Woodle in the Snow
— by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —
The child in me keeps crying out, “Where is she? Where is my Woodle? Why isn’t she there on her bed? Is she OK?”
When my father passed away, no longer able to visit my mother in her separate room in the nursing home, she didn’t understand. She would ask for him, wonder why he no longer came. She would write him postcards and ask the nurse to deliver them, saying how much she missed him. There was never any answer.
It is at that level I am calling for her. I know she is gone. But somewhere I don’t understand.
We are so helpless in the vulnerability of loss.
Yesterday, I received an urgent message: Woodle isn’t doing well. She can’t even make it to the Wildlife Garden, where she loves to run, without stopping every few feet. She has stopped eating.
I made myself a cup of tea, waiting for the first light of dawn. The drive on the wilderness dirt track is too treacherous to do on a moonless night. At the first light of dawn, as the tall narrow pines to the east begin to separate themselves from the sky, I left, on my way to my beloved dog. I drove from the peaceful wilderness, through the loud construction and asphalt and busyness of Jackson, over the mountain pass to the relative quiet of the west side of the Tetons, to the quiet of Earthfire.
I arrived. She was sitting upright, obviously uncomfortable, but alive. She did accept a few hand-fed chicken gizzards, her malamute drive to eat still there, but her breath was coming in ragged gasps. Her paralyzed larynx had closed off all but a tiny hole for air to pass through. We called Summer, her vet, who had attended to and loved her for many years. We arranged to meet to see what needed to be done – what was best for her. There was the possibility of an operation, but she was eleven and diabetic, and the specialist surgeon said success was highly unlikely. We would cause her suffering, for probably only a short respite.
While we were waiting I called my animal communicator friend, Penelope Smith, who knew my Woodle, and asked if she could get a reading on what Woodle wanted. The options were not good, but at least we could try to honor her wishes. “Let me check in with her,” she said. “Oh!. When there’s that darkness there, it’s not good. It’s worse than it looks from the outside. All her organs are dying, maybe from lack of oxygen.” Asked if she wanted the possibility of extending her life, Penelope reported Woodle didn’t think she had enough fire left to heal herself. Penelope she felt her energy going sideways and up, which is what happens as a living being is leaving their body. She said Woodle communicated that she would be at peace passing away, if I was with her as she left.
When we arrived at the vet, Summer came to the back of the Subaru so Woodle wouldn’t have to move from a comfortable and familiar place – it had been the scene of the beginning of many walks, and cheese and butter sandwiches from our favorite restaurant.
Summer took one look and said, “Oh my.” Woodle’s tongue was turning bluish from lack of oxygen as she labored to breathe. Summer’s opinion and Penelope’s intuitive reading supported one another. This has happened before, and is one reason I call Penelope, especially when there is medical uncertainty.
Summer prepared to give her the shot. As I lay next to her, whispering her favorite nightie–night song and saying, “I am with you,” she gently passed away. She looked deeply, beautifully, stunningly at peace.
Then the tears came.
My Woodle was alive yesterday. I could touch her, hold her beautiful face in my hands and tell her I loved her, which I did every day. Tell her how important she was. How she helped ground me and open my heart; remember what is really important and try to live by that. Then, in a moment, she can hear me no longer.
How can I take care of her now, help her, be sure she is ok? Know she is loved? Yes she will be with me in spirit, though now she may be busy adjusting to her new situation, and I don’t want to hold her back from where she needs to be. But…Is she ok? Resting in our cemetery, wrapped in a beautiful blanket, I can no longer care for her. Is she ok? Did she make the transition easily? Is she ok?
I was amazed at the amount of tears. The sharp agony of Woodle’s loss overtook me. But I didn’t want it to stop. I know it will slow and soften into a dull ache and a vague feeling of emptiness; something missing, though I don’t want it to. Then she would fade away too, from my memory, as a vivid and real presence. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to diminish her importance.
I had just come from a Buddhist retreat. The essence of their teaching is the fact of impermanence: the nature of Life is that everything is in a constant state of change. How to accept and celebrate that and enjoy the gift and joy of Life rather than cling to things that we are doomed to lose. How do we let loved ones go, yet honor their memory? How do we manage love and the inevitable loss.
Penelope said Woodle would be OK as long as I was with her. But what does “be with her” mean? Once she is gone physically, how can I be there for her? I want to be able to take care of her, make sure she is well. How do I do that? The loss. The sadness. The richness.
In the Tibetan tradition, human souls go through a transition stage called the Bardo, and they need our support to arrive safely at the other side. Is it the same for animals? What traditions are there to guide me to help her on her way? In the Jewish tradition, you sit Shiva for a week because the soul still lingers. How long is it for animals?
I return to the wilderness and the quiet of the retreat. It is evening and gently snowing on the tall dark pines standing like silent sentinels. The air was sharp with cold, the sense of peace palpable. I wondered if it was snowing at home, gently covering her grave. I feel the sorrow and beauty of life, expressed at the moment as a deep loneliness – but also the richness of eleven glorious, loving years together. I wish it weren’t that way – the ephemeral nature of life. But it is, and each moment of love and beauty is to be cherished.
One thing that loss does is to open us to the depth of our feeling, so easily covered and numbed in the busyness and complications of daily living. It brings home what is really important, reminds us of the incredible gift that is Life. This is a blessing.
She will fade in my memory. They always do. There is no other way for the living.
This is a story of beauty and personal loss, but in the end, personal loss is universal loss. We all experience it, and I write this in the hope that it may ease another’s pain. Love and loss and love. In the end love wins. What was shared can never be taken away.
Buddhists say the only permanent thing is change. But I would disagree. I think Life itself is eternal, and so is Love.
We buried her in our cemetery, where all our animals lie. Not a one went unseen or unsung. A sign at the cemetery has a poem from Rumi:
God breaks the heart open again,
Until it stays open.
Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.