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Your dog is in her twilight years, teetering between this life and
the next. She’s become picky about her food. Balky about play.
Inexplicably nasty. Her immune system self-destructs. Even the steroids
fail. Suddenly she stops walking. No more of her cute little kisses. If
this is what the twilight of her life is like, you will have none of it.
Put her to sleep, your friends urge. But you’re no Kevorkian. Or are
you?

As I write this, my dog, Freda, lays dying on a bed of folded rugs.
The living room has become a hospice. Sweet strains of church music and
hymns and prayers and sermons from a Bible radio station waft around us.
She’s a Christian; I’m not. I don’t want to deny her the possibility of
an afterlife. Freda is nearly 15 — over 100 in dog years — and lately,
as 1999 dawned its promise of a New Millennium, she simply stopped
getting up. But she still eats with gusto, she drinks, she doesn’t seem
to be suffering, her dark soulful eyes follow me around the house like
one of those religious icons, and I can not justify taking her life.

Freda was — is — a lovable movie star of a mutt who never had her
own movie. The “Jane Russell Terrier,” Mike Capuzzo dubbed her, and it
fit. Freda was one of the dogs he spotlighted in his book MUTTS:
America’s Family Dog. She looks like Asta in “The Thin Man.” Or a fuzzy
cousin to Spuds McKenzie. Smart and scruffy, white with a patch of black
over one eye, she had been found, six months old, traumatized by some
unspecified puppyhood abuse, eating out of dumpsters and wandering city
streets. Somehow she ended up in an animal shelter, and when I walked
in, she picked ME.

I was never particularly a fan of the Pathetic Fallacy — ascribing
human feelings to inanimate objects or animals — but Freda’s life was
curiously intertwined with mine. While I didn’t have a biological clock
crisis, she had one FOR me. During what would be diagnosed as her false
pregnancy, she hid, snappish and moody, ensconced in the fragrant
darkness of a cedar closet, sitting on an array of toy stuffed animals
she was waiting to nurse, or hatch, an episode ended by spaying and a
dose of doggy birth-control pills to recalibrate her hormones. And when
a family member’s sudden suicide rocked me to my core, Freda was the one
who immediately developed a bad back and had to endure a six-week
regimen of enforced “caged rest” in my old apartment. What could I do
but keep her company? And so I slept on the floor next to her playpen, a
gesture of solidarity in my own animal grief.

Fifty years ago, says animal behavior expert Elizabeth Severino of
Cherry Hill, N.J., companion animals made a compact to serve their
humans in an extraordinary way, as symptom-bearers. Which reminds me of
Madame Helena Blavatsky’s white dog that slept on her injured leg –
healing her — a canine poultice. While I used to joke that “Pets on
Tape” were the pets for me — no housebreaking, no cleaning up, no
trips to the vet, no eventual heartbreak — Freda was a real part of my
life. It wasn’t so much that she was part human, perhaps, but that I
have become part dog.

Though Freda and I would frequently show up together everywhere, even
lazy Sunday afternoon socials at Philadelphia’s former art-bar
Bacchanal, I still was amazed to go through my scrapbooks and see how
many times we actually were photographed together. There was Freda,
flirting with the camera. Personal and professional milestones.
Important public occasions. Stories about me and my writing. Nearly
always, she’d be in the picture alongside me, silent sentinel, a very
visible and profound component of my public identity, my private self.
Freda was more than my trademark, she was my “familiar.” Once, running
late through the park for a meeting with my therapist friend Pam, I
brought Freda along. “What have we here?” asked Pam’s office-mate Bill
with raised eyebrows. “Couples therapy,” quipped Pam archly.

With her raffish brand of doggy-glam, shaggy John L. Lewis eyebrows
and all, Freda solo was a natural photographer’s model, too. The camera
loved her, and she seemed to love it back. Amid balloons, noisemakers,
crepe paper, confetti, she’d sit patiently, draped with feathery pink
boas, sunglasses, diamond tiaras, a doggy Mummer for what would become
an art gallery’s New Years card. My photographer friends marveled at
what I had always observed: this dog had such star quality she’d pose
motionless ’til they got the perfect shot. And besides sitting still
among props, she’d stare right into the camera, gazing at YOU with those
remarkable eyes of hers. They were tilted and almond-shaped and
dramatic, like she outlined them in charcoal by Doggy Maybelline. How
could anyone ever kill anything with a face, but especially, that face?

Just this one last time, I hoped and prayed Freda would pull through.
I don’t see this as a selfish wish, either. More like we have unfinished
business together. And of course there is the guilt factor about Freda’s
troubled medical history. Bad back. Chronic flea allergy. Recurrent ear
and bladder infections. Special diets. Lyme Disease. Perhaps some of
this could be traced back to her homeless pup days, when she came to me
practically wild. She had never even eaten out of a bowl or walked on a
leash. For some reason, conventional veterinary care — antibiotics and
steroids — never quite seemed to “cure” Freda’s health problems, and
each vet visit cost hundreds of dollars. Often she’d react to routine
drugs, like pills for heartworm and flea-ban. So, for years I had sought
alternatives to rebalance her. A certified veterinary chiropractor, Dr.
Steve Fries, came to the house monthly to adjust the dog’s back and
perform Reiki energy treatments. And I
became a devotee of wholistic animal gurus Drs. Richard Pitcairn and
Allen M. Schoen, classically trained vets whose books advocated
natural health care for pets, including Bach
flower essences, homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal tinctures, acupressure,
Chinese herbs, fresh organic foods, massage, and the kind of love that
listens.

As a journalist, I am grounded in facts. But as a poet, I answer to
the intuitive. It’s the Gemini in me. And so, concerned about Freda’s
current health crisis, I consult Lorenzo, a former Guggenheim fellow in
Romance languages who was until a few years ago creative director of a
Manhattan advertising agency, when he became a practicing psychic.
“She’s weaker,” he confirmed. “I will pray seeking the best outcome for
all concerned.”

What I then encounter are a chain of fascinating “coincidences” — a
series of synchronicities, if you will. The second night Freda was
crippled, I get a phone call from my friend Lynn, a massage therapist,
totally out of the blue, the first time we’ve talked in six weeks. “Ever
hear of a herbalist named *Charlene Crane (not her real name)?” she
asked. “No. Why?” I reply. After just two days of herbs this woman
prescribed, Lynn’s friend Beverly’s dog which had been crippled began
walking up and down stairs! “Did you know Freda was in a crisis?” I
asked Lynn. “No,” she says, “something just told me you’d want this
information.”

So, naturally I contact the Flemington, N.J. herbalist, who asks me a
few questions, then faxes me a form to send in the next morning to the
Midwest company which will sell me some herbs wholesale. “Your dog will
feel better. And so will you,” she says omnisciently, adding, “Come see
me.” Really? How does she know? Is it that obvious? “Your body needs to
be cleared from the emotional residue of that incident. The same thing
happened to me. I had what you have. It’s gone now. The herbs worked.”

The next day, when I go to fax my order in, I discover the form
requires my Social Security number AND my credit card account. I realize
this woman has made me part of her downline without even asking my
permission! Inadvertently, I have become involved in a MLM deal. I call
the company, asking if there’s any way I can get these herbs for my dog
without becoming A DISTRIBUTOR. “Sure,” the pleasant-enough
representative says, simply purchase the herbs at full price from
another distributor, or, I can pay $20 entitling me to buy wholesale. I
cave in, envisioning my future website now: “YENTA HERBS: Buy These
Already or I Will Nag You to Death!”

Something strange came in that morning’s mail, an invitation to
attend a seminar on healing deep personal archetypes, from someone I
literally hadn’t heard from in years. Elizabeth Severino was a former
$200,000-a-year Fortune-500 executive who nearly lost her hand in a
sailing accident but dramatically healed it herself, to confound all
medical predictions, and then she completely altered her career path to
become a wholistic healing practitioner and intuitive counselor.
Besides speaking nine languages, another of her
talents is communicating with animals. I took this random piece of mail
as a sign to reach her.

To establish the animal-human bond via telephone, says Elizabeth
Severino, stroke your pet from head to toe in one unbroken sweep. That,
she says, will create a connection she can “read.” “Your dog is getting
ready to die,” she says, and an involuntary sob escapes my lips. “But
not yet. And you can make her more comfortable. She will reincarnate.
But she’s just not ready. When she does, it may be possible for you to
get her as a puppy.”

Stroke, stroke, I continue petting Freda, stroke, stroke, stroke,
mesmerized by the woman’s revelations. “What is coming through
incredibly clear is, whatever you do, your dog does NOT want to be
euthanized. She wants to transition at home with you. And she wants you
to have an honoring ritual for her. To help her let go. With dignity.
Surround her with people who love her. Rejoice at the part Freda has
played in their lives.”

Great. I shudder at the thought of inviting anyone into my house
right now. Lately, because of the dog’s decline, the place, a cute
townhouse with tropical bamboo-and-wrought iron decor, seems more like a
stable. Anyway, I send out an e-mail about Freda’s “barely alive”
condition to everyone I can think of on the InterNet, including some old
boyfriends I had fallen out of touch with. My poet-anthropologist friend
Anne-Adele calls to say she knew something was up because she has seen
the name ‘Freda” on two trucks, once while looking out the window of the
high-rise apartment she shares with her fiancee, Ed. In a few days, I
somehow muster enough moxie to invite a few neighbors over for the
ceremony.

Three neighbors show up. And so Freda is surrounded by her friends,
her stuffed animals, her toys, lit candles, and photos of those she has
loved. The visitors are surprised how alert and attentive the dog seems.
Every time Freda’s name is mentioned, she looks at us. We sip apple
cider, leaf through scrapbooks, and reminisce. It is like an un-wake for
the un-dead, this honoring ritual. “Dear Friends,” I say, perched at the
bottom of the staircase: “Freda, the most wonderful dog in the world,
needs your prayers to help her leave her body and enter the next world.
Let those of us gathered here today who love Freda rejoice and express
our gratitude to her in this honoring ritual. She has communicated her
wish to transition with me at home. Someday Freda will reincarnate, and
perhaps I may find her again as a puppy. I would love that.

“Freda has been my constant companion for nearly 15 years,” I
continued. “She has led a spirited and fabulous life in the arts: Loyal
friend, model to photographers, Who’s Who in American Pets, star
of MUTTS: America’s Family Dog by Mike Capuzzo, mistress to a
psychoanalyst, mascot to a city union leader who called her Freda
Johnson, muse to many, watchdog, appreciant of painting, avant-garde
music, spoken word poetry, and fine food. As far as men, Freda had her
own favorites. She’d sit in the laps of my gentleman callers, and could
charm the pants off a snake. She will be missed. Freda has brightened
the lives of those on this block, and beyond. Please send her your
prayers and your love. Remember her as she was. And say good-bye to her
here. Please send her your prayers and love in this honoring ceremony
for her. Long live Freda, Dog of Our Hearts.”

Freda always did pick out her own special friends. My neighbor Lila
recalled how the dog liked to run into different neighbor’s houses to
say hello, and one day, Freda came in Lila’s front door. Lila swears the
dog nodded, and gave one of those earnest doggy grins. Go see Vince,
Lila said, he’s upstairs. So up Freda trots to the third floor to greet
Lila’s husband, and then leaves, perfectly satisfied.

After my guests go, I return to being a 24-hour-a-day caretaker.
Whether for a human or animal, it’s an almost unbearable strain. The
exhaustion is overwhelming. Each night, I fall heavily to sleep promptly
at midnight, three hours earlier than customary, and then I have
terrible dreams. One night, to decompress from the stress, I visit an
online chatroom where I “know” many of the regulars. “My dog is dying,”
I announce, wondering how they will respond.

What I get is solace, and what I learn is this: People everywhere
have amazing stories. Listen to them. “You’ll be glad she’s at home,”
responds a stranger let’s call MsClevair. “I had to put down one of my
horses, and I held her in my arms as the vet gave her the shot. In a few
moments, I could see what I can only describe as ‘a shimmer’ rise up out
of her body and into the air.” Wow. Around us, I can see the more
trivial topics of talk temporarily being suspended. “Then,” she goes on,
“I had to have an autopsy done on her, for insurance purposes. And when
we moved her body from the spot where she was for only a few minutes,
the grass had withered and turned yellow, even where just her tail was,”
she adds. Ammonia? I ask. ” No, but good try,” she says. “And then the
dogs went and lay down on the grassy spot where the horse had been.
Stood vigil, sort of.” I tell MsClevair her story gives me chills. “It’s
nothing, really,” she replies, “just that, since then, I have always
been with my animals when they ‘leave.’”

That’s what I am trying to do, I tell her, be present. “You will be
glad,” MsClevair repeats, and my mind wanders. Absence is so much
easier.

Yes, it’s a lesson, this deathwatch, a gift. I have never had the
luxury of seeing death as a process, a natural part of life. Once, when
I brought home THE TIBETAN BOOK OF LIVING AND DYING, I promptly
lost it somewhere in the organized chaos of my bedroom bookcase. From my
experience, death had always been bad tidings, bad news, but remote, a
fait accompli, a hand-wringing narrative: the horrible phone call from
the hospital doctor at 3 AM, the police detective’s heartbreaking
message on my answering machine, a parent’s incoherent long-distance
apologies at noon. Though Death has always come second-hand, a
bill-collector on overdue accounts, I think I secretly viewed it this
way: “Death is an old high school sweetheart of mine, waiting for the
last dance which was promised for a lifetime. And so he holds so tight I
barely breathe, barely breathe. …”

Another animal person in that chatroom, Katelyn, a public interest
attorney from New England, confides: “Sitting with my pets at that time
has been among the hardest things I’ve done.” The next day, she emails
me this prayer: “O Divine Shepherd, Freda’s life is but a scattered
herd of earthly lessons, As yet unclaimed, still misunderstood, But for
the deep, clear Light of Your Protection, calling to Itself her being.
Give me patience with her aging body and its reluctance to release the
spirit, Until she again become a sparkle in Your eternal Radiance.”

Just as most people have pet stories, nearly everyone has a dying dog
tale they feel like sharing. Ten years ago, my gambler friend Bruce had
nursed his failing dog, Basil, messily incontinent plus a myriad other
complaints. After deciding the dog had suffered enough, Bruce had
arranged for the vet to come to his house to put the dog out of its
misery. Interestingly enough, right after the vet walked in, Basil
perked up, began walking around again, and was granted a reprieve. “So
you never know, ” Bruce consoles me, “things could instantaneously
change.”

His story would be uplifting, except, a decade later, what urban vet
makes house calls? Not even to see a dog on its deathbed, or less
dramatically, an old or infirm animal, let alone to put an ailing animal
to sleep. I called one highly recommended vet who made home visits in
New Jersey. Word was he avoided taking any clients in Philadelphia
because of its confiscatory wage-tax. Would he come to my house to
examine and evaluate Freda, who I was leery of moving? No! Could he
please, I implored, make an exception to his rule in the name of
compassion? No! He was adamant. He refused under any circumstances to
come to Philadelphia, even though I offered to double his customary fee
and pay for parking. “No dog, no matter how sick, is worth me losing my
license over,” he lamed out. I bet he’s probably on the PC committee
that downsized Death into a “Transition,” thus relegating it to a mere
yuppie job-change.

Yesterday I realized perhaps Freda was reluctant to leave this planet
because she was still emotionally “tied” to the house. So I took the
house key off her collar that I had kept there for emergencies. How it
worked was, if I locked myself out, I could slip my hand through the
front-door’s bottom mail slot and remove the key from her collar and
unlock the door. This was a system I had devised after embarrassing
myself once too often. It was a fool-proof solution to being locked out,
because Freda always used to wait for me on the mat behind the front
door, and no one else would bother to reach through a mail-slot to
remove a key from around a dog’s throat. There was something
particularly sad about relieving her of sentry duty. “It’s okay, baby,
you don’t have to worry any more,” I told her, “you can leave at any
time. I will love you forever.”

Writing in Medicine of the Cherokee, JT and Michael Garrett
discuss what they call The Principle of Non-Interference. “Native
American spirituality focuses on the harmony and balance that come from
our connection with all parts of the universe in which everything has
the purpose and value exemplary of ‘personhood,’ including all …
animals (‘our four-legged brothers and sisters’), plants (‘tree
people’), rocks and minerals (‘rock people’), the land (‘Mother Earth’),
the winds (‘The Four Powers’), ‘Father Sky,’ ‘Grandfather Sun,’
‘Grandmother Moon,’ and ‘The Red Thunder Beings.’ … Since everyone and
everything was created with a specific purpose to fulfill, no on should
have the power to interfere or to impose upon others the best path to
follow. This is the value of choice …’Pain’ is really nothing more
than the difference between what is and what we want it to be.”

As I write this, Freda is still resting peacefully under her blanket.
Each day I cook for her, a mixture of organic meat and fresh vegetables,
cottage cheese, raw eggs, brown rice or cous cous or kasha, whole grain
bread, raw garlic, soy sauce. Several times a day, I hand-feed her. I
give her filtered water from a cup, holding it up as she drinks. I clean
her up best I can. So I can change her bedding, I must move her though
she hates to be picked up, and always has. Twice a day, for ten minutes,
I do Tellington-T-Touch massage and Reiki on her furry little body.
Under my hands, which grow hot at the intersection of my touch with her
body, Freda feels warm and firm, alive. She’s there, but she’s not
there. I consider setting up a television, to distract her, if she isn’t
responding to the music or prayers. I think how a year ago, she stopped
jumping into her favorite chair, stopped climbing the stairs to sleep
near me. Same with my friend Mary Grace’s mother who has Alzheimer’s.
They leave, little by little. They resemble someone very much like
themselves, but before you know it, nobody’s home.

What would you do?

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