(Song Dedication: Heart of Gold by Neil Young)
Saturday was a big day for everyone in our family. I had 5 graduation photography sessions booked back to back through the afternoon. I woke up early that morning to get prepared. Andrew took Scout from her kennel to take her out. Lucy, our Wheaten Terrier lazed on the couch, in her spot atop a pile of pillows…she eventually got up, stretched her old body and strolled casually to the master bedroom where she knew she’d find me…either still lazing in bed myself or in the ensuite getting ready. She stood in the doorway to say hello, I gave her a neck scratch and she walked to the foot of our bed waiting for me to give her the okay to bed down on the king size mattress. I did not, instead letting her into the backyard to do her business and eventually return to the 10 foot sofa that she believed was hers…paid and bought for in-full…by what I’m not sure..scooby snacks maybe? She never held down a job in the traditional sense to bring home the bacon so to speak. But nevertheless, she had a job and she did it well for over 12 years.
The rest of the morning was consumed by details of preparation. Loading my vintage sofa into the back of the pickup. Picking up a friend’s 1956 Buick Special. Extra special props for an extra special celebration. I was excited and feeling the gratitude for being trusted to capture a part of the graduates day.
The afternoon went smoothly. The weather was calling for overcast skies which my lenses and suited up fella’s welcomed, however the sun kept coming out and rain threatened on the horizon. I had to get real present and know that no matter what or who I cursed, the weather was far beyond my control. All I had was how I would respond to the lighting changes as they came. In hindsight, I did well. I tarped up my sofa when I felt a rain drop fall from the sky…I opened the doorways to the barn to provide shelter to the perfect hair and makeup and clothing and luckily we also had Vanessa, the ’56 Buick to take shelter in. It all worked out well and I enjoyed every moment. I even felt proud when the skies opened up and everyone found shelter, as I continued to shoot in the downpour with my camera…responding rather than reacting.
I was done right on schedule, the flow of each session trickling into another, until my husband and son returned to help me load up and my son anticipating another joyride in the Special to return her home.
I gladly stepped into our air-conditioned home and realized I was spent. We had planned for a needed night in with our Saturday night burger tradition and were ready to watch a movie together downstairs, the 5 of us (3 humans, 2 dogs). As our dinner was on plates ready to be carried downstairs, we heard Lucy get up already anticipating our decent into the basement…usually getting a jump on us to pick her spot on the couch down there.
Halfway down the stairs, we heard her claws scramble and my husband rushed to the top of the stairs to see her recovering from what appeared to be a fall down a few of the steps. She walked on into the rec room and he followed to make sure she was ok. She seemed to be. We left the pup upstairs to sleep and we went down to sit at the bar-table and enjoy our burgers and The Black Stallion Returns, when we realized she wasn’t.
Rather than hopping up on the sofa, she walked. She walked and walked circling the perimeter of the basement, only to stop intermittently to press her nose to a wall. I put down the burger and called her over to the area rug to sit with me. I checked out her back and legs and spine making sure there wasn’t damage from the fall. I scratched her neck behind her ears, which always elicits a hard lean of oh-ya-that’s-the-spot, and for the first time in 12 years, there was no response, as if I wasn’t scratching her at all.
I looked at her face and her eyes were blank, one pinched closed in a permanent half wink. She began panting and then began the walking again. I looked at my husband and said, something is really wrong here. He agreed. We let her pace, thinking she might just need to work something out but then her legs began to give out and we concluded she likely had a stroke.
We took turns sitting with her when she would have it, but just couldn’t resist the urge to walk in those ominous circles, every few laps her co-ordination depleting a bit more. We again worked to respond to her needs for the next few hours and decided it best to carry her upstairs and put her in Scout’s puppy pen with her soft bed and a water bowl for the night as to not risk further injury. Scout went into her kennel for the night.
Just after 4 am the whining began…not a familiar whine, but a confused worrisome yowl. I got out of bed to check her and found her with her nose pressed firmly into the wall of the pen, panting, feet sprawled awkwardly, water bowl overturned. She couldn’t see and could barley stand. My husband joined us in the kitchen and we worked together to get her outside to allow her to pee. She squatted with great difficulty and that was the last time she was able to do so without our assistance.
The next few hours were filled with great sadness and anxiety about her discomfort. In between the circling and panting, she found windows of peace where she would lay her head heavily in my lap and fall asleep, eyes closed tightly as if she were having a terrible dream. We were witnessing her death and it was no easy thing. And she worked to bring us comfort as much as we tried to do so for her. Because instinctively all she really wanted to do was pace it out until her time came. Her legs were no longer co-operating and she kept toppling over, as humans we just wanted her to be still, so she tried the best she could to relieve our anxiety of wanting things to be different than what they actually were.
It came time to call the emergency vet line and we made the necessary arrangements to drive her the hour to get to where she needed to be.
That hour was long, and as much as I love my girl, I didn’t want it. I didn’t want her to suffer anymore than she already had. She tried so hard to remain laying down. She laid in my lap with her chin in the crook of my elbow the entire drive. Eyes shut with an occasional whimper. I let the cool air from the vents blow gently on her to perhaps distract from the turmoil within, the sun shone brightly through the windshield as we drove south. It was a beautiful morning. I couldn’t appreciate it as I held her in my arms, counting her lagging heartbeats and distressed short breaths of air.
She went with grace and peace. The vet was compassionate and gentle. Lucy would have loved her had they met earlier. I actually think Lucy loves her now for bringing her the mercy and dignity she deserved. She fell asleep quickly and quietly and instead of getting heavier she felt a bit lighter, like she didn’t need to carry that burden any longer. I never let her go physically, until she had let go in spirit. My husband and I were with her to the end and she had been with us since 4 months into our marriage.
He and I cried and grieved as we got in the truck with one less soul than we had arrived. Our hearts aching but certain we had made the right choice to honour our girl. Turning back onto Highway 97, Heart of Gold came on the radio and although I was thinking it, my husband said out loud this is a perfect song for Lucy. She did have a heart of gold beyond any doubt, but more importantly in her time with us, she taught us how to have one ourselves. I think when you know what it is, then you find it within. This was her purpose. This was her job.
And speaking of that…her job, Lucy worked for every inch of that beloved sofa and here is why. When I was on my 6th consecutive migraine in the span of less than a week and couldn’t pull my body from my bedsheets, it was only her who could come to me, without words or judgement and lay down next to me so I didn’t have to be alone. Those were dangerous times for me. Times when I felt like I was no good for anyone. When I believed even my loved ones were better off without my dark cloud of depression and lightning strikes of anxiety. I was in a storm and yet she wasn’t afraid to weather it with me.
And on days when the storm had subsided, she was there to walk me. She taught me how to feel and recognize my anxiety and then work with it. When it was acknowledged then I was able to contemplate its source, this seemed to be the key to unlocking this self-made prison. Often our walks were when I had the most significant breakthroughs, in not only understanding my condition but also accepting myself as flawed but not broken. She quietly and passively modelled how to do this, until I finally integrated it within. And that’s when we had the best walks, she was at ease, no longer pulling at the end of her leash to reflect my energetic imbalance. I was her student and she was my teacher. She was the mirror to reflect my true form without bias or judgement.
Our family has suffered a big loss, but none of us would have traded in the past 13 years to avoid this heartache. Brene Brown reminds us to lean into joy. Lucy always did this, she leaned deeply into every neck scratch, savoured every pinch of cheese, patted down her pillows into a perfect sleeping nest, and curled up in just the right shape to fit into my own curves on the bed or sofa. I will honour her for the companionship she deemed me worthy of and know I am better for having her as my teacher for the time we did.