Stone the Weimaraner is not doing well these days.
Last week, his chronically weak back legs began to fail him. I would have to wrap a sheet around his hind quarters and lift him up the two steps into the house. If he went up or down the steps on his own, he would fall, or careen wildly around trying to keep his balance.
Then, the worst became a reality. He began to fall when urinating, usually right into the puddle of fresh pee. He would look up at me as I tried to help him, his face a tight mask of embarrassment. Yes, my dog gets embarrassed. I’d gently wipe him down, take the bed sheet, and help him back into the house.
By the end of the week, his back paws were dragging as we walked. He looked like he might be partially paralyzed.
It took a Herculean effort to get him into the car and to the vet’s office. Once there, I worked with two large vet techs to lift him out of our vehicle and carry him into the exam room where he promptly collapsed on the floor. As I knelt beside him, he lost control of his bowels.
The vet hospitalized him for the day, sedated him, and loaded him up with intravenous anti-inflammatory steroids. We were able to take him home in the evening with numerous vials of pills. The cost was 700 dollars; Stone barely made it home with four people assisting him.
Saturday, he was nearly comatose on the floor of my study, his eyes rolled up in his head, breathing heavily. I called the vet, and she told me that if he was not better by Monday, “we needed to think about Stone’s quality of life.”
I knew what that meant.
When Stone came to live with us more than two years ago, I did not anticipate how much time a ten year old dog with Irritable Bowel Disease, allergies, and a host of other physical weaknesses would take from my life. Many times when I am struggling to write one more coherent sentence, or grade that last paper, Stone is scratching at the back door to go out.
We must boil him a fresh batch of chicken and rice every few days, make sure he has a dollop of plain yogurt in his dish to aid digestion, and feed him three small meals a day so his system does not get overloaded. I must scrutinize his bowel movements for blood, and sometimes he has voluminous diarrhea that kills the grass like Agent Orange.
He takes his sweet time on walks. Usually, on the last walk of the evening at midnight or later, all I want to do is get him outside, let him pee, and get back to shower and get some sleep. Inevitably, he smells every inch of every lawn. Sometimes, he stands and contemplates the silent universe of the neighborhood, staring off into the darkness at God knows what, or up into the heavens at the foggy pearl of the moon. Stone loves the organic beauty of the night, and no one will rush him through his reverie. I tug gently on his leash. “Come on, buddy. Let’s go.” He won’t even look at me. This is his time, his meditation. I feel the desperation rising—it has been a long day with an even longer tomorrow. Stone does not care, and I imagine him telling me that this moment, staring up at the night sky, is the best moment of the day. The dog is the teacher.
I was in pieces this weekend. I cursed myself: why did I take on this dog when I knew that I would have to one day say goodbye. I love him, but now I must face the pain of losing him. Often, when I am loading the dishwasher or working in my study, Stone will move through the house looking for me. When he finds me, he sighs in relief and throws himself on the floor nearby. Only then can he doze a little, secure that he knows where I am.
I imagine him in the afterlife of dogs, arriving and looking for me. I won’t be there, and he will not be able to find me. This is a dog who was attacked by his brother, had his side ripped open, and was left for dead at the local animal shelter. He was rescued by Friends For Pets. They paid to have him sutured up, and then put him in a cage for two years until we adopted him. I do not want him to be alone, or in pain, or suffer ever again.
But there are certainties in life: the impermanence of all things and the existence of suffering. These are conditions that must be accepted, and to hold out the futile hope that somehow one can move through this existence without turmoil and suffering is to surrender all wisdom for idiocy.
Stone has the answer: live in the moment.
Monday, Stone was up and about, still stiff-legged and hesitant, but moving and walking. I can tell he is in pain at times, and his atrophied hind quarters will probably never come back. I let him guide our walks by how he feels and what he instinctively knows he can do.
We walk together in the “certain slant of light” of the winter afternoon. Stone stops and raises his head to catch the breeze, eyes closed, feeling the last of the sun’s meager warmth. I feel it too, the dampness in the air, the smell of rain approaching. I will continue to trust the wisdom of my dog.
I lean down and whisper into his gray flannel ear. “Stay with me a while longer, Old Man.” Stone stares into the future, listening.