My prayers fly across the dry desert wash, soaring up the ragged tops of the Catalina Mountains until finally touching the pink whisper of dawn. I pray to the spirits of all the great women who have gone before me that they might provide me insight, compassion, forgiveness, and strength.
Above all, I beg for strength.
For seven weeks I have jogged to this isolated cul-de-sac, breaking stride to pause, admit my vulnerability, ask for help. This morning I cannot stop the warm, salty tears from silently spilling over my cheeks and dropping to the dry earth beneath my feet. I have not the energy to brush them away. Death has depleted my spirit, robbed me of all I need to see clearly, to find joy in the little things. Even the wildflowers.
It is not my dad’s death I mourn, or my father-in-laws. Both died peacefully, welcoming death after so many years suffering the pain of chronic illness. There is a void and a sadness that I should lose both in so short a span of time. But the emptiness I feel this morning is for another.
I miss the jangling tags of Lady.
Her soft, freshly brushed fur the color of autumn is imprinted on my palms. I see her eagerly greeting me, urging me to walk with her, to breathe the crisp desert air, to scour every inch of land within four feet of the sidewalk, to pause and watch a rabbit scurrying for cover, to eye a cardinal chirping from a nearby mesquite tree, to relish every moment of life.
I have never been a dog lover. When I was a child, my father warned me to avoid dogs. He recounted vividly the pain he experienced as a Navy ensign, the fourteen shots in the stomach received after diving overboard to rescue the ship’s mascot, a dog testing positive for rabies. I remember my terror walking home from the second grade when a black Labrador tore after me. Trembling, I hid behind a bush until his interest waned and he bounded off to pursue another. Forty-five years later a pack of six dogs landed me in an ambulance after I was attacked while jogging the sidewalks of a small Michigan community, a town with a leash law the owner chose to ignore. A jagged scar cuts across my back.
The scar digs deeper than skin.
Lady, the dog rescued by my dad to be his fishing buddy, sensed my fear and kept her distance until one year ago when I was called to my parents’ side to help them through the heart-wrenching, physically cruel dimensions of aging. It was Lady who knew intuitively I was exhausted, that while I wanted to be strong for my grieving mother, my father’s dementia-fueled anger was ripping through me, crushing my spirit. Late at night as I sat on the floor sleepless, churning with responsibility, emotionally drained, it was the sixty-four pound golden retriever mix who gently nudged her body next to mine, tapping the floor with her tail to remind me I was not alone.
The tears blind my eyes as the sun’s rays spray light above the mountains and the wispy pink clouds fade to a deep violet. I still see Lady’s sparkling eyes peering up at Dad in the unfamiliar hospice room, hear her footsteps trotting down the hallway repeatedly to console my mother the weeks after his death. I feel her tugging the leash to teach me to jaywalk, to show me her favorite routes, the pace she most preferred. But most of all, I hear the clanking of tags every morning I sip coffee under starlit skies, waiting for dawn; every evening Mother and I watch the sun paint the craggy mountains pink.
Six weeks after Dad died, lymphoma overwhelmed Lady’s body. I remember rolling little balls of food and feeling her weary tongue on my fingers; cupping water in my hands and begging her to drink. When she became agitated with pain, I brushed her for hours recounting all my favorite memories. Near midnight her last night, Lady insisted on going outside as if reminding me a lady never does her business indoors. She dragged her hind legs to her favorite place before collapsing in exhaustion. “You can’t stay here,” I begged. “Listen to the coyotes.”
She could not move.
I dashed inside and grabbed a comforter, gently rolling her body on the soft fabric and gingerly pulling her to the nearby porch. Her breathing was fast, difficult, too all-consuming for her to help me lift her into the house, a place she’d be safe, a place I thought she could die in comfort.
The biting wind of the desert echoed with the joyous whooping of coyotes. Grabbing plastic lawn chairs I built a barricade around Lady to protect her from the wild. Wrapped in a blanket to shield me from the frigid night air, a broom for a weapon, I began pacing. If the coyotes were to creep through the blackness of a moonless night, they’d have to confront this fiercely protective sentry first.
Two hours later, shrill cries howling from the desert wash across the street jolted me into reality and I clumsily lifted Lady inside. Mother joined the vigil and Lady immediately lifted her tired head to acknowledge the soft, cooing voice, a voice familiar to us both, the sound of a woman’s nurturing love.
Mother and I took turns brushing the soft, auburn fur until the gray light of dawn replaced the night and Lady insisted on returning outdoors. Dragging her body across the stones, she reached a small hole she’d dug years ago beneath an oleander bush. It was a place she felt safe, where she could watch the birds fluttering in the branches as they came to say goodbye, a place she could hear the whispers of Mother and me as we stroked her weary body.
Several hours later, brushed and beautiful beneath her favorite bush, Lady’s labored breathing stopped. She died quietly and in peace. Just like my dad.
The tears trickle down my face as I feel the desert warming under the morning sun. Before resuming my jog, I say a prayer to the strongest spirit I have known, a four-legged creation of God who mirrored all the goodness, the joy, the inquisitive excitement of life.
I pray I reflect the life of Lady.
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