One Simple Breath
My wife was haranguing me to get to the dinner table; we were already running late. “Wait a minute,” I said from the entryway by our front door. “I think she’s going.” I didn’t want to come back after dinner only to find that a beloved member of our family had already left. My instinct told me to stay with our dog. It was a very good thing I did.
It was yesterday evening, Monday, and our 15-year-old golden retriever, Marron (Spanish for "brown"), seemed to be hyperventilating as she lay helplessly on her side on a blanket just inside the front door of our home. We’d had an emergency house-call visit from a doctor of a nearby animal hospital earlier in the day — the second such visit in the past few days.
The doctor’s prognosis this time was that Marron had at most two or three more days of life left in her. At the earliest she would be gone within that day. She didn’t have any particular ailment, but was just dying of old age. Marron had survived a minor stroke a few months ago and had been back on her feet in no time, yet within just these past couple days, she was increasingly unable to walk or eat.
We were advised on what to expect when the death throes set in. Our dog was in no condition to be transported to an animal hospital, the doctor said, and the best thing we could do right now was to be around her in the home she loved when the final moments came. He gave her an IV drip and a painkiller injection to help, but that was about all science could do. We understood. The rest would be up to us.
So there I was, leaning down to Marron’s furry face so that we made constant eye contact with each other. Her eye movements seemed to be the only thing she had control over at that point, and her surprisingly alert eyes followed my every move and gesture. I talked to her, stroked her lovingly, keeping our eyes on each other. I wanted her to feel my touch and have my face be the last thing she saw when she had to depart.
Any pet owner knows that this dreaded day arrives sooner or later, regardless of what kind of creature it is, but that doesn’t make death any easier to deal with when that animal has truly become a member of your family. My mind flashed back to the day more than 10 years earlier when we had received Marron through a great animal shelter in this part of Japan called Animal Refuge Kansai (ARK). Had it been a decade already?
From the moment Marron, at four or five years of age, came into our lives, this golden retriever had brought us nothing but warmth and love. It impressed me. What kind of owners had she had before? Whoever they were, I knew they had done a hell of a good job of raising her from a pup. All we really knew about Marron, though, was that she had been raised by some Japanese family (presumably with kids) that lived in an apartment building somewhere in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan. Apparently the father and mother of the family had gotten a divorce and could no longer care for their golden retriever as a family.
Instead of dumping Marron off at the nearest government-run animal control center, where most unwanted pets in Japan are usually gassed to death in short order, the mother of the family that owned Marron reportedly drove several hours by car to ARK in the hope that ARK could find a suitable, loving home for Marron somewhere in this part of Japan. And that’s where our family later came into the picture.
There are many stories to tell about just how Marron had passed the love she received from her original family back along to us, her new adopted family, but suffice it to say that our family was overwhelmed and charmed by the affection this dog gave us from the start. Speaking only for myself, the past 10 years with Marron rewarded me with a much deeper understanding of the psychology of animals, and just how deeply pets in your family are capable of feeling and expressing their emotional concern for you.
Given all that, though, I have to be honest in saying Marron was a lousy watchdog. She was never suspicious or distrustful of human beings, no matter who they were. Marron would always be the first at the front gate anytime a postal carrier or delivery person stopped by the house. She wouldn’t let some of her favorite delivery persons come in or go out the front-yard gate without them first petting or cuddling her.
What happened a couple months ago was a good example. We had some gardeners dispatched to our house one day by the local senior citizens’ human resource center in our city, and the two gardeners spent the whole day trimming and cutting in our front and back yards. When the crew was finished and it came time for them to leave, the lead man asked me where our dog was. Wondering why, I went around back to look, but by the time I came back out front, Marron had already found him herself. So there was the gardener, an elderly man we had never met before, crouching down before Marron, her tail wagging at all the attention.
As I approached them, I realized the gardener was talking quietly to our dog. I couldn’t hear everything, but what I could make out were the words Arigato ne. He was expressing his thanks to her for keeping them company all through the busy day. I was moved to see this scene. But then again, that was typical of Marron and the easy way other people usually took to her.
Now we were at the point where we had to say goodbye to this canine addition to our family. I decided I wanted to be the one to do it, and as I was sitting with her, maintaining eye contact and stroking to let her know we were there, she began slipping away.
Her body started to shut down and her breathing, so labored over the past couple of days, started slowing. Thanks to the doctor’s kind advice earlier in the day, I was ready for it. I could feel her heartbeat gradually slowing and the seconds in between her labored breaths growing. Then, no breath and no more heartbeat, and her eyes stopped moving. “She’s gone,” I told my wife as she looked on.
Then something unexpected happened: Marron’s heartbeat picked back up again and so did her sharp breaths. My wife was relieved, but I knew it was temporary. Marron was probably mentally unconscious by now. And sure enough, her breaths slowed down once more and her heart rate too. Her body stiffened, and I felt her faint heartbeat fall to zero. Now she was gone.
I leaned down and kissed her fuzzy ear and whispered in Japanese, Gambatta ne (You tried hard), for indeed she had. She held on to her life in front of me until the very last breath.
And it was at that moment that a teaching by the respected Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, of all people, hit me: Always give thanks for the power of your breath, for it is only one simple breath that stands between life and death. How true that is. I had just witnessed it for myself, for the first time in my life.
Up until that point, I had been doing an admirable job of maintaining my composure through all of this. But once I felt Marron slip away from my hands, the dam suddenly burst and I couldn’t stop sobbing. Marron really had been a trooper and fought for her life right up to the end. My only consolation, if there was one, was that hopefully the image of my face and the touch of my hands had been the last things she experienced before she checked on out.
In the end, that was the only thing I could give her in return for the 10 memorable years of joy she had brought into our lives and the lives of others. If it is possible for a pet dog to have a heart as big and warm as the sun, ours did.
It might seem kind of corny for animal owners to express themselves so openly after losing a pet in the family — at least I always thought it was corny. But now I understand. I’m brokenhearted as I write these words, a mixture of both sadness and gratefulness overcoming me. There is a ton of other writing work in front of me at the moment, but it will have to wait for a tribute to a dearly departed member of the family who taught my wife, son and me so much about what it means to be alive.
Life all comes down to the one simple breath — our own and that of others — which leads to another breath and then another and on and on throughout our short lifetimes. Take away that one simple breath at any point, and you’re in the Great Beyond. Realizing that truth, for me anyway, makes the grieving for a beloved friend just a little easier to bear in these grey Spring days.