When the Brindle Dog was young, she was amazingly strong and focused. Her parents were bred for police work in the Netherlands, and that likely would have been her destiny as well if I hadn’t scooped her up as a house pet.
She could swim or train for hours. She would never give up on a task unless called off. She could joyfully chase a ball or Kong in the park for hours with breathtaking stamina and endurance. She took pride in her ability to execute commands perfectly, and she was also an enterprising problem-solver.
As she aged and got sick, her stamina waned. She weakened. She started to get confused. As her cataracts spread, as her hearing diminished, and as her cancer extended its tentacles and tumours further into her body, the Brindle Dog began to stumble and fall. Her back legs would sometimes give out. She would struggle to right herself and keep going, but I stopped taking her on walks, and just threw sticks (her favourite game) in the yard for her.
The day came when I couldn’t even throw sticks for her anymore, because she kept falling down when trying to chase them. I had to just drop the stick a foot or two in front of her, and she’d grab it.
It was heartbreaking. She used to have the strength and drive and form of an Olympic athlete. She was tireless! Her enthusiasm for work and play was incredible. And now she was a tottering little old lady, half-deaf, half-blind, exhausted from severe anemia, barely able hold her bladder for more than a few hours. I was angry and miserable. Fuck cancer! Look at how age and illness had taken this amazing dog and pounded her down!
But at the same time, I was so glad to be able to provide palliative care and to sweeten my dear dog’s last days with extra love and attention. As she drew closer to the end, and as I turned myself away from the “extraneous” things in my life to be as present as possible with her, I noticed one particular thing I had missed:
In her younger days, when she chased a thrown stick or toy, she would pounce on it with pride and enthusiasm. As she got weaker, her desire to chase that stick never waned, even though her body was failing. And near the end, when I would drop the stick pretty much right in front of her nose, she would still pounce on it with all the energy and drive she could muster, then look up at me proudly, panting from that slight effort, her gums white and her eyes cloudy, but still full of anticipation, wanting me to ask for the stick back so we could do it again.
She was always and only and forever living in the present. She was in pain, but she wanted that stick. She was confused, but her love of this particular game never left her. And whether she had raced across a field to retrieve that stick, or had pounced on it right at her feet, she was happy. She was doing a thing she loved, and it made no difference to her that she used to be able to do it better, or that other dogs could do it better, or that she would never race across a field again.
And that was the thing I had missed. It is okay to be happy doing the things I can do, even though my life will never be what it could have been without abuse and trauma. I will never have a life where my past didn’t happen to me. Therapy isn’t going to take it away or make any of it okay. What I do have, if I let myself have it, is the ability to pounce on that stick even if I’m confused or in pain.
The shit that was done to me will never be gone. I guess somehow I thought that recovery or healing meant I would be done with it. PTSD and the accompanying depression and anxiety mean that I am living with some very real limitations that have consequences in my everyday life, and I may or may not be able to change (some of) those. It’s hard not to be angry and bitter about the fact that my life is smaller than it could have been because of abusers.
But now I realise that recovery and healing, for me, are about figuring out how to live my life with joy and anticipation despite the pain. By example, the Brindle Dog showed me how to accept limitations and just keep living as fully as I can. If I can’t race across the field, I can still grab the stick at my feet with pride.
The Brindle Dog died peacefully last week. She carried her stick to the car on her way to the vet. She walked in to her appointment on her own wobbly legs. I cuddled her until she was gone. She was the best dog ever.