The Journey Beyond

The hardest thing about being both Buddhist and pet guardian is to know what to do when the end of life as your companion starts drawing near.

As a Buddhist, I feel strongly the responsibility in having the wisdom to know when “the time is right” if the beloved pet doesn’t pass on naturally.  My cat , Taca [A-C-A-T spelled backwards] lived over 22 years and was with me for over 20 of them.  By the time of the end of his life with me came, he had added a range of physical issues to his ever increasing collection of quirks.  He refused to come indoors anymore, as he felt safer when he was outside and “in control” of his freedom.  He would sometimes be gone (or so it seemed) for the whole day, but could be counted on to show up for supper.  He had developed a thyroid condition that required daily meds – a challenge to fulfill for an outdoor roaming cat.  He had developed recurring urinary tract issues, that eventually needed more than just diet and meds.  He had started losing weight due to his hyperthyroidism.  When informed about the problem of his irregular schedule, the vet advised me to just dose him anytime I saw him to try to get enough medicine in him to regulate his thyroid.

A time came when he was having trouble keeping up with his grooming as well.  He was a thin-ish cat who had frequently dirty fur on his backside due to urinary incontinence.  I decided another visit to the vet was in order.  The vet examined him and the news was serious.  He had developed kidney issues – tumors.  In her sincere opinion, “the time” had come.  She was idly stroking Taca on the stainless examining table while giving me “the speech” about “the options” I had, leave him there, stay with him while they gave him “the shot”, etc.  Just at that moment, Taca stretch out and started to purr like a threshing machine.  He gave me his “sleepy happy” eyes.  I realized that to him, although he had all of this stuff going wrong, he was still basically a happy cat.   Who was I to judge his journey without taking the most basic of all elements – happiness into account.

By this time Taca’s world had constricted to his morning spot on the east side of the house and his afternoon/evening spot on the SW side of the house.  He would sit on the woodpile in the morning, migrate to the cement patch in the afternoon, and tuck himself into his little wooden house (custom made with a space blanket lined interior) in the evenings.  He hadn’t been on a walkabout in ages.  When we came back from the vet, I took him in my arms and we walked.  and Walked.  When we entered the woods his head raised up on his scrawny neck and he started sniffing the wonderful smells.  His “I-am-the-Tiger” glint in his eye returned.  We came back from our walk and he took up his spot on the sun-warmed concrete.

The next morning I went to check up on him.  He wasn’t in his usual spot on the woodpile.  I didn’t think much of it as he could have been off in the bushes doing “some business” or something.  When suppertime rolled around and he didn’t show up, I went and investigated further.  There Taca was, still curled up from the evening before in his little wooden house.  He was gone.  He lived his last day happy – remembering his days as “the tiger” in the woods, and drifting off naturally to his next journey.

Last summer in June it became obvious to me that this journey together with my Samoyed, Lady, and I would be drawing to a close in near foreseeable future.  She was in a gentle decline.  She was blind in one eye from glaucoma, but that didn’t amount to much because she could still see – some – out of the other eye.  She didn’t hear so well, but that  didn’t amount to much either, as her “running around the neighborhood” days had passed.  She had no major medical problems, other than a small spinal condition.  However, she was getting severely arthritic in her hind end.  The nightmare scenario for me was to reach a point when I had an otherwise healthy and happy dog, that I couldn’t take care of because she couldn’t walk anymore.  I knew that likelihood that  karma was going to be as kind to me with Lady as it was with Taca was slim.  There were many times when I chanted a bit about this – how would I know what I was supposed to do, and when I was supposed to do it?

My goal was to keep her mobile enough to get up and about to do her own “business”.  If she could do that, I pledged to handle the rest.  Over the next months, her medication regimen kept increasing to try to keep her stiffness and pain manageable.   It worked for the most part – there were an evening or two that I wished I had a sedative or a “doggie oxy” just to get her to go to sleep.  Lady was a rescue dog, and while with me had learned that she could “ask” me for things.  However, she had only one “word” – arf {short, high, sharp}.  “Arf”  could mean -” it is time for supper”.  “Arf” could mean – “I need to pee”.  “Arf” could mean – “I hurt bad and please help me”.  There were a few evenings of extreme “arf-iness”.  One precipitated a trip in the middle of the night to the emergency vet when, after exhausting all other possibilities, I had NO idea why she was in such recurring distress.  It turned out to be a good move, as she had developed a parasite infestation in her vagina.  Ewww.  I would have “arf-ed” up a storm to if it had happened to me.

I read up on doggie acupressure massage but Lady was fussy about being touched on her legs.  Perhaps those pressure points *were* very tender, but she wasn’t going to have any of THAT.  I was so lucky to find out about, and live near to The Gentle Spirit Farm in Chester County, PA.   Diane Mayer does hydrotherapy for dogs there in a heated pool house.  The Farm also offers a lot of other services for natural health and rearing for dogs.  Hydrotherapy was a life-changer for Lady.  In August 2011, she could barely stand up and walk.  In a month of once weekly sessions, she was able to walk around the block again on the best of days.   Lady eventually learned to swim, rather than splash, in her therapy sessions.  Afterward, she would be raring to go for a walkabout on the farm itself.  In November, we had to start limiting her walks as she would feel so good after therapy that she would quite “overdo” if left to her own devices and be very stiff the next day.   The folks at the Gentle Spirit Farm helped me get the one thing I wanted for Christmas – to be with Lady at the holidays one more time.

In the new year of 2012, the care for Lady was quite detailed on a daily basis.  When I described it all to a friend who is a hospice nurse, her comment was – “You are running a doggie hospice”.  I guess so.  I was fully involved in keeping Lady just that little bit mobile and reasonably comfortable, which began to involve more and more meds and help.  She developed some “hot spots” under her fur on the side she always lay down on.  (Sort of akin to bedsores, I think) Those had to be taken care of and watched.  She was on prescription food for joint mobility, which she really didn’t like, so I had to disguise it with other things to get her to eat it.  Excluding the typical dog meds for heartworm and parasite control, we were up to seven other medications to be given on a daily basis.  I had switched from “Pill Pockets” to peanut butter to save my budget.  We still had some rather “arfy” nights.  However, I still had Lady.  And Lady still had the thing she wanted most – to be with me. By this time, I had made the “final plans”, and was well prepared for the last eventuality in practical terms.  I still worried about the responsibility I had as the judge of the remainder of time Lady had in this life.   Our lives are eternal and intertwined throughout this consciousness we call “time” as humans in ways that few ever grasp – even a little bit.  My most earnest prayer was to fulfill my promise to Lady when I rescued her – “I will take care of you.”.   She trusted me fully in this regard.

In the end of January, Lady had made 2 visits in one week to Gentle Spirit Farm, as they were planning a vacation and we wanted to get Lady what she needed before this interim.  The last Saturday of the month, she had her swim and was back outside the pool house.  It was obvious that she was less energetic than other times, as she didn’t take off down the hill to follow the deer smells to the creek.  She was obviously enjoying being there, but just wasn’t up to much more activity, not even meeting some visiting dogs.  She had three pretty good days following.  On Tuesday night, we had another major “arfy” night.  She couldn’t settle down, and kept getting up to move around.  I was trying to get some sleep, but would get up every two hours to “arf”.  She had tried to change her spot and had gotten stuck (which happened from time to time due to her eyesight).  Although by this time she had been living in only one room, I further confined her, using large cardboard cartons, to a 5 foot square space with no obstructions.  It was past 5 am by this time after all, and I had an early morning class at 8am.  I got up after another too-short nap and found Lady, sleeping.  She was breathing a little heavier than normal, but I didn’t disturb her because I figured she needed her sleep.  I came home 3 hours later to check on her and she hadn’t moved.  Still sleeping breathing heavy.  I put out fresh water and a full bowl of food with peanut-butter “canapes” with her meds.  When I returned again in 3 further hours, she still hadn’t moved.

It was obvious something was going on.  I woke her up so she could eat, and drink, and get her meds.  I tried to give her the “lift up” with my foot I usually gave her to help her stand.  It was no go.  I picked her up with my arms and put her on her feet.  She fell down, but not into the alert lay down she usually did when her hind end gave out unexpectedly.  She couldn’t stand, sit, or lie with her head up.  I carried her outside to do her business, and with me holding her up, she peed a river.  I tried again to ease her gently on her feet, holding her for a bit so she could get her feet under her – literally.  She fell down again – totally.  And she began crying – not “arfing” – crying.  I carried her inside, and held her up so she could drink – and she did.  I held her up so she could reach her food – but she really didn’t want any.  I put her back down on her therapeutic little mattress and tried to get her comfortable lying down.    It was obvious that we had reached the end of our journey together in this life.

My original plan was to have a mobile vet meet me at Gentle Spirit Farm  and together with her friends there we would give her the last meds she would get in this life.   I put this plan into motion for the next day, but as the evening progressed it became obvious that it would be cruel to let her endure another 10 hours until that could happen, unless I could hold her up in my arms the whole time.  When I picked her up completely off the floor and held her – she was quiet.   There was no position, however, to settle her lying down than didn’t distress her to no end.  No “arfing” this night.  Just desperate crying.  I put her in the van for our last trip – once again to the all-night vet.  It wasn’t the poetic, gentle send off in nature, in a beloved spot,  I had envisioned.  It was however, a kindly, compassionately performed task in which I could hold Lady the entire time,  and pray with her.   She was snuggled up in a comforter and, she smiled at me again.  

Yeah, Lady, I will take care of you.  I will do this one last thing.  I do love you.  I will miss you until we meet again.