On the morning of a Friday in March, I had to go into Berkeley, to the museum where I was an intern. While honing in on an available parking meter, I sighted a puppy on a fraternity lawn, sporting carefree and humanless. I deposited car and coins at the meter, then hurried back on foot, hoping the pup had not yet toddled into the busy street. Happily, she was still investigating lawns — and surprise! she had a sister. Except for coloring, the pair were identical. One was black-and-tan; the other was black and seal-sleek as my Lab-mix Maeve, with a similar white chest blaze.
That morning I had known that Andrew was nearing the end, and needed me with him. I had felt much resentment at having to leave him alone in his extremity, merely to turn up, thorougly superfluous, at this dull museum meeting. But now, I knew why I’d had to drive into Berkeley at that particular time. I was being vividly shown that in the midst of dealing with death, we can never forget that there are akways new lives needing saving and protecting. And here were two … very new, and very much in need.
Still, with Andrew as he was — weak and dying of lymphoma — I couldn’t possibly bring this lively pair into the house. Reluctantly, I drove them to the Berkeley pound, promising them that I would be back to rescue them once they went up for adoption. (Eleven days later, I did bring them home to foster, and for several weeks they lightened our grief and loss with their innocent antics, until they were adopted together by a delightful English couple, also recently dog-bereaved. A happy epilogue… but this is really Andrew’s story.)
Arriving home at midday after the puppy episode, I saw the truth I’d been dreading. My boy was indeed at the end of his journey. When Karl came home, we agreed that it was time to release him. We would ask the vet to come to the house the next afternoon.
Within hours of that decision, a beautiful, extra-large dog bed, which I had mail-ordered for Andrew weeks before, at last arrived. It was cushioned with foam and had a pillow-bolster attached around three sides. We set it right in front of the hearth, in the spot Andrew had always loved. He knew at once it was his, and sank into it gratefully.
All that night I kept vigil with Andrew, along with two of our other four dogs. Maeve was still adolescent, and with her Labrador ancestry, until this night had been lively to the point of irritating the other dogs. Yet now she was steadfastly quiet and supportive. Toby, our ridgeback mix, had been Andrew’s best friend, elder brother, pack leader, and loving lifetime partner from the night they met in our back yard, after we rescued ten-month-old Andrew off the street near our house.
Now Maeve and Toby curled themselves on either side of his big, worn-out body. I joined them on the floor, curling up myself in mimicry, in empathy. All night I tended the hearth and burned incense. Every hour I held the water bowl for Andrew to lap. It was with terrible difficulty now that he could manage even a few mouthfuls — he who had loved to drain a two-quart water bowl in a single slurping-session.
It being early Spring, the whole previous month, there had been a mockingbird singing all around our house. We had never had a mockingbird take up such close, permanent residence in any of our previous nine springtimes here, and we never have had one in the twelve since. But this bird — this season — was persistent, indefatigable, even relentless in pouring forth his infinitely varied symphony. And now, on this vigil night, he sat for the first time right atop our chimney, pouring a non-stop symphony straight down to us.
Just before dawn, Andrew rose up, showing me he wanted to go out. We emerged into the chilly, early-gray day for what would be our last walk around the neighborhood together. Over the past couple weeks, he had barely been capable of a half-block stroll before his strength was gone, and he would turn his big head homeward. But this time, he went tot he next corner with easy strength. Turning, he kept on striding, strong and steady. We made another left, and another. We circumambulated the entire block. Reaching our gate, I started to lead him in, but he resisted. There was a profound asking in his gaze as he looked into my eyes, then down the next street. So we walked on, in the opposite direction. We went another six blocks, exploring every street around our home.
Along the entire way, we were accompanied the coloratura joy of that same mockingbird, who was actually flitting along above us, from phone line to tree to rooftop. (Many cultures believe birds to be messengers of the spirit world, and from that morning onwards, I’ve never doubted it.) Throughout, Andrew gazed and gazed at details. He looked intently upon every yard, every house, with a degree of interest he had never before evinced. He peered down alleyways between houses, examined plastic yard animals, sniffed plants. I could see him taking it all in, recording, it, treasuring up his modest world in his heart, creating a snapshot album for his soul. There was no question in my mind that he knew he had a journey to make that day, to a far land. After all, I had told him of it.
During the long quiet vigil, I softly told Andrew all about Avalon, the Isle of Apples, also called Summerland, Tir-nan-Og, or the Land of The Ever-Young. This is the beautiful island Afterlife in the lore of the Celtic people … a place over the sea to the West, abundant with apple trees which perpetually bear both blossoms and ripe fruit. I told him of low, velvety green hills, and how he would gallop up and down them, just as he so often had, at the dog park in his prime. I told him of crystal-clear springs and streams where he would drink his fill of sweet, healing, effervescent waters. I told him of iridescent, frothy waves lapping like a thousand friendly dogs against sugar-white sand, where he might, as always, wade shoulder-deep, barking his unique sea-lion bark for sheer delight. I told him of cool, fragrant shade under the trees, where he would relax from play, chomping down meals of crunchy sweet apples (for none of the animals have any need to eat each other there). And I told him of the many lively, romping, ever-young dogs who would be waiting on that pristine beach to play and chase with him, when he sprang, strong and vigorous again, from the prow of that magical boat, after his journey across the dark sea. And I told him what a wonderful long time of rest and regeneration he would have, once free of his poor cancer-wasted body. And I told him that when at last his life-force was fully replenished, he would have the infinite happiness of being reborn as a new, vibrant puppy here in the world once again.
And I know he believed me, all of it. He looked so carefully at all the places round about our home, I know he was memorizing a map. He was storing up information at the spiritual level, so that when his time came for rebirth, he would without fail find his way to us again. I saw it in his eyes. He knew with certainty that this was his time of going. But he was determined that in in coming back, he would indeed find us, and become our “son-dog/sun-dog” once more.
About the time that Andrew and I returned from that magical walk, my husband Karl awoke. We must have eaten something we called breakfast, although that detail is a blank. The day came on warm and bright. We decided we would take Andrew to Point Isabel, a leash-free dog park on the Bay — the one place, beside our home, which he had loved with a most fanatical devotion.
At the park we walked westward — towards the ocean, towards Summerland. So proud, as ever, to be out beside his “Daddy” Karl, Andrew-dog took strong strides, just as he had with me, at dawn. At each step, his great tail gracefully swayed in happiness above his back. He absorbed the sunshine, the air, the scents, the greetings of other dogs, and the admiration of many people. Though now barely able to eat and drink, his body riddled with lymphoma, Andrew was still tall, stately, and elegant of line. His looks were a glorious blending of Labrador coat and body type, with Dane size and facial structure. He had not reached the point of emaciation, and today his spirit was surely drawing strength from somewhere beyond his body — the cosmos? The goddess? The Dog-Deva? Whatever was enabling him to walk so strongly now, was also empowering him to drink up every last drop of enjoyment from the too-scant reservoir of life allotted to this doomed body.
None who met Andrew that day suspected that the Dark One had her hand upon his collar. They only saw the shining, white-gold fur refracting specks of sunlight … the grace in his aura … the beauty, peace, friendliness and joy in his astonishing golden eyes. For those final minutes at his beloved park, Andrew was still vigorous, powerful, eternal. He must have walked a half-mile with ease. Only when we came back in sight of the parking lot and the car, did his strength leave him. Then in an instant he grew slow … slow … weighed down … worn out. Back home, he fell immediately into a deep, relaxed sleep on his new bed.
Andrew only woke again at the sound of the front gate opening. Long self-appointed as our household watchdog, he rose slowly, went to the door, and barked like a sea-lion one last time. This was his job, and he would not shirk it, even at the end. What he heard was the arrival of our vet. Recognizing his old friend, Andrew wagged briefly, then went to lie back down on his bed with resignation in his face.
I had already established a circle around our home to keep out malign energy. I had already invoked the protective powers of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit. I had read Andrew prayers of release. I had invited the Great Mother of all … and Pan, the deity of wild and furry beings … to bring their love and compassion within the circle to comfort and guide him in his journey. Now, for the veterinarian, I read a prayer, “For One Assisting Someone to Die,” which I had adapted from one composed by Starhawk. Tears streamed down my face, and Karl’s. My voice cracking on every note, I sang a song composed by Starhawk, the refrain of which goes, “Weaver, weaver, weave his thread, whole and strong into your web; healer, healer, heal his pain; in love may he return again.”
The needle was prepared now. Andrew turned and gazed at it briefly, as it hovered inches above his foreleg. Then he resolutely turned his face away, and with a sigh, laid his head down comfortably on the dog-bed bolster. He made no protest at its entry into his vein. He did not raise his head again. Willing and peaceful, he let the fluid flow in, to do its work of setting him free from the burden of his body. Very, very quietly, the light went out of his golden eyes.
Soon, Karl left to spend several hours digging the grave, at the agreed-upon spot. I spent those hours in preparing the big, beloved body for burial. I washed my boy with purifying rosemary water; I tied his legs together to keep him in a curled-up, sleeping-dog position. I replaced his old nylon collar with a band of ribbon roses. With dozens of small fragrant fresh roses strewn over him, I sewed him into a forest-green canvas shroud. The other four dogs were distressed by Andrew’s utter stillness. As his friend’s face disappeared inside the folds of fabric stitch by stitch, Toby sat across the room, watching with deep worry. He would not come close.
That evening, however, Toby lay down on the new dog bed — the one that had arrived just in time to be Andrew’s deathbed. As he lay there in the spot where his best friend’s spirit had been set free just hours before, such melancholy was written on his face, that I wanted to photograph him, to preserve a record of how much sadness a dog can feel. Well…
Those two snapshots are marked with a white-gold arching streak of energy, the exact same color as Andrew’s fur. That energy is in the air, just before Toby’s nose. The streak is clearly moving past him to his right – it is thick and strong in the first photo, faint and dissipating in the second. Of course, there is no sign of such a mark or streak on any other shots on the entire roll of film (all the other images were taken at other times and places). I am still as certain as I am of my own name, that the energy on the photos is Andrew’s soul, taking a last leave of his dearest friend Toby, before departing on his journey across the dark water. Remarkably, by the second shot, snapped within seconds of the first, Toby has relaxed and put his head down in contented resignation.
Andrew made his crossing in 1999, and I still dream of him from time to time. (And he may have left me a token of his presence one night — see “Was It Contact with The Other Side?” on this site). He has not yet returned in a new incarnation — but then, with our present pack of dogs, the household is full-up, and there would be no space here for him if he did arrive, just yet.
He only had about eight years and three months on Earth. But he lived his life in a state of pure joy, every single day. And he gave us the very great gift of leading us into a profound encounter with the second great mystery of the physical world. Through companioning him so closely and fully through every last moment, I came to know death in a way that I had never grasped before. The world doesn’t get any more paranormal, than when we walk part-way along that road with a loved one. What I know now, is that death is not a thing to deny, or from which to run in horror. And it is most certainly not a thing to be carelessly left in the hands of strangers. Yes, death is infinitely sad, but it is also infinitely sacred. What is most important, is that it is capable of revealing the grace, magic, humor, love, and courage in each of us. In giving those we love the last blessing we can ever give them on this planet — the blessing of walking to the threshold beside them — we ourselves are blessed in uncountable and unforeseeable ways.