Helping My Best Friend Through the End of His LifeBy
If you’ve ever helped take care of someone towards the end of their life – you will be quite familiar with the skill of organizing medications that develops. I have taken to writing in a sharpie on top of the bottles the number of pills needed ad how often a day, so that I can skip reading which pill it is. “2x/day” or “1AM” and “1PM” are what I see now next to my condiment rack. I have about 7 bottles I use daily – and then there are other medications that are given in syringes throughout the day.
You also develop a kind, caring patience (if none existed previously) for when whomever you are taking care of must move quite slowly – taking a very long time to go a short distance, or maybe they get confused and you have to direct them repeatedly to do or go in the direction they were headed.
All of this is assuming you are taking care of a loved one, but I do work with caregivers who do this professionally, and am always impressed with their skills (and/or the people who do this naturally gravitate to that kind of work.) Regardless, there is a care and compassion that we have as human beings when we see someone who simply no longer as the faculties to function to full effect. I do remember when my grandmother was in her 90’s (living to the age of 98), and I watched a brilliant woman become less brilliant, but possibly more lovable – and I remember wondering if that was something that naturally happened to help instill the care and compassion that would be needed in those who live with those who are aging and need assistance to function.
My adorable, fluffy, 8-pound sidekick is nearing the end of his life, and now wants to be held more and will often awake in the middle of the night and cry out because he’s confused. He’s not sure where he is or what is down the hall. And I think nothing of getting up and lying on the floor with him until he goes to sleep. (He had to stop sleeping on my bed a few months ago when he started to fall off of the ramp that he’d been using to assist him in getting to the top of the bed for the last few years. I know he misses it up there, but I cannot leave him there for 10 seconds as he will instantly walk over to where he thinks the ramp is and attempt to go down it, and after the drama of one big spill, I’m not willing to add the possibility of broken bones or a broken skull to all the ailments he’s dealing with at present.)
I adopted Chester when he was 9 years old. I was not looking for a 9 year old dog, but my mother had two dogs from one of her tap-dancing students who asked her to care for them, and then passed away 6 months later. I remember my mom, who has a beautiful coifed house with two gorgeous elegant Siamese cats, say, “So now I’ve got these two yappy dogs and my husband is getting attached.” Then, when I was staying at my mom’s house, Chester’s adorability was just too infectious. I had to adopt him. Plus, as a meditation teacher, I needed a dog who didn’t shed, bark, and his being house-trained was also a plus. (FYI, all “yappiness” ended when the two dogs were separated (and my mom was grateful for that as she and her husband kept the other dog, Sargent.) Turns out that Chester was just a good-natured sidekick to the other (dominant) Sargent, and when Sargent said “Let’s bark!”, Chester happily obliged. Later, after Chester became the center of attention in his world, visits to my mom’s house showed that Chester no longer needed – nor was interested in – Sargent’s attention or approval – to Sargent’s surprise. Chester was now “Chester of Santa Monica” and no longer need all that barking nonsense.)
The fact that you could/can not look at Chester without smiling ended up being the best teaching-aid a meditation teacher could ask for. Chester was in every class and private session I did in my studio, and I would often use him to help people tune into where sensations of pleasant emotions were in their bodies. Typically, I’d have everyone look at the bookcase or the Buddha and notice how they felt in their bodies. Then I would hold Chester up. Up until 2 years ago, he’d be smiling and everyone would laugh when they saw him, and then when he hit 13, he’d just hang out, so totally relaxed (as if he was saying, “Yeah, she’s doing that ‘Isn’t he cute thing again’”) and everyone would go into a big grin, sometimes making audible “Awwwww” sounds. And I would say, “Where do you feel that in your body? – Keep looking at him, but don’t lose contact with what you feel in your body. What’s different? Where do you feel something?” Then I would ask them to point to where they felt new sensation and most people would indicate a warm glow in the chest. What a perfect teaching tool! (We are all way too familiar with unpleasant sensations in the body and too rarely tune into the pleasant ones.) [Insert gratitude to Chester here.]
Chester was also a perfect therapy dog. Small children who were afraid of dogs, would gravitate to him – no, they would run to him and gather around him – because he doesn’t look real – he looks like a stuffed animal. Plus he’s so calm (from all of the meditation – he’d freak out a lot when I first got him), that they’d not hesitate to come right up to him and touch him and did I mention that he’s also ridiculously soft? The sound of his life is people coming up with an “Awwwww, he’s SO CUTE!” when they see him, and when they touch him the sound shifts to a lower “ooooooo!” that you might normally hear when someone is doing something that feels wildly good. I have a video on Instagram (@adorablechester) where 3 people walking by in the park with their lunches simply cannot stop ooo’ing and ahhh’ing over him, while he just sits there looking at them – thinking they are the show. It’s funny.
Chester has an Instagram account because a very well-built young man who was running and working out in our local park, stopped to say what an adorable dog he is (which is not unusual, we usually get stopped at least 2-3 times per block – including all cars at stop signs with owner calling out their windows asking what kind of dog he is.) When I said what I usually say – something like, “Yeah, I know, he’s ridiculously adorable” which is usually followed by laughter and continued “awww’s”, this young man said that Chester needed to be on Instagram. Now, I’ve had meditation students explain how I should be on Instagram, but up to this point, I still hadn’t quite figured out all the hashtags and whatever was involved. This young man assured me that it was IMPORTANT that this dog be on Instagram and stopped his workout to show me how to set up an account. Okay, I was impressed that anyone – especially a very well-built young man – would stop a run and workout to help a middle-aged woman set up an Instagram account for her adorable pup. So I paid attention, and yes, now Chester has been shared with many – check out his teddybear-like adorability there. (Again, @adorablechester)
Chester lost his hearing when he turned 13 years old. I took him to the vet and said that he’d lost his hearing, and the vet asked me how I knew that. I then tilted my head like dogs do when they are trying to figure something out. What do you mean, how do I know?? Uh, Duh! But I said, “Uh, he can’t hear anything?” I then demonstrated as I yelled his name while standing behind him and he just looked at them not aware I was there. The vet examined his ears and said they looked fine, to which I responded, “But he can’t hear.” The vet’s response, “He’s 13.” I repeated, “But he can’t hear.” “He’s 13.” “But he can’t hear.” And yes, this started to feel like a “Who’s on first” routine – without the comedy. At this point, I gathered that this vet assumed (or experienced) that most dogs lost their hearing when they were 13. But I soon, realized how hearing loss – and other signs of aging – could affect our lives in positive ways.
When I got Chester, he had been living out in Palm Desert where things are pretty quiet, and moving to a city, the sounds of traffic and neighbors had him continuously shifting his attention, with the sharp alarm of a bird or other creature in nature who may be calculating the possible danger. In fact, his continuous anxiety and fear of all sound was somewhat of a teaching tool for me in working through any subtle impulses of anxiety I might have. Every time I held him and comforted him, I’d look inside myself to any place where I may have any subtle fear of ….unknown or anything … and I’d supply the same loving mother energy to own subtle habits of anxious reaction as I offered it to him. So as I helped soothe my new fearful dog, I found myself working through any remnants of fear I might have. I learned a lot from this beautiful process..
But when Chester lost his hearing, I also noticed how now he would sleep calmly through the night, instead of jumping up every time I walked past or put something down. Add to that the fact that I am a late night person – often up till 2am or even 3am – which meant that this dog, who was used to crashing by 9pm, was continuously waking up to see that I was still awake with every move past him I made in the wee hours. With his hearing loss, his nervous system seemed to suddenly shift into “Mellow Mode” or “I’m Chillin”. And this really gave me a perspective on the aging process – how we lose the faculties that could possibly be stress inducing as we near the time to let go of it all. (I had noticed this as an aging white actress in Hollywood – that I was losing my eyesight and ability to see detail just as all the lines started getting added to my face – so that when looked in the mirror, I looked the same and it wasn’t distressing (as the aging process can be – especially to actresses in Hollywood where being over the age of 30 means you will be treated will much less kindness and respect.))
But Chester’s hearing loss, meant he was more relaxed and I could also see it in his body – he would just go limp when I lifted him (or when I handed him to one of the little girls on my block who dote on him and just want to hold him and burrow their faces in his fur – or kiss him gently on the head.) He’d let them hold him in ways that didn’t quite support him and he’d just hang there looking at me, trusting that I was going to rescue him any moment (which, of course, I always would.) I do sometimes wonder if he’s playing a favorite sound in his head, or if it’s all beautifully silent like in an isolation tank. Regardless, his relaxation since the hearing loss is tangible.
Sparing you the details, I will just say that now, at the age of 15+, Chester’s body has been breaking down. I get the image of one of those old jalopy cars losing parts as it clunks down the road. When I adopted him (at age 9) and took him to a vet, she was – as everyone is – totally gobsmacked by his cuteness – but I’ll never forget her first words after her exam of him, “You know how wildly cute he is? Well, he has as much wrong with him as he is cute.” And then she proceeded to list the collapsed trachea, heart, lung, degenerative disc disease, patellar luxation, and more …. At that point, we figured he’d be lucky to make it another 2-3 years. Over 6 years later – actually all of this happened in the past 14 months – I.e. After he was 14, we’ve had 3 trips to the ER where there was a very good chance I would not be leaving with him, and 3 more trips to the ER where there was a very good chance that the following 1-3 weeks would be his last. But he’d always come back to life – like a plant that you thought was dead but suddenly started sprouting new leaves and then takes on a new life. I figure that he’s now on his 7th life – and I gotta say, I really do feel like I’ve been given several “Extra Bonus Rounds.” I was ready to say goodbye and then got additional time. That is always a beautiful thing (with pets and loved ones, because we get this extra opportunity to focus with extra-special care and appreciation – which is one of the greatest gifts I think we get on this planet.
Our last ER trip, about 2 weeks ago, has left him unable to walk more than a few feet – and those are wobbly. He wants to watch me continuously and the other night he was trying to back up to see me better and kept falling over. This would be sad if he weren’t even more adorable as he loses his faculties. When he was younger (age 9), he had a puppy-like quality that was mesmerizing – now, as he can hardly move (and while he has been slowing down), he seems ever-more-so teddy-bear-like. He simply doesn’t look real. It’s like this stuffed animal is moving (in this halting surreal way) and that is mesmerizing. This dog has just been blessed with an adorability that makes all people smile when they see him – even as he passes 110 years old (in dog years.)
Remember that Star Trek episode (of the original series), where there were these adorable fluffy ball creatures who gurgled and purred in ways that made the crew feel wonderful? I think they were called “Tribbles.” Well, Chester makes a Tribble-like sound every time you pick him up, and now, in his last days, he also leans his head into you when you hold him. Or, if you hold him across your arm on his back (like a baby), he’ll throw his head to the back and right so that he’s looking forward with his head comically sideways – with his tongue hanging out of his mouth indicating that he’s in heaven – so that, yes, still, people cannot help but to be drawn to him – ever smiling.
It’s been a nice world to walk through – as the person beside or holding Chester. I have always enjoyed walking down the street and watching the faces of others in conversation or thinking, waiting for them to soften and light up as their eyes land on Chester. Children’s mouths go open, adults who were stressed out melt and soften. It’s a very nice world – and I’m quite grateful to have been given this opportunity.
I have learned about aging, about compassion, about working through fear, and about generously taking care of another being – even when you’re exhausted and half-awake (which most young parents learn pretty quickly, but having never had children, this is my tiny example of that.) Chester had transformed what used to be my meditation walk during sunset by the ocean, to an extremely social, therapeutic-for-everybody event. I’ve made many friends having him. I now know all of my neighbors – and their dogs – and I’ve made some very dear friendships that I’d never had made without this little guy. He draws people to him (and have had more than a few of my young male directing students ask if they can borrow him to pick up girls. I assure them that they can simply decide which girl they want to talk to, and make sure she sees Chester, and she will be cooing in front of them in less than 10 seconds. Several can attest to this working.)
I bought a deluxe stroller for Chester, as I was anticipating these days where he wasn’t really walking, but having him next to my body – either in a pouch, or holding him like a teddy bear, or like a baby this his head slung back in a delighted relaxation – seems to be so much more preferable for both of us. (And luckily he’s only 8 pounds.) And yesterday, after about 2 hours of holding him (with occasionally putting him down for short walks and “business”), I mindfully scanned my body and detected such an open-hearted joy and also …. Well, you’ve heard of entraining, right? Where the baby is put on the mother’s chest and their heartbeats will align? Well, because I carry him so much these days, I can feel his heartbeat in my chest when I’m not holding him – and I’m assuming he’s got a similar experience – which I can only hope is ever comforting for him.
In addition to the stroller, I have, in fact, bought so many things for this little one – and the vet bills for this past year (and our last 7 lives) has been so many thousands of dollars and so much more than I’d have been able to afford 20 years ago. My mother groans and tells me to not pay thousands of dollars “for a dog!”, at which point I ask her how much she paid for her new cabinets – or the PhD she just got at the age of 85 – and ask if she paid that money because those things increased the quality of her life. I then point out that this dog has not only increased the quality of my life, but of everyone we meet. It’s such a small investment in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t know how many days I have left with this little one, but I’m grateful for all of those I’ve had, for what he has taught me – about myself, him and others – and about aging, and for the love and joy he has brought into my life – and the lives of everyone who meets him. It has been such a privilege.