A white powder puff of a puppy reaches up into my face, slathers it wetly with his fine soft tongue, makes me laugh. Pleased, he arranges himself on my lap and looks out at the room quite satisfied. He has taken ownership of me.
My mind is vague and I’m fragile and I don’t see it that clearly. I’ve been out of the hospital just weeks. I have to trust the breeder’s ethical reputation to help me pick a puppy to become a service dog for me, one who can call 911 when I am unable. I am determined to remain in my little cottage with the voluptuous cherry trees, double blooming dogwood, and wild roses.
Death has dogged me this half of my life. First a stroke in my forties when I could no longer find words to speak. And now a brain trauma in my lower brain, taking some sensory-motor coordination. Death smacked me hard twice … left me to manage the rubble.
The breeder tells me the dog will choose. I am skeptical, but I know no better. Yes! He does the choosing first, quite definite. I’m less certain. He’s already good at taking over. Two weeks later when I come to pick him up, he fairly throws himself out of the breeder’s arms to get to me. He will become an intimate part of the cycles of living with death in my brain. This powder puff of a being is a Life Force partner for the next round.
I don’t have a service dog trainer. Well … in the crucial neurological deficits, he will train me. Train me? I am not all that easy. How would he know and tell me that he knows? He is perceptive, but I don’t know that. Tell me?
One day I’m out of my mind with exhaustion. I don’t know yet what causes me to feel so terrible. I’m sitting on the toilet holding my head; my brain hurts. He, little puppy two months old, comes into the bathroom, takes the end of the toilet paper in his mouth, rushes out around the house. Paper everywhere. I shriek wildly, “That’s not funny!” Of course, it is. I collapse, humbled, into laughter. He’s telling me to rest. It’s clear he said that.
I name him Maha Satsima, Sanskrit for “very great good fortune.” He is a beautiful white standard poodle, a little cocky. The name fits. For me, he is my Satsi, my good fortune.
The puppy watches me all the time. He knows I don’t want him to get on my white couches. I’ve tried to train him, but he gets on them anyway and stares at me. I’m watching TV or on the computer. He is trying to tell me I am doing too much. One might call his efforts ‘misbehavior,’ but he gets his intention across. He’s thinking how to tell me to change what I do to feel better. So, I begin paying more attention to what he does.
In yoga he has a mat next to mine. One day he sees I am about to push up into a full bridge when I haven’t the strength for it. He moves to sit his now one-year-old body on my chest. Sometimes I argue with him, wanting to continue anyway. He doesn’t budge in his insistence. If I modify what I’m doing enough, he will be satisfied and lie back down.
I finally find formal service dog training with Cary. We learn how to be out in public together. She teaches him how to sit under my chair or under the table in a restaurant, how be on an airplane, climb steps together, be in public gracefully, be a good citizen. I get a telephone for dogs on which Cary trains us to call 911. A ‘blank’ call is Satsima calling for medical help. We never have to do that for real. Then Cary teaches us how to be in the woods together. He can romp on the trails, have dog time. He lopes ahead of me out of sight. He waits for me as I come around a bend, all expectation, his face shining. He is especially happy in the woods. He jumps up and down excitedly in the car when he sees I’m driving in the direction of the woods. I can’t say the word woods unless I am taking us there.
We are glued at the hip. He finds his ways with me, senses when I am doing too much, mentally or physically. He may go into the bedroom, lie on the bed, look out the door hopefully. When I notice he’s not around me, I go find him. His face brightens when I do. So, he invites me to nap this way. I’m learning dog language. He’s training me.
He helps me survive the effects of death in my brain … and to become something more than I was. He goes to Nia dance/exercise classes with me … yoga and Shotokan karate. These practices are all new to me. I use their different challenges to change my sensory-motor deficits. When I was deeply language-impaired I learned the essence of neuro-plasticity: push the limits of disability a little, then release, push a little further and release again, over and over. Over years, using art and music and continuing to be a psychotherapist, I regained language.
I’m using these principles here. Satsima’s intuition puts these same principles to work, teaches them from the inside. I wonder how he knows. Humans spend many years of higher education to acquire half of this sensitivity.
He’s a prankster, a wild man, too. He can go into hyper-drive running through the trees in the backyard. The rich scent of the night drives him. I am not in his universe then, try as I might to control him. One night he was after some mountain wildlife. He reeked, not hideously, but I could do nothing about it before a five a.m. cross country flight. I hoped the city folk wouldn’t notice.
When anyone comes into the house, he slinks his skinny body between them and the door jamb. When he’s successful, he is out the door like a shot, careening across the street, reckless around the yards. I’m unhinged to corral him when he’s so high on abandon. I finally find his Achilles’ heel: a squeaking chick-in-an-egg toy. He rushes across the street at its sound. It is a dance that we do.
Over the years it’s clear he’s learning my language. I begin talking to him like a human companion; tell him what I am thinking about. He listens. I tell him that Nancy my study buddy is coming,. He is off the couch to the window, tail wagging, all enthusiasm. He likes her a lot. When I don’t say, he remembers the day anyway. He has his own friends among the people I know. She’s one of them.
Satsima is my front man. When I don’t feel well and am out in the world, he greets my friends first. They pet and talk to him, give me time to pull my social self together. For a few years I do volunteer consultation as a psychologist on the rehabilitation floor of a local hospital. He moves into a room to greet new stroke patients in bed, cuddling them with love. He lies down, then, leaving me to talk. I was once in their position, thinking the worst about my future. I’ve come far beyond my wildest imagination, I say. They, too, can hope for better. Sats and I are a team of life. His is a special spirit, cheering patients … and staff, too. He moonlights healing others.
He goes with me everywhere: to the theater, concerts, movies, doctors, hospitals. Mostly he lies in small spaces at my feet and sleeps. When the volume’s too loud for me at a concert, he complains, urges me to leave. I try to endure, but his intervention is a save for me. One time at the theater, he sits up to watch with considerable interest. Emotions fly around in the plot, in disconnected and upsetting ways. The dynamic of the play is interesting for me. At intermission Satsi is adamant, pulls on his leash urgently. Don’t go back in. He’s not his usual poised working dog self. I take us back anyway. I have intellectual categories for watching the levels of emotional dynamics. I realize he has none of that. He experiences the rawness of emotion without the intellectual filters I have. He wants to protect us both.
He is on the mark with his understanding of my disabilities. He’s known from the beginning. In the beginning: yes. The breeder gave me all kinds of puppy care advice including getting a crate for sleep. I borrowed one. She said he would cry for three nights then settle. I managed to let him cry for most of three nights, then couldn’t stand it. Would I have let my own baby cry so pitifully like that? So, I went downstairs to sit with him. He listened as I talked to him about his new home and his sleeping place. I remembered how I talked sternly to a little Manx kitty, Groudle, about her first vacation trip out of the city. She was driving me crazy at 80 m.p.h on the New England Thruway with her incessant crying. Petting was not helping. But words, real words, did. She was okay after that, not a peep. So, I was trying that with Satsi.
As I talked to him, I heard a voice replying in my head, “How can I help you when I am in this cage?” I was stunned. “Cage?” I hadn’t even thought that word. A dog speaks in my head? Well, whatever. So I said he could come upstairs with me where I slept. But he couldn’t cry, run around, or pee on the floor. He didn’t do any of those things. The crate went back to its owner, and he slept quietly with me. As I get better bit-by-bit, he changes his standards of care. He lets me be more on my own. How does he know to do that? I don’t know. But he does know I’m getting better … even when I don’t. He’s a teacher to me. There is brilliance in it.
The Advanced Directive has been on my sideboard for a few years. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of the decisions in the document. One day the opaque questions fall into place. I know what my choices are. I call a family meeting. Rachael and Richard are moved by my wish to go deeper into my planning my death. They have desires of their own about it. I am not afraid, I find. Death became a partner to my life, an ally. She was there in the shards after the stroke, then the brain trauma. I became an artist, writer, mystic. She took away much, gave me back more, enriching my life. What is there for me to be afraid of? Now I see death clearly in the nearer distance. I want to make this time rich and good before she comes. Equanimity: I practice not letting my worries get the upper hand. Solve issues when I can. Set them aside, deliberately, when I can’t. Stop buying things. I reach out with more love, less reluctance. I begin to shape the creative life I want for this time. I decide on a green burial, buy a plot under beautiful madrona trees and paint a canvas shroud for myself. It, too, is beautiful, unlike anything I have done.
Satsi’s lameness gets worse. He’s had hip problems for a long time. Now he needs accommodations like I do, just different ones. I get dog hiking boots for him to hold traction to the ground when he walks. He’s pleased to have them. They help him jump onto the couch, bed, into the car. Later I get a Rubbermaid stepstool for even better help into the car. I get a trekking halter that helps humans and dogs climb rocky terrain. It gives us more oomph and ease lifting into the car. I have become his Service Human. I worry. We’re always together.
The large house with the big sequoias I love is too much for me now. I put it on the market, do the arduous tasks of culling, organizing, and getting rid of stuff. I get the house ready to look its beautiful best for buyers who I hope will love it too. I want to segue into living small.
Satsi is lethargic, dazed by all the boxes, chaos, and confusion. I tell him we are moving, taking all the important things with us. I remind him that we moved before when he was little.
The sale is good. We move to a lovely small apartment, an amazingly efficient move. A week later in the night I think he is having seizures, banging about on the bed, lurching hard into me. I can’t calm him. Finally, I call the vet for an emergency appointment.
Satsi isn’t having seizures; he is in heart failure. His heart is bravely trying to keep on living, but it is no go. I ask the vet how to make hospice at home, make Satsi comfortable to die naturally. He has been very quiet and patient all this time as Dr. Poet gently examines and talks. I am tense, grief in the wings. I look away from the vet for a moment to Satsi. His face tells me that he knows he is dying. He’s relieved that now I know too.
Nancy wants to come the next day to say goodbye to him. He stands close to her in the little living room, face shining as he lifts his head to her. Inspired, I email his very best friends. They come in waves the next afternoon to see him, not me, him. He is lying on the bed, his energy waning. Still he raises his body carefully, eagerly stretching toward each one. The room is rich and thick with the texture of love.
Over the next three days I tend to his comfort, don’t leave the apartment, barely leave the room. The comfort medications are problematic; I have frequent consultations with Dr. Poet. Not everyone is happy with my decision not to euthanize. But I am clear about this.
In the last months I have been coming to terms with my own final death. I want to be as graceful and conscious as I can. Death became natural through the cycles of my life, an ally really. I am ready for her. So it is with my desire for him, to die naturally with love and tenderness surrounding him. He snuggles closer to me, sometimes puts a leg over my body as we sleep. He’s curled into himself; I’m curled around him. I wake at three a.m. to give medication … His soft, big presence is not here with me. His body does not move with my touch. He went as I slept by him. I stay close until morning. Peaceful.
People come in the morning to help me clean, straighten the room, prepare Satsima. He will be buried in the mountains where he ran with me so often. Still winter there; I wait weeks for the spring thaw. Meanwhile the generous Dr. Poet makes a winter freeze for him.
I craft a beautiful canvas shroud for him to be buried in, much like my own. I wonder that I do not wail and cry with loss. More, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the hugeness of his being in my life, with the utter beauty of his spirit. He left this world knowing I can take care of myself. I don’t know that until the days and weeks after he is gone. I am less limited. I can modulate on my own.
The days of thaw come around and Gina goes with me to find a burial place in Jennifer’s woods. Some of the trails are steep and, like Satsima, I’m not so agile now. Gina supports my footing. The clamber is successful and we come upon a huge angular rock in a sunny, grassy meadow. An ancient glacier moved it here, a prominent place on the slope. It makes a magnificent headstone.
Toni, my grief support, drives me once again to the vet’s, knowing I shouldn’t drive. We prepare Satsima for burial. I kiss and hug his cold, beautiful, white body, wrap a sheet around him, put him tenderly into the shroud. I am happy, putting memory objects in the shroud for him, like the ancient Egyptians, to comfort the crossing. One of the boots that helped him walk, an old teddy bear he traveled and slept with, a favorite ball, a braid of sweet grass: all go in. We take him home for the last night to be with me.
The day of the burial is Easter; it is raining. Another stuffed animal (a tree sloth) hangs on the ties of the shroud, with a string of chunky beads and bells. We chant The Tree of Life walking the trail. Rachael and Richard lead, carrying the shroud. Next, Marc, my Rabbi, leading the chant. I follow, then the others. Grasses are laid in the bottom of the grave, the shroud is lowered, flowers, turquoise beads, and words. The grave fills with dirt … a sudden catch in my heart … a medallion of rocks is placed and lavender planted on top. Kaddish is said in English, this prayer for the dead that is a peon to life.
Weeks later I’m in a large concert hall, close to the stage, listening to Mozart’s Requiem, full orchestra and choir. The music resounds wildly in my bones, the minor key sounding into the depths of my grief. The writing was difficult for Mozart as he was dying. Toward the end there is lightness in the music. My senses hear the stunning triumph of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
My Requiem for My Beloved is written, too, in brilliant keys of immense gratitude and joy. Tragedy and grief are manifest in my music. For me the minor keys of deep grief and loss are astonished and overcome by the major key of boundless indebtedness for Maha Satsima’s shining life with me.