Sunday, December 6, 2009

The three L’s: Life, Love and Letting Go

For some time now, my beloved companion, Hannah (a German Shepherd Dog) has had some problems. It started with a limp last year and after X-rays, we found that she was having a degenerative problem along her vertebrae (neck and back) as well as some joints. We knew that her body would gradually give in to the degeneration. Not what we wanted to hear, but had to deal with and unfortunately Hannah had to live with.

In January, Hannah tore a cruciate ligament on her left knee and had to have that knee repaired. After the surgery it took some time to recover. It was a struggle, but she was a trooper, never complained and her knee healed nicely and was in good working order.

Last month (November) she tore the cruciate ligament on the other knee and had to have that one repaired. Not really a surprise, since this knee had to bear the weight of the other during the healing process. She was a very active dog. This knee was beginning to mend nicely.

Last Tuesday evening (December 1) I had a really bad night with Hannah. Upon coming home that evening, my husband was on the floor with Hannah and told me that she had gone down and couldn’t get up. She couldn’t use her front legs to walk. Hannah wasn’t paralyzed, she could move her front legs, but from the pasterns down, her front legs didn’t work. The next day wasn’t much better, the vertebrae problems in her neck had come to a head.

My husband and I knew this day would come, yet we avoided the conversation in hopes that it would not rear its ugly head. It had now knocked on our back door and we had to answer it. This knock happened much sooner than anyone had thought and it was loud.

I asked my vet come out and evaluate the situation. We decided to try a steroid treatment to see if we could get her joints to work again, if at least for a little time longer. It was the time that we so desperately wanted. We had 24 – 48 hours to keep our fingers crossed, pray for a miracle and hope that the drugs would work.

I slept on the floor in the evenings and either sat or lay next to Hannah during the day to be by her side. I tried to let her know that she was unconditionally loved and to make her worn out, deteriorating body comfortable. This was for 3 days and 3 nights. I tried to keep a constant vigil for her. If I got up for any length of time, I made sure to be close so that she could see me or have my husband sit with her so she wasn’t alone. As time went on and as fate would have it, she would gradually lose the use of different parts of her once able body.

At one point, when I was lying beside her, she was dreaming and I could see her legs move. I know she was dreaming of running. I hope she was dreaming of catching a squirrel or running off the vultures or crows as she used to be able to do. She was always the fastest dog in our house, with the speed, agility and athleticism of an Olympic champion and could catch a squirrel in a heartbeat. She was also a master guardian to my goats.

Through Hannah, I have learned the selflessness, devotion and love that a dog has for its owner. No one has said it more eloquently than George Graham Vest in a speech he made to a jury in 1870 in Warrensburg, Missouri. He lost a beloved Foxhound, Old Drum, from a neighbor viciously shooting it. The dog was more than a hunting dog to Vest, he was a family companion. Vest took the neighbor to court and won. Originally Vest was a lawyer and later became a senator. Here is his closing speech. I think it is worth a read:

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man's reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.
"Gentlemen of the Jury, a man's dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert he remains. When riches take wing and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death."

When I would leave Hannah’s side for more than a few seconds, she would try to gather her broken body to follow me. She didn’t want to leave my side, even though her body failed her. All she wanted the most in this world was to be at my side. As her body became weaker and couldn’t lift her head, she would lap water from my fingertips to drink. In her last hours, I realized that I could steady her head up on my knees to offer her bowl to drink by herself so she could feel a sense of normality. She still wanted her water, food and treats and we gave them freely.

In the end, her mind was solid, her spirit was strong as was her love and loyalty. All she wanted was to be by my side, and since her body wouldn’t let her, I brought my body to her as she would have done for me.

We lost the battle, but know that we took every avenue we could. On Friday evening, I placed Hannah’s head in my lap and my husband and I, along with our caring vet, peacefully let her go. We all told her that we loved her, and I do feel that she felt she was surrounded by the unconditional love that she gave in this world.

Hannah was born December 31, 2002. She was a Christmas puppy. I decided to wrap her in a green Christmas themed blanket that had reindeer and Christmas trees on it. When we have had to bury dogs in the past, I have wrapped them in special blankets and had flowers in the yard to place on top of them in their grave. Some might think it morbid or silly, but I want them to leave with beauty surrounding them. It is something that eases the pain of my loss. I didn’t have anything in bloom this time of year so I went out and purchased a beautiful novelty Poinsettia to place in her grave with her. I carefully cut the flowers and leaves from the plant. I thought it would be perfect for her. My husband reminded me that we had a Christmas cactus and that it was starting to bloom. I looked at it and there was one single bloom. The rest were blossoms. I decided to pick the one full bloom to represent her life and some blossoms to represent her life cut short and not fully realized. She is now surrounded by them and is resting peacefully.

In memory of Hannah, instead of giving her a solemn funeral, I decided to celebrate her life. I bought my husband a brand of ‘dog’ labeled beer and myself a bottle of ‘dog’ labeled wine. I didn’t care if we liked it or not, it was going to be in celebration of Hannah’s life, and how we came to love her along with all of her special attributes. I told my husband that when he opened a bottle of beer, he had to say one thing that he remembered about her that he loved. The same thing went for me. If I poured a glass of wine, I had to say one thing that I loved about her. It made our loss, the loss of a beloved companion a little easier to process.

For my special Hannah:
Run as fast and swiftly as you can my beautiful girl as you used to be able to do, and continue to catch squirrels while you wait for me to cross over the rainbow bridge with you by my side.