but very much alive.
I’ve got joy like a fountain, I’ve got joy like a fountain,
I’ve got joy like a fountain in my soul.