11/21/12 – 3/1/21
My clients (mostly dogs and a few cats) don’t live forever. My role in their lives falls into two categories — use my skills to help them heal or use my skills to help them live their final years on this earth comfortably, helping them maintain the most optimum health for as long as possible.
Needless to say, there is a lot of loss in the work I do. Some of it is, if you can believe, joyous. I help a dog recover from surgery or an accident, supporting the veterinary care they receive to the best of my ability. This may take a month, a year, or in some cases, years but the goal is make myself obsolete, to help the dog get back to as normal of a life as possible. While I may return for “tune ups,” as I like to call it, my work is basically done and I no longer see the client anymore. This is a happy and satisfying goodbye.
But some of my work is painfully hard – watching an animal slowly deteriorate in health and well-being, and no matter how good the veterinary care, no matter the power of the herbs or medications, there comes a time to let go. But even harder still, is when a dog or a cat, who you think is perfectly healthy, suddenly takes ill and within a matter of days or weeks, dies. That is the hardest because you never see it coming. You can never pin down exactly why, you never really get to say goodbye, and it rips your heart out every time.
Such was the case with one of the most beautiful dogs I’ve ever had the joy of working with — Braxton, the magnificent Bernese Mountain Dog (BMD).
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of BMDs. They are fabulous dogs with hearts as big as the moon and personalities that are tender and playful and opinionated and always loving. They are ready for action and known for their desire to work hard and give their all.
Braxton was all of these characteristics and more. He embodied what it meant to be a BMD — hard working, loyal, willing, and strong. When I came to his house to massage him (and his sister, Sedona), he greeted with me with a heart-rattling bark and a smile as wide and perfect as earthly possible.
I’m always sad when one of my animal clients passes, but somehow this passing has hit me particularly hard. Not sure why. Braxton’s sister, Sedona, took up most of the air in the room. She wanted a massage first, she wanted to be noticed the most, and Braxton just patiently waited his turn and tried to sneak up on the massage table as unassumingly as a 90 lb. dog could.
Perhaps it was his gentle nature, the way he stole your heart before you even noticed. Perhaps it was his eyes; he looked at you with such devotion even though he wasn’t your dog. Perhaps he knew that his time was short on this earth and so he made every moment about love, quietly demanding that you look into his eyes and feel it — strong, warm, encompassing.
He was a special being. Yes, I can say that about all my dog clients in one way or another, but Braxton was just such a humble guy. You had to love him. Your heart had no control over it. He was just this big fur ball of love and before you knew it, you fell right into him, smothering yourself in his unconditional expanse.
His passing – so abrupt and unexpected – cut at the knees. I know his family felt this way — wanting the best for him but not wanting him to suffer. I cannot imagine their grief knowing that my own feels weighty and burdensome. I know all the stuff you’re supposed to say — that he was as lucky to have them as he was to have him — but there’s a rawness to the unfairness of it all. He should be alive. If only for a bit longer, he should be alive.
People who love big dogs — BMDs, Irish Wolfhounds, St. Bernards, etc. — must have an amazing capacity to love knowing that their days of such a connection are limited, shorter than the rest. Every year is a month, really, and ten years old feels like you’ve won the lottery. I do not have that kind of heart resilience. While I worked with Braxton for only the past three years of his life and only twice a month, if he were my dog, I don’t think I could carry such grief. It takes a special person to know what’s coming and still be able to love so fully and completely. Bravery personified.
My own dog just turned 14 and I know I should feel lucky, but I just keep thinking that 14 is not 8 (Braxton’s age), and I’m scheming all the ways I can stretch 14 to 15, 15 to possibly 16. I know my grief will be immense when he passes, but he feels like a senior citizen and I know his life has been rich and full and brimming with love.
Just like Braxton’s, only Braxton should still be here, barking at me to hurry up and set up the massage table, hurry up and find a treat in my backpack, hurry up and love him the way he loved me. The way he loved everyone.
I am not sure if this is a eulogy or a prayer or a sympathy lament. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. Quantifying grief cannot be summed up in words. If my work has taught me anything, it’s taught me that. Time is the healer, softening the blow of loss and grief with every passing rise and fall of the moon.
And in that time, I know others will fall. Others will succumb to old age, to illness, to the lack of desire to carry on. Their passings strengthen me in a way, though that too can’t be expressed in words and in the middle of this loss, I can’t begin to feel the lessons Braxton taught me. I can only hope that one day, if there is a Great Beyond and a meeting of the souls, that mine finds Braxton (and all the rest), though I know he will be the one with the biggest smile, his heart aglow with his loyal love and unequivocal devotion to live large and fully.
My deepest condolences to his family, whose fierce and full love of this wondrous beast sustained him through the years.
Rest easy, gentle soul. Your work is done and what good work you’ve accomplished in your short, short life.