I dug my dog’s grave today. It helped.
My beautiful black lab, Oso, had been heading towards the end for some time. I kept hoping he’d die gently in his sleep but even in his last days, his mind was strong. It was his body that was tired.
After a stroke, Oso had trouble walking. He looked like a listing ship, tipped heavily to one side. As the months passed, he began to fall, too. I knew the day was coming when he wouldn’t have the strength to stand. Sadly, it arrived when I was traveling and far away. But I didn’t want Oso to die without me. I didn’t want him to be afraid. He was my dog and I wanted to be the one holding him as he went. I wanted to surround him with love in his last moments. And Oso must have known this, too. He managed, with the help of some cortisone, to hold on (even hobble about) until I returned.
Oso stood on shaky legs to greet me home. He licked my hand. We had a day together but he was done. A friend told me, “El esta esperando.” “He’s waiting.” It was true. He was waiting-waiting for me to come home, waiting for me to be brave enough to help him go. And so I made the call to the vet I’d been dreading.
I will never know for sure what Oso’s life was like before I found him wandering aimlessly outside our house here in Mexico, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t good.
He came to us broken and dying. His kidneys were starting to fail. His coat was gray and brittle. We gave him food and water and medicine and love. I think Oso was intrigued. I think he wanted to try out this new home of his. So, by sheer force of will, he pulled himself back into life. For a year, Oso was our shining star. His coat turned black and supple. He learned to sleep inside and pee outside. He lumbered out the door for the early morning walks to school. He began to enjoy belly scratches and back rubs and rawhide bones. And sniffing. That was perhaps his greatest joy, big black lab that he was.
But he was old and time was catching up.
His was a slow fade. He had the stroke. His eyes turned milky white. One day, he could no longer make the walk to school (I think that broke his heart a tiny bit). Soon he couldn’t manage walks at all. His legs hurt. He cried out sometimes with pain. Finally, it was time.
After talking to the vet, I sat with Oso and rubbed his bony head. I do not like having the power to take a life. But I reminded myself that what Oso had now was not really life anymore. In nature, he’d have died long ago. Still, I thought, here he is, looking up at me with his sweet, dark eyes. I had to wonder, is this really the right time, should I give him longer?
These were the thoughts going through my head as I rose to dig his grave. I sobbed when my shovel cut into the soft earth for the first time. But digging a grave is not easy or fast. Soon the tears were mixing with sweat. Then they stopped. I focused on the work. My shovel kept hitting bricks from some structure of long ago. I found a couple of old bottles. I noticed the soil, how heavy and solid it was. I liked the idea of my Oso wrapped in this soil. It would hold him tight, embrace him even. The rain began to fall. I had to chop through the deep roots of the Bouganvilla and the Jacaranda tree. I had to dig out a big stone with my hands.
I stopped digging only when I couldn’t go on. I was exhausted. My arms shook, my back ached.
It felt good. I had done this for Oso. I had dug my tired dog a deep bed to keep him safe. I was ready to say goodbye. He was ready to go.