The end of September was warm and sunny here on Cortes Island. After a week of rain, the sun returned for an encore and she saved the best for last.
I took Jedidiah Wiggle-bottom to the lake for his swim on a warm Monday afternoon and as I watched the old boy limp into the water, I offered up a prayer for our dear friend Denise whose days were drawing to a close. Then, I whispered into that bright blue sky, Jed is ready to go, too, Denise. If you want a travel companion, come and get him on your way.
The very next day, Jed got up off his bed and his knee, repaired with surgery eight years ago, gave out for good. We kept him comfortable and made an appointment for his last visit to the vet for Wednesday. But on that difficult day, we encountered a double over-load for the Quadra ferry and missed our appointment. We took Jed back home.
This was when we learned that Denise had died. She’d been called away by the wolves at 3:00 a.m. the night before. Well, 2:59 to be precise – I guess she was ready to go.
We got up before dawn on Thursday and sat vigil with Denise in her art studio for a couple of hours as she began her journey. I sat in the soft candlelight and noticed all the layers of my discomfort falling away one by one as I gazed at Denise laying in the amazing hand-crafted vessel made by her friend and her grandsons. I watched the light of sunrise enter her studio and slowly illuminate the art work she had chosen for this final show. My mind revisited the first time I’d seen many of those pieces, and warm memories wrapped ‘round me like a soft blanket against the chill of grief.
I experienced a profound peace sitting with Denise; a deep acceptance that death is natural, and in many ways, quite beautiful.
Shanny and I took that peace with us as we went home, gathered up our beloved pet and took him to town for his last day. He ate his first and last ice cream cone. Lick? Bite? What is this wonderful stuff? And once again our little goofball brought us smiles, the last of countless smiles, countless laughs, so much joy.
The doctor at Coastal was very kind. In a softly-lit room, we fed Jeddy treats and whispered final instructions for “going to college”; find Grandma Denise first, then help her find her grand-doggy, Chelsea, then look for your brothers Thai and Bro, your friend Hassli . . . We held him close while he slipped off to his final nap.
Despite my sadness, I felt such comfort in my imaginings of that little pack of happy dogs, all free from arthritis, romping with the joy only dogs convey perfectly. I saw Denise in the midst of them, giggling, and pulling treats out of the magical pockets that will never be empty.
Shanny and I returned home, both of us growing quiet in the dread of entering our dog-less home for the first time. But a trail of carefully-placed autumn leaves led up our path to the steps where we found flowers, food, and a card. Love softens every blow.
The next day we prepared to say our final farewell to the body that Denise’s spirit had inhabited with such grace and beauty. We stood among her family who so generously shared her ending with us. I stood in the warm sun, thinking that the best teachers in this life are those who have no idea that they are teachers. I learned so much from Denise’s life of generosity, kindness and extraordinary empathy.
And I have learned from her death. I watched the process from a distance and can’t presume to know what is involved in coming to terms with death – your own or a loved one’s – but what I saw touched me deeply. I have included (with permission) a picture of Denise sitting with the vessel as she is told its story by the three men who built it. A story about all the people who offered wood, including the very sacred yellow cedar donated by the local Klahoose band; why it looks a bit like a boat; how they incorporated her spirit animal; all the love that brought her vessel into being. The memory of watching that beautiful piece of art as it carried, and was carried, will be etched in my mind forever.
So, my summer of endings has ended. Now the days shorten and cool, and winter peaks over the horizon to announce her arrival. Ready or not, here I come.
And I am ready. Ready for the quiet nights by the fire to contemplate what I have experienced this summer, this fall. I have only just begun to process the lessons of this journey, but I feel their import. And when I feel my grief rising in me, I strive to embrace it, knowing this place, so dark and cold right now, is where seeds take hold.
I wonder what tiny green shoots will push through when this cold soil finally starts to warm. What treasures will I find in the garden of my heart?
I will strive to embrace my sadness and my gratitude through this long, dark winter.
Mark Nepo said it so well in his poem, Adrift, so I’ll leave you with his words:
Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief. The light spraying
through the lace of the fern is as delicate
as the fibers of memory forming their web
around the knot in my throat. The breeze
makes the birds move from branch to branch
as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost
in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh
of the next stranger. In the very center, under
it all, what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.