I am taking this morning to honor your beautiful lion heart and your immense loyalty to me for the past eleven years. You taught me to choose the great outdoors over four walls, no matter how cold or wet or snowy the day is. You taught me that the wildness of a cold wind is more fun than the heat of a cozy fire. Your spirit called me to tie my hiking boots, open the back hatch of the car (sometimes you jumped in so fast that I didn’t even see you move: I barely had the thing lifted and you were inside) and we’d head straight up Lookout Trail and across the Rainbow Trail in Montreat as the sun was rising or setting, and if it was snowy and icy, all the better. We had hundreds and hundreds of mornings and evenings together like that, alone in the wilderness together, in the silence together, never meeting another person or dog.
Just before night gave way to morning, when it was too dark to chance the woods, you inspired me to get out of bed and walk with you as the full moon was setting and the sun was rising. We would walk Lake Tomahawk as the sun’s first rays brightened the treetops and a big moon slowly sank lower in the indigo sky.
When we first came together, I liked your spirit even though you were a pain in the ass most of the time, chewing on everything, leaving claw marks on my arm from your exuberant greetings. Man, you sure know how to make a person feel welcomed: the way you met me at the gate as I came and went has been one of the greater joys of my life. How does a dog do that? Run towards a person as if she were the only person on earth holding the last piece of food in existence, dash to say hello as if your very life depended on it? How can you be so full-throttle, open hearted like that?
It took me a full year to get you trained to the leash. What a task that was. It was nearly impossible for you to ignore all the tantalizing smells on the street and to begin to get it through your thick head that I didn’t want you to grab other dogs by the throat and stand over them like: “Make a move. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just try to make a move.” I doubt you knew that the dog’s owners were yelling at me to take you to the pound and have you put to sleep. If it hadn’t been for “The Dog Whisperer” show I found on the internet, you and I would have parted ways ten years ago. It took us three or four years to get your alpha nature in check…but along the way I began to realize that all the time I was putting into making you “a good dog” was doing two very important things: you were teaching me what alpha nature is, and as I learned how to help you deal with meeting other dogs I learned much about my own alpha nature. During the training process I realized that we were developing trust, creating a give-and-take relationship and although I understood that I had to prove to you that I was alpha in order for you to mind me, at the same time we both knew that you were only starting to behave because you were starting to love me and I was starting to love you. I have never worked so hard with a pet in my life, and I have never felt such enormous love for a pet.
You taught me to choose wild-heartedness and freedom over constraint and boredom. You taught me every day to test the limits of what I think I can do, to walk farther, run faster, leap over boulders, to pull off my socks and shoes and run straight into the icy mountain stream and stand in it, letting the water zoom over and under and around my feet as I watch. You taught me to be one with the stream. You climbed—no, ran—up and down cliffsides like a mountain goat, sometimes on the scent of something wild, other times just for the joy of feeling your body. You fiorded rushing streams, boulder-hopping and swimming and running with a mix of freedom, confidence, and wild abandon. In these last few years when you slowed down, we approached the creeks more slowly and didn’t cross them but rather stood quietly together, me on a creekside rock and you in the stream, just being with the elementals. Through you, I learned how to be more present with a creek. Until you, I never knew about the story-telling that happens at the side of a stream or a pond.
A true snow dog, you steadfastly refused to come in the house. Maybe four times a year you would cross this threshold, and then only long enough to do exactly what you always did in the yard: quickly and professionally scout every inch of the territory with intense focus, gather intel with your nose, then finally return to me to give me a look that declares the area safe, and then heading out again to the outer perimeters of the yard in one of the sentry stations you carved out of the bushes.
Seeing you run in the snow was one of the most joyous sights I have ever beheld. A few times I even got you to pull my grandsons in a sled. Our walks in Montreat at dawn in the freshly-fallen snow, before anyone else had made a single track, were other-worldly to me. I opened the back hatch and your first leap sent you seven or eight feet forward, and then you were on the scent of all that is wild. I felt as if I was entering your world then, the world you share with nature’s creations, and I tried to listen to the language. Even though it was in a tongue I did not understand, I knew a beautiful poem was being spoken as we walked, and I cherished those crisp mornings with you when everything in the world seemed new and just-born.
You became my spiritual guardian and my grief counselor in June, 2013, when I lost my beautiful younger daughter in a vehicle accident. You began to come into the house now and then…especially when I had started to weep, your furry neck would appear at my knee, your body would lean into mine, and you would stay next to me until I had finished crying. You wordless support, giving yourself physically like that, was a healing balm that even now I do not have words for.
Since we discovered the tumor this spring, especially in these last few weeks, I have had so many wonderful walks with you, both of us knowing that these were your last days. We thought you were dying several times, and then a few days later you would be trotting up from your unknown sleeping place in the yard, giving a quick, low growl to ask for a walk. Your appetite has been so good, as long as I was feeding you these new meals I learned that you would eat—fresh meat and a few vegetables—that Then I began chopping the meat into smaller and smaller pieces so you would eat it and feeding you in my hand a few times to get you interested. A few weeks ago when you started leaving the finely-chopped stew beef and veggies in your bowl, I began putting the fresh-made meals in the blender so you could digest them.
You had so many come-backs after having a bad day that I began to figure you would go sometime this winter, maybe in January. But Death has made its power, and its autonomy, known to me so many times that I prepared for it to surprise us. Two weeks ago when you lay under the big red maple in a bed of its golden leaves, I massaged your head and ears and shoulders and told you, “When the day comes that you no longer get up, then I will make arrangements.”
Your loving caretaker Calvin and my sweet neighbor Carolyn, who both love you as much as I do, just called me to tell me that you are gone. Through my tears, I am honoring you and giving thanks for your giant lion heart. I have never known an animal as smart and as loyal and athletic as you. You and I have seen each other through so many changes, helped each other through upsets, disappointments and surprises. For the rest of my life the lessons you taught me will continue to unfold, and in my heart I will thank you again and again. I asked Carolyn and her husband to put your body at the back door on the porch so that when I get back tomorrow afternoon I can put my hands on your beautiful furry body one more time and say my own last words over your body and bury you here in the yard.
Looking back, I see that you bridged the gap between my mother’s death in 2003 and my daughter’s untimely death in 2013. I am thinking now of how my sweet daughter’s dog died a few days before she did, and of the dream that a few of Corey’s friends had of Corey and Lusky being together. I hope that Lusky’s spirit is running around with Corey’s spirit somewhere, and I hope that when I take my last breaths, I see you there running up to greet me. Thank you for loving and protecting me all these years. I honor you and give thanks for your life.
(The next chapter is about my new friendship with neighbor dog, Bud...and his grief therapy to me four days after Sequoya left her body.)