Regular readers of The Zen Pagan know that my life has been interesting, in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, since my mother’s health crisis in September. My father has also been hospitalized four times since November…or was it five? The fact that I really am unsure of the count underscores the point, I think.
In these crazy months, my meditation practice has shredded. (That’s okay, the secret is to get back up again. Friends have been supportive, but it’s been hard to get up the energy to go out and see them in person. There are two things to which I credit the preservation of my sanity, such as it is: my karate practice, which is in its way a form of meditation and which as a teacher I could not drop as easily; and my dog, Ringo, overflowing with enthusiastic love for everyone and everything. (He was named after my mom’s first car, a Nash Rambler which she named after her favorite Beatle.)
Last Sunday, Ringo suddenly died.
I had gone to visit my father in the hospital, after teaching a self-defense class in the morning. As our conversation wound down, Dad said “Well, you’ve got a pooch waiting for you at home” — I know both my parents have been mindful of how their medical adventures and time away have confused the heck out of their dog. Neither of us knew the irony of that remark at the time.
I got home, called Mom to update her on Dad’s condition, and went out to mow the backyard of my little fragment of suburbia. Ringo followed me out, and was rolling around on the grass as was his wont. I pulled out the mower, set it up, and started cleaning up the yard. And then I noticed Ringo was lying on his side, still.
Whatever it was was quick. He was not sick and not old — he was starting to slow, approaching eight and canine middle age, but he had run for over a mile with me just two days before, and trotted along for a walking lap around the middle school, our usual walk, the night before. A doctor friend says dogs sometimes throw pulmonary embolisms; it was something like that or an aneurism, I think.
I tried CPR for several minutes, thinking of my friend Ian, his miraculous survival, and because passive acceptance is not in me. But there is no 911 when your dog collapses, no canine ALS equipped ambulance to rush them to the veterinary ER. I had to finally admit defeat.
My housemates loved Ringo; they would often dogsit when I travelled. Everybody loved Ringo, because he loved everyone. The week before, a friend had come over to visit and we took Ringo on a hike. As we sat around the house relaxing afterward she asked, “Is that dog ever not happy? His tail is always wagging.”
I like to think he helped some people overcome the prejudice about pit bulls that a sensationalistic media has been feeding the past few years. He was absolutely the least aggressive dog, to humans or to other dogs, I’ve ever encountered.
That doesn’t mean he was safe, though. He was seventy-five pounds of muscle and his greeting could knock you over, his play leave you bruised. More than once he jumped up in enthusiasm and hit me hard in the face. In following along trying to show his love, he could trip you up.
But love is never safe, is it?
If you’ve read Why Buddha Touched the Earth, you’ve seen a picture of him as a puppy. He came into my life shortly after the first draft of that book was complete, and I added some discussion about losing my two dogs Piccolo and Chewbacca, how people asked if I was going to get another dog where they would never ask that about other sorts of grieving. (“Oh, I’m sorry to hear about the death of your wife. Are you going to remarry?”)
And some said, “If you get another dog, years down the road you’ll just be grieving again.” Which has now come to pass. But every relationship ends with some form of grieving. You either split up and go separate ways, whether with a big dramatic breakup or slowly through atrophy; or one of you dies.
A heart can only be safe from grieving by staying away from caring. Like the cliche about ships, a ship in port is safe but that’s not what ships are for. A heart that never cares is safe from grieving. But that’s not what hearts are for.