Her labored breathing keeps time for me this final morning of her life. Her skinny stomach reveals the contours of her ribs, making it cruel whenever I lift her bed from the office in the mad dash to get the boys to school, encouraging her to the mudroom where she spends her days while I am at the office. The fervor with which she used to scour the floors for crumbs has slowed to a patient but still persistent walk past the kitchen chairs where the boys have generously left their breakfast crumbs.
There is so much living that we do without any awareness of what we leave behind. The number of crumbs and floor debris will be revealed as soon as this evening when bedtime snack comes around and her nose is not in search of its spoils.
Late this afternoon, we will scoop up her fragile frame with its rectal protrusion, cancerous mass, and still beating heart into the car. She will anxiously await our destination as she always has, though this time without as much physical ability and nervous energy as once propelled her to climb seats and pant excessively at the driver’s right elbow. We will pass the place on I-64 East where she once climbed into the car seat that held our oldest. Around 15 months at the time, he bore a few scratches on his arms and legs by the time we got off the interstate and I was able to retrieve her from his lap.
We are not in danger of that today. Instead, our own hearts will be doing their own version of nervous energy as we willfully bring her to the vet for her life to gracefully come to an end. The human agency within it all is so crippling. I have found myself wanting her physical condition to dramatically worsen so that we are assured that our decision is merciful. I have waited expectantly to see the pain her in her face so that I can be pain-free in the decision. But that has not come, even as the condition of her mass has progressed. What of this impulse to free my own self of guilt by needing the clear suffering of the other to justify a hard decision? Is this not grace that she has not?
Is it not grace that we have made it thus far – 11 years in our stewardship? They say she was 2 years old when we adopted her from the humane society… though the white on her face suggests that she might have been older than that. 4 houses along the way. 3 young boys who pulled and poked and prodded. Countless times when we feared it was the end – escaping out an open door where she would be found by a neighbor or we would hear her collar jingle only to discover her casually following her nose (once on a steep mountainside – eek!). Or there are the times when she would retrieve a full loaf of bread from the table and consume it in its entirety, leaving the plastic wrapping to send me into a tail-spin with google predicting the worst (thanks, internet forums).
Is it not grace that we have made it thus far – her and me?
By my side when I came home with newborns. She adored maternity leave and our sabbatical year. She has been my constant companion in these later years – waiting patiently in my closet as I prepared for the day, curled up in her bed when I would read and write in the morning, following me up the stairs for bedtime routines with boys.
As my companion, she helped me to know myself. Over these final years, she became a living reminder of the limits of my time and of my caring labor. I once gave her all of my maternal energy, but it lessened over the years as that maternal energy was distributed for a growing family. She helped me to see, feel, and name my limits.
But for all the ways I beat myself up for those limits, how can I miss the grace of it all? She lies here by my side even now. 13+ years old and a cancerous mass. Breathing in and out, resting in my presence.
Grace lives and breathes. It outlives our expectations. It does not quit, even at the limits. Grace has a surviving quality.
Last night we celebrated our lasts. The last supper where she could be found at our feet, catching the scraps and inspecting the youngest’s high-chair. We took a final walk, but she only made it a third of the way. The oldest pulled her for part of the way in the red wagon, much to the youngest’s surprise.
The sky was ablaze as the sun set. Puffy clouds highlights creation’s glory. “Look at the sky,” Drew said. “It reminds me of our walk in Paducah.” Two years ago, we walked along the Pepper’s Mill neighborhood on my grandfather’s 90th birthday, just hours after his funeral service. The sky that night was remarkable – the glorious handiwork of the Divine, beautifying the world for those with eyes to see. We returned to Durham the next morning and after a 12-hour drive, we picked Deacon up from the vet and we settled into our new home with her living patiently by our side – a manifestation of the steadfast love that I had preached at my grandfather’s service.
When the door swings wide at the vet this evening and we emerge into the world without our dear companion, may grace abound and may the sky sing…
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
we have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought us safe thus far,
and grace will lead us home.”