Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care
Part 1 – Awareness
By Maryanne Pope
I find the term ‘Zen’ tends to get tossed around in conversation with the intention of evoking feelings of calm, serenity, peace, and quiet. But when I sat down to write this article about Sable, although I knew the title was going to be a play on one of my favourite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I realized I didn’t know what Zen actually meant.
So I looked it up. And, according to Wikipedia, Zen is basically a meditative state that emphasizes experiential wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment.
Ah hah! For what is experiential wisdom but the kind learned from experience? And caring for Sable, particularly over the past three years, has certainly been a life-changing experience based on incrementally learned lessons. But it was only when I looked back at some of the more Zen-like moments experienced with Sable — those in which I felt fully alive, as in connected to something far bigger than me, but not necessarily comfortable — that I began to see a sort of . . . curriculum emerging.
Now, I suppose it depends on one’s outlook on life — but to me, caring for a dog with as many bizarre health challenges as Sable faced over the past three years, I couldn’t help but notice that from a spiritual perspective, there certainly seemed to be significant potential for teaching me multiple life lessons . . . from self-worth, self-respect, strength, and slowing down to patience, courage, compassion, and unconditional love.
But all that’s in hindsight, of course.
For developing the willingness to learn these lessons — which was first necessitated by being open to the possibility that my furry, four-footed friend was, in fact, a spiritual teacher — was a preliminary lesson in itself . . . rather like a child needs to develop good learning habits in grade one so that she can understand what’s being taught in grades two and three.
However, just as I was in grade one — talking to my friends and daydreaming about the cute boy in the third row instead of listening to the teacher — February 2008 found me far too busy to be paying attention in the classroom called life.
Enter Nasty Wake-Up Call #2 (#1 being my husband John’s death at 32): “Let’s see . . .” said the Universe hypothetically. “What shall we do this time around to get Maryanne’s attention? Ah yes, let’s threaten to take away — again — that which she loves the most.”
So there I lay, a week before my fortieth birthday, on the floor of the ICU visiting room at the emergency vet hospital, holding Sable’s paw as she slowly bled to death from internal haemorrhaging that had started after minor surgery and was continuing for unknown reasons. She was nine. She was also the dog John and I had together; given to us as a wedding present.
Then, just like that — there on the floor of the animal hospital — my mind took me back eight years to the ICU at the human hospital, holding John’s hand as he passed away. As I recalled this horrific memory, it occurred to me that, metaphysically-speaking, I had been ‘here’ before . . . as in, I’d done the ICU-moment, shed the tears, got the t-shirt, lost half a decade to grief, had gone through a couple hundred grand, and learned the lessons.
Or had I? For if I’d learned all there was to learn about losing a loved one (before the natural end of his or her life) then I probably wouldn’t be back here for a re-test.
“Fine,” I said out loud to the Universe (via the walls of the vet hospital). “I’ll make you a deal: if you let Sable live, things will change. I’ll change.”
Otherwise known as bargaining in psychological circles, I prayed for a miracle in exchange for some behaviour modification . . . which was a good start to doing things a little differently this time around — experiential learning, if you will — because praying for a miracle was something I didn’t have the courage to do the day John was dying. Why?
Partly because that would’ve been irrational and only set my heart up for further disappointment — and partly because, on an intuitive level, as much as I didn’t like what was happening, I knew John was going to die and no amount of praying was going to change that outcome . . . it was fixed in stone. And, unlike in Sable’s situation, there was no hope left for a miraculous recovery for John because he was already brain-dead.
I’ve since learned, however, that reality-defying miracles do occur on occasion, regardless of the apparent impossibility of the situation. I’m not saying miracles are necessarily the result of our prayers (because I have no idea) but just that, from a strictly scientific perspective, medical miracles do happen. Regardless of the reason behind the mystery, perhaps the least we can do when we get what we ask for is fulfill our end of the bargain.
Sable’s miracle came in the form of the good old-fashioned antibiotic Doxycycline — which would make logical sense if it was an infection that was causing Sable to bleed in the first place, or preventing her blood from clotting. But despite extensive testing, there was no evidence of either. Still, it seemed that it was Doxycycline that saved the day and my damn-near-death dog bounced back for another three years of life.
But the countdown on the cosmic clock to February 10, 2011 had begun.
So what did I promise the powers that be, in exchange for more time with Sable? That I’d slow down enough to learn a thing or two from her mysterious haemorrhaging. And I did. I learned the very difficult lesson that self-loathing is what results from grief that has been allowed to fester — and, just like Sable’s internal bleeding and external bruising, by the time we actually notice the damaging effects of the resultant low self-worth on the surface of our lives, a massive amount of internal damage has already occurred. But that’s another article unto itself. (Saving Sable)
Yet once I’d “learned” this lesson — as in becoming aware of the underlying causes leading to behaviour that wasn’t conducive to an authentic life, but not necessarily changing said behaviour in any significant way — I sped up again. For, as is often the way, once our immediate crisis passes, we more or less return to normal.
My casual use of that word should have been the first clue that the Universe might feel the need to step up the learning curve a bit — for my “normal” was, in fact, insanity. An insane work schedule. An insane social schedule. Insane writing deadlines. Insane workload. Insane amounts of demands on my time. Insanely low standards of how I allowed men to treat me (so much for learning the self worth lesson). Insane amounts of debt. Insanely big home to care for. Insane amounts of people in my life.
I was so busy trying to keep up to the demands of a life that had evolved out of good intentions, obligation, and guilt, that I’d completely lost sight of the life I wanted to live.
Bonnngggg! went the cosmic clock when it struck again one year later. In the winter of 2009, Sable went blind in her left eye due to glaucoma; high blood pressure in the eye. Hmmm . . . I lost sight of the need to slow down — and my dog lost sight in one eye.
Six months later, in November 2009, I waved the white flag of surrender on my chaotic life in Calgary and made the decision to sell my home and move to BC. Although it was a theatrical production of the play, I Claudia, which finally yanked me from my slumber, versus a one-eyed dog, the powerful Zen-moment in the theatre that led to hours of unstoppable crying did the trick. But that’s yet another article (And Then the Day Came).
I suspect, however, that the Universe wasn’t going to take any chances of me slipping back into my old ways and simply replicating my unsustainable Calgary-life in BC — for Bonnngggg! went the cosmic clock again and, one year after Sable lost vision in her first eye, she lost the sight in her second eye . . . one week before the movers arrived to pick up my earthly belongings.
Suffice it to say, the high blood pressure culprit that led to Sable’s blindness now threatened to send my stress level through the roof. How was I was possibly going to look after a blind dog and still ensure all twelve thousand pounds of stuff was packed up and ready to go? Although the details of this time are in yet another two articles (Saving Sable Part Deux and Right on Time), the message to me was clear: one way or another, I was going to learn how to slow down for the next chapter of my life in BC.
Except that I still had ten days left in my Calgary-life to navigate through . . . kinda like a final exam. So what did I do? Since failure wasn’t an option, I took the crash-course offered:
1. I hauled out the old metal fold-up gate that John and I used to put up around the Christmas tree when Sable was a pup and used it as a barrier in the kitchen to keep Sable away from the stairs.
2. I asked for help and got it: without my brothers, I wouldn’t have met the deadline.
3. I focused on my priorities: keeping Sable safe and getting the house packed up.
It’s rather odd how I wasn’t able (or willing) to implement these key strategies into my daily life — putting barriers/boundaries in place, asking for help, and focusing on priorities — for more than a decade and yet, when I was forced to learn these practical lessons within a ten-day period, both for Sable and my future, I did so.
But it was in the Zen-moment I experienced the first time I walked Sable as a blind dog — on her leash around my backyard — that I finally began to understand what faith might mean. As I watched her tentatively walk around, sniffing the ground and finding her way, while trusting me to keep her from harm, I wondered if maybe this is how the Universe, Spirit, God, Allah, Angels – whatever it is that’s greater than us – works?
If indeed there is some greater entity, maybe it — or its representatives — is watching over us as we stumble through our lives, helping us as much as possible by moving obstacles out of the way, slowing us down, and trying to steer us in a different direction when we’re approaching dangerous situations?
Regardless, just as Sable trusted me to be her eyes to see that which she could not, I figured faith might not be a bad thing to have in the weeks ahead, for so much of what needed to fall into place was beyond my control.
Then I thought back to the last time I distinctly remember Sable looking at me, which was the night before she went blind. She’d come into the guestroom, where I was sleeping in those days, and looked right at me with her one good eye and then gave this saucy little bark. I don’t remember what she wanted — probably more treats — but I do recall the look. It was one of mischievousness . . . as in “Tee hee, hee, Momma, things are gonna change and you’re gonna have to pay me even more attention!”
I mention this because it was in stark contrast to the last look John gave me, outside the back door of the police station so many years ago. His look had been one of doubt . . . as in “I sure hope you’re gonna figure this all out, Pope, because my time here is done.”
The next day, of course, was spent saying goodbye to him in the ICU.
With John, I didn’t get the chance to implement in my own life what he’d taught me — while he was still alive to see it. And regret was an awfully heavy suitcase to drag along on the journey through grief. With Sable, however, I’d not only been given a second chance when she nearly bled to death in February 2008, her blindness gave me a third chance to learn — and implement what I was learning — while she was still around to enjoy the benefits.
And in so doing — I can safely tell you from the viewpoint of writing this article six weeks after Sable’s death — I also inadvertently grieved her death before she died. And trust me, as a person who has spent far longer than necessary in the life phase known as grief (which, after a certain point, some might call “detention” in the classroom of life), this is significant.
Now, I don’t think either John or Sable were consciously aware of the meaning or intent behind their expressions or actions. Rather, I suspect they were simply conduits . . . spiritual teachers who didn’t know they were teachers, which is probably why they were so damn effective.
At any rate, once the crash course — and the extra tutorial on faith — had been completed and the final Calgary-test passed, Sable, Soda (my other dog) and I were free to move to BC . . . on to the next grade, if you will.
For there was still a great deal to learn from Sable — and the cosmic clock was ticking.
To read the second article in this series, here is the link to Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care Part 2 – Caring.
Maryanne Pope is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. She is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. If you would like to receive her weekly blog, please sign up here.